Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Rabbinical Counterfactual: Moses Chooses His Destiny


In the spirit of the holiday season, I am pleased to point out that counterfactuals have found a place in organized religion.  A few days ago, I received an email from Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, informing me that he had attended the panel I had organized on Jewish alternate histories at the recent Association of Jewish Studies conference in Boston.  He said that, despite some initial skepticism, he found found the topic so inspiring that he decided to incorporate the counterfactual spirit into a recent sermon.

I post a link to full sermon here.  But I would like to single out a particular section that I found particularly insightful – namely, Rabbi Cosgrove’s commentary on how counterfactuals at the macro-historical level relate to “what ifs?” at the more micro-personal level.

As is typical of most rabbinical sermons, Rabbi Cosgrove’s deals with this week’s Torah portion, which involves the historical deeds of Moses. 


Rabbi Cosgrove writes:  “If there was ever a person who could not claim credit for the circumstances of his existence, it was Moses. Saved from Pharaoh’s decree by being hidden in a reed basket on the Nile, rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, raised in an environment of royalty and distinction...Moses could have gone on to live a carefree life of entitlement...But then, in the critical scene that would make Moses Moses, the text states: “And Moses grew up and went out to see his brethren and he saw their burdens.” (2:11) ...Only here does it register for Moses that...things could have turned out very differently....Moses sees the Egyptian striking his Hebrew brother and Moses defends the Hebrew. Only here, only now, when Moses engages the counterfactual of his life – that he could have been and should have been either a Hebrew slave, or more likely, dead – does he do what he has not done before: He...takes ownership and responsibility for who he is....[It] is only now, when Moses sees his brethren and acknowledges that his own circumstances could have been and should have been otherwise, that he asserts himself into the narrative of his life. Only now does he appreciate his blessings, and more importantly, embrace the role he has to play.

From this historical counterfactual, Rabbi Cosgrove explains to his congregants that “Our lives are not the stuff of sacred scripture. Depending on who you are and the mood you are in, you may have arrived today believing yourself to have a particularly good, or bad, lot in life. In our jobs, our marriages, our families, our quiet needs by sun- and candlelight, it is natural and understandable to construct self-narratives with an air of inevitability. We shrug our shoulders, mind our business, accept our challenges and blessings, and resign ourselves to lead lives of either quiet desperation or inconsequential entitlement. But the thing is, our lives could have been different, and while that may be unnerving, it also means our lives can be different and that is thrilling....”

He concludes: "If the book of Exodus is about anything, it is about liberation from slavery....A dip into the road not traveled keeps us alert to the fact that every second of our lives is a turning point. Our lives up until now were not predetermined; it could have been otherwise and there are an infinite number of reasons why it isn’t. Like Moses himself, we can leverage this awareness to acknowledge the gift of our portion, yismah Moshe b’matnat helko, and more importantly as free men and women, we can act in control of our destiny.”

I am grateful to Rabbi Cosgrove for sending me his sermon and can only hope that other clergy – of all faiths – follow his lead and highlight the value of wondering “what if?” to their congregations.

For the record, a worthy topic for future research is the question of whether counterfactual reasoning is the byproduct of a secular mindset.  When one considers the emergence of “what if?” questions in the thinking of the Ancient Greeks and Romans (especially their largely secular historiography) and then contrasts it with the relative absence of such questions in ancient Jewish tradition (whose historiographical traditions remained rooted in a religious/teleological/deterministic paradigm), the evidence would seem to suggest that wondering “what if?” is somehow inimical to traditional religious belief (which tends to highlight the preordained nature of human events).

I am still wrestling with these issues as I finalize the introduction to my forthcoming edited volume, “If Only We Had Died In Egypt!” What Ifs of Jewish History from Abraham to Zionism. 

Stay tuned for answers....

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Aleida Assmann's Counterfactual on Neo-Nazis, Turks, and Armenians


In her new book, Das neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur: Eine Intervention (The New Discomfort with Memory Culture: An Intervention), which I am currently reading for an upcoming review in Central European History, Aleida Assmann presents a historical counterfactual that nicely reveals the rhetorical and political utility of “what ifs.”

Commenting on the tepid response of ordinary Germans to the revelations in 2011 of the “Döner Killings” of eight Turkish immigrants by a cell of neo-Nazi terrorists belonging to the NSU (National Socialist Underground), she expresses her wish that Germans had shown the same degree of disgust shown by ordinary Turks following the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist and activist Hrant Dink, who was killed by a Turkish nationalist in 2007 for his critical remarks about the Turkish government’s ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide.  (Unlike the situation in Germany, where the response to the revelations was muted, in Turkey thousands of protesters marched in the streets of multiple cities, exclaiming “We are all Armenians!”).



Assmann did not leave it there, however.  She underscored her disaffection by presenting a counterfactual analogy related to the Nazi era, writing “Imagine if after the November pogrom of 1938 [Kristallnacht], thousands of non-Jewish Germans had marched in the streets throughout German cities holding banners that read “We are all Jews!”  Following such protests, it would have is been impossible for Hitler’s obsessive pursuit of the Final Solution to be implemented” (p. 140).

Assmann’s counterfactual is not particularly plausible.  (Most Germans, being indifferent to the plight of the Jews, were unlikely to have rallied to their defense).  But her counterfactual clearly serves as an effective rhetorical exclamation point to her argument that her fellow Germans fell short of the admirable standard set by contemporary Turks in displaying social solidarity with the minorities living in their midst.

Friday, December 13, 2013

How the States Got Their Shapes: A Few Counterfactuals


I don’t what kind of ratings the new offshoot of the History Channel, H2, has been getting, but I enjoyed the recent airing of the two hour program “How the States Got Their Shapes,” which was based on Mark Stein’s book of the same name from 2008.

In it, some interesting counterfactuals were raised -- however fleetingly.  One that I was unaware of involved the ill-fated attempt in 1785 to spin off a new state from western North Carolina (eventually eastern Tennessee), known as Franklin.  Its backers (who proposed naming it after Benjamin Franklin in the effort to curry favor with Congress) strove to realize their dream for some four years, during which time, they elected their own governor (the Revolutionary War veteran, John Sevier), drafted their own Constitution, and formed their own militia.    



After Congress declined to recognize the state in 1785, Franklin continued as a de facto independent republic.  But North Carolina eventually moved to reassert its control over the restive region (which continued to battle local Cherokees).  In 1787, strife erupted when state troops moved into Franklin and engaged Sevier’s militia, leading to the latter’s defeat.   Undeterred, Sevier, whose forces were embroiled in ongoing skirmishes with the Cherokees into 1788, reached out to Spain for diplomatic and financial support, leading the program’s narrator to counterfactually intone:

“Had they won and earned Spain’s help, Franklin might have parlayed that power into statehood and become the 14th state.  Instead, it became part of Tennessee.”

I am no expert in 18th century American history and cannot vouch for the plausibility of this evocative “what if?”  But I am skeptical, given the other failed efforts to create independent states in U. S. history.  These efforts include the Mormon effort to create the state of Deseret (1849) and the effort of gold prospectors and miners in the heartland of today’s Colorado to create the state of Jefferson (1859).  Congress’s tight control over the admission of new states (especially the drawing of boundaries, as Stein’s book makes clear) shows how little say various lobbying groups ultimately had. 

That said, the story of these “ghost states” raises the larger question of how the borders of the United States might have turned out differently.    

Interestingly, I recently came across an older study that explored this precise question, D. W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2, Continental America, 1800-1867 (Yale Press, 1993), which includes the following map showing two “might have been” visions of the U. S.  



The first is a greater U. S. in which parts of present day Mexico and Cuba have been incorporated; the second is a lesser U. S. in which the independent Republics of Texas and California (along with Deseret) border a smaller U. S.    Meinig points out that both were possible outcomes in the 19th century and reminds us that our present-day borders, no matter how commonsensical they may appear today, were anything but inevitable. 

This is probably worth remembering in light of new secessionist movements in states such as (surprise!) Texas.    For more on how such counterfactual possibilities may play out in the future, see Nate Cohn's recent article from the New Republic, "The 61 States of America."






Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Counterfactualism and Jewish History at the AJS Conference in Boston (December 15-17)


For anyone interested in the subject of counterfactualism and Jewish history, the upcoming Association for Jewish Studies Conference in Boston offers several interesting panels:



I. First, there is the topic of “Alternate Israels” (Sunday, 12/15, from 4:15 to 6:15).  The four speakers are all contributors to my forthcoming edited volume of Jewish alternate histories, 'If Only We Had Died in Egypt': What Ifs of Jewish History from Abraham to Zionism, and include:

“What If a Christian State Had Been Established in Palestine?”
Derek Penslar (University of Toronto/University of Oxford)

“What if a Bi-National State Had Arisen in Palestine?”
David Myers (University of California, Los Angeles)

“What If the Arabs Had Been Willing to Compromise Before 1948? 
Kenneth W. Stein (Emory University)

“What If Franz Kafka Had Immigrated to Palestine?”
Iris Bruce (McMaster University)

II. There is also a second interesting panel entitled, “Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homelands Project” (Monday, 12/16, from 4:30-6:30), that "stages an historical fiction using digital multimedia including augmented reality to imagine Mordecai Noah's unrealized plan from 1825 to transform Grand Island New York into Ararat, city of refuge for the Jews.”

I will be a discussant, along with Jennifer Glaser, Shelley Hornstein, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Shandler, Melissa Shiff, and Louis Perry Kaplan.

III.  Finally, I will be presenting a paper on “Counterfactualism and the Holocaust” in a panel entitled, “The Holocaust and the Historical Imagination: New Cultural Approaches to the Nazi Genocide (Sunday, 12/15, from 9:30 to 11:00am).”  Also presenting will be another one of our volume’s contributors, Eugene Sheppard, “A Day of Reckoning: The Nazi Leadership on Trial and the Question of War Crimes in 1943,” and Alon Confino, “A World Without Jews.”

If you are interested in attending, you can register for the conference at the AJS website.