Know When to Walk Away

Know When to Walk Away

And, as “the Gambler” says in the Kenny Rogers song, you’ve got to know when to run.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to walk away from the Reform temple where I’ve been an active congregant for more than twenty years.  This is the house of worship for the sake of which I fought to oust a predator who’d been singling out the women for his inappropriate attentions.  Fought successfully, it would seem.  But, in the last round of that combat, certain defenders of the temple’s then-reigning leadership delivered a stupid and uncivil demarche against me, my husband and our home.

Someone else might have shrugged it off as, well, scars of combat.  For the next few years I tried to do that, sometimes believed I had succeeded, but finally found myself totally unable to recover from that ambush.

Since I’ve certainly gotten over graver offenses and recovered emotionally from worse blows, what was so indelible about this particular case?  Let me look back and try to figure out what it meant to me.

When I was in the middle of the fight to remove the predator, I stopped to pray about it one morning.  I said to God that, having only limited reserves of vital energy, I had reason to fear that my health would suffer if I continued the fight (as indeed it did suffer).  The answer that came to me seemed unequivocal:

Never mind all that now.

Get this scum out of My House!

Oh well, I thought.  If You feel that way about it, I guess that settles it for me.

Now, however, I have the sense that, while the trouble-making guy has finally been shown the door, the unregretted insult remains.  In this sense, the “scum” is still in the House.   

A bit of background seems in order.  I am not a woman who dislikes or fears men.  In my formative years, the men who were around me drew (and merited) love and admiration.  As a result, reactions of that kind are still easy for me to summon.  Nor do I find men’s … shall we say ancient proclivities? shocking or disgusting.  I’ve been chased round the room (his living room) by the chairman of a prestigious religion department and thought it merely funny.  I’ve been regarded by a distinguished British philosopher as part of the honorarium for his fine lecture and thought it too trivial to mention even as a joke.  I’ve sent letters to the heads of organizations devoted to higher ed, urging them to defend male professors whose cases I knew of, who’d been “disappeared” professionally on the basis of evidence I thought doubtful.

In sum, when considering my situation, this background should be born in mind.  I don’t automatically side with someone who claims to be the victim.  I don’t treat myself as a case of victimization waiting to happen.  Though I have a deep and natural sympathy for women, I try, when learning of such cases, to weigh the evidence fairly.  

So why won’t this wound close?  Why do I feel that it would do more good to walk away than to stay?  In Sara Rigler’s book, I’ve Been Here Before, she cites a rabbi she calls R. Ish-Shalom, on the topic of guilt.  In the rabbi’s view, guilt is counter-productive.  The person wallowing in guilt is actually giving himself a license to repeat the offense, since he has nothing to lose morally, having already been self-condemned as worthless.  Also, since his sense of guilt is unpleasant, the perpetrator feels free to do it again on the ground that by now his offense has been punished quite sufficiently.

The rabbi contrasts guilt with regret, where the agent fully faces and apologizes for the wrong, condemning it sincerely as unworthy of his better — his real — self, and resolves to reject this counterfeit if tempted again in the future.

By contrast, when I see the ambushers, they look vaguely uneasy — about something they know not what — but totally unregretful!  My sense is that, if they could get away with it, they would do it again.  Recently, one of them found occasion to classify me among the new congregants and looked dumbfounded when I reminded him that I’d been active in the temple for upwards of twenty years.  Thus guilt makes itself comfortable.

I’m walking away for two reasons: first, my presence prompts counter-productive guilt; second, the ambushers’ vaguely uneasy expressions remind me that no regret has been admitted and this — the moral damage it shows is — like a fresh wound — unutterably painful to me.

Wait a minute!  This is serious!  What about tikkun, the overriding principle of binding up the broken places — of repair and making whole again?  

Well, on my side it separates me from a site where the wound keeps reopening.  On the side where my presence prolongs the winter of denial and guilt — the absence of me at least opens a space for regret and the return of a greener springtime.

If that ain’t repair, 

it’ll do till the real thing gets here.

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 Know When to Walk Away

  1. Pingback: God’s Orders | "Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column"

  2. jerrymartin998419820 says:

    Great photo for this column!

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