I heard a friend saying that we are at "the end of days" because the world has gotten so crazy, the weather seems to be changing, rules of morality and nature seem to have gone haywire. Do we as Jews believe in an end of days? Do we know when it is?
[Ed. Note: see somewhat similar question at: http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=357]
To fully answer your question, we would first have to define the “end of days”. This concept can mean different things to different people, but very briefly, Jewish tradition generally discusses three interrelated concepts: the Messianic Age, the World to Come and Resurrection (often referred to as eschatology). Each topic is the subject of discussion and debate throughout the ages, so in this short summary, I will refrain from tackling their various possible meanings and chronology, and discuss them as a whole. While these concepts are either hinted at or are explicitly mentioned in Tanach (the Jewish Bible), the most striking aspect remains the paucity of references that we find. While the Talmud and medieval commentators such as Maimonides (see the last two of the Thirteen Principles of Faith found here - http://www.ou.org/torah/rambam.htm ) and Nachmanides do expand upon these ideas, they remain of lesser prominence in terms of both our daily lives and Jewish theology.
Why is that? Judaism has always focused upon doing the right thing in this world. The Torah, as distilled in Jewish law and philosophy, is our most powerful guide to living the good and moral life as individuals, family and community members, and citizens of the larger world. We are divinely mandated, in the words of the modern philosopher Michael Jackson, “to make this world a better place for you and for me” without focusing on the next world. The Mishnah in the Ethics of Our Fathers (Chapter 1:3) states: “Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.” This nicely sums up the Jewish attitude towards the eschatological rewards and punishments, as we firmly believe in the World to Come, but we concentrate upon doing the right things in this world for their own sake. Our Tanach seems to intentionally downplay discussion of eschatology for this reason, a tradition continued by Jewish authorities throughout the ages, who while affirming our belief in the Messianic Age etc. generally veer away from predicting when this Age will begin.
Thus, while certain authorities have offered different theories predicting the advent of this next phase of existence (i.e. after the great War of Gog and Magog-see Ezekiel 38; when all Jews fully observe the commandments; or during the seventh millennia of the Jewish calendar-we are now in year 5771), the best “prediction” is offered by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a). According to this tradition, God has appointed a specific time for these events to occur, but if the Jewish people merit the hastening of this era (presumably by following Jewish law and generally doing God’s will as expressed in the Torah), God will bring it sooner. Bottom line-we anticipate the Messianic era each day, but don’t walk around each moment talking about it. We must focus on following God’s will and being the best people that we can be, and the rest will take care of itself.
Question: I heard a friend saying that we are at "the end of days" because the world has gotten so crazy, the weather seems to be changing, rules of morality and nature seem to have gone haywire. Do we as Jews believe in an end of days? Do we know when it is?
Judaism does have a notion that, in the future, there will be an “end of days”, meaning a decisive change from the conditions of history as we have thus far experienced it. The biblical prophets, including Amos, chapter 9 and Isaiah, chapter 2, offer moving descriptions of that time—a time of peace and prosperity, when the Jewish people will live, unmolested, in their homeland of Israel.
However, while we have entertained many speculations on the subject, our tradition has never arrived at a consensus regarding when that time might come about, nor about what will precipitate it, nor, again, about how much will be different at that time. A classical source for these thoughts is the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 11. Perhaps the most pragmatic of the many ideas collected there is the dictum of the third-century Rabbi Abba (known respectfully as “Rav”): “All the appointed times for the appearance of the Messiah have already ceased, and the matter depends only upon repentance and good deeds. (Sanhedrin 97 b). The rabbi was responding to the various attempts to calculate when God might send the Messiah, and his words reveal his basic orientation: the course of history lies ultimately in our hands. God has created us with free will, and history is the result of our interactions. It is our responsibility to move history to a better plane. We have not yet accomplished that goal (“all the appointed times have ceased”), but we could still do so.
Throughout our sad history of suffering as a religious minority, Jews have often been tempted to believe that the “end”, meaning a redemptive end of our exile and persecution, was at hand. Each time we have succumbed to such temptation, the result has been disillusionment, defection of Jews from our community, and renewed misery for the Jewish survivors. Therefore, the Rabbis came to discourage the attempt to calculate when the “end of days” would begin.
In the twelfth century, Maimonides composed his “Epistle to Yemen” to fortify the Jews there against precisely that danger. Again, in the 1570’s, when the Jews of Italy were falling prey to messianic wishful thinking on account of their persecution at the hands of the Church during the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, Rabbi Azariah dei Rossi composed his Me’or Einayim to dissuade the Jews of his society from repeating that historic error. We could multiply examples of this sort.
In reply to the questioner: I would advise you to tell your friend that people have long pointed to extraordinary phenomena as a sign of an “end of days”, and they have been uniformly mistaken, over and over again. But I would also urge you to share with your friend the thought that, in our tradition, people can and must do their best to bring an end to the violence and bigotry that have characterized so much of history until now.
Let me add a postscript: the recent media attention over the Christian claim that the world would end on May 21, 2011—obviously, another erroneous claim—shows that Jews are not the only ones to engage in these speculations. The record of failed Christian attempts to predict the end of history, following their own sacred writings, is even more filled with self-delusion than the Jewish record. Perhaps it can most charitably be understood as yet another manifestation of the human desire for a “happy ending” to the sad story of human aggression. The yearning for better is a good thing. But it would be more productive to invest energy in positive changes, than to look for superficially appealing number patterns in sacred texts.
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