Friday, October 16, 1998

The Millennium Bug (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, October 16, 1998

As we proceed into the new year we'll be hearing lots about the Millennium Bug. The idea is that at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Day 2000, everything having to do with a computer is going to go haywire. Major companies and government agencies are spending millions to figure out how to keep that from happening. I hear that the defense department is all set, but that air traffic controllers are far from ready, so I don't recommend being up in the friendly skies that night. There is real fear that the world as we know it will cease to exist when the clock strikes 12, that we will pay the piper for all the supposed progress of the past century.

Now it is true that on the Jewish calendar, next year will not be 2000 but rather 5760, so what's the big deal? It is not our millennium. But we don't really do well with millennia. Just ask those Jews butchered by Crusaders as the year 1000 approached. I do not expect pogroms this time, but the ends of millennia are inherently unstable times, and instability inevitably leads to two things: messianic expectation and chauvinistic certainty. When the future is shaky, as it is now, there tends to be a heightened expectation that God is up to something, and that that something is going to be good for our team. Messianism and chauvinism are a combustible combination that usually is not good for the Jews.

But no matter whose calendar we're talking about, Jews have also gotten caught up in this messianic fervor, this second type of Millennium Bug -- a far more dangerous malady than the first. One would expect Christian fundamentalists to be circling their calendars and making reservations for Armageddon, because it is their millennium, and for Moslem fundamentalists to be in ferment, because they always are. But Jews?

Yes, Jews.

A few weeks ago, those fringe groups dedicated to building the third temple held their annual rally in Jerusalem, and for the first time they attracted 2,000 participants. They've got everything in place for this little construction project to commence. The high priest's garments are prepared and are ready for him. Musical and sacrificial implements are done. They've even found a rare red heifer with which to perform the purification ritual. Most chilling of all is that these are not fringe loonies. The rally was attended by Knesset Law Committee member Hanan Porat of the National Religious Party, and greetings were sent by the deputy minister of education, Tsomet's Moshe Peled, who declared that "instilling the values of the Temple into the entire school system is one of the most important tasks today confronting the Jewish people."

One would think that there is an easy cure for Millennium Bug No. 2: stay away from God. If you stay away from religion altogether, you are sure never to get caught up in the frenzy of expectation that is engulfing the world. In Israel, a generation of Jews has been lost to Jewish spirituality because of distrust of those who are sure that the redemption is at hand. Many Americans have the same fear, spurred by the Heaven's Gate calamity and the frenzied prophesying of the religious right. But the problem is that if we stay away from religion, that leaves us lost in the same Godless world that gave us, ta-da, the 20th century, the supposed triumph of man, the near downfall of civilization, the tyranny of technology and, at century's end, our angst over Millennium Bug No. 1.

And not only do we need God, but the matter is more complicated, because we need messianism too. The hunger for redemption is what feeds our souls, it gives us the passion to go forward. Without that hunger, Judaism is emptied of its life, reduced to a bunch of customs and ceremonies.

An American poet wrote a century ago, "we live in an age of half faith and half doubt, standing at the temple doors, head in and heart out." Not so anymore. Even the most staid main-line churches are rocking with packed, passionate seeker services, and many synagogues are rockin' too.

Part of me is happy to see this world wide religious revival. Finally the heart is being restored to our synagogues. We are reinstating the ardor that Abraham Joshua Heschel yearned for when he wrote, decades ago, "The fire has gone out of our worship. It is cold, stiff and dead. Yes, the edifices are growing; yet worship is decaying. Has the synagogue become the graveyard where prayer is buried. There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks, but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of the soul?"

The fire is back; the sparks are flying. So we need to be reminded that Judaism has devised ways to seek God while maintaining an even keel. We need balance, not craziness. We need to yearn for the Messiah but not be preoccupied by getting him/her here on the next train.

As rabbis, the last thing we want to do is cool this passion, but we've got to help control it, and assist people in seeking God through less dangerous though equally fulfilling ways.

The Midrash puts it this way: "We find God by good deeds and the study of Torah ... through love, through brotherhood and respect, through companionship, through truth and through peace, through bending the knee, through humility ... through a good heart, through decency, through no that is really no, through yes that is really yes."

In the end, it is honesty, decency and goodness that avert the Millennium Bug. It will take hard-working, good-deed doing, one-base-at-a-time Judaism that won't give us quick results and will not satisfy the quixotic demands of this impatient era. It won't be easy, but it's the only way.

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