I knew, of course, that the Rapture — advertised for this past May 21 by Dispensationalist theologian Harold Camping — would not come on schedule. After all, how could the beginning of the end come the day before Lag B’omer, which this year fell on May 22?
Would the Keeper of All Community Calendars ignore a dramatic confrontation between Camping’s timetable of salvation and the festival day of the great Tanna, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai — himself a spark of the soul-root of Moshe Rabbenu and enfleshed in latter days in such diverse mortal harbingers of redemption as Rabbi Isaac Luria, Shabbetai Tzvi, Rebbe Nahman Bratzlaver, Theodor Herzl, and Michael Lerner (let’s hear it for tikkun ha-olam!)?
Of course not! Moreover, you’d think that the One Who Neither Nods nor Sleeps would have been more alert to the eschatological portents of the Palestinians’ Yawm al-Nakba, which has a lock on May 15. How could He have missed — by a whole week, no less — that opportunity for an End Times perfect storm?
So, when nightfall came right on schedule, late Saturday evening, May 21, 2011, as I gazed at my fingernails in the light of a havdalah candle, I was the last one to be shocked at the failure of the Saints of the Church to rise up en masse to heaven.
Whence this eschatological skepticism? Blame it on the Talmud! On all things messianic I’ve always followed the advice of Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai, the greatest of the post-Hurban sages of Yavneh. Coming of age in the turbulent first century of the Common Era, he knew a thing or two about messianic enthusiasm, and did his best to quash it among his own followers.
He’s quoted as advising: “If you are planting a tree and someone says ‘the Messiah has come,’ first plant the tree, and then go to greet him.”
It’s not that Rabban Yohanan didn’t trust God’s redemptive promises. He simply had problems with his contemporaries who sought to put God on a human timetable. In his day, the followers of Messiah Yeshua were only the most vocal of those who believed that the messianic prophecies of Scripture were about to be fulfilled. More importantly, he insisted — against the zealots of his own day — that God’s plan had more to do with the prominence of Torah study in Israel than the force of Jewish arms.
Hence his profound advice: If the Messiah turns out to be the Messiah, great. But if he’s a disappointment, at least you’ll have shade and fruit after a while!
And what Messiah, when you come down to it, has not been a huge disappointment? It’s practically part of the job description: “Wanted: Attractive, charismatic leader, claiming Davidic lineage, willing to dash the hopes of the Jews by packaging his failure to deliver as proof of his victory.”
Camping would have done better by his flock had he ignored the book of Daniel and read instead that 1956 classic of sociology, When Prophecy Fails, written by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter (yes, all Jewish). They studied various Midwestern communities who expected that, on a specific date, the pilots of flying saucers would come to Earth to collect their specially chosen members for a better life on alien planets.
The main finding of the Festinger study is stunning: As the promised date came and went, and as newer calculations also proved wrong, the groups’ commitment to their beliefs failed to wane. Rather, formerly secretive conventicles, concerned with preserving the privacy of their beliefs, transformed themselves into assertive proselytizing sects, seeking to spread the “good news” of imminent redemption!
The Festinger study proposed as an explanation the now-familiar concept of “cognitive dissonance.” That is, as fundamental beliefs are thrown into serious doubt and publicly proven false, the gap between what we know and what we believe becomes unbearable. We try to close this gap, quite simply, by enlisting the comfort of others who share our disconfirmed beliefs. The energy thrown into making converts consoles us by the visible success of the “mission” and enables us to manage “eschatological disappointment.”
Translated into Jewish messianic idiom this boils down to: “The Messiah is the Messiah, but the generation is unworthy!” Festinger and his colleagues were aware, of course, of the dark corners of Jewish messianic ideologies. I doubt, however, that the current crop of Camping camp-followers were equally aware of the sorry record of Jewish messianism. No doubt, even if they were, they’d have seen their own Christian version as the exception to the rule. After all, these are Christians!
Whatever. This latest Christian messianic disappointment — and fundamentalist theological embarrassment — should not go unnoticed by Jews. And not only for the schadenfreude! Those Dispensationalists who woke up on Lag B’omer morning to the mockery of their neighbors (and egg on their faces) deserve more than our bemused pity.
They are a warning to the people who gave the world the messianic idea that Moshiach is always coming and we live in expectation of him always. But he is never quite here. The wisdom of Judaism lies in living in the exquisite balance between ever-present messianic readiness and sober resistance to eschatological excess.
To put it in the homey idiom of my Grandma Chana’s favorite Yiddish aphorism, which, incidentally comes right out of Rabban Yohanan’s card file: “M’tracht un Gott lacht!” (“We make plans, but God laughs”).