Can Sibling Rivalry Be Ontological?

Bas-relief: Orvieto Cathedral
ca. 1310-31

In the top-floor, high-ceiling, six-room New York apartment where my parents once lived, next to the dining room table and in front of the window, there stood a tall potted plant. It grew and grew, though I don’t recall our giving it any special attention. Unless by “attention” you’d mean emptying the remnants of water glasses and coffee cups into the plant when we cleared the table.

Taking a mystical view, my mother would sometimes say — looking ceilingward –“When the plant touches the ceiling, something wonderful will happen!”

Like many highly intuitive people, my mother could also be crashingly wrong. By the time the plant touched the ceiling, 1245 Madison was on the block and scheduled for demolition.

Somewhat analogously, in the centuries leading up to and following the first century C.E., expectations ran high that something wonderful would happen – such as the overthrow of Roman rule and the simultaneous revival of Jewish political independence under the aegis of Somebody Anointed by heaven. Wolves and lambs would bed down side by side (Isaiah 11:6-9), and people from every nation would “take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23).

Eventually, such expectations climaxed in a last Jewish rebellion, under the vigorous leadership of Bar Kokhba. You can read about it. When it was crushed in approximately 135 of the common era, Jewish political sovereignty had to wait till 1948 for another comeback.

Reflecting on the overthrow of Jewish political hopes, the early Christian writers were pleased to find proof that the covenantal connection with God had been entirely transferred from Jewish to Christian hands. Jews, it was held, had (1) failed to recognize Jesus as God’s Anointed, their promised Messiah.  As a result, (2) God didn’t like Jews any more. This doctrine is known as “supersessionism.”

Claim #1 is interesting, but calls for more parsing and reflective consideration than would be feasible here. About claim #2, there’s the awkward fact that Jews never got the memo. By and large, though they may recast all that in secular humanist terms, even nonbelieving Jews still think God loves them!

In the 20th century, after the fact of the Holocaust had sunk in, various Christian denominations took steps to repudiate supersessionism. If memory serves, my friend and colleague, the late Michael Wyschogrod, was one of the theologian/philosophers negotiating with responsible officials of the Presbyterian Church to get the charge of “deicide” (God-killer) lifted from the collective Jewish people. In consequence, now at last, we’re on a par with the Greeks, ancient and modern, who were never collectively condemned for the unfair execution of Socrates in 399 BCE. So you can bet I’m relieved.

That said, it was just a tad disappointing when, in 2018, the Presbyterian Church USA adopted a BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) resolution targeting only the Jewish state for potentially lethal economic sanctions. At the time, I supported our then rabbi Mitchell Delcau’s decision to ask the local Presbyterian minister for permission to meet with his congregation and talk with them about the BDS resolution.

It’s a lovely old church, situated near where we live, and quite naturally I and a few others joined our rabbi there. The pews were filled. After a few opening remarks, R. Delcau opened the meeting for questions. They came at him — the loaded questions — like arrows fired one after another. Not one that I recall included any sense of Jewish history under Christendom, international law, Israeli law, context — military, religious, demographic or other — or compassion. The rabbi stood there alone, answering each person, patient, truthful and long-suffering, and no one seemed to notice who in that room was the bearer, and sufferer-through, of divine love.

Right now, I’ve been reading Israel and Revelation, the first volume, of Eric Voegelin’s five volume Order and History. He’s an unusual political philosopher, combining awe-inspiring erudition with a courageous willingness to look for evidences of Providential Presence in the long human story. In whatever I’ve previously read of Voegelin, there’s been plentiful evidence of his inspired meticulousness.

So imagine my shock to read in Volume One — as E.V. proceeds with his typically careful, granular respect for the actual text — sudden slides into insultingly intemperate, dogmatically-derived generalizations about the Jews! I won’t take up space with quotes here, but I can, if anyone wants to have ‘em. If you’ve read all through Volume One, I know you’ve seen ‘em too.

Look, this is not the first time in my life I’ve seen anti-Jewish bias in a book. I’m not shocked, shocked for that reason. But I am taken aback to find it in a thinker of this caliber, courage and – for the most part – truthfulness. 

Obviously, neither resolutions by ecclesiastical bodies, nor interfaith gatherings for hand-shaking and hand-rubbing are getting down to the ontological level – the level of being – where this thing still dwells, unimpeded and untouched. How can it be cured —

this ontological

sibling rivalry

at the depths of the being

of God and ourselves?

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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