Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Should We Care About Ancient Apocalyptic Ideas?

This thought occurred to me as an outgrowth of my earlier post about Rome vs. Persia, and prompted further by the latest post at Yeranen Yaakov, in which he discusses at length from a work which was written during the Cold War, and which set out to demonstrate that Russia was Gog.

Look. There are prophecies which predict what will happen in the end of days. And these referred to Gog and Magog, which perhaps had concrete definitions back then. But as they have been applied throughout the generations, they have been reinterpreted to match the apocalyptic fears and messianic hopes of each generation.

Thus, as I noted in a post titled "Does the Gemara predict that America will fall at the hands of Iran?" I noted that when these statements by Tannaim and Amoraim were made, that Rome would fall at the hands of Persia or that Persia would fall at the hands of Rome, the Roman empire and the Persian empire were real entities. They were real empires, and were constantly warring with one another. And those who made those statements were living under Roman or Persian rule. Since then, the Russian and Persian empire have ended. And Iran, which is over Persian territory, is just a dinky little country. It is admittedly trying to get nuclear weapons, which is worrisome, but if a strike were made against America, it would be quickly obliterated, such that there is no way America would fall at the hands of Iran. And there is no more Roman empire, so people making modern predictions reinterpet Rome to refer to America, in somewhat dubious ways. But, as I pointed out there, perhaps one or both empires already won; and it is perhaps misguided to apply statements which were about the actual Roman and Persian empire to a situation, and to countries, which are entirely different. That is, the Tannaitic pr Amoraic statements were made in a specific cultural and historical context, and were perhaps an attempt to apply the Biblical words of prophecy to their present situation.

The same might be said about the statement of the Vilna Gaon. To cite the post at Yeranen Yaakov:
We have a tradition from the students of the Gr"a in the (Vilna) Gaon's name: "If the ships of the Russian government will cross over the Bosporus Strait ([and] the "Dardanelles"), we need to wear clothes of Shabbat" to tell you that at that time, it will soon be the coming of Mashiah."
The thing is, the Vilna Gaon was born in 1720 and died in 1797. Just prior to the Vilna Gaon's birth, the Russian empire and the Ottoman empire -- that is, the Turkish empire -- were warring. But then, to cite Wikipedia:
The Tulip Era (or Lâle Devri in Turkish), named for Sultan Ahmed III's love of the tulip flower and its use to symbolize his peaceful reign, the Empire's policy towards Europe underwent a shift. The region was peaceful between 1718 and 1730, after the Ottoman victory against Russia in the Pruth Campaign in 1712 and the subsequent Treaty of Passarowitz brought a period of pause in warfare. The Empire began to improve the fortifications of cities bordering the Balkans to act as a defence against European expansionism. Other tentative reforms were also enacted: taxes were lowered; there were attempts to improve the image of the Ottoman state; and the first instances of private investment and entrepreneurship occurred.
Just before the Vilna Gaon's 1797 death, in 1795, Vilna was annexed by the Russian empire. And shortly before this, the Turkish empire began a process of militarization:
Ottoman military reform efforts begin with Selim III (1789–1807) who made the first major attempts to modernize the army along European lines.
Thus, in the Vilna Gaon's time, the Turkish empire and the Russian empire were major empires. And so one could well imagine a war of Gog and Magog involving Russia and Turkey.

Nowadays, however, the Ottoman empire is no more, just as the Roman empire and the Persian empire are no more. There is Turkey, but comparatively, it is a dinky little country. And the same almost goes as well for Russia. They are no longer an empire, as much as they might like to be. This would not be any world war. As such, it may well be that even if Russia would attack Turkey rather than Georgia, it would not be time to don clothes to welcome mashiach. The question is what the Vilna Gaon would say today, and whether he meant it as a prophetic statement, or rather as his application of messianic sources to his modern day situation.

The same is true for the Napoleonic wars, which apparently many rabbis in those days believed were the wars of Gog and Magog.

And then, this would be true as well for this work noted by Yeranen Yaakov, namely Chevlei Mashiach biZmaneinu. Perhaps the stress should be on bizmaneinu. The author assessed his present-day situation and concluded that Russia was Gog, and found sources to back this up. After all, this was written in the midst of the Cold War. But that does not necessarily mean that we should apply his assessments to our modern day.

And just looking at the modern day, and what goes on on blogs. There are people out there claiming that Iran attacking America will be the apocalypse, or that this recent fight between Russia and Georgia will be the war to begin the apocalypse. And they can muster all sorts of sources, and interpret them as they want them. Bush is Gog. Now that he is almost out of office, Obama is Gog. No, Russia is Gog. It makes the mind dizzy. But they are just moving along in the same process. But perhaps we should be hesitant of reinterpreting sources which were never, ever intended for a different global picture.

And perhaps the same is true for predictive sources such as sefer Eliyahu -- perhaps the names of kings in the dispute were names or encodings, from successive generations, of various kings of those days. The Zohar, too, was "discovered" just into the beginning of the 6th millenium, and Rashbi makes predictions of the ketz mashiach, all of which somehow are in the sixth millenium -- and all of which have now long passed.

All this is tempting me towards the kefirah of wondering the same about the original prophecies themselves. They were said, presumably, when Gog and Magog were real entities. See Bereishit 10: בני יפת גומר ומגוג ומדי ויון ותובל ומשך ותירס. So when Yechezkel says בֶּן-אָדָם, שִׂים פָּנֶיךָ אֶל-גּוֹג אֶרֶץ הַמָּגוֹג--נְשִׂיא, רֹאשׁ מֶשֶׁךְ וְתֻבָל; וְהִנָּבֵא, עָלָיו, he could well be referring to real entities. Could his prophecies have already been fulfilled? Or, since a navi interprets Hashem's revelation, could he have cast it into that specific land which made sense in those days? So this might be a theologically fraught path to start upon.

At any rate, this may come down to the question, as yaak posed it. Is there an underlying reality to the milchemet Gog uMagog, such that all these guesses throughout the years are merely guesses? Or is the situation nondeterministic, in which there are all sorts of scenarios and possibilities, and indeed, all of these predictions were right? If the latter, in each case, this could have been the apocalyptic battle, but in the end, Hashem shuffled the scenarios. Even if the latter, should those discarded, shuffled off suggestions become fodder for modern-day scenarios, even when there is no more substance to the underlying reality which prompted the statement?


Unknown said...

I think the way to look at is like computer code. If I want to put up a picture using HTML I have to use an alt image tag. In the image tag I can put a descriptor. Let say this descriptor's name is Gog, now what happens if I change the picture but leave the same descriptor. That's how I believe these prophecies work. Gog is in each generation (we know where Magog is because it is described as a Land and we have narrow it down to Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan --see The spiritual essence is there for a Gog in each generation, but the outside garment is different. Yechezkel is a code and the code is always true. As far as Gemora is concerned, we know that Gemeora is worded in terms they were used to that is for all the halachic issues and the aggadic works as well.

Anonymous said...

interesting belief 2:32pm

Problem is this belief has lead to false messiahs and false hopes.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin