A Remarkable Evening

“The Night Watch”
Rembrandt, 1642

A Remarkable Evening

Jerry and I belong to a Christian/Jewish dialogue group that celebrated its 25th year last week, though we haven’t been in it that long.  The discussion topic was not so celebratory: anti-semitism and how to destroy it.  (Privately I thought, yeah, I should live so long, but didn’t say that, not wanting to dampen hopes.)

Dinner is served cafeteria-style before the discussion.  Jerry and I took a small table with a river view.  We were soon joined by an attractive blond lady named Krista Bard who was, it turned out, Honorary Counsel General from Lithuania to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Had my family retained memories of Lithuania, they would not have been good ones.  Trying for a sociable note, I remarked to Krista:

“I have an ancestor from Vilna: the Vilna Gaon.”

Though that 18th-century rabbi is reputed one of the foremost Talmudists, few nonJews would have heard of him.  So I did not expect Krista’s response, which was that commemoration of the Vilna Gaon was now an official event in Lithuania.

“How is that possible?” I asked.

After the Second World War was over, she said, there was wide awareness that Lithuanians had not conducted themselves well during the Holocaust.  A general realization ensued, that the country had better wake up, so that its people would not do this anymore.  What followed was a public acknowledgment of moral failure plus regret and admiration for the Jewish/Lithuanian heritage that had been allowed to perish on its soil or been driven beyond the borders to its doom.

I was nearly as astonished as

 the Vilna Gaon would have been!

At the discussion, each Jewish or Christian participant was invited to share personal encounters with anti-semitism.  The Reader might not know how exceptional a happening this was.

Jews do not get together to share war stories.

The topic might get touched upon in a wider context, say of other crises: humanitarian, ecological, literary, scientific, theological or political – including inflation, the national debt, ice at the antipodes and the Mueller Report.  I have never heard any gathering of Jews discuss “anti-semitism and me.”  Never.

My goodness, I thought.  First, the Gaon of Vilna raised to the status of Lithuanian national treasure.  And now this.  I am going to get the vapors!

Here is one of the war stories.  When one participant was a 23-year-old student, enrolled (for reasons I did not catch) in the graduate department of a Christian university, before the first class began, students stood to repeat the Lord’s Prayer.  Our Jewish student stood with his head politely bowed, but silent.

After the Amens, the professor, who was also a priest, came and stood in front of our youth asking why he had remained silent.

“I’m Jewish,” came the reply.  “I don’t say the Lord’s Prayer.”

“Ah,” said the priest.  “Don’t Jews pray?”

“All your prayers are derived from Jewish prayers!  And I think you knew the answer to both your questions before you asked them.   Your purpose was to embarrass me in front of my classmates.  I am leaving your course.”

Some days later, our young man was stopped in the hallway by a senior cleric who asked whether there was anything he could do to repair the situation.

“No,” replied our young man.  “It’s too bad the professor never learned the love that his religion is supposed to teach.”

Wow, I thought, what a story!  Usually, the targeted person spends his or her next two or three decades trying to figure out what he or she should have said.  Instead here it was in a single package:

the right answer

to the right man (or men)

at the right time.

Among the Christian speakers was a woman who was first shown photos of Holocaust survivors as a young girl, perhaps in a high school textbook.  For some reason, though the world holds many horrors, those photos left a burning imprint.  As she entered young womanhood, she began to track the reappearances, infrequent at first, but becoming more familiar, and coming finally from higher up and a wider demographic.  The fashionable new pretexts did not befog her awareness of the spiritual abyss that they overlay, like brush that the hunter will put over a pit to conceal it.  As she saw it, no human fighter could defeat this thing unaided.  It needs fighters but also needs prayer.

My story came at the end.  I told of successive efforts to alert fellow congregants to the new anti-semitism, inviting speakers and also responding to local instances.  We won some and made a dent in others.  There was however one problem that seemed to resist every effort to cure it.

Once a week, for years on end, a certain group conducted a “vigil” (as they called it) right in the center of town, holding up placards that denounced the Jewish state for evils unspecified but (the implication was) worse than anything else on the planet.  Else why would the vigilers be there?

My sense was that this was not just one-sided and unfair, but an actual danger.  Public insults that go unanswered invite further attacks, first social but finally physical.

One morning, I was having brunch with two Christian friends and going over the failure of my every counter-move, episode by tedious episode.  Nothing had worked.  The final effort had only led to everyone blaming me.

My friends offered a suggestion.   Why not meet at the café adjoining the square where the placard people held their “vigils”?   Not to interact with them, just to talk among ourselves about matters of the spirit and to pray together.

We did just that, the two Christian friends plus Jerry and me.  I don’t know if the placard people recognized me or not.  In any case, we didn’t look their way, only chatted with each other and sometimes read a psalm very quietly.

I didn’t have any hope of making a difference, but at the end of that hour I suggested we join hands while I said my own prayer aloud.

Father, I’ve tried everything I know

 [here I listed each failed effort]

 and nothing has worked.

 They are there each week punctually,

defaming Your people

and putting us at risk.

I have been totally unable to change this situation.

Please touch and soften their hearts.”

When we broke hands and looked up, to our amazement, they had disappeared!  In less time than it takes to pack up one’s placards and remove oneself from the town square.  Poof!  They were gone – as if vaporized!

And we never saw them again.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Academe, Action, Art of Living, Atheism, Bible, Biblical God, bureaucracy, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, eighteenth century, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Guilt and Innocence, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Journalism, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, non-violence, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Political, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Race, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, terrorism, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Coziness of Louisa May Alcott

Little Women Illustrated by Louis Jambor

The Coziness of Louisa May Alcott

“Coziness” is not a word in the highest repute.  In the 17th century, when the philosophers called “modern” were allowing the new physics to define reality, the features they deemed objectively-out-there were measurable: like size, weight and velocity.

In contrast, qualities like “blue” or (say) “right and wrong” were considered merely subjective.  And of course, no modern philosopher I know of would have deigned to discuss “coziness.”  If he had, he would have given it a double dose of dismissal — as really unreal.

I think somewhat differently.  For me, coziness is at least as real as velocity.

Of all the attempts to represent coziness in fiction, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, depicting her home life when she and her sisters were young, is surely the immortal one.  Girls ever since have identified with these sisters as they make their way to adulthood through the hazards of poverty and social rejection – but under the never-failing gentle guidance of their father and mother.

In the end, all the sisters find love and happiness, even the rambunctious Jo, who wants to be a writer and stands in for Alcott herself.  That is, they all find personal fulfillment except for Beth, who dies.

I still cry when Beth dies.

So does everyone I know.

It might be that the different ideals of girlhood foregrounded in the successive film versions of Little Women mirror generational changes in the cultural ideal.  A thesis topic, anyone?

The latest version, directed by Greta Gerwig, has been playing at our local theater.  Jerry and I went to see it recently.

Not being an expert on the different film versions, I’ll just compare this movie to the book.  It was pretty faithful, but I was struck by a few omissions and changes in emphasis.

In the novel, the sisters quarrel occasionally.  In the film, they actually pummel each other.  Right.  Why repress any of your modern feelings?

In the film, Marmee (the mother) admits to Jo that she must incessantly repress her anger.  A different depth view of the maternal nature suffuses the novel.  For example, here is Marmee just back from nursing their father at the (Civil War) front.  As she comes in, she is greeted by Meg and Jo who are exhausted from nursing their sister Beth.

A Sabbath stillness reigned through the house

                   … Meg and Jo closed their weary eyes, 

and lay at rest,

 like storm-beaten boats, 

 safe at anchor in a quiet harbor.

In the film, as in the novel, the fictional Jo eventually marries, but it’s depicted as the somewhat disreputable device of Alcott, Jo’s author, catering to the popular taste.

Since the real Jo [Alcott] never married, one could say that getting her fictional counterpart married off was a popularized simplification of the truth.  But to depict Alcott, as the film does, wanting only to be autonomous — free to live her talent — is itself an over-simplification, catering to the popular taste of today.

As a young woman, the real Alcott returned from a nursing stint in the Civil War with her young body blasted by typhoid and possible mercury poisoning.  She wrote because she had a gift for writing but also to make money, of which her Transcendentalist family was always in need.  From youth, she came in contact with some of the most important thinkers of the day: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, Frederick Douglas.  Hers was a life that had to process influences of the highest order.

Like it or not, Alcott’s was also a life of filial piety.  It’s not a virtue highly honored today.  She cared for a father who could not adequately care for himself – to the point that her death in mid-life came two days after his.  Bronson Alcott was gone.  Louisa could stand down at last.

Real life is not so metallically hard-edged as the modern view takes it to be.  Left out is the softness, the homelikeness, the assurance that coziness is real.

I conclude with these lines from the poem Jo writes when Beth is dying.

Henceforth, safe across the river,

 I shall see forevermore

 A beloved, household spirit

Waiting for me on the shore.

 Hope and faith, born of my sorrow,

Guardian angels shall become, 

And the sister gone before me

By their hands shall lead me home.

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, books, Childhood, Chivalry, Christianity, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Films, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Immortality, Institutional Power, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Martyrdom, Masculinity, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, motherhood, nineteenth-century, novels, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, scientism, secular, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Our Twentieth!

Abbie and Jerry
January 20th, 1999

It’s Our Twentieth!

January 20th, 2020, is our twentieth anniversary and, over the past few days, we’ve been talking about what it all means.

In our first year, when I still lived in New York and Jerry in Washington D.C., we each felt this imperious bond pulling us toward a joint life lived in shared space and time.  I sensed that this relation was not a thing to be contained or shaped to fit my convenience.  We shouldn’t settle for a commuting marriage.  Rather, the marriage and its requirements should shape where and how we lived from here on.

To make this feasible, I felt it would be best for me to take early retirement.  When I floated that idea with colleagues, to a man and a woman, they all (with the exception of one very close woman friend who was also a philosopher) — advised against it.  The Provost, the Director of the Humanities Institute, a woman colleague in Psychology – all described my experience of falling deeply in love as a kind of benign and enjoyable … psychotic episode.  Inevitably, they assured me, remission would set in and I would return to sanity and the real world.

It was not that I had been feeling all that bad about being single.  By then, feminism had bestowed on a woman’s solo life a social dignity that was new but also quite real.  I loved teaching, loved my familiar New York neighborhood and – as much as anyone can say that – I “had it all worked out.”

How did I know I wasn’t – as some colleagues were tactfully hinting – crazy?  Well, I was coping competently with the other challenges in my life.  My character, capacities and relationships hadn’t collapsed.  But you can never know with certainty – if by “know” is meant occupy a vantage point outside the realm of your experience.  I didn’t possess what is called “the view from nowhere.”

Was I so fatally smitten that it had become psychologically impossible for me to step beyond the romantic feeling — into a more neutral and objective space?

No, I could have done that.  Nothing I could see, from the advice of bystanders, or from within myself, or from guidance coming to me in prayer or meditation, authorized a recourse to neutral outsiders.  I didn’t feel that I was nuts and needed to check my desires and beliefs with a credentialed specialist.  But I was also aware that it is possible for the firmest beliefs and the strongest desires to be deluded.

Why then did I take that chance, putting at risk the identity conferred by place, institution, status and role?

By “taking a chance,” I’m not speaking of being in love or even of marrying Jerry.  I’m speaking of reshaping my life so that, henceforth, the requirements of a life together would determine my and our future choices.  Why did I decide to do that?

My whole life long, I had viewed romantic love as the best thing in the world.  By romantic love, I didn’t mean the sort of coupledom that medieval troubadours sang about – like the romance of Tristan and Iseult – where the lovers exist in a bubble of their own, defying the norms of their day, and find untroubled union only in their premature death.

Walking through the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, one comes upon the gravestone of Heloise and Abelard.  In French it reads, “They lived a very Christian life and in death they are together.”  If you don’t already know it, I suggest you look up the story of their “very Christian life.”

No, the couples who modeled romantic love for me came from a different text and tradition:  Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca — Jacob and his Rachel at the Well.  They were each flawed people but, by their union, they moved the story of God and humankind forward.

I saw marriage founded on true love as a thing of tremendous consequence.  My parents’ marriage had been of that order, so I knew it was attainable.  The possibility hadn’t died with the Biblical prototypes.

Anyway, as Charlotte Bronte famously wrote,

Reader, I married him.

Was I right?  How did that work out?

Actually, far better than, in the more extravagant daydreams of my girlhood, I could have pictured.  Because being knowingly loved is reassuring …  profoundly and minutely … recessed parts of me could come out of their concealing shadows and get integrated with the parts already visible in daylight.

Of innumerable results, I can only list a few: unfinished articles could find their ways to completion.  A book previously published could be updated and reissued.  Fights I might have lacked the courage to fight alone, or the know-how to win, could be fought through to the finish.  New projects I never thought to undertake could be set going.  New friendships — and the irreplaceable old ones – could be sustained and supported, from Jerry’s side to mine and mine to his.

We read each other’s work and make suggestions that prove helpful.  We know how to get out of each other’s way and let each one be.  We support each other’s feelings, intuitions and silences.

Let’s face it.

It’s a miracle!

Posted in Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Bible, Biblical God, books, bureaucracy, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Courtship, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, Health, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, ID, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Idolatry, Immorality, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Masculinity, master, Medieval, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, Mysticism, nineteenth-century, novels, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, Romantic Love, Romanticism, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, Sociobiology, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, Utopia, victimhood, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Body Problem

“The Birth of Venus”
Botticelli, c. 1484-1486

The Body Problem

Some years back, a path-breaking feminist book was published bearing the title, Our Bodies/Our Selves.  It included black and white photos of stuff that I was not liberated enough to inspect too closely.  I would have titled this column, My Body/My Self, except that it could have infringed on the copyright of that earlier book.

The title came to mind in connection with a recent series of problems with my body – problems that shed unexpected light on my self.

I have the background problem of neuropathy.  Jerry and I go periodically to California for an experimental treatment offered only at Loma Linda hospital at a center directed by the creative and dedicated Mark Bussell.  His treatments stopped what looked to be a precipitous decline in my ability to walk and have delivered modest improvements in mobility at the cost of homework exercises and giving up glutens and some other nice things.

These trips to California have also made possible professional activities and human connections that we valued.  But if you asked my opinion, I still would have voted not to have neuropathy.  My walking handicap seems to me consistent with my primordial wariness about moving through life — but I do deplore it.

I like to walk.

There’s an art to walking.

 A teacher at New York’s Art Students’ League once quoted to me

 this Chinese definition of art:

the spirit of life through the rhythm of things.

Anyway, this Fall, when I tripped and fractured my kneecap, we were about to depart for another week of treatments at Loma Linda.  It was to be followed by a second week in San Diego, where Theology Without Walls: The Trans-Religious Imperative, the groundbreaking book that Jerry has edited, was scheduled for presentation at the American Academy of Religion by a distinguished panel drawn from its contributors.

Of course, my part of the trip had to be canceled, both the first week of neuropathy treatments and the TWW second week.  But for the second week, I didn’t think Jerry needed a consort, since this was an occasion in the history of theology — not a social occasion.

So I stayed home alone with a fractured kneecap, in our four-story house, further constrained by a wrap-around leg “immobilizer.”  There were provisions for helpers to keep an eye on me and, at the suggestion of a friend from my temple, I called on the assistance of a committee called Chesed, which stands for Mercy – a divine attribute, alongside Justice, Tzedek.  As readers of this column can recall, my relations with my temple have been betimes storm-tossed, but Chesed showed me a side of the place I’d never encountered:

Jewish compassion: 

gentle, practical,

realistic, tenderly attentive.

Since the injury was quite draining, I didn’t do … anything much.  Well, what can you do, when you can’t … be up and doing?

Be. 

You can be.

I’d quite forgotten how to do that.  You quiet down.  You get very still.  You can watch how a branch catches the sunlight or a last leaf floats downwind.  You get on the same timetable as other things that share existence with you.

I hadn’t done that kind of thing in years.  It was nice.  It had nothing show-off about it.

My knee is close to repaired by now.  The muscles that were weakened by the immobilizer are mostly restored by the rehab drill that I’ve followed pretty faithfully.

Which brings me to the bodily ordeal of the past week: eye muscle surgery to correct a problem of double vision!  (Of course, Abigail, you must be joking!)  For the initial recovery weekend, I’ve been thrown entirely on my Inner Resources.  No books or magazines, no emails, no online life at all.  Just exhausted sleep and whatever you can “see” when your eyes are closed and you’re lying down, with your head elevated on cushions.

Well … what passed vividly in review were some of the major chapters of Abbie’s life.  I saw them one after another in quite a new way.  The visions … insights … recalibrations were too significant to crowd into this column tonight, even if I could.

I feel that I have become a better friend and ally to the life I have.

And perhaps my body

can be on the team too.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Alienation, American Politics, Anthropology, Art, Art of Living, Autonomy, beauty, Biblical God, books, Chivalry, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cool, Courage, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Existentialism, Faith, Fashion, Femininity, Feminism, Freedom, Friendship, Health, hidden God, hierarchy, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Institutional Power, Jews, Journalism, Judaism, Law, life and death struggle, Love, Memoir, memory, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, Mysticism, non-violence, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Poetry, Political, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Public Intellectual, radicalism, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, scientism, secular, Seduction, self-deception, Sex Appeal, Sexuality, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twentieth century, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jews, Christians, and Jesus

“L’âne bleu dans le ciel du village”
Marc Chagall, 1978

Jews, Christians, and Jesus

 I’ve just finished a scholarly book whose conclusion left me head-spinningly dumbfounded. Since I’m supposed to be a philosophe by profession, I’m pretty used to scholarly books, bring some acquired insulation to the reading of them, and they don’t usually leave me in that condition.

The book is The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ by Daniel Boyarin.  The Forward by Jack Miles, author of the well-regarded God: A Biography, cites a “prominent conservative rabbi” who declared privately that Boyarin “is one of the two or three greatest rabbinic scholars in the world … possibly even the greatest.”

Here’s what, if asked, I would have said I believed about Jesus before Boyarin’s book left me speechless.  I took no publicly declared position on Jesus … though I’d always felt a muffled attraction.  This attraction stayed muffled because of the history of Christianity vis a vis its Jewish origin – the long record of vilification and persecution whose last realization was the Holocaust.  At least, one would have hoped that was the last of it – save that, since then, this ancient fratricide seems to have rediscovered its voices, updated rationales and lethal weapons.

There was another reason for my discourse about Jesus remaining a guarded one.  I did not want to offend friends who were believing Christians.  Like many who are recognized scholars, I too had drawn a distinction between “the historical Jesus” and the Jesus of Christian doctrine, whose attributes were officially approved in 381 A.D. at the Council of Nicea.  I assumed that Christianity’s key doctrines, the Nicene Creed, were superadded to the Jesus story although he himself would not have held them.  (That Council also ruled that the Jewish followers of Jesus were to be excommunicated if they kept up with any of their Jewish observances.)

So what were the major doctrines adopted at Nicea?

  1. Jesus was divine as well as human.

  2. The people of Israel expected a messiah who would be both human and divine.

  3. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross expiated the sins of his people and human sin generally.

I assumed that none of these doctrines were part of the belief system of mainstream Israelites, whether at the time of Jesus or later.  The split with the Jesus movement I attributed to the above three doctrines – but also to the refusal of the Jesus followers to join Bar Kochba’s last rebellion against Rome in 135 A.D.  They refused, as I thought, because of Bar Kochba’s messianic pretensions.  After his revolt failed catastrophically, those who had doubted its leader were of course vindicated, but the whole episode must have left hard feelings in its wake.

What does Boyarin offer to shake my earlier convictions?

Re doctrines #1 and #2: Boyarin writes that the assumption about the messiah as a divine being in human form was widely and popularly shared in Jesus’s time.  When Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man,” he is referencing the verses in Daniel 7 on which this commonly held view was based.

Re doctrine # 3: according to Boyarin, the verses in Isaiah 53 that refer to a            Suffering Servant who “poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors … bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” were also folded into the messianic expectations of  Jesus’s time — widely shared and also referenced by Jesus in the gospels.

I won’t cite more scholarly buttressing.  If it interests you, the book isn’t long and it’s an easy read.  Boyarin is a very good writer.

There’s one more point he brings out and it may be the most important one.  Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., which was followed by the Second Exile, the people of Israel didn’t agree as a body to interpret their covenant with God by means of a single, coherent set of concepts.  They weren’t yet what is called a “religion.”  They were certainly a people, with a roughly shared array of memories – of a dramatic history of interaction with God — with many darks and lights, in the land their God had promised them, where most of that story had been lived and recorded.

The competing views and interpretations of their shared history spanned a wide spectrum.  Rabbinic Judaism won out in the competition, probably because the study-based form developed during the Babylonian First Exile turned out the most portable after the Second Exile.

I have nothing against Rabbinic Judaism and in fact think it the best of the choices then available.  It kept memory continuous, kept the ancient language readable and revivable, and kept intellectual and spiritual energy alive.  From what I’ve read, in philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and other creative Jewish thinkers, that tradition remains an important source of Jewish identity plus moral and spiritual insight.

That the compressed intensities of Rabbinic Judaism could see daylight again as updated Hebrew, colloquial and literary, and could animate the recovery of the land (when life in exile had really failed) is witness to the vitality and truth of the vehicle.

My grandfather, Rav Tsair, who, as I’ve written here, was a Talmudist of stature — and to me an almost legendary figure — worked to demonstrate the purposive continuities that stretched from Biblical Israel to the Israel reborn after World War II.  His name is on a street in Jerusalem.

But where does all this leave me – leave us – today?

Can the long, fratricidal history be overcome?

Can we ever find the roots of reconcilement?

To be continued … .

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, American Politics, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, Bible, Biblical God, books, Christianity, Cities, Class, conformism, Contemplation, Contradictions, Courage, cults, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, exploitation, Faith, Fashion, Freedom, Friendship, Gender Balance, glitterati, Gnosticism, Guilt and Innocence, hegemony, Heroes, hidden God, hierarchy, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Ideology, Immortality, Institutional Power, Jews, Judaism, Law, Legal Responsibility, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Male Power, Martyrdom, Masculinity, master, Medieval, memory, Messianic Age, Mind Control, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, Ontology, Oppression, Past and Future, Peace, Philosophy, Political Movements, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, Propaganda, Psychology, public facade, Reading, Religion, Roles, secular, self-deception, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, Suffering, Terror, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, victims, Violence, War, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Who’s In Charge Here?

“The Coat of Many Colors”
Ford Maddox Brown, 1867
(The brothers’ cover story for Joseph’s absence)

Who’s In Charge Here?

Today I read an essay about the meaning of life.  It was written in the form of a book review by Peter Brooks of The Storyteller Essays by Walter Benjamin.  The review appears in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, where we learn what the sophisticated reader is thinking these days.  Why not?

Brooks’s review is very dense but here’s the gist of it.  Novels are what bestow meaning on life because they show how the story ends.  “The End,” written at the close, is what lets the reader see a fictional life as a whole and thus grasp what it all meant.  The novelist doesn’t actually have to show the hero’s death scene.   The mere idea that the story rounds off and comes to a close highlights the lesson of it, what it was really about.

Let’s let Peter Brooks tell you what he’s getting at:

The novel should, then, serve as ‘an optical instrument’

 through which the reader becomes ‘the reader of himself,’

understanding through fiction

what is obscured to him in the perpetual wandering,

 the ‘perpetual error’

 that we call life.

Brooks thinks that the novelist occupies a privileged vantage point — located at a future time when the fictional heroine is already dead or else has her end foreseeable — and the novelist is looking back.

Why should the novelist, who writes about an imaginary character, be the only one who can do that?  Can’t I ask the same question, at any moment:

suppose I died now?

What would I regret?

What would I feel was cut short?

What must yet be done before the end wouldn’t look to me

 like an interruption?

Why should the novelistic view be available only to novelists?  It’s like saying that only a professional singer can sing.

There’s another question.  If we subtract the novelist, what controls our plotlines?  Chance?  Is it the accidents of genetics, geography, the belief system that prevails in our time and place, all of which put together is called “history”?  What controls history?  Chance still?  Or is there a divine influence somewhere?

If there is a providential influence on events big and small, how could such a presence be discerned by normal people who simply want to know what’s true, not to force a moral or supernatural shape on the randomness of experience?

These days, I’ve been housebound, waiting for a fractured kneecap to repair itself, and so I’m missing the discussions at my temple’s weekly Bible study.  I learn from a friend that the group is now talking about the Joseph story in Genesis.  As you may know, it’s the most novelistic tale in the whole Bible, pregnant with human reality, sibling rivalry, erotic temptation, political and administrative smarts, and the most touching scenes of reunion and reconciliation.

To recap briefly: young Joseph — the son of the now-deceased woman his father most loved — is his father’s favorite.  The boy has the tactless habit of telling his less-favored brothers of dreams he’s dreamt (as it happens, actually precognitive dreams) where the same envious siblings will be paying him especial homage.  This puts his brothers in a fratricidal mood.  They control themselves sufficiently to sell him to passing merchants as a slave while telling their father that he’s been killed by a wild animal.  Since Joseph is a talented young man, he makes the most of his new opportunities (some of which will look initially like further downfalls) till he rises to become the top official in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.  After a famine drives the brothers to Egypt where (thanks to Joseph) there is food to buy, the reconciled family is resettled in the vicinity.

The family’s descendants will be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, delivered from bondage by a man God appoints, given the basic rules for a moral society and divinely guided to the Promised Land where, with God as their Witness and co-Author, they will live out the further stories that compose the Hebrew Bible.

So, the study group asked: did God put the brothers up to doing their fateful wrong to Joseph?  Did God even prompt the young Joseph to behave in a way his brothers would find insufferable?  Did it all unwind mechanically from a Master Blueprint?

If it did, the story could not teach us much.  Had Joseph remained self-pitying or bitter, he could never have made the extraordinary use he did make of his adversity.  His downfalls happened more than once, and they took different forms.  He lived a disciplined life and gave his full intelligence to each turn of the plot.  Never again did he make the mistake of treating others as mirrors in which he could merely admire his own reflection.  From then on, he gauged his circumstances accurately.  Something analogous can be claimed for the brothers as they went on to live with what they had done.  And so on for each step of the story that followed.

If we allow that there might be a divine presence in our world, that wouldn’t make the world God’s windup clock.  It would still be a real place.  In such a place, some hard knocks would be accidental.  Some would be our fault and we would need to figure that out.  And sometimes, believe it or not, it really IS the other guy’s fault.

Posted in "Absolute Freedom and Terror", Absurdism, Academe, Action, Afterlife, Alienation, Art, Art of Living, Atheism, Autonomy, beauty, Bible, Biblical God, books, Christianity, Cities, Class, Contemplation, Contradictions, Cultural Politics, Culture, Desire, dialectic, Erotic Life, Eternity, Ethics, Evil, Existentialism, Faith, Fashion, Freedom, Gender Balance, glitterati, Guilt and Innocence, Hegel, Heroes, hidden God, History, history of ideas, Idealism, Ideality, Identity, Immorality, Jews, Judaism, life and death struggle, Literature, Love, Masculinity, master/slave relation, Memoir, memory, Mind Control, Modernism, Moral action, Moral evaluation, Moral psychology, morality, Mortality, novels, Past and Future, Phenomenology of Mind, Philosophy, politics of ideas, post modernism, Power, presence, promissory notes, Psychology, Public Intellectual, Reading, Reductionism, relationships, Religion, Roles, Romance, scientism, secular, self-deception, social climbing, social construction, Social Conventions, social ranking, spiritual journey, spiritual not religious, Spirituality, status, status of women, Suffering, The Examined Life, The Problematic of Men, The Problematic of Woman, the profane, the sacred, Theism, Theology, Time, twenty-first century, victimhood, victims, Violence, Work, Writing, Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”

Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself

by Frederick Douglass, edited by Benjamin Quarles

I know of no book, and no reading experience, like this one.  Years ago, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin of whose author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lincoln said when he met her in the White House, “Is this the little lady who wrote a book and started a great war?”  More recently, I read Barracoon, the memoir of the last former American slave to remember Africa, as collected by the great Zora Neale Hurston.  And from time to time, fragmentary reports of lives in bondage must have come my way, from diaries or interviews with ex-slaves.

This book is in a class by itself.  Frederick Douglass was the man who understood, through a genius for moral understanding, what the slave system was all about: the coarsening of every instinct — for the true, the good and the beautiful. 

The True?  If any master got wind of a slave’s dissatisfaction, he would vent the cruelest rage on the reported dissenter.  So one learned to dissimulate.  And of course the cruelties themselves were an admission, by those who used them, that no one would keep herself or himself in the condition of property if he or she could escape it.

The Good?  Douglass is a young man in his twenties before he encounters a white woman who seems spontaneously kind-hearted.  He has not long been in her household before her new husband schools her in the brutal mores demanded by the slave regime.  In consequence, all the grace and tenderness leave her face, voice and conduct.  She loses her goodness.

The Beautiful?  Human beings are drawn by desire toward what is beautiful.  The normalization of rape (masters as unacknowledged fathers), the ripping apart of family ties (mothers sold away from their children) – these ubiquitous deformities profane the life of desire itself.

Meanwhile, how does Frederick Douglass do it?  How does he realize the full depth of what has been inflicted on him from infancy?  How does he teach himself (by subterfuge) to read?  How does he acquire the skills that will prepare him one day to live in freedom?  How does he finally escape?

He answers all these burning questions (save the last, so as not to implicate others) but leaves still burning — like a bonfire in the night — the one abiding question:

how does a human being come to know

that life at the human level

 requires freedom?


How the Scots Invented the Modern World:  The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World & Everything in It

by Arthur Herman

What (before I read this book) did I know about the Scots?  From the romance novels of my youth, I knew that the men usually showed up in kilts and fought for the Stuart king, Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose claim to the British throne ended in 1745 at the disastrous Battle of Culloden.  Indeed, Netflix’s time-travel series, “The Outlander,” follows this formula pretty much to the letter.

I also knew that my Uncle Oscar married a Scottish girl, Aunt Janet, who converted to Judaism.  Through this union, I have three first cousins, Douglas, Glenn and Bruce Rosenthal, whom I’ve not seen in years.   When I raised the question of their visiting Scotland, none of them showed interest.

At Sydney University’s Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy, where I was a Research Affiliate, I learned that the Department had been given its character by a strong-willed Scotsman, John Anderson, who’d stamped the place with his idiosyncratic mix of philosophic assumptions and personal traits.

I never met a person of Scots descent who wanted to go home again.  Everyone to whom I suggested it shrugged as if the returning son or daughter would find nothing there to satisfy curiosity or sentiment.  Only misty hills and wild animals.

Well, space won’t permit me to give an adequate sense of what the Scots contributed to our world in the way of genuinely constructive attitudes, ideas and inventions.  How about a modernity founded not on skepticism but on a common sense trust in experience?  How about openness to scientific discoveries along with a generous acceptance of the religious aspects in a human life?  How about the view that liberty is essential to political life?  How about a strong devotion to education combined with the conviction of human equality?  How about a respect for intellect that does not let it outrank practical skill and inventiveness?  How about a list of distinguished thinkers (Thomas Reid, Adam Smith), inventors (Samuel F. B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell) and benefactors (Andrew Carnegie, Dr. David Livingstone) as long as your good right arm?

Do dip into this book.  You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

Posted in book reviews, books | Leave a comment