Touching Up Roots

“Study for Rachel from The Mothers of the Bible”
Henry Ossawa Tanner

Touching Up Roots

Today, for the first time in my life, I’ve tried – with the help of the kit I sent for – to color my own hair.

What’s the worst that could happen?  I’ll come out looking like a parakeet.  But no.  The worst is when nothing happens.  I must have done it wrong.

Why, you may say, am I fighting Nature?  Isn’t it more honest — not to say authentic — to let Nature take its course?

For you, maybe.

For most of my life (not counting some time out for an earlier marriage) I’ve been a single woman.  That meant, if I wanted to see other human beings while dining solo, I had to eat out.  And, speaking of Nature, it is a sad fact of human nature that waiters won’t hurry to take your order, or to bring it, if you’ve got gray hair.

Well, why didn’t I protest? critics may say.  Talk to the management!  Demand my rights!

Hey folks, not every fight has my name on it.  If I think it’s my fight, I’ll get the sword in my right hand, the armor buckled on and fight till I either lose definitively or win.  But, as there’s more of injustice than there is of Abbie, I won’t charge into the fray unless I see that —

this one’s mine.

“Roots,” by the way, is a word with a metaphorical referent as well as the literal one.  For example, it can refer to a person’s culture or ancestry.  My roots are Jewish and our weekly virtual Bible study class brought us to the topic of women in the Torah (the Pentateuch or first five books of the Hebrew Bible).  We were reading verses in the Book of Numbers that prescribe a trial by ordeal for the accused wife of a jealous husband, whether or not his suspicion of infidelity has any basis.

As you can imagine, in the present day and age, these verses were not a big hit with our congregants – the women especially.

When it came my turn, I offered my heartfelt opinion that Judaism has some very troubling source texts concerning women and the subject needs some deep and prayerful rethinking.  Our virtual circle had many participants and it didn’t seem right for me to take up time naming the source texts I had in mind.

Here and now, we have a little more time.  How about Lot offering his daughters rather than let the Sodomite mob get at his angelic guests?  How about Abraham pretending that Sarah, his beautiful wife, was his sister to forestall the Egyptian king’s killing him to get at her?

In class, all I said was that I could discover no place in all of Hebrew Scripture where a man rescues a woman, though I did find several places where a woman rescues a man.

Actually, the Biblical narrative as a whole spans more aspects of life than this.  Thomas Cahill’s The Gift of the Jews gets from Song of Songs the implication that Biblical couples were the first to practice love-making face to face, in other words, person-to-person rather than object-to-object.  I’m not sure what he takes as evidence here.  In fact, it may not be true.  But I know what he means.

There is a passion in the meeting and seven-years labor of Jacob for Rachel that still stirs the heartstrings.  There is a sense that runs all through the patriarchal period that the man who has a divine mission needs the support and partnership of the right woman and that God has a hand in such a choice.  In other words, the romantic thread in life and the thread of partnering with God should intertwine.

It’s not God or romance.  It’s God in romance.  In the midst of it.  As the metronome of it.

Then what about these quasi-sordid episodes in the patriarchal period?  It’s true that the episode where Abraham hands over Sarah has God intervening to prevent Pharaoh from consummating his unwittingly adulterous desire.  But Sarah couldn’t know that God would do that.

What could she think, given her husband’s ungallant attempt to save himself at her expense?  More urgently, what should their descendants think about these episodes today?

Let me take a swing at it.  The subject comes to my mind particularly at the present time because I’ve been reading the unpublished journals and manuscripts of Henry M. Rosenthal, my late father, while deciding how best to deal with them.

I’ve mentioned in recent columns that some of these materials seem to me extraordinarily gifted.  Particularly when he writes in his journals about meeting and courting my future mother and later when, usually in published essays and reviews, he writes about the Jewish spirit.  And yet, there are other materials that disclose frustration — entire manuscripts that did not know where they were going and finally went nowhere.

It’s been very puzzling to me, how to account for the work that reflects the “genius” his classmates imputed to him, and how to understand the other, blocked and frustrated work.

Finally, I think I have the key.  In his earliest writing, once he has met my future mother, there is a certainty that their love is – for him and for her — a kind of absolute.  He writes about it with great authority.  At his memorial, one of his celebrated classmates said of my father:

“The rest of us fearfully experimented.  Henry was sure of his blessing.”

In his last, unfinished, longhand manuscript the romantic relation is again front and center, as is his relation to a personal God.  So in that way it’s quite Scriptural.  The predicament, for him, is that the two strike him as competitive rather than mutually sustaining.

He has a Biblical passion for God.  And he has a Biblical passion for – her.  And he does not know how to live with both passions.

Isn’t that still the question?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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