The End is Nigh

By Allan Arkush
Friday, July 6, 2012

Richard Landes tells us on the very first page of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience that he isn’t going to confine himself to the usual suspects.  “To illustrate the near universality of millennialism,” he writes, “to cut against the grain that assumes a Judeo-Christian origin for all millennialism, I selected for treatment here only non-Jewish and non-Christian movements.”  Yet the Jews are by no means absent from his new book.  The first chapter begins with a famous Chelm story; the epigraph to the volume’s conclusion is a saying from Pirkei Avot.  And it’s not just a question of outward trappings.  In his taxonomy of millennial ideas and movements over the course of history, Landes ascribes a very important role to Judaism.  Heaven on Earth concludes with an urgent reminder of the danger posed by contemporary millennialism to the Jews.

Landes defines millennialism as “the belief that at some point in the future the world that we live in will be radically transformed into one of perfection—of peace, justice, fellowship, and plenty.”  He takes pains to show that this belief generated millennialist movements in Egypt before the Jews became a people and in China at a time when they were unknown.   But if the Jews didn’t invent millennialism, they are nevertheless responsible for a major innovation: "the very origins of ‘revolutionary’ (i.e., cataclysmic, apocalyptic), demotic millennialism arise in the contest between imperial hierarchies and the surviving Israelites after the Babylonian captivity, those from the tribe of Judah (i.e., the Jews)."

Even though he believes that every stripe of millennialism is rooted in delusion—in the anticipation of a historical denouement that will never occur—Landes is proud of the Jewish contribution. For the goal of what he labels the demotic—or popular—variety of millennialism is to dismantle authoritarian, hierarchical societies “and replace them with a universal network of free, productive civil polities, living in mutual and voluntary peace and exchange, enforced by a discourse of judicial fairness.”  These demotic values have developed in more than one place, Landes explains, but their principal source is the Hebrew Bible which, “as the canon of the dominant religion of European society,” made them much more accessible to a much wider audience than did any comparable classical Greek text.  

“The Enlightenment’s dream of a society based on reason, equality, brotherhood, transparency/honesty, and justice represents,” according to Landes, “a secular version” of the Bible’s message.  The French Revolution, therefore, was in essence an attempt to translate the ancient prophetic vision into reality.  Despite its inability to do so completely, it implemented “significant features” of it.  In fact, an argument can be made that “modern democracies are the unintended consequences of inevitably failed demotic millennial experiments.”   

This “new world of constitutional governments” is one in which the Jews have enjoyed “phenomenal success.” “Demotic religiosity,” Landes tells us, “may explain this success retrospectively: having played by the rules of a civil society—equality before the law, self-criticism, meritocracy—for millennia, the Jews had little difficulty adjusting to the new conditions of civil polities of the nineteenth century.”  For many Jews who found these conditions unsatisfactory or unavailable, Zionism represented “a secular demotic millennial movement (with a strong religious undercurrent),” one that succeeded in providing the Jewish people with a civil polity of their own.

But modern millennialism has also had a downside for the Jews.  Landes understands Nazism as a manifestation of “genocidal millennialism,” more deeply indebted to Christian millennial movements for its ideas and terminology than many would like to believe.  And the defeat of the Nazis has not led to the disappearance of this most menacing form of millennialism; for, as the last chapter of Heaven on Earth discusses, it has resurfaced in an Islamic variant.  

Contemporary Muslim millennialists sizzle in their outrage at the evil West’s ongoing humiliation of their part of the world.  Drawing on both the longstanding Muslim apocalyptic tradition and, in strange ways, the Christian apocalyptic tradition as well, they have “embraced any and every conspiracy theory, every fevered dread of annihilation, every envy-ridden and rage-soaked hatred that millennial visions can, at their worst, produce.”  Israel, an outpost of demotic millennialism in the midst of the Muslim world which upholds very different values, is the sorest point of all.  The sight of it has provoked Muslim apocalyptic thinkers to arrive at “the same conclusion as the Nazis: genocide.”  But for them, that is only the beginning.  “The extermination of the Jewish enemy represents a part of a larger claim: the entire West with its (Jewish-inspired) corruptions will fall.”  

If the study of millennialism’s historical impact teaches anything at all, Landes thinks, it is that dreams of this sort should not be taken lightly, at least not by their potential victims. The Jews and everyone else in the West must remain alert to the terrible dangers that they face.  Whether the threat posed by Islamic millennialism is really as great as Landes believes it to be is debatable, but it is too complex a question to be usefully addressed here.  One curious aspect of his argument deserves, however, to be noted: he devotes very little attention to the Islamic Republic of Iran and mentions the name of Ahmadinejad only once.  

Allan Arkush is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

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