Open Letter to Catholics on this Occasion of the Jubilee Year 2000:
Reflections of an Observant Jew and Millennial Scholar at the Dawn of the First Global Millennium
Richard Landes [This was originally presented as an address to a Catholic-Jewish Dialogue group, October, 1999]
With the exception of the Catholics in this room who have taken seriously the teachings of Pope John Paul II on the Jubilee year, most here today probably have encountered millennialism through some form of hype – advertising, newspaper copy, plans for New Year’s, Y2K alarms, crazy cultists committing suicide or getting governments to martyr them. This hype can make millennialism appear a lot of nonsense or, what German and Yiddish would call Narrishkeit – a fool’s concerns that, where not irrelevant, are dangerous. Therefore a scholar who comes to speak to you about millennialism runs the risk of being dismissed as one more instance of the hype—a person intent on exaggerating the importance of arbitrary dates and dating. Popular culture’s over-selling of the millennium has pushed some to the point of millennial exhaustion. Those who suffer from such millennial overload may be thinking, "Sure we have more important things to do than to waste our time on this stuff."
Given this widely-spread attitude--supported in our culture by such stories as Chicken Little--it seems that I should thank you all for the kindness of coming to hear me talk about a subject of such frivolous importance. As Joseph Liebermann commented in a famous introduction to Gershom Scholem (whose research into the mystical and messianic elements of Judaism had led many to dismiss his work), "Narrishkeit may be Narrishkeit, but the history of Narrishkeit is scholarship." Let me reward you for you politeness and patience by offering you scholarship on a topic that is not only not marginal, but possibly central, one which, when we pay attention to it, becomes quite compelling in assessing our current situation, and calls for some real and substantial response. What I have to tell you today is part of a twice-untold tale, a tale neither told by our religious historians – Jewish or Christian – nor by our secular historians, whatever their original background.
Let me define millennialism as the belief that at some time in the future, a radical transformation will occur in human existence here on earth, one that will permanently change the way we interact with each other. Such beliefs view the current world a riddled with evil and destined to pass away, and millennialism often shades imperceptibly into revolution. Messianism, by this definition of the term is a subset of millennialism, a scenario for the transformation in which the key role is played by a superhero who, as God’s (or Nature’s or History’s) anointed agent, brings about the millennial kingdom. The most important factor in millennialism is whether or not this "total" transformation will occur sooner or later. As long as the moment is distant, the beliefs, no matter how radical, will remain dormant. But when an apocalyptic sense of imminence arises, these beliefs become activated. While millennial movements and moments can occur under a wide range of circumstances, some of which have no relationship to the date, the advent of big round numbers, century’s end, but even more intensely, millennium’s end, tends to promote millennial thinking in a wide range of people.
All millennial moments, and especially the advent of "big dates," are characterized, then, by a contest between the staid owls and the apocalyptic roosters. The roosters are the newcomers who bring an urgent message: dawn is breaking, awaken, arise from the slumber of your false consciousness and greet the Day of the Lord, the dawning of a new world; put on the armor of messianic battle and bring in the kingdom of heaven. The owls are the dominant elite, arguing that if there is a millennial kingdom coming, where the just flourish and the evil-doers are punished, then it is not now. They hoot it is the middle of the night, the foxes are out, the master sleeps, and only destruction can come from awaking the barnyard prematurely. Chicken Little and his followers, the owls never cease to remind us, are eaten by Foxy Loxy.
The millennial tale is twice untold, because the first time the religious authorities, the owls, represent the survivors, and their cautionary tale presents leadership that is the triumph of sanity over madness, or calm over panic. Thus for Catholics historians, apocalyptic millennialism is violent and bizarre and fortunately rarely shows up, certainly not after Augustine forged a theology for the Latin Church which banned it. Similarly, Rabbinic scholars and historians told a tale where, after the disasters of 70 and 135 CE – the destruction of the Temple and the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt – apocalyptic messianism disappeared from normative Judaism, if it had ever been a part of it. When secular historians took up the tale, casting aside so much of the superstitious and sycophantic elements of religious history, nonetheless they retained the religious attitude towards millennialism: in their tale it remained a marginal phenomenon, yet one more foolish example of religious superstition. Not only did these new historians belittle the phenomenon among the religious – fanaticism and "enthusiasm" [said with the abiding contempt of the rational] – they failed to appreciate the millennial dynamics at the heart of some of the most consequential modern secular movements – revolutionary ones (French, American), nationalist ones (Nazism, Zionism), even scientific ones (Techological utopianism).
My approach, on the other hand, takes its guidance from a passage in Psalms: "even mo’asu habonim hayta le rosh pina" – the stone that the builders rejected (in this case both religious and secular historians) becomes the cornerstone. My argument is that millennialism, properly understood, lies at the heart of the dynamic that produced Western culture, and that at the core of that lies a millennial discourse between Christians and Jews that has driven the engine of social change and civil society. If we want guidance on where to direct our efforts in the future, we could do a lot worse than looking at this millennial tradition. So let me walk you through some of the aspects of this twice-untold tale.
We see fragments of such discourse in many places – in the striking elaboration of myths about UFOs and the ETs that have already landed and will make their presence known when the time is right, in Christian evangelical Zionism and their ardor for the rebuilding of the Temple, ardor they share with some messianic Jews, in the ravings of the hate-filled conspiracy theorists of the Christian identity/Aryan nation movement, and most recently in the striking rise of apocalyptic Islam focussed on 2000. All, again, expressions that are marginal, kooky, possibly dangerous, definitely "not us."
So far so good. But now let me ask you another question. To those Jews present who sing "Ki Mitzion tetzei torah u-dvar ha-Shem mi-Yerushaliym" every time they take out the Torah for the ritual weekly readings, is there any significance to the fact that this is taken from the most popular millennial text ever recorded, one cherished by Christians Jews and civil secularists alike?
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 He shall admonish 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)
Here we have a text that, at the time of its composition (Assyrian conquests) must have seemed like the ravings of a madman, and certainly the subsequent millennium of imperial dominion (Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, 800 BCE to 500 CE) would have proven a ludicrous notion. And yet, it shows up as a key ritual passage of the Jewish Sabbath service. Is this just a vestigial remnant of a millennialism now no longer operative? Or is it an indication of Judaism’s self-identity as a religion, a vocation to bring this vision to the world? Are such sentiments long-discarded dreams, or visions that repeatedly rise up and renew a Judaism which is, at its core, a millennial movement. How many of Judaism’s most creative moments – ritually, socially, educationally – come at times of millennial enthusiasm and apocalyptic disappointment?
Let me pose a correspondingly provacative possibility regarding the millennial relics of Christian tradition. When Christians say the Lord’s prayer, how do you punctuate it? If you say: "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Then you are not millennial. If you say, "The kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Then you are. Does the difference between comma and period – Augustine would insist on a period – represent a minor issue of little importance, or does it offer us a thread that leads back, behind the Church fathers, to a period of Christianity where it was openly millennial, openly expected that when Jesus returned, the kingdom would become a this-worldly reality? Do Christians and Jews – and Muslims, I might add – share a same vision which, refracted by history and conflict seems hostile but actually has significant points of contact? Could they possibly meet in the Jubilaic millennialism of that vision of Micah and Isaiah, that vision of a society’s voluntary transformation into a place where discourse replaces violence in dispute settlements – sword and spear are renounced – and all play by the same rules – there is no privileged aristocracy, but all engage in honest labor?
I will be happy to hear any of your thoughts on this, but since I have the podium, I’d like to continue my talk by giving you an alternative reading of our collective millennial "record," a telling of that twice untold tale of the role of millennialism in the history of the West. In so doing, I hope that, by paying particular attention to the history of Jewish-Christian relations in the West, we can come to some reflections on its relevance to our condition today. We stand, I would like to suggest, at the advent of the first global millennial date in history – 2000 – and at the threshhold, I think we all hope, of the first millennium of a global culture, something that even Solomon, or whoever authored Ecclesiastes, would have to admit was "new under the sun."
So let me begin by exploring some themes in millennialism, then look closely at the impact of millennial thinking on relations between Jews and Christians, hopefully shedding some light on both the Pope’s Jubilee and dialogue groups such as the present one. Then I’d like to conclude with some suggestions about directions that Christians and Jews might take that promise to make a difference in the coming years, decades, indeed – why be modest – centuries and even the next millennium.
My first point about millennialism is that it is a vision about future radical change, and therefore includes a wide range of scenarios. These are beliefs that we find all over the world, in many religions, and even among people who do not believe in God or other supernatural forces that intervene in history. These scenarios vary a good deal, but they generally contain two main elements: a period of catastrophic disaster which shakes the present world to its roots, followed by a new age, a new heavens and a new earth in which justice reigns and people live in prosperity, fellowship and joy. Now within the framework of these two nodes of the millennial process, we find a wide range of variant scenarios. On one extreme, we find heavy emphasis on the catastrophes – earthquakes, plagues, natural and political disorders, signs and wonders in the heavens. The most elaborate and ferocious versions of this culminates in the appearance of a superhuman enemy – the Antichrist, the Dajal, Gog and Magog – and leads to a final, incredibly gory battle to end all battles.
I call these millennial scenarios "apocalyptic" because they focus not on the millennial kingdom to come but the sudden "revelation" (apocalypsis) of God’s judgment – a total solution to the problem of evil, the full punishment of the sinners, the full reward of the virtuous. In these apocalyptic scenarios, the surviving remnant that inherits the "millennial kingdom" here on earth tends to be rather small, a solitary group of true believers. This kind of apocalyptic millennialism tends towards credal eschatology – that is, the belief that one is saved by being a member of a specific group of believers, and while one’s moral behavior obviously matters, credal allegiance is even more important.
On the other hand, we have scenarios that downplay the violence and emphasize not only a peaceable millennial kingdom, but a capacious and inclusive one. This finds no more exquisite expression than in the passage cited above. Such a scenario does not depend on the intervention of a cosmic hero, but rather on the response of people to God’s demand that they treat each other fairly, justly ("the ways of the Lord"). The great enemy here is not the other, but everyone’s tendency to think in terms of the dominating imperative – rule or be ruled. As long as such assumptions prevail so will dominion, so will human hierarchies which offer each at once the power to dominate some and be dominated by others. Such societies produce a powerful, a prime divider, that separates a privileged aristocracy from a population of commoners and peasants who live at the margins of existence. This is precisely the world that Isaiah and Micah saw being dismantled at the "end of days." Millennialism, like civil society, call for a society without a prime divider. A society ruled by judges is superior to a society ruled by kings. It’s really that simple.
This kind of millennialism calls upon us to abandon the dominating imperative, and instead to treat each other as legitimate "others," people meant to be understood, tolerated, worked with, and depended upon to do the same with you. This social covenant, where all collectively renounce the dominating imperative, underlies any successful contract to establish civil society. It is, however imperfect, a significant step in a millennial direction. This kind of world is difficult to establish – some of the most penetrating analysts consider it a social miracle. It calls for important levels of self-control, and it frustrates those who would rather play the violent game of dominion. At its extreme, the game of domination, or the paranoid imperative, produces totalitarian nightmares that Orwell described as a human boot on a human face forever. At its mildest or most common, the game of domination it is that classic coward’s way out of swallowing one’s anger in the presence of the more powerful and taking it out on the weaker. At this level, it is a daily temptation that, since childhood, has tempted every one of us, one we see, every day among our children and students, coworkers and friends.
Jubilee, Antidote to the Dominating Imperative
The antidote to this paranoid imperative is the spirit of Jubilee, that moment of egalitarian "new beginning" when we all stand together, the rich offering, the poor receiving, and a new, and more interesting cycle of interaction begins.
And you shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. (Leviticus, 25: 8-24)
A year of liberation, of debt amnesty, of egalitarianism. A year of generosity. We find such notions of amnesty at the heart of many successful experiments in civil society – the ancient Israelites at the entry into the promised land, the ancient Athenians under Solon, the communes of 11th and 12th France, the American frontier, the Marxist revolutions of the 20th century. Jubilee millennialism represents a human effort to bring the millennial kingdom of justice to earth through generosity of spirit and self-restraint. It represents the opposite form of millennial religiosity from that catastrophic and punitive millennialism that sees the millennial kingdom as the victory of good people over evil people.
Both these strains of millennialism, the apocalyptic and the jubilaic come from Judaism, and both develop further within Christianity (and, I might add, Islam). The past 1000 years seem to have been a time when, more than any other religious tradition, Latin Christendom had the most intense public expressions of both strains of millennialism. Indeed, one might say they have fought most bitterly within the heart of Latin Christendom. And every time the millennial dominated, Jews and Christians started the process of founding civil societies; and every time the apocalyptic won, the Jews have served as the sacrificial scapegoat upon the altar that consecrated the culture of dominion. The auto-da-fe ("act of faith") that demanded human sacrifice, as in the nuptial burning of heretics in honor of the wedding of the Spanish Heir Apparent in 15**. With each failure of an optimistic Jubilaic wave of millennial expectation, the forces of violence take the helm using a discourse of apocalyptic paranoia that transforms the need to dominate into the need to exterminate. And repeatedly, at such times, we find, in our sources, that the Jews have been given the choice of conversion or death. As in the First Crusade, the final choice is given – convert and be saved at the last minute, or reveal yourself as one of Antichrist’s minions and die. To the warriors of the Cross, this was not the "first" crusade, but the final battle.
We find this form of insane apocalyptic dominance in the behavior of Emicho Leiningen and his troops in the Rhineland in 1096; but it already appeared in the apocalyptic delirium of France in 1009. It becomes a leitmotiv of Christian history from that point on, that is, for this last century, culminating in the ultimate secular explosion of such millennial rage – the Nazis and their exterminationist anti-semitism. Following the line of this dynamic over the centuries passes through blood libels, forced conversions, inquisitorial death-traps, all strategies whereby a frightened and vicious aristocracy defended its privilege to dominate. This tradition’s normative condition was the enseignement du mépris – teaching of contempt – in which Christians told their children that Jews were a damned and evil people who had not only rejected, but killed the Lord God become man. The history of this tradition gives us the so-called lachrymose history of the Jews, from tragedy to tragedy, from Christian outrage to Christian outrage.
Well I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is, that history is real, long-lived, and carries great cultural inertia with it, since it appeals to the paranoid imperative, and is particularly attractive when the group chosen as scapegoat is not powerful, and can, at any point, be subject to violence. The good news is, this is only part of the story. The other part, actually the earlier part of the story of these apocalyptic deleria where the Christians believed that Jews were literally the devil incarnate – Antichrist and his agents – is that Jews and Christians had just gone through a period of unusually good relations, indeed one of unusually dynamic and powerful co-operation, and we can trace such philo-Judaic millennial moments back at least to the turn of the first Christian millennium, and possibly back to the Carolingian period. The results of these early moments of good relations between Christians and Jews were extraordinarily creative and dynamic culture zones, "islands" of civil society and market activity in a feudal sea of dominating and contending aristocratic factions. In this millennial interaction between Christians and Jews, I think we see the seeds of modernity.
These periods of Jewish-Christian cooperation were usually engaged under conditions of apocalyptic millennialism, when large numbers of Christians believed that the time had come, and they followed a collective sense of Jubilee. This brought their religiosity towards an apostolic style that reflects such egalitarian thinking – a community of radical sharing. These communities get along well with Jews because they practice a radical tolerance that permits them to engage the Jews as others, and because their social relations hold the same principles of social justice as the Jews – equality before the law. As one 15th century rabbi looking at the early Taborites commented: they are almost Jewish. But, alas, the Taborites also go mad on that violent millennial cocktail, post-apocalyptic domination, the mother of inquisitions and their enfants terribles, totalitarianism on the left and the right.
The pattern of the last millennium seems to have been the following: Millennial times were the best of times and the worst of times. Here we find repeatedly that as Christians – Catholics and Protestants – warmed to collective apocalyptic expectations, they grew increasingly philo-Judaic, seeing in the Jews a source of redemptive salvation both through an absorption of Jewish forms of religiosity (what some of the early Churchman called Judaizing), and through the Jews’ conversion to Christianity at the end of time. Those who blessed the Jews were blessed. And the blessing worked! Christians and Jews living together in tolerance generated civil society.
But civil society is not to everyone’s liking, especially not to those who thrive on the paranoid imperative and who find their wings severely clipped by the demands of a public life in which everyone was equal before the law and violence was not a privilege of those most capable of wielding it. These were the forces that, riding the nightmare of hatred and fear and frustrated dominion, repeatedly came to the fore and overtook, hijacked the post-millennial wave with a pre-millennial, catastrophic, cosmically destructive wave. And in this collective paranoid seizure, the Jews became the sacrificial creature, offered on the scape-goating altar of projected sins.
When we look at the history of this process, the decisive moment seems to come when the initial apocalyptic expectations for a Jubilaic millennium are disappointed. This marks the moment when the voices of violent resentment carry increasing weight in public discourse. The key to the dynamic here seems to be a specific Christian expectation that underlies the positive emotions of the favorable period, that is, the expectation that this period of wonderful interaction will climax in the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. The voice of post-apocalyptic disappointment blames the Jews for crucifying Jesus yet one more time, this time by refusing to convert, and hence, to preventing the true millennium from arriving, the pre-apocalyptic scenario of Jesus returning and only Christians surviving. This desire for conversion becoming violent is one of the periodic symptoms of Christian culture over the last millennium, a repeating nightmare of spiritual totalitarianism that eventually spawned its secular bastards, communism and nazism.
And yet, with the advent of civil society, the relation was reversed: every time a culture, even in its millennial disappointment, chose to treat its Jews as citizens with equal rights, that culture prospered. Here we find the modern dynamic of social and technological innovation "taking." Here we have the emergence of a commitment not to resort to force in matters of religion – the separation of church and state – a steady commitment to religious tolerance. If the covenant holds through the post-apocalyptic period, if the disappointment gets channeled into an introspective and self-critical learning curve, rather than a projective and accusatory regression to force, the results are startlingly successful. Prosperity, cultural richness and depth, understanding.
In this world, the pre-millennial scenario, with its catastrophic vengeance, becomes marginal. Here at the edges, banned from a public discourse dedicated to tolerance, catastrophic pre-millennialism, with its axiomatic belief in the paranoid imperative and the necessity to dominate, feeds itself on conspiracy theories. In this world, the behavior of the other, no matter how benign or well-intended it may seem, is actually a disguised move in a game of domination. In this world, where the Jew is the "ultimate other" he and she are the "ultimate enemy," and their disguise covers nothing less than a world-wide plot to enslave all of mankind. This is the deeply apocalyptic and deeply paranoid world of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that Russian mystic response (1904) to the greatest Jewish messianic movement since Mishnaic times – Zionism (1896).
On the other hand, civil society tries to maintain a public space that hews to a "strictly" even-handed insistence on the separation of church and state, and the Jews get a fair shake, an opportunity they never cease to take advantage of. We seem to have grown tired of reciting the benefits of civil society – liberal sentiments have worn thin, and are mocked by deeper thinkers as a form of optimism so hopelessly outdated that it is a bit like Wiley Coyote, out over the cliff, only remaining standing because he has yet to look down at the nothingness upon which he stands. This is, I think, unfair. The liberal platform is not insubstantial, but it does depend on a sense of social covenant which can, in a world of market competition, become distant if not lost from view. The world of civil society is unquestionably fraught with dangers – anyone defying the paranoid imperative runs up against dangers. Civil society constantly changes, constantly generates new levels of technology, constantly presents new and unanticipated challenges. Above all, civil society is uncertain; one doesn’t consistently win. And every once in a while, it is important to give up an advantage, even a hard-won advantage, and start over, along with everyone else, at rough parity. Every once in a while, it is important to have a Jubilee.
The need for Jubilee, according to the biblical legislator, comes about every 50 years, when the workings of the game of life have produced a society of excessive inequity and all the iniquity that tends to produce. We might need it more often or less, depending on what kinds of stresses we hit. But when a civil society reaches crises, when the division between rich and poor becomes a source of both excessive arrogance from the haves and excessive resentment from the have-nots, then we find two sets of voices rising in volume: the voices of paranoia and resentment calling for a war against the enemy (which includes civil society and its restraints), and the voices of Jubilee and generosity calling for a renewal of the social covenant. The difference between other Western cultures and German culture in the period after the crash and ensuing depression, when any conspiracist saw that the Zionist plan was now fully operational, was that these other societies had a higher resistence to this strain of paranoia – civil society held. But, alas, they held at a terrible cost – not only the insane destructiveness of German and Italian and Japanese fascism, but also of Soviet and Maoist communism. These were all staggering explosions of millennial violence in which hundreds of millions of people perished as the "enemy" of an apocalyptic nightmare in which the forces of good and evil "took flesh" and the "we" were God’s chosen, and the "other" the Antichrist.
Perhaps one of the lessons of such a disastrous episode of pre-millennial fury is that, when these voices present themselves again, we need to heed and encourage the voices of Jubilee that offer a counter-point. Jubilee is the space in which civil society renews itself; it is the grounding of the post-millennial impulse in a social covenantism. Covenants are possible between any people who are willing to commit themselves to that form of interaction, they are both the launching pad of social-contract civil societies, but also the renewers of that society. When Jefferson spoke of a repeating cycle of revolutions, I think he meant setting the counter at zero.
This suggestion brings us to the great millennial challenge of 2000.
For a full millennium now, Jews and Christians have gone through a largely "invisible" and certainly untold dance of millennial hope and disappointment, of philo-Judaism followed too often by anti-semitism. We are now in one of, if not the most philo-Judaic moments in the history of Christianity. Never before have Christians been as openly accepting of Jews and Judaism as legitimate "others," as autonomous believers who do not have to be converted as part of a grand plan. Never before have Jews enjoyed as much freedom, as much legal protection, as much access to a public voice that is listened to and taken seriously. Never before have Jews and Christians shared as many values, programs, contact at both formal and informal levels, among elites and commoners.
Part of this is due to the disastrous experience of mid-century, when people who were raised as Christians – Catholics, Protestants, Greek and Russian Orthodox – were swept up in a catastrophic and ecumenical wave of anti-semitism that left over 6 million Jews dead, and the dream of an ever-more rational society in shreds. Part of this is due to the millennial significance of the year 2000 and the apocalyptic meaning of the reestablishment of the state of Israel. For Protestant pre-millennial dispensationalists of every stripe from Protestant evangelicals to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, the creation of Israel in 1948 and the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 are infallible signs that the return of Jesus will happen in our day. Catholics, always more wary of apocalyptic enthusiasm than Protestants, have a less apocalyptic, but nonetheless extraordinary movement within their own ranks of Jubilee celebration scheduled for 2000. This is not millennial in the formal sense – i.e., few Catholics have taken the book of Revelation as a map to the immediate future the way so many awaitors of the Rapture have, but the Pope has put exceptional effort and profound reflection into this Jubilee, and it has both the marks of exceptional philo-Judaism – witness this kosher meal in a Catholic church – and a sense, as the Pope put it back in 1985 in his first encyclical about the Jubilee (Dominem vivificantem) that if we have enough faith, this could be a turning point in human history. That I submit, especially in the spirit of Jubilee, offers millennial sentiments well worth validating.
In the past, these moments of millennial philo-Judaism have turned sour, often quickly, often violently. This time they may well again. Just because the Protestant pre-millennialists who gathered by the thousands to celebrate Sukkot in Jerusalem this last week do not claim they want to convert Jews – a claim that many Jews view with justifiable suspicion – there are few, even of the most sincere, who do not want Jews to convert to messianic Judaism and rebuild the Temple. If in past years the post-apocalyptic accusation was: if only the Jews had converted, Jesus would have come back, this time it will be: if only the Jews had built the Temple, Jesus would have come back. With Catholics the dynamics are less obvious, and probably less volatile, but certainly for those who take things like the philo-Judaism of Vatican II and the Jubilee seriously – and I take this gathering as evidence of precisely that – the danger of bitter disappointment exists, and as it gains strength, so will other voices come to the fore, the voices of resentment, scapegoating, credal loyalties, and conspiracies.
Can Christianity resist the next round of apocalyptic paranoia? Certainly, at least from the Jewish perspective, the behavior of European Christian leaders and commoners during the secular millennial waves of mid-century offers an almost entirely negative example, an ecumenical anti-semitism that swept up Christians calling themselves Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and led, in a toxic secular form we call Nazism, to the first systematic and ideological attempt to exterminate another people. The Christian inability to resist this paranoid episode which its own culture had produced – the Nazis were almost exclusively men baptized as both Protestants and Catholics – has driven sincere Christians for the last 50 years to address the meaning of this collapse of Christian courage and ability to resist the voices of hatred and violence. [The Holocaust of WW II, broadly understood, was the sacrifice of tens of millions of civilian lives around the globe.] The search for understanding has motivated an historically unprecedented openness to Jews and Judaism that has, especially in the US, but more generally in Western civil societies, produced the most technologically powerful and sophisticated culture the world has ever seen.
We here today, Christians and Jews having a kosher meal in a Catholic church, represent an extraordinary phenomenon in the history of of our two religions. In the Middle Ages, the authorities would have rapidly identified this as "Judaizing" and put an end to it as quickly as possible. Today, we have a pope whose visionary understanding of time has identified this coming year as a potential turning point in Christian history, and as a result of the Jubilaic millennial vision that he has embraced for the year 2000, has actively encouraged just this kind of dialogue. We find certain brief moments when such interactions occurred in the past (Weimar Germany, Renaissance Italy, Peace of God Europe (990s-1030s), and unfortunately, many of these moments have been brief. This current period of philo-Judaism, of open and respectful interaction of Jewish and Christian commoners with each other, represents one of the longest and most dynamic in history. And we here are part of this wave – commoners, like many of us, elites, like the extraordinary Bishop Murphy and Fathers Michael and McBride, and Rabbi Gordis, who encourage such encounters, and "specialists" of knowledge like myself and community leaders like the unfortunately missing Nancy Kauffman and Larry Lowenthal.
These moments, then, deserve to be cherished and nourished, not taken for granted. When you chose to come to this meal, even if it was only out of curiosity or a sense of duty, you are able, today, to have a rare historical experience. You get to explore a world of interfaith discourse that, in 2000 years of Christian history, has almost never occurred in such civil and friendly circumstances. It would be a shame if all we did with this rare opportunity which this moment offers us, to do no more than just be publicly polite. We must grapple with problems that, in the past, have overwhelmed our culture and led to the nightmares of inquisition, religious warfare, and, now with secular millennialism, the technology of genocide. We must not be so parochial as to take such an opportunity for granted, and assume it will always be there. What will our generation have to say about the ways in which it played the extraordinary that it has been dealt.
So let me conclude with some suggestions:
The deeply and historically imbedded millennial wave of the rebirth of Israel as a positive, not negative apocalyptic sign. (Is Christianity prepared to confront its past? What stories lie in the pages of Inquistorial documentation that the Pope will, at the advent of the Jubilee year, place at the disposal of the scholarly public? How do we interpret our past and come to terms with regrets over our ancestor’s behavior? How does one, as a people, a culture, a nation, an association, take responsibility for the past, and in particular, with a past we hope never to repeat.
So much for the dangers, so much for the stick that beats us into action. Let’s turn now to the more interesting issue – the opportunities that this rare moment in Christian-Jewish relations offer to us if we have the courage to seize them. For, if I can formulate a piece of millennial policy, I think that since millennial moments bring both dangers and opportunities, the best way to avoid the dangers is to take advantage of the opportunities. Sitting on our hands at a time like this is not a good idea. It merely leaves the field open to those who would exploit misunderstanding to build hatred and mistrust. Since you are here as a self-selected audience already interested in taking advantage of such opportunities, I have the advantage of making my suggestions to receptive ears. The pope has himself expressed the wish that this be a turning point in human history, and as an historian, I can guarantee you that, if we can break the cycle of repeating philo- and anti-Judaism that has so often characterized Christian and Jewish millennial enthusiasm, then it would, truly, be a turning point. Thus, let me make three kinds of suggestions, all aimed fulfilling the Pope’s heart-felt wishes.
What I would like to suggest to you all here today, and to any Jew, Christian, and for that matter anyone committed to the strengthening and survival of civil society, is that we avoid these dangers by taking advantage of the opportunities. To the Jews, I say, do not take such favorable Christian behavior as your long-awaited due (who said life was fair?); rather recognize how rare and precious an opportunity this is to encounter and engage this religious "other" on a terrain of mutual respect and acceptance. To the Christians, I say that this budding relationship with Jews will inevitably go through good times and bad times, and it is important to remain committed to it, regardless of how frustrating it may be and how disappointing the behavior of the Jews, most especially their failure to convert.
In a book well worth reading the meditating on entitled The Coming of the Millennium: Good News for the Whole Human Race, Darrel Faschung has argued that the "other" is crucial to our ability to fulfill God’s hope and desire for us. Only when we have an "other" can we truly be moral creatures. This echoes Levinas’ point that when G-d gave Adam Eve, the deepest part was the gift of the "other," an immeasurable gift, one that each generation experiences differently. If John Paul II sees the possibility of a turning point in human history, originating in the Jubilee of 2000, it will be because we all, Christians and "others," take advantage of this invitation to an encounter. If one might characterize this past millennium as the millennium of the "self," the discovery of the self, of the individual, then this next one needs to be the millennium of the discovery of the other, the individual in relationship. Therein lies the only hope that a global civilization will not be a global nightmare, for us to have a global culture of societies living in a creative peace with both neighbor and nature.
Love the other as self means not with passion, therein lies the zealotry of violence, but rather with a default sympathy, just as we do ourselves. Just as we always tell ourselves narratives in which we are not (or less) to blame, we must at least be aware of other narratives. We need to imagine what those we enter into conflict with tell themselves – neighbors, family, strangers, even enemies. The task for Christianity in the coming millennium begins with an attempt to tell the history of Judaism from the perspective of the Jews. Above all this means setting aside the Christian apologetic tradition, with its invidious comparisons – the Jewish, the OT God is a God of justice and vengeance, the NT God of love and mercy; Jews are nationalist and selfish in their hopes for salvation, Christians are universalist and open to all; etc. What happens to Christian self-identity when it listens to others’ tales?
The task for Christians is obviously an immense one, and appropriately so, given how often, over the last millennium, Christians have treated the other, and especially the Jew and other "heretics," so badly. Jews have a right to expect such a reading, and Christians have an obligation to attempt it. For example, the proper Catholic approach to Pope Pious XII should pass through – it need not settle, but it should pass through, a reading of his career, pronouncements and deeds, as the other, in this case the Jews, perceived it. After such a difficult exercise in empathy, Catholics would be in a better position to assess the man and his contribution to the Church. This does not mean that Catholics have to judge Pious as Jews do; it just means they understand how he looked to Jews. Where they go from there, what aspects of Catholic tradition that leads them to prize and which to renounce, is the decision of Catholics.
Obviously, as a Jew, I hope what you Catholics renounce is those spiritual traditions that feed inquisitorial intolerance and sacred rage. What that means is a subject that needs much discussion. But I cannot compel you to such a "conversion" any more than you can compel me to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I, like you, have to wait for you to realize that such a move represents what is highest and most noble about your own religion. Nor is this a do-ut-des offer – you give up your traditions of scapegoating and coercive purity and I’ll convert – you convert to a religion of peace and respect, not to mention love, for the "other" because that is what being a true Christian is. You do it for you and for me as that "other," not in order to get something from me. In any case, what directions we take, we remarkably free collection of "others", what form Judaism and Christianity take in the next millennium – whether more of the same, or something new – depends on the conversation that we start now, at this millennium. I, for one, hope that the next millennium is very different from the last.
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