(The following article appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Today's Ministry, the journal of the Andover-Newton Theological School.)


Millennial expectation and the Jews

By David Kessler

The great discussion about the millennium, that has made its way into every bookstore, television and radio station, and magazine rack in the country, is at once profoundly religious and profoundly secular in tone. For every story on parties at the pyramids or Times square, festivals at the millennium dome or downtown Boston, or champagne shortages world wide, there is a story about how these could be the last days, how the rapture may be in 2000, how the antichrist is alive now, and how y2k will call us back to our proper relation to god. But these religious stories, like the calendar system that is spurring so many publications to request articles like this one, are basically Christian. How do Jews approach what the Pope has called the advent of the third Christian millennium?

Because Judaism has no single central authority this question has no single, or easy answer. Certain common answers, facts, and feelings, however, can be pointed out to gain a general understanding of Jewish perspectives on "the Millennium". Any consideration of Jewish attitudes toward the year 2000 must begin with the Jewish calendar. While it is the year 1999 "in the year of our lord" (Anno Domini) by the Christian calendar, it is the year 5759 by the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar - which begins with creation - has 12 lunar months, and an occasional leap month added to synchronize it with the solar year. Like the Chinese, Indian, and Muslim calendars it is no longer used to keep track of business in our international world, rather it is a religious and cultural calendar within which Jews define their holy days, celebrations, and their identities as Jews. The approach of the Christian year 2000, therefore, has no bearing on the Jewish calendar, and no place in the Jewish religion. But this does not mean that Jews are not concerned with the millennium.

"The millennium" is not simply a round number. By religious tradition, it designates a messianic age yet to come, and messianism affects Judaism both directly and indirectly. Coincidentally or not, the advent of 2000 has so far been an unusually active time for Jewish apocalyptic expectations of the messianic age. Nothing demonstrates these points so well as the latest chapters of the red heifer story. While many Jews do not await the messiah, other Jews do, with measures that range from prayers and simple hope to elaborate preparations for a new temple service; priestly costume is researched, ritual plate is constructed, and signs are watched for. A red heifer is needed for certain purification rituals necessary to reinstate a temple service, but the appearance of a heifer pure enough for the process is extremely rare (there have been only 9 such heifers ever). Finding a qualified heifer would be taken as a divine sign that the time for such a renewal has arrived.

Now enter the evangelical Christian rancher who has spent the last several years breeding cattle for the specific traits of a proper red heifer. Does he do it for a renewal of biblical Judaism or a love of Jewish ritual purity? No, he breeds these cows because without the ritual of purification they may allow, the third temple cannot be rebuilt, and without the third temple, he believes, Jesus will not return. He does it for Christianity. That his labor is done to speed the second coming of his messiah does not bother those Jews who perform their labor for the first coming of theirs. Each side sees the other as misguided, yet conveniently placed to help produce the cosmic future so desperately desired.

Jewish millennial desire is expressed in other ways. Among those settlers who live in contested areas of Israel because they believe these areas to be part of an historical homeland, are some that do so for messianic reasons. Among those Lubavitch Jews who pray for the messiah's arrival in their day, are those who refuse to believe that their Rebbi -their messiah - is dead. The reuniting of east and west Jerusalem was a great military victory for Israel in1967, and a tremendously significant event for Jews and Christians alike, looking for signs of the coming messianic age; but like the red heifer, the settlements, and other "signs", it had (and continues to have) an entirely different meaning for the two groups.

Despite its prevalence in the daily prayers of the Jewish liturgy, messianism makes most modern Jews uncomfortable. It is seen as a relic or a superstition at best; at worst, as a reaction to persecution and the surrounding messianism of Christianity. These Jews often see 2000 as something to be ignored, and the "fringe" of millennialism among Jews as something to be downplayed. For these Jews, year 2000 celebrations are, at best, a reminder that the accepted calendar is a Christian construction and that the majority of society thinks of that year as 2000 Anno Domini, and not 2000 Common Era.

Ideas of apocalypse and cosmic transformation are not new; they have been espoused for thousands of years and are no more Christian or Jewish than they are Hindu or Buddhist. What changes with each age is how these ideas are received. Round numbers like 2000, the y2k computer problem, the Bible Code and more, all raise awareness of these ideas and interest in them. Hal Lindsey is still around leading pilgrimages to Jerusalem; Jerry Falwell still believes that we are in the final days of history; the Israeli political party Gush Emunim still believes that god wants Israel to be whole, as in biblical times; there are kabbalists who believe 5760 is the messianic year; there are Muslims who believe the Dajal (antichrist) is about to appear; there are groups waiting to greet extraterrestrial landing parties in Jerusalem as the saviors of earth. In such a charged atmosphere, the smallest events are interpreted by differing groups to different ends, all in the belief that we are living in special times. As with the red heifer, this can make for some interesting bedfellows: neither side conceding a theological inch to the other, each side citing the energetic messianic certainty of the other as a sign that this is the time. Both sides work shoulder to shoulder with radically different eschatological scenarios in mind.

It is interesting, in this millennial stew, to watch how different groups interact. Often - as with those waiting for aliens and those waiting for Jesus - they fail to see how they effect and even antagonize each other. Just as often - as with dispensationalist Christians and third Temple Jews - they understand their relations well, and use them to stimulate each other.

On the assumption that Christian reckoning for 2000 is wrong, because of mathematical mistakes in the calendar, or because "of that day and hour no one knows" (Mt. 24.36), and on the assumption that Jewish reckoning for 2000 is wrong, because 5760 is short of the mythic and significant sabbatical year 6000 by several lifetimes, the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University (www.mille.org) will continue its study of the dynamics of millennialism, for use by researchers wishing to understand its power and significance in history. If, on the other hand, these calculations turn out to be correct, then we'll see you all next year in Jerusalem.

 

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