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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.