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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Apocalypse Not Now, Please

October 14, 2001
Marc Rosenstein

For the past several years at least, I have read, books and movies translating the apocalyptic prophecies of the New Testament Book of Revelations into realistic modern thrillers have been huge best-sellers in America; I have certainly encountered shelves full of them in airport bookstores. There are apparently thousands (millions?) of people who are fascinated and excited by the prospect of the great showdown between Christ and Antichrist, the conversion of all the Jews, the cataclysmic events of Judgement Day.

Here in Israel, for about twenty years, there has been a strong undercurrent in religious Zionism that takes literally the symbolic rhetoric of biblical prophecy that has always been part of secular Zionist culture: if we have succeeded, by our efforts and with God’s obvious assistance, in fulfilling some of the prophecies about sovereignty and ingathering and prosperity - then we are obligated to push forward to complete the process. This ideology stands behind the actions of many of those who struggle to maintain and expand Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. In extremis, it stood behind the actions of those who plotted to dynamite the Mosque of Omar on the Temple Mount, and other violence either planned or carried out. It seems that here in Israel, as in North America, there are many people who are itching for Armageddon, who can’t wait for redemption, and who want to take the rest of us along for the ride, willing or not.

Now, from the events of September 11, we have learned that there are Muslims, too, who can’t wait for Judgment Day, and who want the apocalypse now.

I find it worrying that so much of the rhetoric in response to the September 11 attacks is couched in apocalyptic terms: “Nothing is the same any more.” “It is a new world.” “We have to look at everything differently.” “We are involved in a clash of civilizations, the war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness...” And of course, one of the fearsome and attractive things about apocalyptic times is the suspension of the rules: now, we can finally set aside the annoying restrictions of civility and equality and due process, and enjoy the simplicity and excitement of being at war.

Sometimes I wonder if perhaps the apocalyptic literature of our Bible (Daniel), the New Testament, and the Apocrypha, didn’t serve, to some extent, as the thrillers and horror flicks of an earlier time. There is something titillating about imagining the unimaginable. The trouble is that time and again people have tried to connect those images with the events really occurring around them, and each time it has led to disaster: Bar Kochba, Sabbetai Zevi, Christian millennial movements; and I would put the Russian revolution on the list too.

The simplicity of a final all-out war of Good against Evil is powerfully tempting when the reality around us is so confusing, when it is very difficult to locate the high moral ground, when every good cause seems tainted with historical flaws or with means that don’t justify the ends, when all the heroes on the horizon have clay feet. Reading the newspaper is depressing not because there is so much evil, but because the evil is so complicated, so nuanced, so difficult to respond to with a clear and workable plan. So, here we hear the slogan: “Let Tzahal (the army) do it!” If we could just deliver one devastating blow, everything would fall into place. And in the American parallel, at some point, one smart bomb will hit the leader of the bad guys (the Antichrist?), and the sun will rise on a world of peace and justice.

Alas, history is not a movie.


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