The looming war with Iraq has long ago taken on the language of a religious crusade, in Arab capitals as well as the White House. But the Jewish messianic excitement that grew out of the first Gulf War back in 1991 is more muted now, humbled after a decade of the crash and burn of the peace process, controversy over the Lubavitch messianic aspirations, and Israelís Palestinian war that has shown little evidence of anyoneís grand plan, let alone Godís. And yet, deep into conversations, Orthodox Jews are saying an Iraq war might be of a piece with nothing less than the Messiahís arrival.
In the 1990s, Americans began to speak of ìthe end of history,î but are these the End of Days?
In 1991, even mainstream organizations like the Orthodox Union and Young Israel were caught up in the excitement, distributing an hour-long video to hundreds of North American synagogues for study sessions on how to see Godís fingerprints on everything from the seemingly messianic ìingathering of exilesî ó from Russia and Ethiopia ó to a war that saw Iraqi missiles fall harmlessly into Israel.
That the first Gulf War ended on Purim (Feb. 28, 1991) made the whole thing seem like a mystical masquerade, a childrenís holiday, with Americans and Israelis as unscathed as Esther. And now one of the deadlines for Iraq is said to be March 17, which happens to be Purim.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, the Yeshiva University professor whose videotaped seminar on the End of Days was distributed by Young Israel and the OU, sees all the messianic elements of 1991 still in place, and the hand of God in the confluence of Purims.
Rabbi Blech, the author of ìThe Idiotís Guide to Judaism,î points out that weíre already in the End of Days. According to the Talmud, human history will last no longer than 6,000 years, ìand weíre already in 5763.î The six millennia correspond to the six days of the week. Just as Shabbat does not come at night but at twilight, some have calculated that the ëShabbatí of the end,î the time for lighting Shabbat candles, so to speak, ìhas already arrived ó in 1967.
ìWeíre already in the endgame. Part of that will include a terrible time of catastrophe, which many see as the Holocaust, followed by a return of the Jews to Israel, followed by a return to Jerusalem, all of which has happened. And remember,î said Rabbi Blech, ìthe messianic story is rooted in a return to the Garden of Eden. Thatís the ideal state. Kicked out, we strive to return. And the Garden of Eden is in Iraq,î situated near the Tigress and Euphrates rivers. ìWe have the coincidence of time [Purim] and place [the Garden].î
But on the eve of Gulf War II, most Orthodox Jews only wish these were the End of Days and not another tedious day in the terrorist grind. If the messianic anticipation in 1991 felt like New Yearís Eve, 12 years later everyone is nursing a headache, the balloons have deflated. Weíve seen too much and hurt too badly, people say, weíre too emotionally wounded for the messianic romance to be the same.
Rabbi Meir Fund, spiritual leader of the Flatbush Minyan, says the Orthodox street ìis very depressed over the years of terrorism, the Israeli economy, and Shinui,î the fervently secular party whose strong showing in the recent Israeli elections led to Israelís governing coalition.
ìItís hard to get excited the second time around,î says Rabbi Fund. ìIn 1991 there was the sense of something afoot. Not now. But people feel like we need Moshiach [the Messiah] even more than in ë91, letís put it like that. Thereís less talk but a deeper yearning, no question about it.î
Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive director of the Young Israel synagogue movement that believes Israelís 1948 return to sovereignty is a messianic sign, says, ìI havenít heard people talking about the connection between war and Moshiach at all. Look, weíre just getting up from Haifa,î where dozens were killed and injured in a bus bombing. ìYou read the bad news, you hear of personal suffering ó genug! Enough! Master of the Universe, how much can we take? Is messianism in the air? I wish it were.î
It is, at least in the Young Israel Viewpoint magazine. Even as he was speaking to The Jewish Week on the phone, he said was holding a commentary by Rabbi Chananya Berzon for an upcoming Viewpoint, which states that Moshiach ìwill appear very soon. … The world is sitting on a powder keg; at any moment it can frantically detonate, and we can fear cataclysmic events. But great miracles will occur,î the redemption itself.
Other Orthodox leaders noted that Israel and Jerusalem canít seem to help being brought into this fight, which can be foreboding or promising, but fitting a messianic scenario.
Before the Messiah comes, says Rabbi Shmuel Butman, director of Lubavitch Youth Organization, the nations of the entire world are supposed to be at odds, a scenario taking place at the United Nations, ìand a prophecy that can only be fulfilled with a UN bringing everyone together.î This war is clearly a continuation of the 1991 war, says Rabbi Butman, when the rebbe connected the messianic dots. He recalled the rebbeís citation of the famous Baal HaTurim commentary that says Ishmael, Abrahamís son who is the prototype for Arabs and Islam, ìwill fall in the End of Days.î
ìWe usually think our ultimate enemy is Esau,î says Rabbi Butman of the metaphorical representative of Christianity. ìHere, we see it is Ishmael. Esau ó the president and the Christian right ó support us and Ishmael is the culprit weíre going to break now.î
In fact, no one has so openly cast this war in religious terms more than ìEsau.î It was President Bushís repeated use of the word ìevil,î with its biblical connotations, that has driven the debate out of the public square and into the pews. The president, who easily speaks of ìGodís plan,î refers often to the ìpower of prayer,î of Godís hand guiding his own, of the ìspiritual shield that protects the country.î Newsweek, in a recent cover story on ìBush and God,î speaks of war ìin a land once called Babylon,î words lifted, it seems, from the mouths of Jewish messianists. The president proposes a wartime mission as messianic as Israelís own ó to bring Godís liberty to ìevery human being in the world.î
Jewish religious conservatives arenít nervous, theyíre delighted. Radio talk show host, Dennis Prager, writing for Jewish World Review, an Orthodox online magazine, says, ìTo the extent that one is ever able to see the hand of God in historyÖ I believe that either divine intervention or good luck on the magnitude of a lottery win explains George W. Bushís rise to the position of president.î
Bush is ìremarkable,î Rabbi Fund tells The Jewish Week, ìthe ultimate Shabbos goy. Heís a goyish Menachem Begin, with God on his lips all the time. How can it be bad? He speaks of God more than Tommy Lapid,î leader of Shinui, ìthatís for sure. More than any Israeli leader, Bush is removing a Haman from the Jewish neck.î n