The millennial impulse — the belief, hope, or fear that a fundamental global change is imminent — seems universal in human experience. It may be messianic (that is, focused around an individual savior) or impersonal. It may be religious or secular. But as scholars have shown, millennialism (the term refers not to the year 2000, but to the Christian notion of Christ’s thousand years of future rule) appears in all cultures, and all times. The Rapture, the Xhosa cattle-killing movement, Nazism, Y2K, Zionism, the false messiah Sabbetai Zevi, the end date of the 2012 Mayan calendar, socialist utopias, UFO cults, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, the celibate Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Chabad-Lubavitch messianism, Jesus Christ himself — all of these are instances of the same cluster of human hopes and fears. Such impulses seem essential to the human condition.
Perhaps even more interesting is what happens next. Usually (so far, always), the redemption does not arrive. What then? Beginning with the classic study When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger, a legion of scholars — myself among them, as I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the quasi-messianic figure Jacob Frank — has traced the arcs of disappointment that inevitably follow the failure of the apocalypse to materialize. Often, the inner circle becomes more devout, rather than less, after the wider audience diminishes; this was certainly the case following Sabbetai Zevi’s apostasy in 1666. And it was true more recently in 1974, when the Jehovah’s Witnesses movement predicted that the world would end. Many people left, but those inside became more ardent.
What, then, of the political messiahs we all tend to venerate? The iconic red and blue poster image of candidate Barack Obama, usually with the words ‘Hope’ or ‘Change’ written beneath his image, was quintessentially millennialist. And intrinsic to such outsized hopes is the certainty of disappointment. Of course, Obama has accomplished one of the largest transfers of wealth in American history (“Obamacare”), made history as our first African-American president, ended two terrible wars, restored some of America’s global reputation, and won countless victories for progressive values — including rebalancing the federal bench and moving same-sex marriage forward. But his shortcomings have also been apparent over the past five years: too much deliberation, too little political strong-arming, blind spots on surveillance and security. He is no messiah.
And so, as Festinger and other scholars who followed in his wake would have predicted, while many believers have become disillusioned, the hard core hardens.
In Jewish tradition, the failure of millennial hopes seems inevitable. As much as Jewish traditions stoke such hopes, they also voice skepticism of their ever being fulfilled. Consider some biblical examples. Right after the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites complain about the food. After the revelation at Sinai, they grow impatient and demand an idol to worship. After Joshua’s conquest of the Land of Israel, the anarchic period of the Judges leads to widespread violence and suffering. Even King David, the messianic progenitor himself, presided over scandals, wars, and internal divisions. It’s a good thing there was no Fox News then.
This ambivalence continued in later periods of Jewish history. The talmudic sages, who generally advocated accommodation of the Roman occupiers rather than rebellion against them — especially after the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion — made the Messiah into a supernatural figure, lest anyone think that he (or she) might be the One. And after the Kabbalah-fueled messianism of Sabbetai Zevi, which at its zenith captured the hearts of one-third of European Jewry, mainstream Judaism clamped down on mystical speculation. Even mystical Judaism “neutralized” messianism (in scholar Gershom Scholem’s words) by redefining it as a spiritual experience, rather than a historical transformation.
Thus, as with many issues — such as particularism vs. egalitarianism or violent nationalism vs. peaceful pragmatism — the question is less, “What does Judaism say?” than, “Which sources do I choose to emphasize?” There are plenty of Jewish sources encouraging messianic expectations, from the book of Daniel to Rav Kook and beyond, and plenty of sources discouraging it. Similarly, there are Jewish sources that identify the messianic with the political — Rav Kook again — and those that separate the two realms.
As we look at political messianism today, there are many reasons to choose the latter sources — both those that discourage millennial thinking in general, and those that separate it from the political. Today’s Jewish political messianists are the settler fringe in Israel, whose politics are ecstatic/religious and messianic nationalistic. They are abetted by Christian political messianists in the United States, who, following a particular reading of the book of Revelation, believe that the Rapture will come if enough Jews move to Greater Israel — and if doing so brings war in its wake, all the better. These are dangerous movements for anyone who values this-worldly life — especially so because their failures, like those that Festinger and his colleagues studied, will cause even more zealotry among the staunchest believers.
Obama’s disappointed messianists are less threatening (though some in the Tea Party, convinced that liberals are socialists, might disagree). Most of them cluck their tongues rather than cock their guns. But it is useful for all of us to recognize millennial thinking when we see it, even if it seems as benign as idolizing a presidential candidate or praying for redemption in the Holy Land. The consequences of hastening the redemption, or mourning its failure to come, can often be catastrophic for less dramatic, but more human, values of everyday life and its continuation. Ordinary life may pale in comparison to the Rapture, but for some of us, it’s still worth preserving.
Millennialism is universal, psychologists of religion tell us, because the hope for a paradigm shift is likely rooted in our natural fear of death. But, sometimes, it can hasten its appearance.email print