“Who,” I asked the audience, “knows what Eschatology is?” No one apparently. “Now that, “I said, “is interesting, given that eschatology has begun to enter the political mainstream, at least in Israel.”
For Eschatology is the theology of the end of days, the coming of the Messiah. Eschatologists base analysis of current events, personal and political decisions in the belief that the end of days is coming and we are living through the foreordained “birth pangs of Mashiach.”
“Who was our most famous eschatologist?” I asked.
“Correct! How did that end?”, I asked.
“Badly”, they said.
Well “badly” doesn’t cover half of it! Whole scale slaughter, Rabbi Akiva tortured to death, Jews banished from Jerusalem for 500 years. Makes coalition negotiations look like a picnic!
“Was Rabbi Akiva a bright guy?”
Of course. And that is all you need to know to tell you that eschatology is a risky business.
There is an alternative model for decision making that Chazal call “Imitatio Dei” (imitating God’s ways). By chance, this week’s Parashah, Lech Lecha, introduces the commandment of circumcision with verse 17.1, “walk before me and be perfect”, interpreted by the Sforno (16th C Italian) as “emulate Hashem.” He considers circumcision a reminder to “walk in Hashem’s ways.”
By a neat symmetry, “walking in Hashem’s ways” features not only when Avraham starts the Jewish people’s journey to Eretz Yisrael, but when Moshe prefaces their actual arrival with his long “pep-talk” of “Blessings and Curses” (Devarim 10.12-30.20), which contains the seeds of both eschatology and Imitatio Dei.
The pep-talk at first sight appears to be the second paragraph of the Shema writ large. “Do the mitzvoth and you’ll flourish. Don’t do them and you’ll perish”. However, it adds three things to this already frightening scenario. First, repeated exhortations to “walk in God’s ways,” beginning with the first introductory verse, “And now…what does the Lord your God require of you but….to walk in all his ways.” The introduction then lists God’s attributes, “great…mighty..and awesome..acting without favour or fear, taking no bribe, doing justice for the orphan, the widow and loving the stranger” (Devarim 10.17-18).
Finally, it makes predictions, not all of which are bad! If you walk in God’s ways, “he will set you on high”. If we don’t, there will be individual retribution for specific sins and collective retribution through siege, destruction and defeat by nations unknown Our eyes will “turn evil” even against our dearest. We will be exiled, scattered, serve other gods, sell ourselves as slaves, return to Egypt and become a horror to all the Kingdoms on earth. Eventually, we will return to God, who will bring us back to the land (Devarim 30, 2-5). Therein lie the seeds of eschatology. How do we understand these predictions with respect to our historical and present-day survival?
Some predictions were absolutely right! We were twice defeated, exiled and scattered by “nations hitherto unknown”. Did our eyes “turn evil” against each other? Pretty much defines Sinat Chinam (needless hatred), with internecine zealotry and Bar Kochba’s slaughter of fellow Jews. People fled to Egypt after the Roman defeat. We sold ourselves as slaves in Rome. We served others’ gods through more forced conversions than we want to remember, plus the “enlightenment’s” conversions for social and professional mobility. We were a “horror to all the kingdoms on earth” as official papal policy was to keep us alive, showcasing our punishment for not accepting Jesus, through the Temple’s destruction and our continual wanderings. Our eventual conversion would then bring on the second coming.
Predictions of our return to God, and resultant restoration to the Land, are more problematic. It could be said of the return from Babylon that we had reconfigured many prayers, introduced synagogue worship and established teshuva (repentance) from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to hasten our return. However, the primary impulse underlying our modern day return to the Land was largely nationalist or refugee. Additionally, many communities suffering Crusade, Inquisition or Holocaust were devout centres of Jewish life. The severity of predicted collective punishment and historical persecution seems to contradict Jewish teaching on individual responsibility for sin (cf. Ezekiel) and how mercifully God judges individuals.
The Chofetz Chaim in “Ahavat Chesed” describes touchingly how Hashem weighs individuals’ sins against their good deeds, using the attribute of lovingkindness to find reasons to arrive at favourable judgements. “He didn’t mean to do it!” “There were extenuating circumstances!”
But the Jewish truth is, as Isaiah (55.8) says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, your ways are not my ways.” It really is impossible for us to reconcile the vagaries and vicissitudes of Jewish history with “midah k’neged midah”.
Eliezer Berkovitz, Modern Orthodox Theologian, addressed the issue in “Faith after the Holocaust”, conceived and written in the weeks before the six-day war, poised between one recent and one impending holocaust.
God, he says, does not intervene in history to right wrongs and prevent injustices. Invoking “the concept of divine mightiness that consists of self-restraint”, he regards history as the arena for human responsibility, with nations’ fates the result of the interplay of power and economics. His central concept is that God is present in history only through the survival of his people Israel. “The people of God came into being, entered history, became a historical reality, exercising great historical influence and demonstrating mysterious survival power. It has all been quite irregular. It conflicts with the rest of historical experience, yet itself is a fact of history.”
Berkowitz quotes Saadiah Gaon, “our nation is a nation only through Torah,” (more accurately, “torot,” teachings), adding that we are
a nation created in its encounter with God, formed by its faith, by its submission to God’s will as manifest in Torah….The historical Israel came into being and maintained itself through all times as the result of its self-understanding as the people of God, the people of God’s Torah.
This Berkowitz sees this as the key to Jewish survival and security, demonstrating God’s presence in history.
The secular author of an article in Haaretz (13 May 2017) defined security as “the sum of our military, civilian and diplomatic capabilities and national morale.” He referenced internal unity, higher morality and “our heritage as a civilisation and bearers of a Universal mission”, calling for decisive action incorporating all these elements. That author was the former Sayeret commander, IDF general and Prime Minister, Ehud Barak.
I have heard that the secular Barak used to learn on Shabbat with his Deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior. Leaving aside the implications of this as a model for bridging the religious-secular divide, Barak explicitly opposes security policies based on eschatology. He implicitly endorses Berkovitz’s view that God does not intervene per se in history but through the independent actions of Israel, guided by the very mission to which Barak refers.
So, what do we learn from all this? Remember the symmetry of “Hashem’s ways” featuring at the start and just before the end of the Jewish journey to Eretz Yisrael? Just as Moshe refers to Hashem’s attributes near the end of the journey, Sforno refers to the only other place in the Torah listing Hashem’s attributes (Shemot 34.6-7), at the start of the journey. He echoes Abba Shaul (Shabbat 131a), ironically Rabbi Akiva’s pupil, “imitate Hashem, as he is gracious and merciful, so be you”. “Imitatio Dei” has always been a mainstay of Jewish self-understanding. Sforno understands it as our part of the covenantal bargain.
The bottom line, I suggest, is this.
A Jewish nation, executing justice without favour, fear or bribe,
looking after its vulnerable, including the stranger and the refugee,
will avoid hate-filled invective (with everyone’s eye “evil” towards his neighbour),
and have an increased chance of survival through its internal unity, morale, and intact morality.
Or to put it another way, a bit more Chesed wouldn’t hurt!
I could be wrong. I am neither historian nor philosopher. However, it makes for a beautiful story and one worth trying to live out, especially so near Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, not to mention an Israeli election or two. Forgive my fantasies, but I am a 64-year-old man, with maybe (b’ezrat Hashem) another 20 years of life left, trying to make sense of the past and plot a course for the future. But then, aren’t we all? Even the eschatologists. Although, personally, I think “Imitatio Dei” is a better bet!