Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Torah and Alaska

One of my sons with me, heading out
on a tiny floatplane to film bears
Last week I had the good fortune to be in Alaska, on a trip that combined multiple functions - filming for a museum documentary, acquiring new museum exhibits, and spending time with family on a vacation. On the kosher cruise program of which we were a part, I was due to give some lectures. Now, on a regular Shabbos I see no need to always tie in divrei Torah to the weekly parashah. However, when the context is an unusual one, I like to give shiurim that do tie in to the context. But how do you connect Torah to Alaska?

I photographed this humpback whale diving deep
One of my lecture topics was an easy choice - speaking about the wildlife of the Torah that is found in Alaska. Whales and bears in particular are significant animals in the Torah that are no longer seen in the Land of Israel (the last wild bear was killed exactly a hundred years ago, and whales are now very rare in the Mediterranean) but are plentiful in Alaska. And so I spoke about whales and the significance of Leviathan, and bears in the Talmud and Midrash as an analogy for both the Persian Empire and the wife of Potiphar, the significance of which is illuminated with a proper understanding of why bear attacks are different from lion and leopard attacks (for more discussion, see The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom).

But what other connection can be made between Alaska and Torah? In retrospect I could have spoken about the Klondike Gold Rush and how the desire for wealth leads people to madness. Or perhaps about whether one should make a berachah on the awesome spectacle of a glacier. But instead I gave a lecture with the following title: "Could Avraham Avinu have been an Inuit?"

Now, this was a title that led to much confusion. A lot of people thought that the question was absurd. The Inuit are the native tribes of Alaska. Of course Avraham Avinu wasn't one of them!

But my question was not "Was Avraham Avinu an Inuit." Instead, my question was "Could Avraham Avinu have theoretically been an Inuit?" In other words, was it predestined that the Founding Father of the Chosen People would be a Hebrew from Ur Kasdim? Or could the Founding Father have been an Alaskan Inuit, or an Australian Aboriginal, or a Kenyan Masai?


Menachem Kellner discusses this very question in his superb work Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism. Basically, the answer (as with the answer to so many questions) is that it's a dispute. According to the Kuzari and subsequent adherents of the mystical school of thought, the answer is no, Avraham Avinu could not have been an Inuit. From before Creation, it was written in the Torah that the Chosen People would be the Hebrews and the promised Land would be Israel. Things could not have worked out any other way.

According to Rambam, however, the answer is yes, Avraham Avinu could have been an Inuit! It has been said, "How odd of God/ to choose the Jews," (to which some reply "it's not so odd/ the goyim annoy 'im"), but Rambam's reply would be "it's not so odd/ the Jews chose God." According to Rambam, the special place of the Jewish People is only due to the fact that their ancestor Avraham discovered and revealed monotheism, which merited them being rewarded with the Torah. Had it instead been an Alaskan Inuit called Akkituyuk who discovered and revealed monotheism, then God would have chosen Akkituyuk's descendants to be His nation.

Furthermore, Rambam has a radically different view of the nature and significance of things such as the Promised Land, the content of the Torah, and Lashon HaKodesh. According to Rambam, these concepts do not relate to metaphysical essences, but rather to circumstantial and institutional significance, which could in theory have been different. Thus, if Akkituyuk had discovered and revealed monotheism, it wouldn't have been practical to reward him with the Land of Israel, but instead a different and more reachable place that is much more amenable than Alaska (perhaps Seattle? I like Seattle). And if an Australian Aboriginal called Alambee had discovered and revealed monotheism, then Hashem might not have instructed his descendants to only eat animals which have split hooves and chew the cud (of which there are none in Australia), but instead to eat kangaroos and not koalas.
"No, sweetie, you're not kosher. But you might have been!"

All this no doubt sounds shocking and inconceivable to many. I urge people to read Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism carefully, as it provides an abundance of sources and discussion to prove and explain it. It shows how radically different are various authorities' conception of Judaism. One of the amazing aspects of Judaism is how such radically different views of it are able to co-exist. The reason for this has to do with the fact that ultimately, being part of the halachic community is much more significant than abstract theological discussions. But that's a topic for another post.

23 comments:

  1. its not an absurd question- there was much written by christian scholars in the 17th and 18th century on the possibility that native americans were jews from the lost tribes. from 1651; Jewes in America, Or, Probabilities that those Indians are Judaical, made more probable by some Additionals to the former Conjectures.and there's messianic speculation in menasseh ben israel's tikvat yisrael from 1650. see here and here;http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/native-americans-jews-the-lost-tribes-episode/ and http://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/articles/are-the-american-indians-of-israelite-descent/

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  2. Had the Torah been accepted by a Western Hemisphere people we would be making matzah with corn flour!

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    1. And we would all be wondering why bread was prohibited as Kitniyot :).

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  3. Boy, the dateline controversy would have been even more difficult.

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  4. According to Rambam, however, the answer is yes, Avraham Avinu could have been an Inuit! It has been said, "How odd of God/ to choose the Jews," (to which some reply "it's not so odd/ the goyim annoy 'im"), but Rambam's reply would be "it's not so odd/ the Jews chose God."

    How can this possibly be?

    I thought that the Rambam opposed poetry.

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    1. Probably why his reply does not rhyme.

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  5. The truth is that the plain meaning of the Chumash indicates that the story is contingent. God's actions result from the choices of people, but groups and individuals. The plain meaning of the Chumash is that if Adam HaRishon or Dor HaMabul or Dor HaPalga or Moshe (praying to save B'nei Yisrael) had acted differently, we would have a complete different result. The emergence of Avraham Avinu is more opaque and could be interpreted as pre-ordained, but his trials also were contingent on his performance.

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    1. The Ramchal in Derech Hashem writes that the "choosing" of Avraham Avinu occurred at the incident of the דור הפלגה--the rest of the generation rebelled against Hashem, and Avraham remained faithful and preached monotheism.
      So even a Kabbalist like the Ramchal accepts that Avraham's being chosen was due to his actions.
      --Yehudah P.

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  6. It appears that the Chasam Sofer would agree with you - at least in part. He has a fascinating piece on the chumash where he explains that one element of Moshe's request that prophecy should no longer be available to the rest of the world is so that another "Avraham" should not arise from the other nations and make the Jews look bad by comparison! (I never understood how this was fair; maybe it speaks to the great reward due to the Jews for choosing God.)

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    1. So you don't need to be strict rationalist to have that opinion . . .

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  7. Can't it be the case that another people, land, etc. could have been chosen, but now the Jews, Israel etc. were chosen, they contain intrinsic holiness? If yes, then I don't think what you wrote is that shocking, even to many traditional right-wing types.

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  8. By the way, many think Kellner overreaches in Maimonides' Confrontation with Mysticism. See this review:
    http://www.js.emory.edu/BLUMENTHAL/Kellner.htm

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    1. A. One does not many.
      B. The review you posted doesn't say he over-reaches. It lists 4 concerns the reviewer has but they mainly turn on the point of how much Kellner division into two poles on the spectrum (rationalist /mystic) existed in the minds of rabbis throughout history versus how much it was a blended spectrum.

      If you are trying to sow seeds of doubt, then it's easy to toss out a link that people probably won't read, and then give a one sentence 'summary', but then your one sentence should fairly represent what is actually said in the link.

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    2. I think I quite accurately summed up the review and people are welcome to read the link!

      That the critiques "mainly turn on the point of how much Kellner division into two poles on the spectrum (rationalist /mystic) existed in the minds of rabbis throughout history" is incorrect.

      His critique is that Kellner exaggerates BOTH Rambam's rationalism/Aristotelianism and the role it played in historical Jewish thought.
      Hence, an "overreach".
      The reviewer still sees value in the book (as do I), and pointing that out isn't to "sow seeds of doubt". (I didn't realize that Kellner's view of Rambam had become one of the Fundamentals of Faith.) If Chazal are not above criticism, certainly Menachem Kellner isn't either.

      Perhaps you are just irritated because you are a big fan of the book?

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    3. Kellner is quite clear in the book that Rambam attempts to stem the tide of mumbo-jumbo ism failed. Kellner doesn't claim rationalism to be normative as opposed to non-normative mysticism. He just asks, in the conclusion, which world view won out and which would you rather live in.

      I like the book coz a) it reflects what my teacher in Yeshiva, the great Avraham Stein taught
      and b) because it lays out a mass of evidence showing how perhaps the greatest rabbi who lived tried really hard to stop Jews being stupid and believing in stupid things.

      It's a fight that needs taking up today perhaps even more than in Rambam's time as Judaism is going significantly off the rails in the 21st century. Kellner book will never be taught as a text book in most US orthodox high schools but it should be.


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  9. Why do people say that Avrohom was the first monotheist? If that were true, where would that leave Adam, Noah, Shem and many others before Avrohom? Am I to believe they were polytheists?

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    1. They mean the first rationalist to actually exist.

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  10. No mammals with split hooves that chew cud in Australia? What about all those sheep?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. There are tomatoes in Italy, but not before Columbus.

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  11. "to only eat animals which have split hooves and chew the cud (of which there are none in Australia), "
    There are many millions of kosher animals in Australia... but none of which are native.

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  12. R' Slifkin: How about recommending people learn the Rambam's writings (instead of Prof. Kellner's articles or books about the Rambam) in order to learn about these concepts?

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  13. Can you provide sources for the Rambam?

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