God’s Orders

Detail from “Creation of Adam”
Michelangelo, c 1512

God’s Orders

In the past fortnight, I did something whose consequence makes it possible for me to return to the temple from which I’d walked away last March.  I had private zoom conversations with two temple leaders who had, I believed, unjustly diverted blame to me in a case where I’d been a persistent, and finally effective, whistle-blower in defense of women congregants and the temple’s reputation. 

Never mind what was said or not said in those two private conversations. Some misunderstandings have been clarified.  Some accountability more rightly directed.  Suffice it to say that I am a woman as concerned for her honor as dueling men were at one time said to be, and that I deem my honor now satisfied.

Prior to these recent conversations, I’d made a separate peace with the after-shocks of that fight to oust the bad actor.  It seemed to me that self-repair demanded withdrawal from the site of so much suffering.  I had walked away and my private wounds now seemed about as healed as they would ever be.  I seldom thought of it.  Meanwhile, at the local Chabad, I’d found comfort in their pre-modern purity of spirit — balm in Gilead for the weary wanderer.

So now my connection to my temple is repaired and all’s well that ends well.  That said, do I have any lingering concerns at this point?  Well, only that having those two restorative zoom conversations had not been my idea.  Then whose idea were they?  Please don’t think I’m nuts but they were – to the best of my knowledge and belief — 

divine commands.

It’s not the first time that I’ve acted on what I have deemed prayer guidance.  After all, that’s what I did when, reluctantly, I first got into the long fight at the temple.  But the recent instance included a new feature.  There did not seem to be any space reserved for me to step back and say, “Yes, I consent.  I freely choose to do what I believe You are asking me to do.”

It felt as if

I had no choice!

At breakfast, I shared my latest concern with Jerry.  He asked, “What was it that disturbed or disconcerted you about that?”

I took some time during the day to ponder Jerry’s question.  It seemed to me that I was mainly concerned to know if I’d stepped outside my own nature.  Had I done something not native to me — eccentric or bizarre for Abbie?  Was I now like Charlton Heston playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments,” who comes back from the burning bush encounter, newly coiffed, with stand-up blue-grey hair, looking and talking more like a mechanized prop than the nice Israelite/Egyptian boy-on-the-run whose adventures we’d been watching up to now.  

If the command I’d received was not mediated through me, with time included for me to make my own decision pro or con, then who was the person who’d carried out the command?  Was she still Abbie, the girl I’d been before? 

Philosophically, there seemed to be two well-trodden approaches to this kind of question: the Aristotelian and the Kantian.  Let’s take Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) first.  For him, right action is the expression of one’s nature at its best.  The Greek term for virtue is arete, excellence.  To act virtuously is to apply the action called for.  The virtuous person habitually acts so as to bring about the best feasible outcome, choosing the best means.  To do so is to be in character, undistorted, as nature intended one to be.  It takes practice, training, and good models to get to the point where one is oneself, but the Aristotelian aim is achievable.

But I was not exercising arete.  What I did, in holding the two conversations, was not an expression of personal virtue.  It was a response – I daresay a scared response – to a divine command.  The framework was theistic – not naturalistic.  So I was not exactly “being myself.”   Aristotle might have thought Abbie had gone round the bend.

What would Immanuel Kant (1724 -1804) say?  His view gives all the more credit to persons who act under duty’s stern command, even when their nature pulls the opposite way.  This “all the more” approves the reluctantly dutiful act because it best exhibits the will’s freedom to choose.

But the odd thing, about my obedience to the divine command, was that I did not feel as if I had any choice!  So this was not a case of obedience to duty, freely self-imposed in the Kantian sense.  Nor, as we have seen, was it an expression of natural excellence in the Aristotelian sense.

It was more like feeling God’s hamsin – hot desert wind — at one’s back.  To resist the hamsin is not merely unwise.  It’s closer to unthinkable.

To return to Jerry’s question, what is it that disturbs me about that?  Is it a worry about my freedom, my autonomy?  Or is it something else?

It doesn’t feel as if my personal boundaries are being broken down so that I actually become another character — like Charlton Heston in the movie.  It doesn’t even feel “authoritarian.“  Rather it seems closer to intimate.  But not like the old married couple who’ve been in each other’s company so long that they can finish each other’s anecdotes.

It’s a very odd sort of intimacy – as if you can be fully close with something 

— a Being,

Someone –

rightly instructing me what I must do.

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” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) 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 https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to God’s Orders

  1. Jerel Wohl says:

    I’m so glad to read that you are approaching closure with this, Abigail. While the pain may never leave your soul entirely, it’s how we handle the pain and have it stop controlling our lives that we can then move forward. I’m glad the almighty was able to guide you through this, and the conversations were helpful.

    Wishing you always the best.

    • Abigail says:

      This is so touching, what you’ve written here Jerel, that I really don’t know how to reply. I’m very heartened by what you’ve taken the time and trouble to write. Sometimes, I guess, we’re not alone at the times when we think we’re most alone.

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