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Baby rabbits in nest. (Photo by Karen Foreman; from the National Wildlife Federation.)

A late Saturday afternoon in the suburbs at our daughter and son-in-law’s house, in the backyard with two granddaughters and three dogs, tossing a half-deflated volleyball around (the six-year-old thrashing it wildly), birds chirping, sun beaming, tree branches waggling in the breeze … An American idyll, especially with cold beer on hand. Our dog Fergus, the beagle mix who presides over this blog, plays his favorite game of pretending to dig a hole in the lawn so that we have to chase him away from it, which leads him to dash to another spot and pretend to dig there …

Then a ferocious barking as a neighbor couple and their terrier walk by on the sidewalk. The three dogs in the yard rush through the perimeter of trees and bushes to guard the chain-link fence. The girls run over to talk to the neighbors. Eventually the animals inside realize the one outside is harmless, and Fergus exchanges a snuff through the fence with his terrier counterpart.

But as Fergus strolls away, he steps over a shallow nest hidden in the spotty ground cover around the trees. Nose alerted, he digs in, and suddenly baby rabbits are scrambling in three directions. The girls run after one rabbit. Fergus keeps his nose in the nest, jaw working, until I pull him away.

Last year, when he found a nest in the front yard and emerged with a baby in his mouth, the girls and parents tried to nurse it back to health, unsuccessfully. After a day they buried it with appropriate ceremony. Ever since, Fergus has been watched carefully when he visits Rabbitville.

Yet, once more, he was too quick for us. With the advice of—what else?—Google, we knew this time to leave the babies alone and let the mother find them. In a couple of minutes she duly appeared, hopping with caution across the yard while Fergus hyperventilated in my grip. In the end it appeared that all the bunnies were alive, though one was injured.

The nine-year-old called Ferg’s behavior “evil.” We had to explain that he can’t be blamed because it’s his instinct to catch rabbits, his basic nature. Eventually the girls did accept this.

Yet any quick excuse of that sort makes me question why we reproach humans but not animals. Consider Donald Trump: Isn’t it his nature to get up early in the morning and bark ferociously, via Twitter, in defense of his territory? Isn’t it basic instinct that leads him to keep suspicious foreigners out of his yard? What about amassing great wealth while denying health care to millions—isn’t that like Fergus refusing to share his extra treats after dinner?

True, humans are supposed to have reason and some degree of free will, making them accountable for their behavior. But the more we learn about animals, the more credit they get for having thought, some form of language and a surprising amount of psychological insight. Even plants exchange chemical signals, science tells us. So can we still insist that humans are ethically different?

Whenever I read moral philosophy, its principles seem nice enough but founded on air. Only determinism makes sense to me. While hoping there’s more to our behavior than electrochemical impulses—and contending we should always behave as if there is—I lack faith in a larger paradigm.

Still, still … I do hold Trump more responsible than Fergus. Logic be damned—the guy’s an ass.

Or, at least, if he’s as driven by instinct as a dog, I’d like to believe in the same ultimate recourse. When a pet proves dangerous and incorrigible, we take him to the vet—for a needle.

Don’t worry, Ferg, no such fate for you.

While waiting impatiently for the copy of Robin Black’s novel that I preordered last July (damn these publishers and their extended marketing campaigns!), I saw that she’d published a new story on Five Chapters, and I went to it eagerly. Called “The Rabbi’s Wife,” it’s as well-crafted and psychologically complex as the stories in her first book, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This—and even more provocative.

To talk about it, I have to give away the surprise twist that emerges, so if you haven’t read it yet, go do that now, at this link. Then come back and argue with me about it. Because I’ve been arguing in silence with the author, and the main character, Hannah, and myself for several hours now, and I need somebody else to direct my rantings at.

OK, you’ve read it? So you know the story is about Hannah, nearing 70, widowed a few years ago when Ben, her rabbi husband, died. She stopped going to synagogue after his death and cut her ties with the congregation except for her best friend Myra. She wants to remember Ben as the man she married when they were both “graduate students in psychology, non-believers,” before he betrayed her, in a way, by becoming religious, essentially forcing her—though she agreed to it—into the role of “rabbi’s wife,” with all the public duties that entails: “Part of loving Ben meant accepting a kid of amputation of self.” And yet she realizes that she now is betraying him, in a way, by stripping him in her thoughts of the rabbi-role he cherished.

So far, this is typical of Black’s stories in its subtle moral insight and sharp analysis of the myriad small treacheries of everyday life. I can’t think of any contemporary writer who is better at this kind of vision. But then the story goes to another level as we learn more about Hannah’s current situation.

The immediate occasion of the story is Myra’s funeral—Hannah’s close friend and confidante has died suddenly. At the shiva, the gathering at Myra’s house, Hannah empathizes with Myra’s ex–daughter in law, who recently divorced Myra’s son. The young woman is too good for the son, and Myra had supported her in breaking free. As the story of the young people comes out, we learn more of Hannah and Myra, and we see that Hannah has a breaking-free for herself in mind.

Hannah has been dating a man, Peter, for eight months now. She likes him, even enjoys having him in her bed, where he forges “a shelter into which she, the old tired she, could disappear.” But now he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and given two years to live—the same prognosis her late husband was given. Having suffered through the years of chemo, surgery and radiation with her husband, and then the inevitable grueling death, Hannah doesn’t feel she can do it again with Peter. Myra, her confidante, urged her to break off with him immediately: “The fact that you were sleeping together doesn’t indenture you to him.” He has children, Myra pointed out. You’re not his wife, Myra argued. “He’s a perfectly nice man, but you do not owe him this.”

Now Myra is suddenly dead and Peter is waiting for Hannah to come to him after the funeral. This nice man—a “genial man,” a “gentle being”—expects her to stay with him through his crisis. But as she sits alone in Myra’s bedroom gathering her thoughts, Hannah determines that she will not. She refuses to stomach another excruciating death. Life is unfair, she knows, and “she will conspire in the cruelty it brings.” She marches out on the way to Peter’s house, where her “newly ruthless self” will tell him, no doubt in the kindest possible terms, that she’s through with him and he’ll have to find others to help him die.

Finishing the story, which I read on a printout, I tossed the pages down in a small spasm of disgust. Hannah values her own comfort and sense of identity over the needs of her dying lover. At first thought, this seems too easy an assertion of the primacy of women’s rights over obligations to oppressive males.

But it’s not easy, of course. Hannah wishes deeply that she were not in this position. She doesn’t admire herself for deciding to be selfish for once. Eight months, the length of her relationship with Peter, is a terribly ambiguous amount of time: beyond casual, in our current way of assessing these things, but nowhere near an ironclad commitment.

And I’ve skipped over some of the details that deepen the story: the profusion of funerals that the rabbi’s wife attended over the years, the sense that there was always a death on the horizon; Hannah’s negotiations with Ben about the public role she would play when he became a rabbi; some insights into Myra’s character that enrich the advice she gives to Hannah. But it comes down to Hannah’s choice to stay with Peter or abandon him, a choice fraught with moral and psychological angst.

It’s interesting that when we consider such matters on a large scale, our sense of morality tends to shift. Should a people under the sway of a relatively benign but oppressive foreign power value freedom over loyalty, even if obtaining freedom means cracking some skulls? Yes, we said in the American Revolution. Yes, we would still say today. We will sacrifice lives (especially those of others) for freedom and self-determination. Personally, when I think about matters on this scale, a vague utilitarian calculation prevails: if, in the long run, there will be more happiness with freedom, then…

On the personal level the moral sense doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, yield to utilitarianism, and it’s harder to see justice in Hannah’s behavior. Yet it’s hard to blame her either. We can line up arguments for and against her:

For Hannah:

She surely doesn’t deserve the agony of nursing Peter to his death. Especially so soon after doing the same for Ben, her long-time husband.

Against Hannah:

Practically no one deserves the suffering life metes out. And Hannah’s total lifetime suffering, added up, doesn’t seem like a horrifying amount. She has had children she loved with a husband she loved; she has had friends in the congregation; she had her special friend, Myra. Yes, she lived a lie in some sense, but who doesn’t, in some sense?

For Hannah:

After surrendering to her husband’s desire to become a rabbi—because it amounts to that, ultimately, a surrender, even though we don’t see what particular dreams of her own she had to give up—she is not required to surrender to any other man’s needs.

Against Hannah:

Of course she’s not required to take care of Peter—and perhaps he’s wrong to assume she will—but we’re talking about what she ought to do. She deliberately chooses to be cruel to him to make her own life easier. She is not being asked to surrender anything except her own pleasure. That is selfishness, not good behavior.

How many more pro-con arguments could we list? Five, ten? Dozens?

I’m irritated with Robin Black for writing this story, and dazzled that she has created a text that provokes such dense reflection. I’ll keep thinking about the rabbi’s wife for a long while, and if I ever meet that old lady, I may scold her or hug her, or both.