Apocalypse Now?
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Apocalypse Now?

Associate Editor

Since Jews believe in the spiritual inevitability of bashert rather than the random chance of coincidence, perhaps there is something to the fact that on the final Shabbat morning of the two Christian millenniums, in 999 and 1999, the Torah reading was the same, Vayihi, with its implicit warning about apocalyptic speculation. Rashi writes that the patriarch Jacob wanted to reveal his vision about the end of days, but his prophetic portal was suddenly closed.

With 2000 coming, though, youíd think Jacobís portal has opened wide for lesser mortals. The ticking of the millennial clock has led to a surge of books touching on Armageddon; a scholarly three-volume ìEncyclopedia of Apocalypticismî; Boston Universityís Center for Millennial Studies; and even a slew of television specials, such as ìApocalypse!,î as if the end of the world actually needed an exclamation point.

Bernard McGinn, a medieval specialist at the University of Chicago Divinity School, recently told Newsweek, ìOver the past 30 years, more scholarship has been devoted to apocalypticism than in the last 300.î A national poll reported that 40 percent of Christian Americans expect the world to end with a Biblical Armageddon.Of course, Armageddon ó named after the Israeli hill said to be Ground Zero of the apocalypse ó is not originally Christian, but uniquely Jewish. Jews started talking about the ìend of historyî with Babylonís burning of Jerusalem, a half-millennium before the first millennium of the common era.

Five years ago, Pope John Paul II issued a papal letter, ìTertio Millennio Adveniente,î detailing the Christian preparation for the Jubilee of the third millennium. What he wrote, though, was something that his Jewish ìbig brothersî were saying long before there even was a Christianity. There is a ìfullness of time,î wrote the pope, when God will ìunite all things in Him, things in Heaven and things on earth … time has a fundamental importance.îPeter Steinfels, writing in The New York Times ìBeliefsî column, added that believers in Abrahamís God expect a messianic ìage of reconciliation. … History is not just a speeding car, more or less out of control, whose speedometer is about to flop over. History is a story, a drama with a turning point, climax and denouement.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech thoroughly agrees. Author of ìThe Complete Idiotís Guide To Understanding Judaismî and a professor of Talmud, Bible and philosophy at Yeshiva University, he told The Jewish Week that while the current millennium frenzy ìis based on that life that is not accepted by us as significant,î Jews do acknowledge ìthe idea that the year 2000 is a turning point ó but in the Hebrew calendar, not this one.îYet, there are echoes between the datebooks. Rabbi Blech says that according to the Hebrew calendar, ìAbraham was born in 1948 and discovered God in the year 2000.î In the Christian calendar, Israel was born in 1948 and based on that there are great expectations from the God of Abraham in the year 2000.Rabbi Blech explains that the Talmud and Kabbalah expected human history to be 6,000 years long, divided into three 2,000-year segments calculated from Adam onward. Abrahamís revelation brought down the curtain on the first segment. After Abraham, said Rabbi Blech, came a second 2,000-year period known as the ìAge of Torah.î The third 2,000-year period, in which we are now, is ìthe Age of Messiah, meaning that at some point within this segment, the messiah will come,î says Rabbi Blech. ìSince we are already in 5760, that leaves only a possible 240 years in which it will happen.ìSomewhere in this time frame we are supposed to witness a remarkable change in the world. The reason that all this must happen before 6000 is that every end of a millennium corresponds to the end of a day of the week. Just as every seventh day is a Sabbath,î and the seventh year is a sabbatical for the land, and every 49 years (seven times seven) is a sabbatical Jubilee, the start of the seventh millennium ushers in a sabbatical corresponding to a messianic time.Nevertheless, if the apocalypse (a word meaning the ìunveilingî of Godís plan) is percolating interest in the non-Jewish world, it has corresponded to a dulling of excitement in the Jewish world.The usually loquacious Rabbi Shmuel Butman, chairman of Chabadís International Committee to Bring Moshiach ó the most fervent messianic wing of Lubavitch ó prefers not to discuss for publication the current state of messianism. This, just six years after he took out newspaper ads to herald the messianic coronation of the Lubavitcher rebbe, who was silenced by a stroke.Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies and sociology at CUNY, noted that Rabbi Butmanís branch of Chabad is increasingly quiet because ìtheyíre actually in the disappointment stage whereas the mood of everyone else, regarding the millennium, is one of anticipation.îRabbi Blech, too, noted a slowdown in Jewish expectations regarding the end of days, but thatís cause for excitement, he says. After all, ìWeíre taught that Moshiach will come when we least expect him.îIsraelís surprise victory in 1967ís Six-Day War, and several events in the 1990s ó the Gulf war against Iraq; Israelís dramatic airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel; the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the mass emigration of Russian Jewry ó unleashed new surges in messianism within large segments of the mainstream Jewish community, even if that was subsequently muted by all the Christian messianic talk on the cusp of 2000.The Ethiopian Jews ó said to be the descendants of the Tribe of Dan, one of the Ten Lost Tribes ó led numerous mainstream leaders, even at secular organizations such as Jewish federations, to identify that airlift as a ìmessianicî moment, the ìingathering of the exilesî said to be a keystone of the final days.

Back in 1948, Israelís founding led Israelís chief rabbinate, and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, to declare the new state as ìthe beginning of the flowering of our redemption,î a messianic phrase repeated every Shabbat in religious Zionist synagogues.Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said that unlike other apocalyptic excitement, the phrasing of the Prayer for the State has a different tone: ìI love it because it is modest. It says this is the beginning of the flowering of redemption. It does not say this is it. If it said that I would get nervous because that would, in all likelihood, lead to an abandonment of practical responsibility.

For example, if a person is sick, we pray, but we also go to a good doctor. Thereís not the arrogance that we can do it alone, but thereís the realization of partnership.îRabbi Blech said, ìthe euphoria of the years since 1967 was too much. Then came Lubavitch saying we can even tell you the manî (who is the messiah, referring to their rebbe). ìIt had to get toned down a bit. But I am as confident as ever, if only because messianic belief is one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith.

On the other hand, Franz Kafka, when this century was young, parodied Maimonidesí suggestion that the Messiah ìmay tarry.î Kafka wrote, ìThe Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come on the day after his arrival.

Maybe the Y2K prophets expect an imminent end of days, but Jews have already been there, by the waters of Babylon and the Auschwitz ponds. Elie Wiesel mused that after what the Jews went through, when the Messiah comes, ìheíll come limping.îBruised is the Messiah and bruised are Jewish expectations. We take our apocalypse lower case, these days, with a question mark instead of an exclamation. Weíll leave a light on the porch, though, for that child of David, with hounds and torchlight on his trail, and a bum leg that can sense the hard rain before it falls.

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