The Millennial Year 2000 and The Jewish Community
Implications for Public Policy
Presented by Dr. Richard Landes
Department of History, Boston University
Director, Center for Millennial Studies


II. The Drive to Conversion: Expansiveness, Urgency and Inclusion

Last seminar, we examined the threat of violence embedded in apocalyptic passions, both "on the rise" among more paranoid groups and in the aftermath, out of frustration. This seminar, we turn to the most protean and idealistic of apocalyptic passions - the desire to convert people to one's beliefs and way of life. This derives from the messianic notion that all the nations will "turn to the Lord" in the last days and elicits the most powerful chiliastic notions of universal peace and brotherhood. There are two general forms of this apocalyptic expectation of "turning": what one might call credal eschatology, or the belief that the whole world will become a member of one's own religion, and moral eschatology, or a belief that salvation comes from a change of heart and behavior rather than of belief - the nations turn to the Lord, not to a specific religion.

The anticipation of this "'turning" plays a fundamental role in the psychological equilibrium of apocalyptic groups. It brings out the most passionate interactions with the "other", and its success is often a prime "proof" of the correctness of apocalyptic beliefs. It is, therefore, a most volatile and intense form of activity, transgressing normally taboo boundaries, urgently seeking new forms of more intimate interaction, and, overtime, experiencing deep disappointment and frustration. And yet even disappointment does not put an end to the urge. Conversion activity often intensifies at such times, precisely in order to regain equilibrium.

At the approach of the year 2000, these desires to convert are clearly visible in various Christian groups, for whom the Jews represent a particularly important target population - their conversion not only fulfills a commandment of the Holy Spirit, but also a biblical apocalyptic prophecy. The "Jews for Jesus" is perhaps the best-known of these efforts at creating a "messianic Judaism" that accepts Yeshua. We will look especially at the Southern Baptists and their recent decision to make Jews a specific target of conversion efforts and more largely at the conversion activity of the fastest-growing (and profoundly eschatological) groups within Christianity--Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Latin American Pentecostalists.

Messianic missions of Christians to Jews are a lose-lose proposition. Anything short of dramatic success will not satisfy the apocalyptic hopes of Christians, and even the most modest successes will alarm Jews and bring out expressions of hostility from which neither side can benefit. Already major efforts of conversion in Israel have brought out sharp protests including the burning of missionary tracts in front of the Knesset. There is a real possibility that the alliance between Zionist Christian Fundamentalists and the Israelis may founder specifically over this problem. One main purpose of the seminar will be to explore the possible scenarios at work here.

The urge to missionize, however, is not limited to Christians at the approach of 2000. Muslims have widespread expectations of conversions to their religion, and Nation of Islam is one of the fastest growing religious sects in the US today. These hopes are part of what one might call an upswing phenomenon. Certain elements with Lubavitch, on the other hand, in the post apocalyptic phase of disappointment and frustration, show signs of transforming their Jewish outreach into a global one: they now publish messages about the Rebbe's messianic status in Korean, Chinese, Japanese and other exotic languages whose audience is not Jews. Finally, some gentiles, mostly former Christians, have resurrected the "God fearers" of Late Antiquity and, under rabbinical supervision as B'nai Noach, seek to live a life according to God's desires without fulfilling all the 613 mitzvot.

Thus the seminar seeks to examine not just a specific element of this millennial "missionizing drive," but the larger Zeitgeist of trespassing and redrawing religious and social boundaries. This is, therefore, not merely a menacing phenomenon, despite the dangers and threats it may pose. It is at once exhilarating and creative and disturbing and anxiety provoking; it empowers members of various groups who are normally marginal or subordinate (women, recent converts, dissidents). A better understanding and exploration of the phenomenon offers a chance to go beyond reflexive reactions and discriminate among a wide range of missionizing drives.

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