For the week ending 30 June 2018 / 17 Tammuz 5778

Native American Revival

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: John Thundercloud

Dear Rabbi,

I appreciate your informative and straight-forward answer to my question about Judaism and Native Americans. [Published in Ohrnet Chukat — Ed.] I don’t necessarily agree with everything that you wrote, but I was certainly intrigued by your perspective. In fact, I have a follow-up question on your conclusion regarding Judaism’s non-acceptance of the pantheistic nature of Native American belief.

You do express an awareness of and sympathy for the dire social crisis among the remnants of Native Americans. This is probably the greatest of tragedies we have suffered. But you may not be aware of a movement of cultural and spiritual revival among us, which is mainly about a return to our ancestral languages, ways of life and beliefs.

According to what you wrote, since the European ways and beliefs have not done us any good, would you rather we accept Christianity, or perhaps Judaism, and have our young people continue to lead lives lacking meaning, which results in a continuing cycle of addiction, crime and social crisis? Surely it is better for us to rediscover and renew our own spiritual heritage, which is restoring our authentic identity, self-pride, fulfillment, wholesomeness, family and tribal stability and peoplehood, even as “pagans”.

Dear John Thundercloud,

First, I will say that your questions are a first for me and are thoroughly refreshing! Second, being very aware of the spiritual crisis affecting the Jewish People and involved in trying to inspire a return to our ancient, authentic ways of life and beliefs, I appreciate and admire very much the Native American revival that you describe and to which you seem to ascribe.

As far as renewing Native American languages is concerned, that sounds like a fascinating and very positive thing. To whatever extent it may be accomplished, certainly a return to your native language is a major venue to returning to your ancestral roots. In Judaism too, many Jews world-wide are in the process of learning to read, write and speak Hebrew. In addition to being well-integrated into society at large, renewing their connection to Hebrew greatly increases and preserves their unique Jewish awareness and identity within general society.

Regarding a return to ancestral ways of life, this can also be a very enriching and important dynamic. I’m sure that Native American culture is full of wisdom and insight, and consulting the elders in order to ensure that’s not lost but rather transmitted to future generations is a praiseworthy endeavor, which also rebuilds a healthy, respect-based society. In Judaism today there is a similar dynamic, whereby people of all ages are rediscovering the age-old wisdom of ancient Jewish teachings that are no less relevant nowadays and infuse modern life with meaning, direction, purpose and fulfillment. The effort to consult the elders — in this case rabbis — who are part of a direct line preserving the authentic ways is rebuilding the traditional Jewish cohesive society.

And if a return of Native Americans to the old ways of life involve a return to a natural and healthy lifestyle, a return to living in and at peace with nature, restoring healthy physical activities such as hunting, fishing, riding and dancing, as well as an artistic renaissance renewing music, arts, crafts and authentic manufacture, that is also a wonderful thing. Here too, I would say that the Jewish People is also undergoing a renaissance of their own, particularly in the Land of Israel where there has been great interest in rediscovering the ancient geography, natural resources, agriculture, fauna and flora of the Land, as well as renewing ancient arts and skills which infuse modern life with ancient practices.

Regarding ancient Native American polytheistic beliefs, I wrote: “Judaism would encourage modifying original Native American beliefs to being purely monotheistic”. This does not mean that Judaism would expect Native Americans to be practicing and believing Christians, or to embrace Judaism. Rather it expresses Judaism’s position that all of humanity are children of the One Creator and are encouraged, or rather required, to recognize this and live their lives accordingly.

A great rabbi and thinker of the early middle-ages, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, addressing a pagan king’s interest in Judaism, wrote in The Kuzari that it doesn’t matter what term one uses to refer to Gd (be it Prime Cause, Supreme Will, etc.), rather it’s the concept that matters. While I’m no expert on Native American theology, it’s quite possible that “The Great Spirit” or “Father in Heaven” would suffice. This Great Spirit may certainly be viewed and perceived as being a unifying, cohesive force, present in all of Creation, and worthy of homage through Creation; but not that Creation, neither in the material nor the spiritual planes, be worshipped in any way.

According to this, it would seem theoretically possible to rediscover and renew your own spiritual heritage, while adapting it within the context of strict monotheism in a general sense (which is what Judaism posits G-d requires of all human beings), and still restore your authentic identity, self-pride, fulfillment, wholesomeness, family and tribal stability and peoplehood through authentic and original Native American languages, customs, and modified spiritual beliefs and practices. By this I envision a type of uniquely Native American version of what Judaism refers to as the Noahide system of ethical monotheism.

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