When you take the tour of the Western Wall tunnels, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation distributes a handy timeline of the world from creation in both the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars. The actual creation date goes unmentioned, but anyone who knows anything knows it’s 20 generations from Adam.
The timeline gets specific with The Patriarchs (2000 on the Hebrew calendar; 1500 BCE on the Gregorian calendar); Israel in the Desert (2500/1,200 BCE); First Temple period and the prophets (3,250/800 BCE); through the creation of the State of Israel (5708/1948 CE). The calendar doesn’t go through end times, but anyone who knows anything knows that the end of days will arrive not later than 6000 years after creation (i.e. 2240).
Judaism's Mayan calendar moment is just a few generations away.
We sat next to a worldly, modern orthodox rabbi, Yoseph Milstein, translator of the Mishna, who subscribes to this timeline without rejecting the science of carbon dating.
"How old was Adam when G_d created him?" he asks. The argument goes something like this: Adam was created as an adult, he needed mature plants and animals to eat in order to survive. So G_d created the world with mature plants and animals: trees complete with growth rings, and rocks and fossils with carbon dating signatures, that just happen to predate creation by a few million millennia.
"But doesn't that require a pretty strong dose of suspension of disbelief?" I query. He did not seem troubled by this. The problem, of course, is that if you are willing to be this cavalier with fitting the evidence to your story you can darn well believe anything. Fifty virgins awaiting me in heaven--here I come.
There is the minor annoyance that the end times, not more than 226 years away, will entail the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and the building of the Third Temple in its place. This does not seem to me to be consistent with the biblical vision of the end of days:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare. (Isaiah 2:4)
The good thing about the religious is they will seriously engage and grapple with these concepts and contradictions for hours on end. It makes a 10 hour plane ride fly by.The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on my entire holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
The rabbi claims a direct patrilineal descent from rabbis in Temple times. "Do you know what a Cohen is?" he asks. "Well, yes, Cohen's are a priestly caste sharing a direct patrilineal descent from the biblical Aaron." [I'm cheating] Only men can be priests, of course, so the traditional maternal lineage for Jewish descent in Halakhah is discarded for this purpose.
I'm skeptical. I can trace my lineage to my great grandfathers, and I know very little about them. There are some folks who trace their lineage to passengers on the Mayflower. I'm sure there are some in England who trace their lineage to Tudors and Plantagenets. I don't think actual proven lineage goes much further than that.
There is a story about two Germans who trace their lineage back to cave dwellers 3,000 years ago. But, of course, this story involves a category error: having shared DNA with a cave dweller doesn't tell you whether you are descended from a particular Fritz or Franz. DNA testing won't tell you whether you are an unbroken-chain-direct-descendant of the biblical Aaron--even if you had the DNA of the biblical Aaron.
"O.K., tell me the name of the Temple era rabbi you are descended from?" I challenge impertinently. He is stumped. However, after a bathroom break he comes up with a name. I don't recall who it was. "We used to have a family record of all the rabbis in the line," he claims. It was lost in the holocaust. This is a tragedy if true; pretty convenient if not. I say not.
There are babies on the plane. Babies in mothers' arms, babies in the bathrooms, babies crawling down the aisle. I've never seen so many babies on a plane. I've never seen so many babies as we saw in Jerusalem. Trim and proper families of nine in religious garb at every street crossing. The growth rate of the Haredi population is six percent per annum. Is this "babies as a triumph over Hitler" as Ari Shavit puts it? Babies as weaponized demography? Most of these babies are born into poverty.
Israel cannot accommodate an everlasting population explosion. Today Israel has 7.8 million people within its putative borders; 11 plus million if we count the west bank and Gaza. The low lying farmlands of Israel look a lot like Switzerland today. They won't if/when this population doubles.
The terrible truth is that seventy years after, world wide Jewish population has still not recovered its pre-Holocaust level of 16.7 million. It will soon.
Can Israel really serve as a life-boat for world Jewry in case of a future Holocaust? Can we even think such thoughts? I think the answer is "No." Israel's population is forecast to be 11.4 million by 2035. It seems unlikely that this small country would be able or willing to absorb, say 6 million from the U.S., in any five year time span in the future.
Ultimately Israel, and we, must go about the hard work of building and renewing our respective societies so they are just and vibrant and protective of all.
"[Israelis and Arabs] shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare. .... The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on my entire holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea."We will harmonize our davening to Ya-weh at the wall and our chanting to Allah at the Dome of the Rock without need for the watchful presence of riot police and submachine guns. Yes, we will live in harmony.
My apologies to anyone I have offended. We've had a great trip and I enjoyed writing about it. So thanks for reading. And now it's back to work.