The Kiss of God

Jerusalem Window
Marc Chagall,1962

The Kiss of God

Nowadays, on Wednesday evenings, I drive to the local Chabad, when I can manage it, to study the Parshah (section from the Pentateuch being read during that week by Jews worldwide).  Their building is still under internal construction and renovation, so one enters stepping around cartons, going through unfurnished rooms to get to class.  

The study experience at this new place gives me a delight that I am pausing here to puzzle over.

The Chabad are a sect of Hasidic Judaism with centers for worship, Jewish education, and outreach, at the most far-flung corners of the world.  I’ve even seen a cartoon showing space travelers landing on Mars in the belief that they are the first human beings to arrive there – but lo! the Chabad Center has preceded them on Mars.  Though they don’t go in for secular modernity, the Chabad are deliberately nonjudgmental about one’s degrees of observance – at least if one is not a member.  For example, the Wednesday class is conducted with no Hebrew.

What is it about the Chabad that puzzles me?  Well, for openers, some of the most tough-minded and well-credentialed people I know, who live in cosmopolitan Washington or New York, are doing what I am doing: reading the weekly Parshah at their local Chabad.   So my first question is, why

Here’s a second cause for my head-shaking curiosity.  The Wednesday adult students sit with the Rabbi at a small round table.  So far as I’ve seen, they number about five at most.  Now I’ve taught classes and given lectures in various settings and I can tell you that five is not a large number.  If, week after week, I had to meet a class so minimally attended, I’d need emergency transfusions of self-esteem just to keep going.  

In sharp contrast, the Rabbi does not appear in the least concerned at the smallness of the group.  Not even subliminally, as far as I can tell.  What does this mean? Could it be that he loves God and doesn’t care about the rest of it?

In the Parshah we studied last week, the following events, from the Israelite wanderings through the Wilderness, were lifted out for discussion: Miriam (sister of Moses) died; Aaron (his brother) also died; Moses struck a rock to get it to gush forth water (which it did) but, all the same, he was to be punished for violating the divine command to speak to the rock, rather than strike it.  Also, the Israelites get the divine go-ahead to conquer the Canaanites.

How did the Chabad rabbi interpret these happenings in the Wilderness?  He pointed out that the reason the rock needed to be spoken to was that, now for the first time, the Israelites lacked water.  Previously, the rock had produced it because of “the merit of Miriam.”  By the same line of reasoning, the Canaanites had previously been protected from conquest “by the merit of Job.”  Remember Job?  As it turns out, he’d been the last meritorious Canaanite.  After his funeral, there weren’t any more.  His merit removed, Canaan was open for the taking.

What do I make of such interpretations?  Not being an urbane city-slicker-smart-aleck, I try to see what lessons they might contain.  Can a single individual, or a few of them, save or ruin a whole city, or even a nation?  The Greeks had evidently believed that a city could be blighted if one man in that city, say King Oedipus, unknowingly married his mother.  In Genesis, Abraham persuaded God to spare the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if at least ten righteous persons could be found there.

Is there any basis, in moral or historical experience, for a single individual, or a small group, saving his or her homeland, or else bringing it to destruction?

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

Another event proposed for our study had to do with the death of the righteous.  About Miriam’s end, and Aaron’s, the rabbi told us that such deaths occur in a painless moment, without fear or anguish.  They come easily, because effected by “the kiss of God.”

Not inclined to ask for statistical evidence for such a claim, my mind went back to the time when my father was dying.  I was standing with my mother in his room in the Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, Maine. 

“He is dying on Friday night,” my mother said to me.  “That’s when the righteous in Israel die.”

Okay.  The kiss of God.

 Works for me.

Lastly, we turned to consider the question of why Moses was punished – allowed to see the Promised Land from the mountain top but not to enter it – for so trivial as mistake as striking the rock rather than speaking to it.

Well, that’s easy.  The advanced soul is judged – judges itself – by more exacting standards than are required by the average person.

So what is the Jewish essence?  I don’t know.  Perhaps the business of partnering with God in history floats around, taking one form or another as real-life circumstances and the covenantal calling suggest.

To my way of thinking, the Jewish essence escapes any definitive summing up.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

By Jerry Z. Muller

This well-crafted, exhaustively researched, intellectually balanced biography of Jacob Taubes may be on its way to becoming the talk of the town.  Since its subject is an academic who cannot be said to have contributed one well-worked-out insight, scholarly discovery, or theoretical breakthrough in his triune fields of religion, philosophy, and political science, the fact that a 519-page biography should be written about him at all — much less appear under the auspices of Princeton University Press — provokes wonder.  The publication of such a biography would certainly gratify Taubes himself (1923-1987) — wherever we might imagine him to be right now.  But Muller did not become his Boswell on that account.

Why then this biography?  In his Introduction, “Why Taubes?” Muller names some of the glittering public intellectuals whose careers and lives crossed paths with his subject.  Thus his life was “a mosaic of twentieth-century intellectual life and an intellectual Baedeker, that is, a guide to key figures, ideas, schools, and controversies.” He was ”an intellectual conduit and a merchant of ideas between the American and German intellectual contexts … “  France and Israel are also on the map of his peregrinations.

These qualities suggest comparison with the 17th-century Jesuit, Father Marin Mersenne, in his role as a central communicative hub for “the moderns” who were coming to philosophic terms with Galileo and Kepler.  Since the biographer reports that the people he interviewed who knew Taubes, whether friends or foes, often used words like “demonic” or “satanic” to describe him, he might be seen as a Mephistophelian version of Father Mersenne.

The list of public intellectuals who crossed paths with, liked, hated, or collaborated with Taubes is stunning.  We meet Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Thomas Altizer, Reinhold Neibuhr, Leo Strauss, Gershom Scholem, Stanley Cavell, Michael and Edith Wyschogrod, Krister Stendahl and Eric Voegelin.  There are more, but you get the idea.

Though many who dealt with him over time were disillusioned, morally or intellectually, he didn’t disappoint them all.  Voegelin recognized him as “a real, live Gnostic,” which did not prevent that anti-gnostic from enlisting Taubes for “reading through and correcting the proofs of Voegelin’s book,” Israel and Revelation.  Their relationship spanned decades and remained friendly, though intermittent.

Krister Stendahl met Taubes at Harvard, where the latter had a Rockefeller fellowship, and found talking to him “an intellectual feast.”  When Jacob’s ex-wife, Susan, committed suicide, their son Ethan went to live with the Stendahls.

The philosopher/theologian Michael Wyschogrod stayed friends with Taubes through all his mental and moral vagaries, winding up his insurance chores when he left Columbia for the Free University of Berlin.  When Taubes was disabled by depression, Wyschogrod, in cooperation with Ethan, brought him back to New York for psychiatric treatment– at least till his eventual paranoia led him to refuse Wyschogrod’s further help.

All these collegial relationships were not just responses to the Taubes charm.  One has to have some thesis or noteworthy viewpoint, to keep company with people of this stature.  On the intellectual front, what was Taubes’s main idea?  It was that overturning the laws of this world would unleash creativity as a concomitant of that revolutionary change.  His prime example of what he supposed was this recurrent antinomian feature of history was the Apostle Paul. 

Is there any merit to this thesis?  Not that I can see.  The biographer points out other passages in Paul where the apostle urged conformity to the governing authorities.  Revolutionary ferment can make way for creative work but does not always or necessarily do so.  Creativity, by definition, departs from some previous pattern but, when successful, introduces its new form in a highly disciplined way.  Libertine Gnosticism’s claim that the mere destruction of social norms will deliver a world situation of redemptive creativity is not backed by evidence that’s clear, unambiguous, or compelling.

Taubes was bright enough to know this.  His antinomian principle looks more like a pretext than a seriously-meant hypothesis.  Under that pretext, he was promiscuous without letup, betrayed collegial friends by undermining them to others behind their backs, sometimes selecting one as his particular enemy and persisting in cunning and deliberate efforts to make his life unbearable.  By allying himself with student radicals in Berlin, he helped to undermine academic standards but later reproved the sub-standard results, meanwhile taking no responsibility for his previous actions.  He would have preferred an academic career in Israel but chose an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist synagogue for his religious refuge when he was in Jerusalem.  He actually boasted of the suicides to which he had driven people.  When he learned that his cancer was terminal, he had misgivings about meeting God weighted down with so much guilt.  He did some fervent praying on his own behalf, but meanwhile staged one curtain call after another, farewelling friends and admirers at restaurants and seminars and at their homes.

How is one to understand such a story?  The readiest explanation would merely cite the fascination exerted by transgressors.  The parlor psychologists would say that reading about an outsized outlaw like Taubes enables normal readers to live out vicariously their own otherwise repressed, forbidden impulses.

I have a certain mistrust of that kind of psychologizing.  It does not seem to me to account for people of the caliber of Eric Voegelin, Krister Stendahl, or Michael and Edith Wyshogrod admitting a man like that into their working lives.

Since I was not as charmed by Jacob Taubes as some claimed to be, I must cast about for other explanations more consistent with my own experience of him.  He’d been helpful to me professionally – and this in spite of getting nowhere erotically with Abigail.  Had I been simply indifferent to the surface layers of erudition and charm that appealed to so many?  It puzzled me.  After we parted, I seldom thought about him.  He didn’t visit my dreams or represent anything in my imagination.  What really had been going on?

Experimentally, I decided to revisit the one incident that had prompted me to stop having anything more to do with Jacob Taubes: my near-heart attack.  I attributed it to him although, for the life of me, I can’t remember the incident that triggered such a reaction in me, which was unprecedented and never recurred.  When I left Columbia to take my doctoral degree at Penn State, I met a middle-aged European philosopher there who asked me if I’d known Taubes at Columbia and unhesitatingly attributed to him his own full-fledged heart attack.  Likely there were others who could have made that claim, or did.  If a reaction that I attributed to Taubes might have killed me, then clearly I was not as indifferent to his influence as I supposed.  What had been going on along the trajectory of that almost-heart attack?

In search of an answer, I decided to relive it in memory.  Oh, I thought.  I see.  From inside the experience, it’s all quite clear.  Let me explain.  There was something Jacob did, more blatantly with some, more covertly with others.  With his rabbinic lineage and ordination, he drew people toward himself with the suggestion that he spoke for the covenant – from within the covenant – and then betrayed their most sacred yearnings.  My body had felt that and reacted accordingly.

I’m not a ritually observant Jew, but I’m very much Jewish.  For me, the covenant between God and Israel is the unsurpassable event in human history.  There is a category in the history of Israel (Leviticus 22:32) as in rabbinic Judaism, that is called

Chillul Hashem,

the Desecration of the Name. 

It denotes acts that appear to reflect badly on God, bringing the Name of God into disrepute, occasioning juicy or malicious gossip at God’s expense.  

Nothing atones for it – not suffering, not the Day of Atonement, not even effortful, conscious repentance.

Jesus, no doubt from within the same tradition, says something very similar: “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven …” (Matthew 12:31).

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Disaggregation

“The Laundresses”
Edgar Degas, 1884

Disaggregation

Disaggregation!  What a title!  Masses of people will be pushing in to hear what I have to say about that one!

It’s the polysyllabic term for what I need to do: separate out and deal with the present pileup of life challenges, each of which is new and calls for resources I never needed before.

Since I haven’t found any time before now to reflect on this pileup, I’ll have to use the time that I ordinarily set aside for this column to double as my hour of retreat for sheltered thought.  Rather odd to do that by means of a column that I share with a lot of readers I don’t know personally – but that’s the time I have.  

Let’s take these challenges one by one, in the chronological order in which they first presented themselves.  

First came the proofreading of Confessions of a Young Philosopher, my forthcoming book That brought to my attention the fact that I’ve done quite a large piece of work.  What’s “large” about it?  I’ll just say what comes to mind:

It has an atmosphere of truthfulness.

It proceeds down a memory pathway untainted by current intellectual fashions in self-understanding: Freudian, existentialist, physicalist-reductionist, Marxist, nihilist, gnostic, and so on.  It’s not post-modern.  It’s not even modern.

While the story pays attention to these way stations of our culture in our time, it unfolds from inside the unsurpassable covenant between God and the people of Israel.  But, as philosophic rationalists would say: 

What is first in the order of explanation

is last in the order of discovery.

The eventual vantage point is found at ground level, encounter by encounter — standing clear only at the end.  That is the genre of confession: spiritual pilgrimage through the writer’s time and place.  But here, as it happens, the pilgrim is a woman.

Now on to the second challenge.  I’ve just had an interview, my first, in what is planned as a series of interviews with people of various perspectives who’ve read my book and have questions about it.  This stage is one I was not looking forward to.  It’s one thing to bare your soul in the privacy of your attic.  (My study looks like an attic; it’s under a slanted roof.)  It’s quite another thing to come down from the attic and answer an array of questions.  The inaugural interviewer was an intelligent young woman who looks to me hard to fool.  Amanda is neither Jewish nor of my generation, but she found Confessions illuminating for the lives of women today.

I’ve replayed our interview once since we did it.  It has yet to be edited for interruptions and repetitions.  Still, what seemed to me undeniable is – for cryin’ out loud — I talk like I know what I’m talking about and I have a lot to say!  And it’s new.  Not padded.  Not your platter of platitudes rewarmed.  Essentially Jewish but not at all parochial.

I’m not bragging.  I’m in shock.  Maybe it won’t happen again.  The next interviews might all come out flat and stale.  But … I sure did have a lot to say!  How could that be?

What else?  Well, third and fourth challenge, almost in the same intake of breath — because that’s how life goes – two infinitely dear friends are facing crises of life and health.

In the so-called normal phases of life, actually we live like trapeze artists, flying through the air but counting on our friends — fellow trapeze artists with us — to catch us so that we can land safely.  Accordingly, anything that imperils our friends jeopardizes us urgently. 

One friend is the chief reason Jerry and I moved here, from our respective big cities (New York for me, Washington for Jerry), to this little town.  Now, for the sake of her health, that friend of this place will be moving away!  The other woman has been the witness of my life from earliest girlhood; she is the loving friend of my time.  She will be having her heart surgically repaired! 

I feel like a person being moved closer to the unshielded frontier of life and wanting to explain — to Whoever is in charge —

I can’t do this.

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Academic Gossip

Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom.
Edwin Landseer, 1848

Academic Gossip

One of the seldom-mentioned pleasures of life in the academy – the House that Plato Built – is academic gossip.  It juxtaposes the life of ideas against real-life — whetting one’s appetite for both!

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes by Jerry Z. Muller, and can’t recall reading any nonfiction book so many of whose characters were personally known to me.  Despite my hundred-percent-ambivalent relation to Taubes, his biography is giving me one hell of a guilty good time.

The rabbis issued a prohibition against gossip, which they called lashon hara, the evil tongue.  In the harm it does, they compared it to murder.  To a certain extent, as I know from painful experience, they must be counted correct.  Social death, when brought about by social assassination, is equivalent to murder and has been known to occasion suicides as well as fatal illnesses.  This is gossip on the rough side.

On the other hand, conversation that deliberately avoids sharing views and stories about people becomes boring, sterile, and sanctimoniously “over-nice.”  Our true stories really are novelistic.  We don’t live them in isolation, but rather in our complicated human interactions.  We have a natural desire to share these stories, our own and those we’ve witnessed, to hear them and to figure them out.  

Here certain qualifications need to be kept in mind: secrets told in confidence ought not to be divulged; malicious rumors supported by doubtful evidence should not be spread about.  That said, there’s still a lot of real stuff to talk about.  And of course, biographies permit us to do that without worrying over lashon hara

Jacob Taubes — professor in the Religion Department at Columbia University, later at the Free University in Berlin, previously invited to be professor on one temporary basis or another at Harvard and Princeton – made sure to know everybody who was anybody on his philosophico-theological terrain – in the academic venues that spanned Europe and East Coast America.  

Wherever Taubes went, anecdotes followed.  As I go through the Muller narrative, I come across stories of people I’ve known in one capacity or another and, over morning brunch, have been sharing with Jerry some of the stories that the biographer left out.  So far as I can see, Muller’s only problem was forgetting to interview me!

For heaven’s sake – there’s Jack Neusner!  (Later the well-known Jacob Neusner, “an influential figure in Jewish Studies” in America.)   We must have met either in Taubes’s office or as fellow students taking a course in the Columbia Religion Department.

I doubt we hit it off in the boy/girl way, since we went out on only one date, one Saturday night, to see “Ben Hur” at the RKO movie theater on 86th off Lexington Avenue.  I don’t remember whether he paid or we each paid for our own tickets– my preference, even then.  I do recall being pretty irritated when Jack refused to go in till sunset, so as not to violate the Sabbath.  

When Taubes appointed me Secretary to the University Seminar on Hermeneutics, Neusner helpfully explained to me why I had been selected for that rather nice position, while he – by his lights obviously more qualified — had been passed over.  Unlike me, Jack was not a girl!

Since nobody thought Taubes was above such considerations, I did not try to talk Jack out of his view.  Anything I said would only have made it worse.

Not long after my appointment for the gig at the Hermeneutics Seminar, I got a phone call from Taubes.  Neusner, he told me, was buttonholing people in front of Philosophy Hall to lobby against Taubes!  I don’t remember what exactly Jack was lobbying for, but it had something to do the appointment of Abigail for the Secretaryship.  From his office window overlooking the mall, Taubes could see Jack busily at work talking to anyone he could get to stop and listen.

“This,” Taubes opined to me over the phone, “is not good.  Can you do something to stop him, Abigail?”

“Jacob,” I said truthfully, “I have no pull with Jack.”

Now I learn from the biographer that – nevertheless, in the long term — Neusner came to enjoy relations with Taubes that were both cordial and mutually beneficial.  Jack “received his rabbinical ordination [from Jewish Theological Seminary] and his doctorate, with a dissertation … supervised by Morton Smith … Taubes served on Neusner’s dissertation committee and thought highly enough of the younger man’s abilities to hire him to teach in the Columbia department.”

Traveling down the byways of academic gossip, I’d not been aware that my friend, the late Edith Wyschogrod, was drawn into her philosophy of religion major by Taubes, nor that Edith’s late husband Michael Wyschograd — in my view a significant theologian – had been his friend.  Edith became an authority on Levinas and, at one time, President of the American Academy of Religion.  Years later, it was Edith who called to tell me of Jacob’s death.  I suppose I must have taken for granted that New York Jewish intellectuals, if they were busy with religion, would have had some connection with Jacob, but I don’t recall ever asking Edith how she knew him.

The future psychic Jean Houston is someone else I once knew.  For the biographer, she illustrates Jacob’s “caring and compassionate” side.  He took an interest in her when she was going through a personal crisis, and was helpful to her – though she might have made short work of his likely concomitant attempts at seduction.  I’d known Jean at a distance for years, having first met her during Freshman Orientation week at Barnard.  Later she would become a successful contributor to the Human Potential Movement, the author of books and articles — at one time attracting public notice as an advisor to Hillary Clinton when the latter was First Lady.  

Long before this public moment, when Jean and I were both grad students at Columbia, for some reason she decided to regale me with the – to her risible — image of Jewish doctors, lawyers et al who’d been stripped for the Zyklon B gas “showers.”  I gathered she found that a case of Jewish intellectual pretense exposed.  

As it happened, I did not see it that way and might have repeated that conversation with Jean to my father who taught philosophy at a department to which, subsequently, Jean applied.  No doubt there were other candidates that my father and his colleagues thought better qualified.  In consequence, my father was not able to support her application.  When  Jean – who was a pretty big girl – next saw me, she backed me up against the wall of an apartment building on a New York city street and demanded to know why I had done that to her.  I denied knowing anything about it.

I deny it still.

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Dragon Hunting

Illustration by C.C. J Ellis

Dragon Hunting

Dragon hunting has never, to my knowledge, been deemed the sport of kings since the requisite skills are not confined to any class of people, royal or other. Rather, the know-how is reserved for gifted souls. They know where to grab the dragon. Not by the head. By the tail.

I wish I had the dragon-hunter’s skills. By “dragon,” I mean anyone who uses means – unfair, unholy, or uncanny – to control others. It would be of the greatest utility to be able to discern the dragon’s visible methods and concealed intentions before the subverting of unwary minds could be carried through.

The lore of the ancient Greeks included the legend that, if a wolf looked at you before you could discern him, you’d be turned to stone. The legend is referenced in The Republic, Plato’s dialogue on political justice. In the midst of that dialogue, a man named Thrasymachus bursts in, declaring that anyone who hopes to understand “justice” by talking about it is wasting time: “Justice,” he says, is the name given by the strongest party to whatever serves his perceived interest.

Thrasymachus is shocking, with his shouting, his uninvited intrusion, and deliberate incivility. He breaks the rules of social life.

Socrates responds coolly:

If I had not seen this wolf

before he saw me,

I would have been turned to stone.

Taking Socrates at his word, how did he do that? How did he see the wolf in time?

At the January 6 Hearings, now being shown on C-Span, Vice President Pence reportedly said to the Secret Service agents who were then pressing him to vacate the Capital in the vehicle they’d provided:

“I’m not getting in that car!”

The Vice President’s decision to remain in the Capital building, despite the mob howling for his murder, made it possible to register the Electoral College results on the due date, despite his President’s historically unprecedented and illegal calls for the Vice President to halt the proceedings. (I recall seeing the President say to the mob, while finally telling them to disperse, “I love you. This day will live forever!”) For the most part, the Secret Service seems to have been working for Trump, not for Pence. To one friendly agent who was attempting to reassure him, Pence said, “I know you and I trust you. But I don’t know who’ll be driving that car.”

This is what is called seeing the wolf before he sees us. It takes more than sang foid (a cool head). I wish I were confident of having what it takes.

More than once, I have seen intelligent, learned and civilized people come under the spell of a cunning manipulator. Right now, I’m reading the biography of Jacob Taubes, international, polycultural, philosophico-theological pied piper, whom I wrote about in an earlier column. Why did he fail to get me under his magic spell when so many others succumbed? He didn’t have anything I wanted. Erudition without purpose didn’t interest me. Wit that went nowhere didn’t amuse me.

With what ingredients does a manipulator mix that magic spell? Some years ago, in an institution to which I formerly belonged, which was devoted to sacred purposes, a newcomer turned out to be a predator. Among the women, as is said nowadays, he behaved “inappropriately.” Although most women were repelled, oddly enough, the manipulator managed to secure the confidence of a woman who had been outspokenly and consistently straight-laced in her old-fashioned piety. When this woman saw that I was wholly committed to ousting the predator, she actually stopped speaking to me! Her one-woman ostracism continued for months, even after the bad actor was gone. Then one day, she snapped out of it.

What changed her? All I know is that when, on the occasion of a death in her family, I passed her on the stair and stopped to express my sympathy, at that moment, she forgot whatever had been causing her to place me beyond the pale. Without a backward glance, she became her old self again. The spell was broken. It didn’t acquire its power by an argument and it didn’t depart under the force of an argument.

Whatever understanding I do have comes from my own direct experience of the syndrome. Here’s what I wrote about it in my forthcoming Confessions of A Young Philosopher:

“’Brainwashing’ is popularly believed to be remote from ordinary experience. It first came to public attention when American prisoners of war in North Korea confessed to crimes that obviously they had not committed. So it got to be associated with physical coercion and exotic locales. The root method does not require any of that, however. A would-be controller has only to persuade her target to act in ways that deviate from the person’s normal sense of style, propriety, or rightness. That departure once made, the victim will be inclined to explain or defend each atypical backstep in ways equally unfamiliar. So, step by step, with each deviation and retroactive rationalization, the manipulator’s desired reshaping of another’s self is accomplished. At the end of the descent, the targeted person will no longer be able to recognize herself.”

If you can see it first, you’ve got the dragon by the tail. Otherwise, the dragon has you.

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Colliding with the Book I Wrote

From “Confessions of a Young Philosopher”
Illustration by Caroline Church

Colliding with the Book I Wrote

Yesterday I started proofreading Confessions of a Young Philosopher, getting through the first of its three Parts, which bears the title, “Beginningwise.“ From this first go at it, I felt clobbered – just knocked down and then run over, as if by a gigantic lawn mower.

Why?

It’s as if I’d never read it before.  I thought I would have to work up some degree of interest, rousing interest from an all-too-dormant state.  Instead, I feel like I need to be sent out for repairs.  What am I seeing in this work at present? 

First, there’s the viewpoint.  In telling the story, I’m proceeding — with clarity of motive and direction – from the orientation provided by my firm-foot-grip on what it is to be a Jew.  My “confession” is not foreign to The Tradition, but not encased in the tradition’s protective codes, interpretive layers, and calendar of obligations.  All that — codes, layers, and calendar — are never disavowed by me but only appear here as helps for binding together this people, assembling them for something like a census, or counting operation.  

That’s not trivial or adventitious considering what this people are – parties to the covenant for which they have been mustered and marked out – but it’s instrumental rather than defining.  The orthodox would not allow me to draw such a distinction.  I didn’t ask them for their permission.  That’s politics, the politics of religion.

So this standpoint, as I define it in my own mind, accounts for my motivation – conscious and unconscious.  I desire to locate or situate my place in history for the indefeasible Jewish purpose of partnering with God at the right place and time.  It’s both sincere and unsophisticated.

The story begins at the time of my youthful Fulbright year in Paris.  There’s no feminist movement as yet.  America believes in itself.  Young Americans believe in their innocence.  My desire to know Paris (that history-dense city of lights) through and through follows as a specification of my original aim.  I am trying to find my place in the times and places of my life.  

It turns out that, me being a woman, there’s a certain erotic choreography pertaining to such knowledge in that place and it’s passagère – transitory in principle. Lovers are what Paris is all about and lovers don’t last!

Though we American young women disapproved of this passagère feature of the Parisian eros, we too felt precarious — at the mercy of time’s winged chariot.  We too had only a short time in which to count as women before we got to be superannuated beings, trailing a past but devoid of a more-than-private future.  We were not ideal beings in Platonic space.  We had our feet moving on pre-feminist planet earth.  If I felt a Jewish obligation to partner with God in actual history – where real human beings live – I would have to tackle this precariousness somehow.

So this was the background, the mise-en-scene, when I met “Pheidias.”  The powerful draw between us isn’t something I made up.  It wasn’t a device by which I could understand Paris.  It was the force of that person beckoning me within my actual place and time.

He meanwhile was crafting a seduction.  In all the time-honored ways that were new to me.  I had no intention of becoming a classic victim.  Nor did I find any ready-made defenses in my repertoire.  Now what?  I could either drown myself in the river Seine (which I carefully considered doing, the night after) or else go on to see and fully experience what that was all about.  Awkward as it is for me now, staring at those technicolor scenes, they too had to be accepted as an unbidden aspect of my project: still to know what my place in time was, so as from there nevertheless to go on trying to connect with my all-knowing Witness, the co-Agent, the immemorial Partner.  

What’s so striking to me now, what bowls me over, is that (though for many years I longed for him) I didn’t want to keep him in my life!  I didn’t see him as a fit partner in terms of my deepest project.  His life-script was mannered, artificially self-canceling, not durable.  So I too was passing through, when our paths crossed.  

He offered marriage.  I didn’t want it, though I would have had to accept his offer had I gotten pregnant.  

It was the Lord’s work

that I didn’t.

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The Transgressions of Jacob Taubes

Jacob Taubes in 1978
Mehner/Ullstein via Getty Images

The Transgressions of Jacob Taubes 

Prominently featured in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review is a biography titled Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes by Jerry Z. Muller.  The reviewer is Mark Lilla, a distinguished Columbia University historian and social commentator.  Lilla’s review held special interest for me, since I am among the people who credit Taubes with bringing on a near heart attack.  This wasn’t so easy to do, since I never had a heart condition.

When I met him in the 1960’s, he was the youngest in a cadre of four philosophy professors, along with Paul Kristeller, John Herman Randall, and Horace Friess, who were co-teaching a graduate course on Hegel.  He also co-taught a course in philosophy of religion with Horace Friess, and organized the Columbia University Seminar on Hermeneutics, for which he appointed me Secretary.  I don’t recall whether he or Friess chaired the Religion Department at Columbia at that time, but Taubes had an office in Philosophy Hall overlooking the giant reproduction of Rodin’s The Thinker on the mall below.

One time Taubes told me that Susan Sontag and I were the two most brilliant students he’d ever had.  Maybe he said that to all the girls, but maybe not.

The reviewer assigns him responsibility for “career-destroying intrigues … sexual escapades … betrayals and suicides of those close to him, including his first wife … .”  In 1949, when Taubes came to Hebrew University in Jerusalem to study with Gershom Scholem, his pained teacher later gave him the dubious credit for disclosing “the reality of moral evil in the world.”

At a later stage, Lilla finds him enjoying “a central role” in Maoist teach-ins with Herbert Marcuse in the early ‘70’s, when he was teaching at the Free University in Berlin while simultaneously ”cultivating a relationship with … Carl Schmitt, the antisemitic ‘crown jurist’ of the Third Reich, whose works [Taubes] promoted for their radical potential.”

Although the biography records the trail of shattered lives that Taubes left in his wake, I would not class him as evil tout court.  To me he was more like one of those twisted, half-crushed, pressed flowers of Mitteleuropa.  To qualify as evil in my book, you have to ruin lives with more deliberate, sustained, and cunning intent.

The first time we talked in his office, he noted that I was alone with a man in a room with the door shut.  “According to the rabbis, Abigail, this is adultery!”  

My goodness, I thought, if you can see it coming a mile away, not only is it not adultery – it’s not even clever!  

One time later, when we knew each other better, I found myself actually wrestling with him.  

“I’m fighting for my honor!” I said.

“Your honor is immaculate,” Taubes replied, with evident regret. 

Another time, we were talking about the European Jews who’d failed to foresee the Holocaust.  Our question was, whether theirs had been a culpable failure.  Taubes thought not.  

“I am the only person I know who would have the inward means to foresee it – and I don’t trust myself!”

What sort of thing did he do to bring on heart attacks?  While I don’t recall the precise back-and-forth that brought me to the point where my heart function seemed to be shutting down, here’s a typical move in the Taubes choreography: he’d invited me to dinner at his home along with another guest, a noted philosophy professor from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  At dinner’s end, I was suddenly told to give his little boy a bath and then put him to bed.  Meanwhile, my host and his other guest would be leaving together to attend some fine philosophical event.  The sudden collapse of status, the surprise, and disappointment — the silent acquiescence I thought required by politeness – all trivial of course.  But trivia like that can give you a heart attack.

I think he was a seducer in whatever myriad senses that word covers.  So, an engenderer of hopes who disappoints those very hopes.  In this work-up and let-down, he was incessant, insatiable and likely incurable.

Did he suffer from what he was?  Yes, if you count the late “psychotic breakdown … paranoia, depression … briefly, catatonia … electroshock treatments … .”  When he was dying of cancer and asked how he felt, he replied, “Metastatically, not so good; metaphysically, wonderful!”  

What gave Taubes his opportunity at Columbia was not the “charm” which I think both the biographer and the reviewer exaggerate.  If you wanted to be bowled over by Taubes, it seems to me that you had to help.  What actually helped him was the surrounding barrenness of the intellectual landscape at Columbia back then.  

The New York Times review is titled, “The Man Who Made Thinking Erotic.”  But thinking is always erotic, since it rests on a desire for truth concerning the matter being thought about.

The prevailing desire at the Columbia I knew then was for careers.   And of course, the subliminal message at that time was, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

However, a more serious question lay back of that one:  

Why can’t a man

be more like a man?

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The Right to Think

From “Confessions of a Young Philosopher”
Illustration by Caroline Church

The Right to Think

In the dusty arena of public life, we see a contest between the Right to Life and the Right to Choose.   There is, however, a third right that gets little or no play in that same arena: the Right to Think.

Ordinarily, by the time an unhappily pregnant woman stands at the fork where she’s supposed to decide which of the first two roads to take, she’s either too terrified or too coerced by besetting pressures to have recourse to that third right.

Since I am now safely married as well as beyond the natural age of childbearing, I am not in those ways discouraged from exercising the third right.

Normally, I wouldn’t be writing on this topic so soon after “Abortion on My Mind,” except for the fact that the same column was recently rejected by the online journal where these little essays are often published, partly on the interesting grounds that it could offend prospective donors.  That puts me on my honor to write about it again.  Let me illustrate.

Long ago, a senior colleague who had just observed my teaching hour and held in his pocket his yet-unwritten Teaching Observation Report, asked me why I thought he was supporting a certain candidate for departmental chair.  The election for chair was to be held the next day.  I had just told him that I thought his candidate unqualified.  In any other circumstance, I would have tactfully evaded his question. (When I later told the story to Hannah Arendt, she reproached me for not answering in a more diplomatic fashion.)  The reason I said what I really thought — he’s weak and you think you can use him — was precisely his having the unwritten teaching evaluation in his pocket!  It meant that his real question was, What will you do to keep your job?

You see?  Real life is more amusing than it looks.

In the present case, I was not being threatened.  But when told that a certain piece of writing should be vetoed for reasons that impinge on the writer’s freedom to think, it becomes obligatory to exercise that freedom.  For me to change the subject to one less controversial might be construed — if only by me — as acquiescing in such reasoning.  As a result, I really can’t write this column about any other topic.

Well now, what do I really think or feel about abortion?  A colleague emails that his right-to-lifer friends simply can’t abide dissent on this question.   Smoke rises from the tops of their heads when anyone dares to treat it as a topic open for discussion.

Really?  Well, tough.  Suck it up.  We’re here, boys and girls, in the human story together, where my truth-seeking weighs as much as anyone else’s.

Despite my present social safety, please don’t suppose that I think I’m above it.  My mind can go back instantly to the moment in my youth when, in sheer terror, I said to a young woman friend and confidante, 

“Suppose I get pregnant?”

“You’d have an abortion.”

“But isn’t abortion a sin?”

“There are many sins, dear.”

In fact, I had no way to get an abortion.  My life would have been, quite simply, ruined.  It wasn’t on a whim that I seriously contemplated downing myself in the river Seine.

My mother, who was a profoundly feminine and maternal woman, deeply and romantically in love with my father, believed that criminalizing abortion was one obvious way that men exerted their power to control and dominate women. 

The rabbis, when they discuss this issue, don’t get into the ontological status of the unborn.  So far as I know, they take for granted that the life inside the womb is fully human.  For them, the issue is one of self-defense, as when two conscripts in opposing armies fight to the death.  If the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy, they give her first right of self-defense almost till the moment of delivery.  After that, the child’s natural right gets priority.

That seems to me a clearer way to put the case.  If we extended “self-defense” beyond its traditional Talmudic perimeters, now to cover all the ways in which men combatively hold their ground – whether their turf be professional, economic or social – we see what’s at stake for the contemporary woman who’s pregnant without wanting to be.  It’s objected that mores have relaxed in recent decades and that’s certainly true.  On the other hand, not in every case.

Let me make this point more vivid.  Back in the days when such issues could still be turned over in mind reflectively, I taught an evening class in Applied Ethics at Brooklyn College.  Most of the students in that class were African-American women of mature age.  Some worked in hospitals as paramedics.  In our discussion, they mentioned that women prominent in the Right-to-Life movement would come secretly into those hospitals for their own abortions.

Feminists, aware that the vulnerable are more readily targeted, have deemphasized the anatomy-is-destiny aspect of being a woman.  “One is not born a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir writes in the opening sentences of The Second Sex.  “One becomes one.”  For strategic reasons, biological sex has been redefined as something one can move around at will: as grammatical gender, the consequence of acculturation — or even stipulation construed as free and arbitrary choice.

As a strategy, I understand doing that, but not when it becomes a full-fledged delusion.  I don’t know what world these utopians live in, but I’ve never lived there.  In the cases we’ve singled out for inspection here, where pregnancy is realistically experienced by the woman as the destroyer of her hoped-for future, we are looking at a choice of evils.  Whatever path is taken (including the dangerous one of illegal abortion) this particular fork in the road is tragic.

What do I hope for?  In the present era, when intimacy between unmarried partners is socially accepted, my hope is that the woman’s situation and vulnerability will not be borne by her alone as her stigmatizing secret.  I would hope that the man who desires intimacy with a woman would declare and hold himself ready to face the biological and social risks equally with her.

But even to write that is to feel, with sinking conviction, its improbability. 

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Iris Murdoch: Bringing Philosophy to Life

Iris Murdoch: Bringing Philosophy to Life

When Jerry and I fly to California for another round of my neuropathy treatments, we each bring something to read en route.  Obviously our selections have to be in paperback and short.  Since I’d become curious to know more about the four women philosophers – Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Mary Midgley – whom I’ve recently written about here, my airplane book was Iris Murdoch’s Sovereignty of Good.

Each of these women brought to philosophy a refreshed awareness of what real people go through day by day and over the course of time.  Their pathbreaking had drama because, when they first began to write and speak, philosophers in the English-speaking world were especially keen to get rid of all that they deemed “nonsense” – which is to say any assertions not backed by sense perception or else not following validly from their premisses.

This swinging scythe had been brought over from Vienna and popularized by A. J. Ayer, in his 1936 bestseller, Language, Truth and Logic.  As a  method for avoiding what it called nonsense, it had the name of “logical positivism.”

Much of our lives could be cut down as “nonsense” if approached that way.  That includes serious stuff: like whatever you might regret on your deathbed or the one good deed that, dying, you might take to redeem an otherwise misspent life.

Since what I am calling “the scythe” was still swinging when I was a grad student, to face it down took more grit than I had.  Its adherents would swing at any utterance that failed to meet its criteria by asking, with long-drawn-out puzzlement, What do you mean?  Since people ordinarily draw on a whole background of assumptions, habits, and memories when they say anything, it’s easy to produce stupefaction by lifting a single utterance out of its human context and demanding that the speaker justify it alone.

Here it might be of interest to say a word about Ayer, the man who made this way of doing philosophy widely accepted in the mid-twentieth century.  Toward the end of his life, funnily enough, he had a near-death-experience during which, — as he confided to his doctor — he “saw God.”  Not only that, but he had the hardihood to describe certain features of his experience (not the seeing-God part) in London’s widely-read Sunday Telegraph, in an article he called “That Undiscovered Country” but the editor retitled, “What I saw when I was dead.”  The philosophers I knew all shook their heads, agreeing that “Freddie had lost his cool.”  I’m the only one I know of who took his about-face to be brave and philosophically consequential.  I even published an article “What Ayer Saw When He Was Dead,” in the October 2004 issue of Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, spelling out why I thought this.

But all that lay far in the future.  Meanwhile, the four women philosophers were pioneering the effort to bring the human story back into the arena of philosophic consideration.

Murdoch is better known as a novelist but, up till now, I’d never felt drawn to her literary output.  Her best-known novel has the title A Severed Head (1961), which may explain my reluctance to read her.  I like novels and films where we get at least the possibility of a happy ending!  Now, despite its awful title, I’m more curious to read it.  

In The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Murdoch’s opening essay, “The Idea of Perfection,” strikes me as the most realized of the three essays in that collection.  Here she is trying to give an idea of what’s going on when we choose to act morally.

When philosophers write, they often have an opponent in mind.  The contest frames the discussion.  Murdoch’s opponents — whom she calls “existentialist” even when they’re British — all suppose that we do have freedom of the will, but that our freedom operates in a vacuum.  Nothing informs or justifies our most telling moral choices.  We just decide.

Murdoch argues that moral conduct isn’t like that.  Rather, it’s a response to what we come to see and know over a period of time.  As we approach the action point, two features come into focus: what’s at stake in the situation and what we can contribute to it.

Only one act survives this reflective process: the one that’s the best I can do in that context.  (This processing can happen rapidly, as sometimes it must, but it is still a process of seeing and knowing.)   Therefore, moral choice is not arbitrary willing.  It is not vague.  It is not approximative or blurry.  The right act will be, as Aristotle says, like the arrow winged to its target. 

Just as the right word cannot be replaced by a different word, the right brushstroke must put the color just so, the right note must sound on the beat – so the act called for here and now is the one that I must do.

What Murdoch has noticed about moral choice — and splendidly underscored — is this dramatic and complex fusion of discrete elements which could be summed up as follows:

seeing what’s at stake,

reviewing the relevant experiential layers,

figuring out whether this one “has my name on it.”

I don’t know of any other recent philosopher who has done this.

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Abortion on My Mind

"The Song and the Space," Arthur Polonsky
“The Song and the Space”
Arthur Polonsky

Abortion on My Mind

First, let’s approach this vexing topic from the metaphysical side.  

If we adopt the Aristotelian view of gestation (a view that, if I’m correct, was part of the thinking of Christian philosophers in the High Middle Ages) the child in the womb relates to the human being that will emerge at birth as the acorn does to the oak tree – a relation of potentiality to actuality.  From that perspective, the later the pregnancy, the more criminal abortion seems.  On a spectrum from least to greatest, the newly-fertilized egg cell has the smallest moral claim on us.

But suppose we took the typical view of those who presently oppose ending the life of the zygote on the ground that – from the moment of fertilization – the egg cell harbors a fully actual human soul.  I would say, if we assume a discrepancy that vast between the microscopic physical entity on the one hand and its spiritual counterpart on the other, we are in the realm of the near-supernatural.  A soul denied entry at so early a stage might well be capable of finding another mother, if the first one proved so unwelcoming.

What’s my own view of the relevant metaphysics?  Mine is a bit idiosyncratic.  I tend to suppose that the stage at which the human soul enters the fetus varies from mother to mother, as well as from child to child.  If that’s the right view, then a perfectly just law would apply differently depending on whether a human soul was, or was not, in the mother’s body.  If not, no crime.  If yes, then abortion would be more like homicide.  

The trouble with my view is that we have no means of detecting the soul’s arrival.  Therefore, it might be metaphysically safest to assume what the pro-life advocates now hold: abortion is murder (just in case it is).

Even undecidable metaphysical questions may have social and political implications.  What’s remarkable in the situation presently under review at the highest court in the land is that, for at least two generations, American women have felt that – subject only to the privacies of conscience — they could shrug off the constraints of biology.  There’s a philosophical history we haven’t time for here, but it traces at least to Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist groundbreaker, The Second Sex.  A certain line of thinking has authorized women to treat their outsides and insides as mere social constructs or grammatical artifacts.  Urged forward by these assumptions, women have gone from one rights claim to the next – till they came up against the “logical” endpoint of these irresponsible fictions: men winning foot races against women competitors on the pretext that they can deconstruct their grammatical sex though not of course their biological advantages; male felons admitted into women’s prison cells on the same pretext, and so on.  These masculine strengths are not counterbalanced by any corresponding protectiveness toward the feminine.  The Titanic goes down in the North Atlantic and it’s every person for themselves – tricking grammar as well as nature.

Suddenly, the house of cards threatens to tumble.  Men have supplied women with contraceptives, refrigerators, constabularies, policemen, and firemen.  In consequence, women can leave their cookpots; they can safely leave their homes; they can choose to have children or not.  On the strength of such provisions, women thus protected claimed the same entitlements that men earlier gave themselves.  Seeing the logic and the chivalry of the situation, American men voted to expand suffrage along with a host of other protections, prerogatives, and responsibilities.

The Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision has had certain grotesque consequences, including cases approaching infanticide or dismemberment of recognizable babies in utero.  To my mind, it has fostered a general coarsening of sensibility.  I think of the death by court-ordered starvation of Terri Shiavo, which was almost cheered on by men and women who had nothing personal against Shiavo, but were keen to inure society to the killing of those who can’t speak for themselves.  (If Shiavo was so very comatose, why was the priest giving her last rites ordered to stop and leave her deathbed because it was upsetting her?) 

Nor have legally empowered women functioned reliably as a protective bloc for their more vulnerable sisters.  In my own experience, when I tried to get other feminists to defend a woman who’d made a credible accusation of rape against a male politician with a record of public support for “women’s” causes, only one of the well-known feminists to whom I  appealed was willing to join me in that effort.

Every feminist I know wanted to see my engagement ring and reacted just as women did before they were “liberated.”

Spontaneous sisterly feeling may actually be less available now than it was in the days when all women feared an unlicensed pregnancy more than death and believed — as one successful woman writer told me she’d learned at the knee of her southern mother — men are the enemy.  

The vulnerability of women is what the potential pealing back of Roe discloses.  I took note of that vulnerability at the time when the regime of the Shah was overthrown in Iran.  Persian women had been admired for their fine fashion sense and worldly charm.  After the Ayatollah came to power, with scarcely a muffled sound they disappeared almost overnight into black chadors and they have not been seen since.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has reported the reduced ability of European women to circulate in the public space they now share with immigrants whose norms confine women to the home.  Phyllis Chesler, who told her personal story in An American Bride in Kabul has, since that near-fatal episode of youthful romance, fought to rescue women, here and in far-away Afghanistan, whose freedom was simply erased by local mores.

The present legal change, if it goes through, may not roll back the standing of women to the extent that I fear.  But it will ruin some young lives and – to an as yet unknown degree – diminish the social power of all women while at the same time enhancing the power-to-live of the unborn.

I sometimes refer to the asymmetry of the sexes.  The difference is not just about the steps socially marked out for dance partners.  It takes two to tango but real life is not a tango.

Long ago, in “Feminism Without Contradictions,” an article published in a pathbreaking feminist issue of The Monist, I foresaw that the time might come when the interest of this society in feminism burns out again.

People may get tired of 

compensating women

for what, after all,

they are.

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