Situated in History

From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago

Situated in History

This might be an unusual trait, but I am someone who has trouble knowing who she is, and what life asks of her, until she gets some clarity about her place in history.

By “place in history” I don’t mean what I’d have after winning my way to top marks in some global competition.  Rather, I’m thinking of what it means to me to be Jewish.  As some historians, religionists and essayists have noted, Jews are a people whose religion requires attaining the right sort of relation to God in history.  That means, in one-thing-after-another datable time.  In what the authors of our Declaration of Independence termed, “the course of human events.”  

So the historical condition is not, for Jews, a fallen or illusory one.  It’s not the suffering vestibule through which we must pass on our way to a Better Place.

History is what happens in this place and this time.  It’s where, as Jacob says to himself out loud, “God was in this place and I knew it not.”  Or maybe I did know it (as Jacob/Israel does on a different occasion) but my knowledge didn’t turn alloy into silver, or chaff into wheat.

What about a post-historical time when the messiah is expected to solve the problematic of human events?  Didn’t the prophets talk about a messiah once they saw the nation conquered and its political independence lost?

Let’s compare Isaiah’s messianic forecast to Plato’s ideal state.  The Republic is less a blueprint for statecraft than an analytic instrument by which we can realize why humankind’s political problematic is insoluble.

History is where we are.

And it’s spiritually incurable.

Whaddya mean incurable?  Are you saying we can’t clean up the planet?  We can’t cure racism?  Who are you to say such a thing, in the midst of all our labors and our combats?  And what do you mean by spiritually incurable?  If we clean up those stains on our conscience, isn’t that spiritual enough?

My text is Genesis 4:1-16.  As we recall, Cain and Abel have inherited the planet earth in pristine condition.  Racially, they are indistinguishable.  Neither brother has inherited privileges at the expense of the other.  Yet, as we are told, Abel’s sacrifice to his Ultimate Witness is accepted.  Cain’s is not accepted.  

We can imagine a case where Cain says to Abel, “Teach me what you’ve got that I haven’t got?  I promise to take careful notes and do my homework.”  Surely there have been instances, later on down the road, when the rejected brother did come up with that commendable response.   

Here however, Cain’s thoughts took a different course: “If I just kill my brother, then the Ultimate Witness will love and vindicate me, me, me!!!”  Sometimes you can take the boy out of the country (here “the land of Nod, east of Eden”), but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

So the spiritual problem of history can be incurable.  Now what?  Aside from plagues, landslides and similar accidents, history is the site of sibling rivalry.  It’s human reality.

We can injure each other and we may need forgiveness.  From one another.  And from the Ultimate Witness.  What to do about it?  I know of two approaches: the Jewish remedy and the Christian one.  Doubtless there are others, but these two offer the cures most familiar to me.

The rabbis say that forgiveness is obligatory if the perpetrator shows that he understands the injury he has done, repairs it where he can, and gives every sign of not repeating it.  

In the gospels, by contrast, Jesus does not seem to make forgiveness conditional in this way.  He recommends it unqualifiedly as the thing to do, whether or not the perpetrator repeats the injury or even repents of it.

Each position comports risks.  In the Jewish situation, where the injured party has no wish for revenge and only wants the perpetrator’s good, she still carries a double burden: her own wound and the perpetrator’s wrong.  She must carry it until such time as her injurer comes to apologize, because he has to have a human place, in linear time and habitable space, to which to bring his apology.  And his apology might never happen.  

In the Christian example, the forgiver might disburden herself of a painful memory, and that might be therapeutic for her personally.  But she still risks enabling the perpetrator by tossing “cheap grace” at a situation that’s been conveniently erased from memory rather than cured.

How do we solve this?  Personally, I’ve tried both – the Jewish approach and the Christian approach — and can testify to the risks of each!  Without laying down an algorithm, a set of specific steps to take, I’ll tell you what did work for me in one case.  Interestingly, it’s a sort of fusion of both approaches.

In fact, I was neither an inventor nor an enactor of this cure.  Rather, I received a vision.  First of all, it informed me of the nature of the wound I had suffered.  The wound pertained to my feminine dignity that – as the vision disclosed – belonged to me as a kind of divine DNA.  I had it insofar as I had been created in God’s image.  

(Here it might be relevant to note that I had never objected to the use of the masculine pronoun nor the habit of imagining the divine as an old man with a white beard.  The pronouns and images just reminded me of a grandfather I had loved.)

Given my previous habits of imagination, this vision contained information that, for me, was novel, unforced, and explanatory.  Since God’s nature includes the feminine, God’s image had been desecrated.  Chilul HaShem.  The desecration of the Name.  Oh, I see.  Hadn’t thought of that.

I did absolutely nothing about this vision.  Confided it to no one.  So it is noteworthy that, the very next time I saw my injurer, he had changed.  Visibly.  He looked amazingly like a younger, more innocent, less defensive version of himself.  No reconciling words were exchanged between us.  

Things were just different.

That’s all.

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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