An essay donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Lessons From Yet Another
'No Show' Doomsday: A Jewish view
For millions of people, 2012-DEC-21 was seen as an approaching apocalyptic Judgment Day. Of course, the world did not end on that day, just as it has not ended on the many previous dates that various Christian sects have predicted throughout the tumultuous decades of the 19th and 20th century.
Yet millions of people worldwide were afraid the world would end then or sometime soon. A poll for Reuters reported (2012-MAY-02) that “nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and 10 percent think the Mayan calendar could signify the end will be on 2012-DEC-21.
Keren Gottfried, research manager at Ipsos Global Public Affairs which conducted the poll for Reuters, said:
“Whether they think it will come to an end through the hands of God, or a natural disaster or a political event, whatever the reason, one in seven thinks the end of the world is coming.”
Responses to the international poll of 16,262 people in more than 20 countries varied widely. Only six percent of French and eight percent of Great Britain residents believe in an impending Armageddon in their lifetime, compared to a high of 22 percent in predominately Muslim Turkey, and predominately Christian United States; and slightly less in South Africa and Argentina.
Gottfried also said that people under 35 years old, were more likely to believe in a judgment day during their lifetime, or have anxiety over the prospect.
“Apocalypse” is Greek for the: “unveiling”, “revealing”, or “disclosure” of an ancient prophecy, previously hidden from the majority of mankind, until it is unveiled in our own era; an era dominated by falsehoods, oppression, injustice and violence.
The hidden prophecies are usually horrific, which is why they were kept hidden until they had to be disclosed as a warning to the generation most in danger. Many Americans who come from fundamentalist Christian circles, see the coming of the time that precedes the Messianic Age from the perspective of the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse of John). This New Testament book emphasizes a cataclysmic Judgment Day, lasting many years, that precedes the birth of the Messianic Age.
Jews, whose biblical prophets were the ones who first wrote about a future Messianic Age, recognize that the birth of a Messianic Age must be preceded by its birth-pangs, but emphasize mostly the post birth-pangs glories of a world living in peace and prosperity, with justice for all.
Ancient Jewish prophecies did proclaim that there would be an end to the world as we know it. But they did not prophesy that the world will come to an end. The Mayan date, based on astronomy and fixed far in advance, is just the beginning of a new interval of time, similar to the year 2,000.
The Biblical date, which cannot be fixed in advance, because humans have free will, (Deuteronomy 30:19) does mark the beginning of a time of transition from one World Age into another.
How we move through this transition, either with resistance or acceptance, will determine whether the transformation will happen through cataclysmic changes, or by a gradual religious reform of human society which will lead to a world filled with peace, prosperity and spiritual tranquility.
The Messianic Age is usually seen as the solution to all of humanity’s basic problems. This may be true in the long run but the vast changes the transition to the Messianic Age entails will provide challenges to society for many generations to come.
For example, the Prophet Isaiah, 2,700 years ago, predicted that someday there would be a radically new world in which Jerusalem would be fulfilled with joy for “no more shall there be in it an infant that lives only a few days.” (Isaiah 65:20) Before the mid 19th century the annual death rate for humans fluctuated from year to year but always remained high, between 30 and 50+ deaths per 1,000 individuals.
Those elevated, unstable rates were primarily caused by infectious and parasitic diseases. The toll from disease among the young was especially high. Almost 1/3 of the children born in any year died before their first birthday; in some subgroups, half died. Because childbirth was hazardous, mortality among pregnant women was also very high.
A century ago, the infant mortality rate in Jerusalem (as in most of the world) was 25-30%. Now it is less than 1%. For thousands of years almost every family in the world suffered the loss of at least one infant; now it happens to less than one out of two hundred.
If this radical improvement had occurred over a few years, it would have greatly impressed people. But since it occurred gradually over several generations, people take it for granted. Also, it seems to be part of human nature that most people focus on complaining about the less than 1% that still die (an individual family tragedy heightened by the fact that it is unexpected because it is so rare) rather than be grateful that the infant mortality rate has been reduced by 97%.
The fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy has thus gone un-noticed and uncelebrated.
But even when the events are rapid and dramatic, people rarely connect them to their Messianic significance for very long. The amazing rescue of 14,235 Ethiopian Jews in a 1991 airlift to Israel, lasting less than 40 hours, stirred and inspired people for a few weeks.
Subsequently, the difficult problems the newcomers faced (similar to those of the 900,000 Soviet immigrants) occupied the Jewish media. Now both are taken for granted. The miracle has become routine.
But if you had told the Jews of Ethiopia two generations ago that they would someday all fly to Israel in a giant silver bird, they could only conceive of this as a Messianic miracle.
If you had told Soviet Jews a generation ago that the Communist regime would collapse, the Soviet Union disintegrate, and hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews would emigrate to Israel, they would have conceived it only as a Messianic dream.
In our own generation therefore we have seen the dramatic fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “I will bring your offspring from the (Middle) East and gather you from the (European) West. To the North (Russia) I will say ‘give them up’ and to the South (Ethiopia) ‘do not hold them’. Bring my sons from far away, my daughters from the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 43:5-6) Isn’t it amazing how people adjust to living in a radically new world and forget how bad things were in the past.
Those who emphasize the cataclysmic aspects of the transition generally come from fundamentalist Christian circles, and see the coming of the Messianic Age from the perspective of the Book of Revelation with its emphasis on Judgment Day.
But humans have free will, so the exact time and manner of redemption cannot be determined in advance. Much depends on what we humans do.
Repentance produces changes in the future for both individuals and nations. Repentance enables some individuals and some communities to escape the consequences of prior evil.
On the other hand, God’s promise is that evil powers will never succeed in destroying Israel or in overcoming world justice in the long run. Thus, even without full repentance, God will act if the Divine promise of a Messianic Age is threatened.
As Isaiah states, “The Lord says: you were sold, but no price was paid; and without payment, you shall be redeemed.” (Isaiah 52:3) i.e. all your suffering in exile was not really fully deserved, and your redemption from exile will not really be fully earned. Redemption is part of God’s outline for human destiny; and will occur sooner (through repentance) or later (in God’s own time).
Finally, if one believes that God inspired prophets are able to describe scenarios of various developments in the distant future then one has to accept that the understanding of these passages should change and improve as we come closer and closer to the times they describe.
As an example, Jeremiah describes a radical future in which woman surround men, “The Lord will create a new thing on earth-a woman will surround a man” (Jeremiah 31:22). The great commentator Rashi understands ‘surround’ to mean encircle.
The most radical thing Rashi can think of (and in 11th century France it was radical) is that woman will propose marriage (a round wedding ring, or encircling the groom at the wedding ceremony) to men.
In today’s feminist generation we can see women surrounding men in fields once almost exclusively male such as in law, medical and theology schools. Of course, this means that a few generations from now we might have even better understandings of some predictive passages in the prophets, so humility should always be with us.
But the real lesson from all this is that we should not look forward to a Judgment Day when all our enemies, and all evil, will suddenly disappear in a cataclysmic purge. Instead, we should have faith and trust in the ability of God inspired humans to transform our world into a Messianic Age of justice and peace.
Indeed, there is a view, espoused by the well known Jewish writer, Franz Kafka, that the Messiah will come not at the beginning, but at the end of the Messianic Age; to congratulate us for achieving the vision of the Biblical prophets.
So when there was no apocalyptic catastrophe in the months following 12/21/12, no one should have been surprised. Rather we should look forward, with faith and confidence, to overcoming the challenges that each generation faces, assured that we are on the correct path to a world of international justice and peace.
About the author:
Allen Maller retired in 2006 after serving for 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Los Angeles. His web site is: http://www.rabbimaller.com
First posted: 2013-AUG-23
Latest update: 2013-AUG-23
Author: A.S. Maller