Character Witnesses

Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden.
John William Waterhouse 1903.

Last week’s column reported on work being done by archeologists and historians, Christian and Jewish, in Israel and surrounding lands, to uncover the real state of Jewry at the time of Jesus. My hope, in describing some of these findings, had been to advance the cause of Christian/Jewish reconciliation. 

How did I think I could do that? By showing that the message of Jesus was not out of synch with advanced Jewish thinking at that time. Also that one key reason for tension between the synagogues in the Roman empire and the Jesus missionaries had to do with concerns that were more practical than theological.

You know,

can’t we all

just get along?

This is not a pipe dream. Believe it or not, I claim to have actually cured two philosophic colleagues (who were, as it happens, my friends) of their routinely casual anti-semitic jokes and remarks. The cure did not come from anything I said. My visible irritation seemed only to amuse them. But something I wrote led them to conclude that they were being stupid. Philosophers hate to be caught being stupid. They just stopped doing what they’d been doing around me. So, in my own personal experience, the oldest-hatred-in-recorded-history is curable!

That said, did my column of last week advance the cause of inter-faith reconciliation? Nah, not even by a millimeter. No doubt I’ve vastly overrated my powers and vastly underestimated the scope – and perhaps the nature – of the problem.

The reactions brought back memories of returning from my first visit to Israel and attempting to tell people about my trip. Had I come back from any other place on the planet, my travelogue would have found listeners. But, of that sole place, NOBODY wanted to hear a single solitary word. Not even my hairdresser!

Had I tried to report, let us say, some unheard of sex practices that I’d stumbled across, people would’ve snickered behind their hands but bent down to hear the forbidden secrets. Only in the Israel case, where I had nothing scandalous to report, did I encounter such strenuously maintained incuriosity. I remember saying at the time that we needed to reconceive the Freudian account of “repression.” There really is such a thing as repression – but it’s not about sex! 

Obviously, there was something I hadn’t understood. I’d been naive. Hegel would have understood it better than I did. A culture can be deciphered in terms of whatever, for that culture, constitutes the absolute. A theology is (among other things) a portrait of such an absolute. These definitions and portrayals don’t confine themselves to some rarefied upper tier of the culture visited only by specialists. To remain who they are while taking in new experiences, individuals within any culture are perpetually organizing and reorganizing themselves. That’s what people do. Their processes of personal self-organization are enmeshed with the values of their culture and the story told in the culture to justify those values. 

The culture’s justificatory story is not optional. No more than mother’s milk is optional for the new-born. The theological version of the culture’s story can be disbelieved – for example, by the atheist or the wholly secularized person. What it can’t be is ignored.

What actually surprised me was how crucial a part was played in the Christian theological story by a supposed Jewish refusal of Jesus during his lifetime. Here I’m not at all referring to claims about the ontological status of Jesus – whether human, divine, or somehow both. Only about the relations of Jesus with his Jewish contemporaries.

Anyway, the adverse reactions to my well-intentioned efforts left me feeling rather bad. Which is hard to distinguish from the fear that one has been a bad person. 

So – to change the entire subject and mindset – I got a Lyft taxi to a riding stable I know that is way above the ordinary run of stables. The horses are Arabians, beautiful and beautifully cared for. Beyond that, the young woman who supports my neurologically-challenged hour in the saddle has an ability to sense what the horse has to tell the rider, and to repeat it in good English to the rider. You can scoff all you want, but I’ve never heard truer insights from any licensed therapist than those I get, more often than not, from the horses I ride there! 

There is also a dog named Legacy who belongs to the stable. Don’t ask me why, but Legacy loves me. Nor are his affections indiscriminate or promiscuous. I’m told that one time the stable had hired a man for some repair work who, as the owners learned eventually, was not honest. Strikingly, Legacy had needed no time at all to figure him out, but at once snarled, growled and tried to bite him on the ankle.

Never before had a mid-sized, hairy dog climbed up on my lap and snuggled up to me to be petted – but you can bet I felt highly honored.

After about half an hour on Dusty – the chestnut gelding I rode at a stately walk – was understood to have asked if I liked him! No horse I ever rode in my life took me seriously enough to care in the least whether I liked him.

You can keep your Nobel prizes, your Pulitzers, and your awards for moderating Interfaith Dialogues.

Dusty and Legacy are

what I call

character witnesses.

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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