The Millennium: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

HJ Vol 27 No 4 Autumn 1999

Millennium fever is abroad. Some people are expecting the end of the world. Others are preparing for computer catastrophes. Still others are planning parties. Since socialism died, secular utopian visions for the next thousand years are hard to find. Of course, all of this anxiety is technically inappropriate. Since Jesus was most likely born in 4 B.C.E., the beginning of the millennium (as dated from his presumed birth) happened three years ago! 

Millennium time is an obvious time for prophecy. Secular prophets can be excused if they turn out to be fallible. There are so many variables to tangle with. The way to begin the process is to look at the amazing transformations of the past millennium. 

One thousand years ago, most of the planet’s people were subsistence farmers living in villages. The muslim world was at the peak of its power. Christian Europe was an economic backwater. Human minds and lives were centered on religion. Governments were princely and authoritarian. 

One thousand years later, the Muslim world is economically primitive. European culture dominates the world. Most people live in cities, not villages. The lifestyles of urban people are overwhelmingly secular. The political environment of most powerful nations is one of democracy and personal freedom. Our millennium has been unique. There is a radical discontinuity between its beginning and its end. 

For the Jews of the world, the past millennium has brought an equally radical transformation. One thousand years ago, most of the Jewish people lived in Muslim countries. Their lives were controlled by religious ritual and religious authority. External and internal governments were authoritarian and oppressive. One thousand years later, most Jews reside in nations of predominantly European culture, including a Jewish state. Their lifestyle has more to do with consumer choices than with divine commandments. Their political and economic environments offer emancipation, freedom, and prosperity. Their connection to their historic past is minimal. 

Never before in Jewish history has change been so dramatic. In the last two hundred years of this millennium, the interests and behavior of Jews have completely diverged from the traditions of the past. Synagogues and temples have become haves of nostalgia, where Jews can pretend to be traditional and to dent that they have radically changed. But the reality is too powerful to sustain the denial. A secular environment of personal freedom has no precedent in human history. At the end of this millennium has no precedent in human history. 

A free society, the gift of Anglo-Saxon Protestant politics, has undermined the walls of Jewish conformity. Today Jewish diversity is expanding. No single Jewish authority has the power to regulate Jewish life. Every Jew enjoys the privilege of choice. And the “menu” is almost infinite. Moses and Marx, Jeremiah and Freud, Akiba and Camus, gefilte fish and bacon, all are possible combinations on the buffet of freedom. Many Jews don yarmulkes at intermarriages. Some choices are rational and in good taste. Some choices are irrational and in bad taste. But no one seems to have the power to stop choosing. Of course, all this rapid change has produced high levels of guilt and anxiety. Many Jews are traumatized by freedom. Many want to go forward and backward at the same time. The rise of a militant Jewish fundamentalism is not a sign that change is reversing. It is a tribute to its success.  

So what are the prospects for the next millennium? Will the technological transformation of the industrial world render nationalism obsolete and break down the ethnic and religious barriers that have divided humanity? Will communication and transportation be so swift that the “global village” becomes real? Under today’s circumstances it is difficult to predict events beyond the next one hundred years. Empirical prophets are restrained by insufficient evidence. Nevertheless, it is clear that the beginning of the next millennium will continue the radical transformation of the Jew.  

What can we expect? 

Prosperity, leisure, and secular education will continue to make the Jew more secular. The secular goods of the market economy and the consumer culture have become more attractive than the offerings of traditional religion. 

Israel will continue to exist. A global economy will utilize its buying power and make it prosperous. The gradual secularization of the Arab and Muslim worlds will enable Israel to find allies, if not friends, in the Near East. 

Jewish life will grow more chaotic through diversity. Atheists, mystics, and Jesus-freaks all will be a part of it. In Israel, peace will bestow new power on the secular minority. New Age religion will share the marketplace with Orthodoxy. 

The dichotomy between ultra-Orthodox and secularized Jews will grow wider. As a protest against the modern world, ultra-Orthodoxy will continue to recruit many Jews who find the stresses of contemporary urban society intolerable. Living in their islands of segregation, traditional Jews will feel increasingly alienated from the rest of the Jewish community. 

Intermarriage will remain a significant part of Jewish life. Even in Israel, marriages between Jews and Arabs will flow from the freedom of an open society. Anti-Semitism will persist as a chronic annoyance. Since its foundations lie in the discomfort of millions of people with the stresses of a modern capitalist and urban culture and the perceived dominant role of Jews in that culture, its locus will continue to lie chiefly among the poor and lower classes. 

In the Diaspora, assimilation and intermarriage will de-ethnicize the Jewish people. After several generations, the stereotypes of Ashkenazic Jews will vanish. Jewish identity will be primarily a matter of choice. In the Jewish state, a new ethnicity will emerge out of the mixing of Ashkenazic and Eastern Jews. In both places the Jewish profile will become radically different. 

Higher birthrates in Israel will reverse the current population edge of the Diaspora. By 2050 the Zionist dream will be realized: the majority of the Jews in the world will reside in Israel. Israel will continue to play a greater and greater role in Jewish life, even for the de-ethnicized Jews of the Diaspora. 

American Jewry will shrink in size through low birth rates and attrition. But many non-Jews will choose a version of Jewish identity. A fascination with the achievements of Jews will continue to recruit adherents from the middle and upper classes. 

Humanistic Judaism will continue to grow and to become more respectable. Secular Jews will be attracted to Humanistic Judaism if the movement is both strong and visible. Reform and Conservative Jews will keep shifting between traditional and liberal initiatives in order to deal with their diverse and amorphous constituencies. Internal disputes may fragment both movements. 

Relentless change will be the order of the day. The technology of the next millennium will continue to generate both power and anxiety. More than theology, it will determine the future of Jewish life and of Judaism. 

The Rabbi Writes – The Massacre in Beirut

Volume 20, No. 3, October 1982

Rosh Hashana. The massacre in Beirut. Outrage. Shame.

And up all the facts have been revealed. But enough have surfaced to fill our Jewish hearts with guilt. The Defense Minister of the state of Israel has publicly admitted that he allowed the forces of the Christian Lebanese Phalange to pass through Israeli lines and to enter the Palestinian camps of Shatila and Sabra for the purpose of rooting out terrorists. But as every Lebanese child knows, to allow militant Christians, thirsty for revenge for the assasination of their hero leader, into an unarmed Palestinian camp is to invite murder. It is as innocent as putting a snake in a baby’s crib.

How does a humanistic Jew respond to the news that leaders of the Jewish state have sanctioned a holocaust? How do we deal with their initial refusal to allow an impartial investigation? Do we defend our Jewish leaders because they are Jewish? Do we minimize the outrage? Do we plead that greater atrocities have been committed against us? Do we claim that we are not responsible for what Israel allows?

The first thing we do is to dismiss certain harmful illusions.

It’s not my problem – is an illusion.

Whether we like it or not, all Jews are identified with the behavior of the Israeli government. As the most consuming passion of world Jewry, support for Israel cannot be dismissed when it is inconvenient or embarrassing. we cannot proudly identify with all the good achievements, and then in cowardly fashion avoid our obvious association with bad behavior. The world sees Israel and the Jewish people as one.

We buy our own behavior have created this impression. As members of the Jewish family we are implicated in the crime. We therefore have a special responsibility to let the world know how we feel.

Disunity is bad – is an illusion.

Sharon implied that Jewish protestors were giving assistance to the enemies of the Jewish people and that they were guilty of treason and antisemitism. Many of our timid community leaders who were interviewed in the Detroit Free Press obviously feel the same way. But silence is complicity. We who denounced the silence of Germans in World War II who also succumbed to appeals for unity should be hard put to swallow the Sharon argument. Perhaps Amos and Isaiah, who objected policies of their government in the face of external danger were also antisemites.

Jews are the only victims of the double standard – is an illusion.

Norman Podhoretz complains that the world allows the Gentile nations behavior that it refuses the Jews. Atrocities are committed all the time all over the world and are ignored by world opinion. Only when Israel behaves less than noble does moral outrage appear. Yet the reverse is also true. We Jews are so accustomed to being the unique victim that when other people, especially our enemies, are victimized we regard them as imposters, as unworthy of the status which we have for so long grown accustomed to claim for ourselves alone. That arrogance is also a double standard. We cannot bear to think that the Palestinian experience bears any similarity to the Jewish one.

The Holocaust gives us special privileges – is an illusion.

Many Jews including Begin, believe that Jewish suffering in the holocaust was so terrible that it justifies Jewish violence against an uncaring world. How can 500 Palestinians compare to 6 million Jewish dead? Counting casualties become the criterion for outrage. By this standard we still have over 5 million to go before the world has a right to object. No more unattractive self-righteousness can present itself.

What other people think is unimportant – is an illusion.

When hypocrites, like the Russians and the Libyans complain, who cares? But when the dutch, the Danes, and the Swedes – the ardent supporters of Israel in the American Congress and American journalism complain – the Israeli government ought to listen. The self-esteem of a nation depends on the approval of its friends and allies. Will the morale of Israel be elevated by the endorsement of South Africa and Jerry Falwell?

The Israeli military leaders had no motivation to sanction a massacre – is an illusion.

In 1948 the Irgun terrorists attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin and massacred men, women and children. The report of that massacre spread throughout the Palestinian Arab community creating panic and persuading thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes. In 1980 to a similar incident in Lebanon might persuade thousands of Palestinian refugees in Israeli occupied territories to flee their camps and to cross over the Syrian lines to safety. The convenient exodus of 1948 is the precedent for the aborted exodus of 1948 is the precedent for the aborted exodus of 1982. Both the Phalange and the Israeli military would have regarded the terrified departure of the Palestinians as good riddance.

After we have dismissed the illusions, the second thing we do is to protest. we do what 400,000 Israeli citizens did in Tel Aviv.

We protest the refusal of the leaders of the American Jewish establishment to express moral outrage.

We protest the refusal of the Israeli government to allow an objective investigation of the events until world pressure compelled them to relent.

We protest the leadership of Begin and Sharon who have brought shame to the Jewish people.

We protest, not only to be heard, but also to clear our conscience. Silence is complicity.

The Muslim Split: War and Toleration

Recorded April 2007 by the Center for New Thinking.

The early split in the Muslim world between Sunnis and Shiites led to many centuries of war and confrontation. The majority Sunnis dominated in most centuries. But the rise of the Shiite Fatimids in North Africa and Egypt led to the emergence of a powerful Shiite empire for two centuries. Had the Turks not been converted to Sunni Islam the entire Arab world would have fallen under the control of the Shiites? But war exhaustion often led to periods of toleration and peaceful co-existence. Nevertheless, hatred was sustained by religious fanaticism.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

Cartoons of Mohammed: Freedom in Islam

Recorded 2005 by the Center for New Thinking.

The Muslim world is in an anti-Western furor that does not seem to be abating. A Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons featuring Mohammad, and by implication, Islam in an unflattering way. When irate Muslims protest, other European newspapers in France, Spain and Germany reprinted them as a defiant defense of press freedom. Provocateurs in the Muslim world used this defiance to mobilize riotous mobs, burning down embassies. At issue is the future of media freedom in the Western world. Will the Muslim now proceed to censor us?

Click HERE to download and listen to the audio lecture.

The Fatwa Against Rushdie

The Jewish Humanist, March 1989

A brilliant and creative writer, by the name of Salman Rushdie, has been condemned to death for writing a book that his accusers have not even read.

Ayatollah Khomeini has re-entered the political spotlight by ordering the execution of a secular intellectual of Muslim origin. Rushdie, an award-winning novelist of international fame, has been declared guilty of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death in fundamentalist circles. His book, Satanic Verses, innocently plays with Muslim myths, including the stories of Mohammed and his wives, in order to demonstrate the ambiguity of good and evil. To the secular reader the presentation is subtle, creative and brilliant. To the pious Muslim reader it is nothing short of an assault on God.

In the post-Enlightenment secularized world of the West such a book has a right to exist, even though it causes pain and discomfort to pious believers. Free speech is a fundamental liberty which even traditional religious people have come to accept. After all, it simply evens the score. For countless centuries religious leaders have had complete freedom to speak and write scurrilously about atheism and secularism, defaming its teachers and philosophers in the most outrageous way. “Blasphemy” can go both ways.

But in the Muslim world, which never experienced a true Enlightenment and where religion has never had the opportunity to adapt to a secular democratic world, free speech is difficult to comprehend. Insulting God, by denying the infallibility of his prophets and scripture, endangers not only the individuals who are guilty of blasphemy but also the society that tolerates it without adequate punishment. If the guilty are not removed all will suffer the wrath of Allah.

The crafty Khomeini is using the opportunity of this scandal to re-assert his pre-eminence in the Muslim world, especially after the debacle with Iraq. However it is a diversionary tactic, which runs counter to the recent attempts of some of his lieutenants to cozy up to the Western powers in the hope that Western financial help will now be available to rebuild the economy of Iran. Khomeini cannot have it both ways. He cannot threaten the West and seduce them into assisting him at the same time. Right now, being the angry voice of a militant Islam is more appealing.

Interestingly, his new terrorism is working. Booksellers, like Waldenbooks and Dalton, are refusing to sell Rushdie’s book. Governments, like Canada, are forbidding its import. Religious leaders with a few exceptions are choosing silence. The author has offered an abject apology (which has humiliatingly been rejected). Even the American president, who is hardly a favorite in Teheran where he enjoys the status of a condemned Satan, has chosen to speak softly. Only the European community has responded with some courage, although it still continues to import Persian oil.

At stake in this encounter is the future of free speech as well as the future of art and science. If intellectual and literary figures, whose creativity deviates from the norm of religious prosperity, can be placed on death lists by fundamentalist governments and the Western public – then free speech will be an ultimate victim of international terrorism.

The attitude that assumes that Khomeini is a passing crazy and does not deserve our courageous defiance is dangerous. When Khomeini dies, others equally crazy and fanatic, will follow. But once the posture of surrender is begun, once the defiance is mild rather than bold, the battle will be lost. It will just be easier to comply then resist. Dignity will seem less important than physical security.

It is, therefore, very important that we, as secularists and humanists, who will suffer most from fundamentalist intimidation, should not yield to these threats. It is important that we encourage publishers and booksellers not to yield and that we denounce and embarrass those who do. It is also important that we encourage the American government to speak out boldly against this intimidation and to institute sanctions. America’s caution will neither protect American hostages nor encourage pro-Western elements in the Iranian government.

Whether you approve or disapprove of Salman Rushdie is not the issue. Free speech is. And now is the time to defend it.