Friday, December 21, 2012

No end of the world today

According to an old Mayan prophecy, the world was supposed to end at 5:11 AM today.  (In my time zone at least.)  Well, it's 12:00 noon and I'm still here.   Not that I really expected the world to end.  But this does give me an opportunity to answer some common questions about Judaism and "the End Times."

First of all, we need to clarify that the word olam in Hebrew can mean either "world" in the sense of the physical planet, or "eternity." The best modern translation is probably something like "space-time continuum."   (I have always wondered if this fact had any influence on Einstein's ability to imagine a point at infinity where space and time converge.  He wasn't a religious Jew, but culturally he must have heard the word olam.  Did the Hebrew language help facilitate the "thought experiment" that led to the Theory of Relativity?  Interesting question...)

In Greek, however, there are two separate words for these two ideas:  kosmos for the physical world, and aeon for a period of time or age.   So already we have a major difference between Jewish thought and Greco-Roman thought when it comes to talking about "the end times."  During the period when Christianity split off from Judaism, it was common in both groups to try and calculate the End of the World.  But were the early Christians talking about the end of the physical kosmos, or the end of an age?

Jesus and his disciples were speaking Aramaic, a derivative of Hebrew, so most likely they were using olam.  But the Gospels are written in Greek, not Hebrew, and, as far as I know, Greek does not have a single word that includes both time and space.  So the Christian authors had to choose between kosmos and aeon.  I'm no expert in this, but I do know that Judaism has tended to lean toward the "end of an age" rather than a literal destruction of the planet.

In fact, there is a famous quote in Avot de Rabbi Nathan (a classical Jewish commentary) that says, "If you are planting a tree and you hear the messiah has come, first finish planting your tree, then go to meet him."  In other words, don't drop everything just because you hear rumors about the end of the world.

By and large, modern Judaism discourages calculating a specific date for "the end times."  Why?  Because setting a specific date tends to become a form of escapism.  If you think the world is ending soon, and that a deity is going to appear and miraculously solve all your problems, then why bother to do anything to improve the world?  Many, many times I have been told by Christians that there is no point in trying to make peace in the Middle East, because there will always be "wars and rumors of wars" until Jesus returns.  Somehow, this seems defeatist and, frankly, rather callous.  In contrast, Jews are commanded to actively "seek peace and pursue it " (Psalm 34:14).

Jesus appearing in the clouds
from the Macklin Bible 1798
In Greek drama, there is a concept called deus ex machina, literally "god from a machine."  At the end of a play, an actor playing a god would be lowered on a rope (the machine) to "descend" and straighten out everything in the story.  We also see a form of this in the Book of Job, where, after Job and his friends debate the question of "why bad things happen to good people," God speaks to Job and answers the question on a cosmic scale.  (In fact, some scholars believe that the author of Job might have been a Greek convert to Judaism.  The book certainly follows the format of a Greek play.)  In Christian imagery, Jesus will descend from heaven on a cloud when he returns and sets the world right.  And in modern New Age circles, the "gods" are extraterrestrials who will descend in UFOs.

The problem with deus ex machina is that it doesn't work very well in real life.  If we sit around waiting for a messiah to fix everything for us, then nothing ever gets fixed.  This is why Jews are not "waiting for" the messiah.  Rather, we are working to bring the messianic age, to beat swords into plowshares as promised by Isaiah.  Each mitzvah we do brings us one step closer.  Some Jews do believe there will be an actual person who is the messiah, others see "bringing messiah" as a process.  But most of us would agree that it is not enough to just sit around and wait for a deus ex machina to appear and solve all our problems.   We are each responsible to help make the world a better place to live in.

(If you are still worried about a literal end of the world, check out this page on the NASA website.  NASA received so many inquiries about this "event," they actually posted a Q and A!)


Anonymous said...

Very insightful and interesting as always. Always enjoy reading your posts. JoAnn (A Former Minnesotan)

Anonymous said...

The command to peacefulness is even stronger in the Christian Gospels, And more ignored.
As we completely ignore the command to aestheticism.

The end times are not far away, but not because of His action. We are doing it, like lemmings off a cliff. He will not be pleased with what we hand back.

So I have given up pork, sea food and now I not supposed to have cheese on my beef burger. I do not miss the bacon, it is just so wrong in ways that I cannot explain. Ask Him to lead and he will.


YonassanGershom said...

Tony: Regarding the dietary laws, if you are not Jewish, you are not required to keep them. The only dietary laws that apply to non-Jews are:

(1) No eating blood (so "blood sausage" and such are out and

(2) no eating anything cut from a living animal -- it must be slaughtered first. (So no "pig nuts" or "rocky mountain oysters," both of which are castrated testacles and yes, macho gentile cowboys and pig farmers do eat those.)

The reasons for the dietary laws spiritual, having to do with the energy of foods, and awareness of where foods come from. So meat has the most rules because you are taking the life of an animal to obtain it. Which is why many Jews, including me, consider vegetarianism to be the highest form of kashrut, since Eden was vegetarian.

Anonymous said...

I think the giving up of pork is a good thing. We treat the pigs abominably, so to support that industry would be sinfull. Pork is forbidden not just to Jews. Furthermore when I had some fried rice, that would have had ham in it, it was just so very wrong.

The second last mixing of meat and dairy. The conversation with self was clearly indicating no more. The last time, I could almost feel that Divine slow head shake.

The feeling of wrongness about seafood is no where near as strong.

Could it all be imagination? I do not think so. There are other changes in my life and the agenda is not of my priorities. Not so much changes I do not want, but not in the order I would prioritise.

It is a interesting journey and I do not know where it goes, but I do believe it is in the right direction.


YonassanGershom said...

I beleive it has to do with the spiritual energies in the foods. It is very interesting that when people evolve from omnivores to vegatarians, they tend to follow an order that is very close to the Jewish dietary laws, giving up flesh foods in basically this order, going from the most restrictions to the least:
Forbidden species, red meat fowl, fish. Vegans go on to give up eggs and dairy also (which I have not done, I am ovo-lacto.) I think maybe I will do a blog post on thi sometime.

Regading seafoods such as crab, lobster, shrimp, etc. when you eat these you are basically eating bugs, since they are arthropods same as insects. They are also bottom feeders, and a lot of them are full of mercury & other pollutants. Plus many mollusks are now endangered species, along with corals that rely on these species to clean the bottom.

Although "heath rules" were not the original reason for these laws (in spite of what the secularists say), health is often a side benefit. Vegetarianism is definitely more healthy, give all the recalls from ecoli, salmonella, mad cow dieseas, etc. we hear abut lately. Even the American Heart Association is sayng we should eat less meat.

cipher said...

Regading seafoods such as crab, lobster, shrimp, etc. when you eat these you are basically eating bugs, since they are arthropods same as insects.

Yet locusts were permitted.

The Mayan calendar wasn't necessarily specifying December 21st as the "end of the world". It was merely the end of the most recent of their cycles of thirteen baktuns (a baktun is a period of 144,000 days), which they considered significant. I think it may be seen as being roughly analogous to our Birkat Hachamah. Apparently, there exist Mayan references to dates far in the future. This business of it being the end of the world was New Age hype, and even some New Agers backed away from the idea in recent years, saying instead that it signified a point of transition to a state of higher or global consciousness, or whatever.

God speaks to Job and answers the question on a cosmic scale.

Well, that's a matter of perspective. From mine, all he really told Job was, "It's none of your business!"

I have always wondered if this fact had any influence on Einstein's ability to imagine a point at infinity where space and time converge.

You may find interesting Amir Aczel's The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity.

YonassanGershom said...

Cypher: The way I have always understood the end of the Book of Job is not that God is saying, "None of your business," but rather, that, along with the verbal explanation, God gave Job an expansion of consciousness in which he was able to see the Big Picture and understand how everything fits together on the cosmic scale. This lifts Job out of his limited, "poor me" level of thinking. (A pitfall we all stumble into occasionally.) Ultimately, we don't really know all the reasons why things happen to us -- but it is the nature of humans to look for meanings.

Regarding locusts, they were probably permitted for the practical reason that when a hoard of locusts descends, nothing else is left to eat. However, today, as far as I know, the only Jews who know which ones are the permitted species are the Yemenites. Nobody else eats them anymore.

RE: The Mayan calendar, I am aware that it was really the end of an AGE, not the physical world -- more similar to the Jewish POV that the Christian Armageddon. And yes, it probably is analagous to Birkat Hachamah.

And speaking of ends of cycles, Happy New Year 2013!

cipher said...

And speaking of ends of cycles, Happy New Year 2013!

Yes, you too.

(And re: Job - I'm afraid I lack the sophistication of soul required to see the "Big Picture". I think that's merely a rationalization - but I'm an apikorus. I've been certified!)

dogbaker said...

You have really explained to me in a wonderful way what I have always believed about all the end of the world stories.
As a Christian I always just go back to "no man shall no the day or the hour"
Thank you for the language insight.