What If: Alternate History and the Rabbis
By: Rav Uri Cohen
My favorite words in the world are these: / “what” and “if” in conjunction.
They question curiosities / in simple form and function.
“What” is a query of broadest scope. / “If” is wonder that fuels all hope.
Together they lasso the mind like rope, and spur the wildest deductions!
– Richelle E. Goodrich<1>
What if? That is a question which sparks the imagination. By imagining what might have been, we can get a better understanding of what is, both in general and in Judaism.
This phenomenon is popular in serial fiction such as comic books.<2> Rival publishers DC and Marvel Comics publish series called, respectively, Elseworlds<3> and What If.<4> For example: What if Professor X and Magneto had formed the X-Men together?<5> What if Superman’s space capsule had landed in Soviet Russia<6> or in 18th century colonial America?<7>
The “what if” question has spawned an entire genre of historical fiction and speculation, which is called alternate history.<8> The website Uchronia.net features an annotated list of 3300 novels, stories, and essays that explore the “what ifs” of history. One of the most common themes is: What if the Nazis won World War II?<9> (In one novel, someone goes back in time to prevent the birth of Hitler, but someone else becomes the Fuehrer and succeeds in wiping out all the Jews of Europe.<10>) In alternate history, every juncture of history may be scrutinized. What if England had suppressed the American Revolution?<11> (Presumably that would have been easier if Superman had landed in colonial America and been raised by Tories.)
Jewish history and Israeli history are examined as well.<12> What if in 1948 an Arab state had been founded next to Israel?<13> What if in 1967 Israel had completely annexed Judea, Samaria and Gaza?<14> Interestingly, the spread of the Zionist dream a century ago was partly due to Old New Land, Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel that asked: What if there were a Jewish state?<15> It’s even been suggested that there’s something very Jewish about the “what if” question.<16>
Though this seems like a modern phenomenon, you could say that Chazal dabbled in alternate history. Several statements in the Talmud and Midrash start with the words ilu (if only) or ilmale (if not for). For example: Ezra would have been worthy of having the Torah given through him, had Moshe not come first.<17> Had King Chizkiyahu sung thanks to Hashem on defeating Sancheriv, he would have become Mashiach.<18> Had the Jews returned en masse from Bavel (Babylonia) to Israel, the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) would not have been destroyed a second time.<19> If only the Jews would keep just one Shabbat properly, Mashiach would come!<20>
An extreme example of rabbinic alternate history appears in one of the first comments of Rashi on the Chumash, in which he cites a midrash: “Rabbi Yitzchak said that the Torah should have started with the verse, ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months’ (Shemot 12:1), since that is the first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people.”<21> What is the significance of this hypothetical revisionism of the Torah? Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spells it out:
Evidently R. Yitzchak was prepared to contemplate a Torah which omitted entirely the narratives of creation, the flood, the patriarchs, the exile and the first stages of exodus. Thus far did one sage express his indifference to the factual information – historical and cosmological – contained in the Torah’s first sixty-one chapters.
Nor, though R. Yitzchak’s view is extreme, is it uncharacteristic. As many scholarly studies of Midrash have disclosed, the sages were remarkably indifferent to the historicity of Biblical narrative. They employed techniques of deliberate anachronism and what Yitzchak Heinemann calls “creative historiography”. Their interest lay in deciphering every possible halakhic and ethical nuance of the text; not in laborious researches into its facticity. To have done otherwise would have been to have missed the point of the narrative and misconstrued its genre. Torah, as the Torah itself so often insists, is not an assemblage of facts: it is a set of rules and models of how Israel should live and be blessed. It does not set out primarily to answer the question, “What happened?” but the question, “How then shall I live?”<22>
Of course, Rabbi Sacks would agree that there is value in Bereisheet – after all, it was included in the Chumash! He is merely calling attention to the implication of Rabbi Yitzchak’s question.
Along the same lines, when the rabbis ask “What if”, it is not primarily an intellectual exercise, but an educational one. When we imagine what might have been if Chizkiyahu had thanked Hashem, not only do we mourn a lost opportunity for Mashiach, but we also remind ourselves not to miss our own opportunities to thank Hashem. When we imagine a Torah without Bereisheet, we appreciate all the values that we learn from its stories. When we imagine Mashiach arriving because of mass Shabbat observance, we remember that the power of Shabbat is not only restorative but redemptive as well.
In the Haggadah, the rabbis give us a variety of educational and experiential opportunities to relate to Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus). Not surprisingly, this includes alternate histories as well. Near the beginning of the Maggid section, we proclaim, “Had Hashem not taken us out of Egypt, then we, our children and grandchildren would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” In other words: What if Yetziat Mitzrayim had never happened? This alternate history seems to say that we would not have been freed even much later, but would have remained slaves for thousands of years! (Interestingly, famous sci-fi author Robert Silverberg wrote a short story, “To the Promised Land”, which posits exactly that.<23>) Though some of the commentaries reinterpret the statement, the alternate history is certainly meant to be thought-provoking.<24>
Later, at the end of Maggid, we sing a song filled with alternate histories. We imagine: What if Hashem had took us out of Egypt, but not punished the Egyptians? Dayenu – that would have been enough. What if Hashem had punished the Egyptians, but not attacked their gods? Dayenu. We proceed to describe over a dozen alternate histories of Yetziat Mitzrayim, and after each one we proclaim Dayenu. (This means either that each benevolent deed would have been enough for us to need to thank Hashem, or that each would have been enough based on what we deserved.) Then we end with a flourish, listing the fifteen deeds, and emphasizing how much we owe Hashem for having done all fifteen of them for us. Apparently, it is by imagining a string of inferior alternate histories – what didn’t happen – that we can be grateful to Hashem for the one true, wonderful story of Yetziat Mitzrayim – what did happen. Once again, we see how the rabbis use alternate histories for spiritual purposes.
What if? That is a question which elevates the soul.
1. Richelle E. Goodrich, Slaying Dragons: Quotes, Poetry, & A Few Short Stories for Every Day of the Year (CreateSpace, 2017), p. 89 (the poem for July 11th).
2. See http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WhatIf
3. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elseworlds
4. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_If_(comics)
5. Chris Claremont, What If... Magneto and Professor X Had Formed The X-Men Together? It was first published as a one-shot by Marvel in February 2005, and then as part of a trade paperback entitled What If: Why Not?
6. Mark Millar, Superman: Red Son (DC, 2003).
7. John Byrne, “Legacy,” in Action Comics Annual, Vol 1 #6 (DC, January 1994). Later it was published as part of Superman/Batman: Alternate Histories (DC, 1996).
8. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternate_history. Not only does the popular website TV Tropes have a section on alternate history <http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AlternateHistory>, but it also has a list of dozens of tropes associated with the genre <http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AlternateHistoryTropes>.
9. See http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GodwinsLawOfTimeTravel
10. Stephen Fry, Making History (Hutchinson, 1996).
11. See http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AmericaIsStillAColony
12. A forthcoming book, edited by Andrea D. Lobel and Mark Shainblum, is called Other Covenants: Alternate Histories of the Jewish People. https://chizinepub.com/other-covenants-alternate-histories-of-the-jewish-people/
13. Uri Avnery, “Lu Kamil Husseini Chibek et Rabin,” Politica #20 (April 1988). In Hebrew.
14. Elke Weiss et al, “If Israel had formally and completely annexed the West Bank and Gaza Strip immediately after the Six Day War, what would the geopolitical situation for both sides be like today?” https://www.quora.com/If-Israel-had-formally-and-completely-annexed-the-West-Bank-and-Gaza-Strip-immediately-after-the-Six-Day-War-what-would-the-geopolitical-situation-for-both-sides-be-like-today
15. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Old_New_Land
16. Sarah Goldstein once asked novelist Michael Chabon, “Is there something about Jews and Jewishness that makes the ‘what if’ story so appealing?” He answered, “Certainly it’s hard to think of something that would be more focused simultaneously on the past and on the future than Judaism, because Judaism is all about history and what happened to us and how we got where we are. The patterns of our history and the crucial moments – the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion from Spain, Kristallnacht, these key moments, these dates that both seem to change everything and yet merely were repeating, in some way, the last time. And yet at the same time Judaism, in its truest form, is very focused on the future, on the coming of the Messiah, on the redemption of the world. To have that sort of simultaneous sense of looking backward and looking forward – I think it does definitely lend itself to the kind of speculative, hypothetical thinking of the counterfactual novel. You’re looking at history and asking, ‘Where are the moments where things changed, where history forked and it could have gone this way?’” For the rest of the interview, see Sarah Goldstein, “Jews on Ice,” Salon, May 4, 2007. https://www.salon.com/2007/05/04/chabon_5/
17. Sanhedrin 21b.
18. Shir HaShirim Rabba 4:3.
19. Ibid. 8:9:3.
20. Talmud Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 1:1.
21. Tanchuma Buber, Bereisheet 11.
22. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Fundamentalism Reconsidered,” L’eylah #28 (September 1989), pp. 8-12. Reprinted in Jewish Action 51:3 (Summer 1991), pp. 21-26, and then in The Jewish Action Reader (OU, 1996), pp. 247-260. The quote above appears in the middle third of the article, which is at https://www.torahmusings.com/2014/01/fundamentalism-reconsidered-ii/
23. Robert Silverberg, “To the Promised Land,” Omni, May 1989, pp. 104-114. Reprinted in Gregory Benford and Martin H. Greenberg (eds.), What Might Have Been? Volume 1: Alternate Empires (Bantam/Spectra, 1989), pp. 161-188. http://www.williamflew.com/omni128b.html
24. Another example of using alternate history to provoke thought appears in the memoir of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel: “One of the most unforgettable memorial assemblies at which I spoke took place on Holocaust Memorial Day in 1995, on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War. The participants who gathered in Madison Square Garden in New York included President Bill Clinton, who spoke vehemently against anti-Semitism. I spoke about the obligation to remember, and about the lessons of the Holocaust. One of the lessons we should learn from it, I said, was that the State of Israel was the Noah’s ark of the Jewish people. I proposed an alternative scenario. What would have happened if the 1947 United Nations decision that gave birth to Israel had taken place in 1937? Or if a similar decision had been made at the League of Nations meeting in Geneva in 1937, or at the post-World War I San Remo conference of 1920, or in the controversial Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which Great Britain first recognized the Zionist aims of the Jewish people? How would history look then, and how many millions of Jews would still be alive today? I knew that these questions had no answers, but it was meant to be an intellectual exercise – something to ponder.” Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last (Sterling, 2011), Chap. 17 (pp. 302-303).
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