From the “Exodus Series Paintings” by Maria Lago.

Straight ahead for us this week is a trip to California, with complex, hybrid purposes. Following an academic weekend in L.A., where both of us are presenting papers at the Eric Voegelin Society (which is a group within the American Political Science Association), we spend whatever remains of the post-Labor Day week getting me more treatments for my neuropathy. The preparations for such a two-purpose trip have been varied, complex, with unexpected add-ons, and have had to be pressed into the few days still available.

Some people spend heavy money to acquire the power to get in touch with their feelings. For better or worse, that’s not my problem. My feelings know where I live. I’ll just convey some of the facts and attendant feelings around my paper to be presented at the Los Angeles EVS meetings. EVS, that’s the “Eric Voegelin Society.” Who’s he? He was an extremely learned, thoughtful and serious thinker, who wrote against Nazi racial doctrines in the 1930’s prior to the Second World War, and narrowly escaped the long, pitiless, retributive hand of the Gestapo in consequence. Later, he taught and had an important scholarly influence in the United States.

What was special about him? Unlike typical political scientists, Voegelin held the view — actually and openly — that the many-layered history of humanity can be rightly understood only if one factors in the spiritual element (in the lives of individuals, groups and cultures).

Such a view, unencumbered by dogmatism or received doctrines, is highly unusual for an academic in the field of political science — or any field in a nonsectarian curriculum for that matter. As an enterprise, instanced in books, with papers presented at meetings such as the upcoming one in L.A., it’s both courageous and amply supported by scholarship. Also, the academics who give papers at the EVS tend to be gentler, less concerned to get in their knockout blow ahead of the other guy, than has been my experience at academic conferences of the standard sort.

That said, in Voegelin’s Israel and Revelation, I’ve found egregiously negative views of Hebrew Scripture, of Jews and Judaism, that (to my mind) fall far short of fairness. In just one example among many, he writes of Israelite “habituation, institutionalization, and ritualization” that “degenerate sooner or later into a captivity of the spirit … that has become demonic imprisonment.” Can I be the first person to have noticed this?

Let me briefly spell out my own view of Hebrew Scripture (more commonly known as “The Old Testament”). It gives us the first example of human life in history with God-as-Witness. What do I mean by human “life in history”? I mean life in identifiable circumstances, unfolding in linear time, that you can still dig up, in geographical space, locatable on a map, in contact with adjacent real cultures having languages you can decipher. (Among those ancient languages, only Hebrew is still spoken in a real culture and a territory partly congruent with the land described in Hebrew Scripture. And Jews are still adhering to many of the practices ordained for them in the first Five Books of said Scripture, the Pentateuch.)

What kind of story is told in the aforementioned Books? In the main, it’s not been prettied up. For a sacred text animating a whole people, this frankness about discreditable parts of the story is, so far as I know, unique. Likewise, according to George Foote Moore’s magisterial three volume work, Judaism, the rabbinic commentary on the Tanach (Hebrew Scripture) is notable in preserving minority as well as majority opinions on its interpretations and rulings.

So it’s not so divine that the human presence has been booted out, or banished Upstairs. These self-exposing, self-critical features are what tell me that God is in it. Whatever its omissions or simplifications, to my mind, the story is essentially true. So, for students of political history who don’t conform to the academic etiquette of atheism, the project of Eric Voegelin can be of the very greatest interest.

For Voegelin to publish these slurs on the Israelite story can have only one explanation: at least only one that’s persuasive to me. It’s the more delicately expressed version of what Esau says to his father Isaac, after he learns that his brother Jacob has “stolen” the paternal blessing first, ahead of Esau his older brother. Esau’s complaint bears what my father called the most “bitter reality.”

Bless me, even me, also father!

Why have Jacob’s descendants, the Jews and modern, reborn Israel, been targeted for the longest continuous hatred in recorded history?

That’s why.

Does this mean that others get no blessing? Of course, it does not mean that. Not even in Hebrew Scripture does it mean that, much less in rabbinic discussion afterward. But if it’s history you are talking about, taking place in linear time, there must be a before and after, a first and a next that follows. For all I know, the “next” may in certain respects be an improvement. It’s a record of occurrences later in time. Much has happened and been learned. Appreciations are in order. Gratitude is in order. But to pretend that this historical sequence ought to be burdened with calumnies, that’s been – 

entirely out of order.

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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