Detail of Painting by El Greco, 1590-95


On the whole, I don’t hold a grudge.  If I’ve been injured in some way, but the wound is either cured — or else not the kind of thing that can be patched up — that ends the incident so far as I’m concerned.

Case in point: after fighting seven years to get my job back, I resumed teaching and thereafter enjoyed friendly relations with all the colleagues, former adversaries included.

Second case: I had a brilliant philosopher friend with whom I’d shared the deepest conversations, about the search for wisdom and similar topics.  One day, he borrowed five hundred dollars from me, on a post-dated check, and then kept putting off repayment.  Finally, just a few months before my eligibility to press a case at small claims court would expire, I got the money back with the aid of a lawyer cousin.  Of course, the friendship didn’t survive.  For my part, I was content to have prevented our wisdom-seeking conversations from finishing in a rip-off.

Naturally, I don’t win ‘em all.  If the cause was just, in my opinion, and I did all I could but lost anyway, I will let it go.  Likewise, if it looks like a righteous combat but doesn’t have my name on it, I don’t wade in.  A woman’s gotta know her limitations.

That said, there is one wound that’s continued to fester.  Readers who’ve followed this column over a few years may recall a successful battle I fought to oust a guy from my house of worship who behaved inappropriately with the women.  Since I won that fight, why am I still suffering?  Other whistleblowers will recognize the situation: I was treated disrespectfully by those whose institution benefitted hugely from my refusal to dodge this issue.  They accepted the benefits that accrued to the institution, but were unprotective toward their co-religionists who were women, and toward me — the only woman who had fought long and effectively enough to protect them!  I felt it as a shocking betrayal.  What else did it touch in me?

I have a past-life memory (veridical or not) of perishing in the 1930’s, in the run-up to the Holocaust.  When I first had the memory, I hadn’t previously heard or read of the method that was used: putting victims in the backs of sealed trucks and then pumping in carbon monoxide.  Later I did read that this piecemeal method was in use but abandoned when the vast killing camps were set up. 

Whether or not this actually happened to me in a life preceding my present one, it’s accurate to say that for me it’s a memory of something undeniably real and personal.

Suddenly, the other night, I decided to see how the two memories would look if I conflated them: the first memory of perishing in the sealed truck, conflated with the second, of winning that acrid “victory” at my temple.

To my surprise, this conflation plunged me into what felt like a crisis.  My muscles tightened so that sleep became impossible.  My insides stopped functioning in any normally healthy way.  For much of the day, I sobbed or felt on the verge of sobbing.

By evening I thought, I’ve found ways to cure other situations. This is just one more uncured situation.  Once I figure out how to cure it, I won’t suffer from it anymore.  At least not in this unbearable way.  Feeling more hopeful, I was able to relax and got more sleep that night.

In the morning, praying fervently, searchingly, earnestly, asking for answers, here are the responses that came to me.  

I asked, what about my dying that way, in my small corner of the Holocaust?  Does that call for a cure of some kind, for me?

Dying in that circumstance is called “Sanctification of the Name.  Kiddush Ha-Shem.”  Whether you volunteer or not, the rank is the same.

It’s not a cure, but it settles the question.  It means that, in God’s eyes, I’m whole.

Next question: what about my prolonged suffering as a result of my fight to clear God’s House of someone who should not have been there?  Does that call for a cure?

It’s also Sanctification of the NameAnd this time, you DID volunteer.

Finally, I had a third question.  What about the larger experience evoked — of being unprotected by my co-religionists?  How deep does that go?  If I go all the way back to the beginning, to Abraham, didn’t he say to Pharoah, when the king cast covetous eyes on his beautiful wife, “take her, take Sarah, she’s my sister”?  

Maybe God did smite Pharoah so that he couldn’t lay a glove on Sarah, blighting crops and flocks till he returned her to Abraham in pristine condition.  Maybe Genesis 12:10-20 got it right, or maybe the editors rewrote the script at that juncture.   Some of the medieval rabbis thought Abraham should have had more faith and not handed her over.  Easy for them to say.

Jews are God’s pilot project.  From the beginning, they’ve been heavily outnumbered.  That means, in history, always threatened with defilement and extermination.  As to the women of the covenant, the best men will act in a level-headed, reasonable, courteous and protective manner, when they can.  The mediocre will act out their mediocrity.  But the problem is built in.

How convenient it would have been, had the Jews been able to say to their Christian spiritual descendants, “Okay guys, we are stepping off the stage now; you can take it (the covenant) from here!”

But Jews received no such directive from the God of Israel.  They remain the evidence for God’s reality in history.  They are not perfectionists.  They are just real.  God is real.  And so are the Jews.

And so, ladies and gents, it’s incurable.

Having a credible answer,

I stopped worrying.

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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2 Responses to Incurable?

  1. Abigail says:

    Yes Jerel, you’re exactly right. Thank you very much for your Comment. It’s very consoling!

  2. Jerel Wohl says:

    Dear Abigail,

    What a fight that was. I do remember it well! Please know there were some co-religionists that did advocate for you. You are not alone with the harassment you faced in this situation and among many others that occur. Please continue to tell your story in a way that educates and empowers anyone dealing with these kind of circumstances to speak up and fight against this type of behavior. It’s never acceptable and anything we do to avoid it from happening to others will be another way to make the world a better place. Love thy neighbor, not abuser.

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