What Has 2000 to Do with 5760?
Jewish Reflections on the Current Millennium

Richard Landes


"What has 2000 to do with 5760?" Rightly intoned, the question clearly means, "Nothing." And that should be the end of the story. Surely we Jews have better things to think about than such nonsense. Why, all the most sensible Christians think this will be a year like any other. Only the kooks and the (actually quite dangerous) Y2K alarmists take 2000 seriously. Surely we have better things to do.


A good answer. Maybe not the best answer, but a valid one, shared by many very smart Jews. 2000, we can check off our list. We have far more urgent things to consider and work on – suicidal violence in our public schools and genocidal massacres around the world, the misunderstandings and lack of trust that pervade so many of our institutions, the continuing threat to environments and populations around the world, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and, of course, the perennial issue of our Jewish identity. What could 2000 have to do with those issues?


A Millennial Laundry List and a Meditation for the Hagim 5760
I have not the space to make a case for each, but let me suggest that the following list of items has a great deal to do both with 2000 and with millennialism

Let me ask you to engage in some hypothetical thinking: grant me that there are connections here, and that meditating on 2000 is not an act of superstition, but an extraordinary opportunity to think about serious and profound matters.


So let me propose, on the eve of the Yamim Noraim of 5760, a millennial meditation to Jews and righteous gentiles the world over: Jews as the oldest practitioners of civil society on the globe. And let it be a five-season meditation until millennium’s end and the dawning of the third Christian and first global millennium in history in Jan. 1, 2001.


Why is civil society a millennial issue? Or particularly a Jewish issue? Why should Jews pay attention to millennialism, a belief that even most Christians think is mishegas? Why should Jews give any significance to 2000?


On the Jewish Origins of Popular Millennialism
Because the element that links all of the items on my "laundry-list 2000" to both civil society, is millennialism, a "future-myth" about a just society. Jews have contributed the most potent and most popular form of millennialism to the world’s genre. It took clear expression in the prophecy around the fall of the northern kingdoms, Israel, in the late 8th century:


And it shall come to pass at the end of days
That the mountain of the Lord's house
Shall be established as the top of the mountains,
And it shall be exalted above the hills;
And peoples shall flow onto it.


And many nations shall go and say:
Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
And to the house of the God of Jacob;
And he will teach us His ways,
And we will walk in His paths;
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.


And he shall judge between many peoples,
And shall arbitrate between many nations;
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares
And the spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they study war any more."


But they shall sit, every man
Under his vine and under his fig tree;
And none shall make them afraid...

Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:1-3. (late 8th century BCE)


The passage displays all the classic millennial themes B sometime in the future, a sudden and complete transformation of the way life will be lived upon this earth will occur; justice will rule; and God=s chosen will find peace and happiness. While some millennial scenarios are quite aristocratic B God=s children are a race empowered to enslave mankind for example B the Jewish millennial vision is notable for the strength of its egalitarian imagery. The new age is one of peace in the spirit of the Jubilee, fellowship, equality, freedom, abundance. Without weapons, without wars to wage, the state disappears – a holy anarchy supported by a sense of covenantal commitment, the years of peace under the Judges, but this time, spread to all the nations of the world. In a sense, these millennial poets of 2700 years ago anticipated a world that many of the most consequential people of our age consider not only a possibility, but a prime policy goal: a global culture of civil societies.


Jews and the History of Civil Society
We normally don=t think of Jews as more than beneficiaries of civil society, since the secular quality of it excludes most Jews unless they accept a signficant level of assimilation. But if one defines civil society as one which successfully substitutes discourse for violence, and applies the same law to elites and commoners alike, then one has no difficulty in including the religious communities that both biblical legislation and rabbinic interpretation have fostered for millennia. Thus, the period of the Judges (1200-1040 BCE) constitutes the first recorded experiments in civil society in recorded history, and the unbroken chain of Jewish communities that emerged from those experiments until the present day represent the longest successful maintenance of civil society on record.


Not surprisingly then, the values and ethos one finds governing all these communities over more than the last three thousand years, stipulate a list of civic virtues:

If we look at civil society from this angle, we would begin our political science not with Plato, but with the biblical corpus and its unmatched exploration of the ethical demands necessary for a successful civil society. We would begin our historical accounts of modern civil society not with the AEarly Modern@ period of Reformation and Enlightenment, but with the conversations between Christians and Jews from the 11th century onwards. These conversations of civil society, involved not only lively textual exegeses (for which we have clear evidence) but also covenantal communities of law, communes, associations, corporations, contracts, new religious movements – all forms of what Brian Stock called "textual communities." These exchanges between Jews and Christians generated an astounding intellectual and social creativity. Ashkenazic Jewry and the "High Middle Ages" are "born" at roughly the same moment, in the same place – northwestern Europe around 1000. It should not surprise us that Jews thrive in civil society; it is our briar patch.


To be sure, some do begin the tale with Jews. These are not our secular colleagues in the civic endeavor, however, but the conspiracists, for whom Jews are not a benign presence, but a secret cabal of evil people, plotting from time immemorial to enslave mankind. These people are aware of the role Jews have played even if we aren=t, and since they represent precisely the people whose wings are clipped by civil society B those who would use violence to get their way B they see Jews not just as enemies, but as the most cunning and nefarious. They hate modernity because it frustrates them, and they blame us for their impotence B the Jews have injected Nietzsche=s Ablond beast@ with bad conscience, and he rages in his civic cage. The age-old plot nears its apocalyptic completion. The true but hidden agents of history are about to reveal themselves B illuminati, Jews, aliens B all malevolent projections of this conspiracist imagination, all things they must annihilate just to survive. This kind of hatred will, like the poor, long be with us. We ignore it at our own risk, especially at those times when a millennial date comes around. That is the stick that beats us into paying attention to 2000.


Jews have not only thrown in their lot with civil society, they are among the principal contributors to it. The first democratic forces in Europe, those that created the communes, and those that rose up against the aristocracy singing, AWhen Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?@ B these people were not reading Solon’s edicts and Thucidydes’ rendering of Pericles, but the Hebrew Bible. Historians are just beginning to explore this neglected religious aspect of the birth of modern civil society, so manifold in its forms and implications. But we can already characterize it as quintessentially millennial, encoded in the dream of Micah and Isaiah=s generation.


Millennialism and Civil Society
Here, in this passage which, exceptionally, appears verbatim in two contemporary prophets, we find the vision of a world of civil societies, where the weapons of aristocratic dominance are turned into tools of honest labor, and where honest laborers can enjoy the fruits of their labor undisturbed. No other millennial vision comes so close to the possible: no supernatural agencies need act, nor cosmic destructions occur, for this messianic age to come. Rather it comes from a decision among the nations B ACome let us go and learn@ B and a commitment to justice that moves the millennial program forward. Jewish messianism is, as Scholem pointed out long ago, a this-worldly collective redemption, with tikkun as its normative form. And the Jews, by living in communities that run by the rules of civil society, are the most millennial of peoples.


If this were not reason enough, we should understand that our entire relationship with Christianity B and Islam, for that matter B turns on millennial issues. The end of time (eschaton), in all three religions, brings the day of the Lord and God’s Judgment, and both Christianity and Islam break off from Judaism because Jews will not join their millennial movement. The Day of the Lord is the revelation (apocalypse) of true justice and the confounding of evil people and evil counsel. Christianity arose during perhaps the most intense and sustained period of popular millennialism that the world had ever seen (-50 to +70), and through Christian apostles of the imminent apocalypse, these beliefs spread with exceptional vigor throughout the Roman world. The break with Judaism provided enormous new opportunities and energetic new directions (converting all the gentiles first), but at the cost of an immense spiritual trauma that remains, 2000 years later, unhealed, unresolved, exacerbated, and, until recently, unexamined.
One of the most dangerous expressions of that unresolved trauma comes, historically, when Christian millennialism turns apocalyptic, that is when significant numbers of Christians believe that they live in the final generation of mankind. Times like these intensify Christian ambivalence towards Jews. Initially many apocalyptic Christians B especially the ones moved by egalitarian visions B grow interested in Jews, convinced that, if approached with love and sincerity, they will join in this great millennial endeavor. This initial optimism, however, often turns into bitter disappointment B especially where the Christians believe that conversion is the key to millennial bliss. Here, often enough, we find apocalyptic scapegoating B if only the Jews had converted Jesus would have returned. Here we find the classic expression of authoritarianism as a violent response to apocalyptic disappointment: if you won=t convert willingly, you have the choice of conversion or death. Here we move from the egalitarian to the authoritarian millennium which ends, with the help of communications and surveillance technology, in totalitarianism. Here we find Hitler and his totalitarian "revolutionary" comrades, Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao.


Jews and Christians at the Turn of the Christian Millennium
For almost two millennia Christians have placed Jews at the center of their eschatological drama, and every time they get excited by it and have the power to do so, they have dragged the Jews onto center stage for their starring role. In most cases the Jews have objected vehemently and have ended up a sacrificial offering on the altar of Christian millennial aspirations. And when those aspirations turned Asecular@ in one particularly virulent millennial strain of socialist nationalism, that holocaust became the Holocaust.


That, fortunately, is not the whole story, or, rather, not the only story. Christians are a complex and variegated people, and within their denominations, within each church, within each individual, lies a philo-semitism that does not seek a narcissistic and totalitarian refashioning of the Jews in the Christian image, but a genuine desire to encounter Jews as another people, related, but different. There are Christians who take the Holocaust as a serious challenge to rethink their relationship to Jews and to their faith, who seek dialogue with Jews, not to convert them, but to understand both their own religion and Judaism better. And often these open tendencies war in the same breast and within the same institution, against older, more atavistic desires for conversion, for Christian triumphalism.


If triumphalism wins out, as it has for most of Christian history until late in the 2nd millennium, we as Jews lose, civil society loses, and, of course, Christians lose. Once again they betray their own most ardent hopes and values, splitting into two warring camps, each morally righteous, each viewing the other as agents of Antichrist. It is classic millennial negative-sum behavior B everyone loses. It has happened many times. Jews are early victims, but never alone. Antisemitism and Inquisitorial persecution of deviant Christians go hand in hand.


If the forces of encounter win, then Jews, Christians, and every civic other wins: classic millennial positive sum. Such an outcome first began to occur at the turn of the millennium (the Peace of God movement and the communes of the 11th century). It has happened with increasing frequency over the course of the last millennium, and its most powerful product has been the extraordinarily vigorous civil societies of the last two centuries. As Rabbi J.H.Hertz points out in his commentary on the Chumash, the promise to Abraham – "those who bless you I shall bless, those who curse you I shall curse" (Gen. 12:3) – has found its most potent expression in the vigor and prosperity that a tolerant civil society has brought with it over the last two centuries.


The ground of this meeting lies precisely in the millennial dream of civil society, in the world where the other is not an enemy to be subjected, lest he or she subject you (what Eli Sagan calls the "paranoid imperative": rule or be ruled). The civic other is rather a fellow moral agent in a collective social covenant. Such an encounter occurs in the Jubilee spirit of egalitarian commitments, in the millennialism of Micah’s vision. Often this vision comes wrapped in a preceding catastrophe which wipes out the ineradicable evil from the earth. Too-often driven by hatred, vengeance, and visions of rampant violence wiping out evil, this catastrophism leads to conspiracism, genocide, totalitarianism, and world-wide war. Millennialism is at once one of the most powerfully constructive and destructive social forces in human history. To us to choose.


But how?


Let me suggest the following. Once again, with the advent of 2000, we Jews are on center stage of the Christian millennial drama. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the conquest of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria in 1967, have given birth to a generation of Christians (and Jews) for whom their own days are the dawn of their redemption. The approach of 2000 is a natural moment for such hopes to intensify, and intensify they do, with the wide range of peaceful and violent spiritual manifestations typical of apocalyptic times. Christians have never been so philo-semitic. Will that pinnacle lead, as it has so often, to an equally abysmal trough?


The good news is that this time it is different. Over the last half century many forces have given Jews an unprecedented role in an emerging global culture. The Holocaust, among its legacies, gave a powerful emotional impulse to the civic commitment to tolerance and fairness towards Jews. Christians meditating on the terrible deeds of people raised as Christians in the Holocaust have begun to process the idea of Jews as unassailable, indeed, at long last, as preferably Jewish.


The birth of modern Israel embodies many of the hopes and ambivalences that both Christianity and civil society feel towards this new Jewish self assertion. In this extraordinary climate of the post-war, baby-boom generation, Jews became cultural players of the first order, in all aspects of the open society. What began so powerfully a half century ago, has continued to wax, partly thanks to the technology of telecommunications that Jews play so prominent a role in, partly, now, due to the surfacing of this quiet but deep wave of Christian millennial fervor and philo-Judaism.


The challenge of modernity at the year 2000

At the same time, the world is in great turmoil: the same technology of communications and social creativity that gives us Jews our chance, is also transforming the world, creating the first global civilization the world has ever known. The problems, dangers, and trauma that such a rapid, technology-driven change brings out, pose immense challenges to all members of civil society all over the globe. The reigning models for successful "modernization" remain very wasteful. Market forces tear both natural and social fabrics quite violently and produce both ecological damage and social abreactions, among which, the most universal and dangerous form of anti-modernism is aggressive religious fundamentalism. Modernity, by its very existence, can trigger in authoritarian religious communities a sense of terrible threat, and provoke suicidal wars.


Until civil society handles better the relationship between secular and religious cultures, too many of its millennial currents will flow towards the conspiracist, authoritarian, and violent. As long as civil society treats religion as a poor, archaic cousin, as long as it cannot answer the religious challenge to modernity that it produces lives of license, lives empty of meaning, as long as its scholars cannot understand religious impulses, then modern culture can expect to lose some of its most ardent believers to cults and movements that paint civil society as evil and brand its gifts as poisoned. The war between modernity and fundamentalism goes on all over the world, occasionally spilling over into the most staggering violence against the religious other.

Can it ever be eradicated?


Israel knows it both in its relationship to Islam, and internally in the war between the Hilonim and the Haredim, with the middle ground losing too often. American Jews know it in milder forms: the tidal shift towards the machmir in halachic orthodoxy, the literalism of the ArtScroll series, the emergence of a politically conservative halachic voice that can, in some cases to do with Zionism in particular, radically split communities.


These fundamentalist tendencies can represent a healthy response to the self-indulgence of modernities, but also a sometimes exaggerated abreaction to the agonies of religious belief undermined by the iconoclasm of modern thinking, a time when atheists are smart and successful, and the best thinking is done by people who do not believe that God dictated the Scriptures word for word to his prophet(s). For Jews these are actually age-old questions. When one does not have sovereignty, one only survives by civil society, that is, by convincing people to adhere to the demands of the culture rather than threatening them with violence. Under such circumstances, every generation had to answer the question: how does one pass on Jewish observance to the next generation? How does one motivate children to undertake the immense discipline of halacha, when the outside world alternatingly beckons and threatens? How does one teach obedience and independence, willing, not frightened adherence?


These question takes on a different meaning in a period when gentile society is also millennial, also adheres to the basic rules of civil society and thus offers a genteel assimilation to a culture that at least makes social justice a real possibility. How does one take on discipline B and what discipline? B in an age that caters to every addicting appetite? How does one integrate the possibilities and demands of civil society (women, above all) into a set of rules and attitudes first articulated, and later interpreted, in periods when civil society was a distant, almost hopeless vision? How does one understand and handle the relocation of injustice in a society where open oppression is so rare.


Operation Balaam’s Ass
Seffi Rachlevsky, in a book that so enraged the observant community that they missed some of his most important points, has argued that the millennial enthusiasts B religious Zionists, Christian Rapture believers B view their apocalyptic "allies" B secular Zionists, Jews B as their Amessiah=s donkey,@ a (disposable) vehicle for their anticipated redemption (Hamoro shel Meshiach).. This is almost certainly true for a large number of apocalyptic millennialists out there, Christian and Jew, even if some of them don’t yet know it. Indeed most would be horrified at the thought that, at the end of their journey, realizing that the vehicle has not yet arrived at the messianic age, they might turn to beating, even killing the incompetent beast. But the fact that many don’t yet know and would still – in their hopeful stage – denounce and decry any such coercion, may be our opportunity. There is still time to turn the tables, time to change the story while we still have a voice. Let us shift the narrative from the apocalyptic stage of all or nothing, in which our words are already scripted (I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior…"), to the story of Balaam=s ass. Let us open a mouth.


Let us turn 2000 from the moment where the Last Judgment will (not) occur, to one where a judgment, significant but not ultimate, allows us to understand our past in usable ways, and use that understanding to navigate the white water ahead. We Jews have interlocutors; there are people ready for real dialogue. Christians may love us for the wrong reasons, but they also are interested in us for the right reasons. It is up to us to strengthen the latter and discourage the former. We know quite intimately the consequences of various forms of Christian apocalyptic spirituality.


What can we say? B Actually, an enormous amount. How do we find the words? By beginning the discussion where it is most likely to succeed – among those Jews, those neighbors, those Christians, those from any other religion or non-religion who want to explore these issues. Let us mark this millennial date of 2000 by acknowledging and honoring the contribution Christianity has and can make to the vigorous health of civil society. Let us remember Christianity for its longevity and its remarkable contributions to the substitution of discourse for violence. Obviously this does not mean that we forget those aspects of Christianity – and any other religion including our own – that demonizes the "other."


I don’t have the answers to such enormous questions. This is the work not of any individual or even a group, but of a generation, or generations. All I can suggest, and I do so partly because so many of us have defaulted on 2000, is to offer a topic and an occasion, lay out some of the ground rules, and suggest a venue.


The topic:
Religion and civil society, religious belief and the open society:
How we can be at once passionate about our own beliefs and tolerant of others? How can we relate, and how can we teach our children to relate, to the Aother,@ to people of another religion, of no religion? How do we set up boundaries in an age of communication? How can we heal the unnecessary enmity (sinat chinam) between secular and religious culture by helping both to mature? How can we balance the demands of market appetites with human nature=s needs, and our environment=s capacities? All so many nice-sounding notions, and people the world over are working on such issues. True. But they are part of a cacophany of questions and answers, some of which, as Mr. Furrow reminds us, are quite worrisome. It is time, therefore, to strengthen these voices, give them depth and expression and extension.


The Occasion
Y2K as CSAT, (Civil Society Aptitude Test).
In both preparation for, and handling of, the problems of Y2K, a wide range of civic virtues come into play: integrity in leadership, honesty in witness, tolerance for variant opinion, intelligent assessment of the threat, ability to respond on a wide range of levels, sense of humor, sense of communal commitment and trust between citizens and with their government. Y2K will hit countries, businesses, communities, individuals, with varying intensity all over the world. The more dependent on computers, the greater the threat of Y2K to the culture. The better prepared the civil society, the more it can help others. No moment offers a better opportunity to understand the workings of and strength civil society and its relationship to technology, than Y2K. It is the first global problem, not the last.


Most people, free-riders, have paid little attention to the issue, assuming it was no a problem, or already solved by those market forces that guide our economies so nicely these days. I suggest you think again, not merely as a matter of prudence, but as a matter of opportunity. Listen to the people who have been following it for several years, find out the history of the phenomenon, ask about your municipality=s readiness, talk to your neighbors about how, or even whether, you want to prepare. Y2K is actually a wonderful opportunity, a conversation opener. And if, as we all hope, Y2K is really not such a problem, then we will realize it together, and go home secure in the knowledge that, when the chips might have been down, we and our neighbors showed a sense of community. At the least we talked to our neighbors and got credit for concern where it wasn=t needed. You could start a conversation of exploration – what is Y2K about? – that would have you and your community involved in a millennial meal on January 1, 2000, greeting both Y2K and the dawning global millennium in a spirit of understanding and mutual commitment.


Ground rules: pluralist and open in expression:

Jews are nothing if not diverse in opinion, perspective, insight. The mouth we open is not a single, choreographed, but polyphonic, in rough harmony. Above all, it should be open. There are people who believe that the Jews are a secret society dedicated to world domination; that the pretty words about freedom and justice that we espouse are merely a cover for a plot to enslave mankind. For them, every advance of civil society is another link in our effort to bind the chains of humanity=s bondage. For them modernity is a plot to destroy religion. We cannot deal well with the religious energies of this millennium B especially the Christian ones B by making political deals and arrangements (that was the error of medieval Jews). Our strength, and the strength of civil society, comes when things are discussed in the open, among commoners, in communityY not by political operations behind closed doors. Freedom and peace can only combine where there is justice. Otherwise, as the anti-modernists never cease to remind us, freedom is a recipe for anarchy.


Site: Cyberspace

Cyberspace will be to global culture in the 21st century, what the printing press was to the 16th century – medium for the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, groundwork of the "Enlightenment." Cyberspace will be a major player in the workings of third millennium global culture. It opens an immense and immensely potent medium for communication and, therefore, for the creation of civil society. But it also empowers the opponents of civil society, allowing them to peddle their conspiracies, their updates of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, their finely crafted hatreds, permits them to produce, among other fruits, the suicidal rampages that we have most recently seen.


We Jews should mount a site that enters the lists of cyberspace, and offer knowledge that is at once life-giving and useful. We should address the issues raised by the Protocols and offer an alternative reading of the text – not merely as forgery, but as a history lesson in psychological self-destruction. We should present the fruit of our search into our own literature – biblical, rabbinic, post-rabbinic writings –for Jewish insights into the legislation and psychology of civil society. There are many Jewish websites, even ones that link them; let this one be a Jewish resource for gentiles, done in collaboration with and addressed to the righteous all over the world, in every society. Cyberspace, like printing, rearranges the relationship between academia and the real world; this site could explore this encounter between academics and laity, between Jews and gentiles, between knowledge and practice.


The Timing: 2000 and 2001
Why 2000? Because we can, because it’s here, because it’s a poetic, round number, a great hook. Because whether or not we do so, others are making much of the date, and if some of their voices gain currency, we, and civil society, may end up sacrificed on the altar of authoritarianism in too many places around the world. Because if we can=t speak on issues of justice and education, belief and mutual respect, in such a way that secular and religious gentiles would like to join our discussion, then we fail those biblical visionaries who saw a world where all the nations live in civil societies.


The Holocaust has, among its many evils, also brought about this extraordinary situation where Jews have been spared an entire generation of pervasive anti-judaism. Whatever the continuing animosities, Western culture has foresworn the kind of constant anti-semitism, both violent and polite, that has blighted Jewish communities, especially in Christendom, for almost two millennia, and today blights them utterly in Muslim lands. This respite has given us an exceptional, an unprecedented public voice, an extraordinary contact with gentiles on a day to day basis. And the cultures that have allowed us that voice have flourished.
We would be remiss not to use it, especially out of some niggardly refusal to allow a Christian date to have deep meaning. My father taught me that you don’t make yourself look bigger by making other people look smaller. Perhaps the converse is also true: you do make yourself look bigger by helping others become bigger. Both teaching and learning are aspects of Tikkun Olam. These are opportunities we cannot have where civil society does not exist. The Holocaust may end up having nothing to do with 2000; historians will look back a generation from now and dismiss any connection. Unlikely, I think no matter what we do. But if it is so, that would be our failure of imagination, our shame. When will we again have such an extraordinary opportunity to contribute to a global agenda, an agenda first laid out by our prophets three millennia ago? If not now, when?

 

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