Opting In

We lit the candles Friday night in honor of the new millennium.

I know it should not have been done that way. Observant Jews insisted right up until the Waterford ball dropped in Times Square that the millennium had nothing to do with them, that on Friday night it was Shabbat, not 2,000 years after Jesus that they were celebrating.

I had been tempted to follow their lead. Several times throughout the year, I’d begun columns saying that this is not our millennium. I wanted to endorse the sanctity of Jewish history, especially our own false messiahs of the past, against the current apocalyptic madness. Sure enough, Jewish writers did fill the Internet with missives about the real millennial shift, Y6K, some 240 years from now. Amid unendurable tension from calendar change, Jews were opting out.

That’s why what happened Friday may one day be regarded as a major historical shift in consciousness, Jewish and otherwise. As it turned out, the world did not end. As importantly, Jews did not implode: we became part of the world, on our own terms. In my home, as in Jewish homes around the world, we had both the Sabbath and the Millennium. We lit candles and still acknowledged the great psychic turning toward the future that would be impossible — and foolish — to ignore.

For much of the last century, Jewish experience has been a tug of war between two poles: the ghetto or assimilation, the religious world or the secular. Either we run away from our tradition, fleeing specific Jewish rituals while retaining a kind of antiseptic social action reformism, or we flee into spiritual extremism.

The century just passed has been an experiment in finding the mean. But it has not been easy to achieve equilibrium. After decades spent exulting in the American mainstream, the early years of the Ba’al T’Shuvah (returning Orthodox) movement were marked by joy, but also pain, as children of secular parents suddenly took on all the ritual obligations except the mitzvah of honoring their parents. In Israel, the fight too often became violent: assaults on women who wanted to pray with a Torah at the Wall, or who entered Orthodox areas of Jerusalem with arms exposed. Intolerance became the 11th plague.

Behind these struggles has been a passionate, poignant but ultimately misguided search for authenticity — for the right way to be a Jew, whether in Israel or in Diaspora. This is the battle that began not with America, nor with Israel’s establishment, but with the Enlightenment, when Jews first received the right to normal citizenship. Are we a nation like any other? Or are we exclusively a Jewish state? Are we a people like any other? Or are we bound to keep ourselves so separate we don’t even write our checks (as Rabbi Steve Leder says) with Roman dates?

Only at the last seconds of the 20th century have we resolved these questions raised 250 years ago. That’s why the most important Jew of the 20th century, from a spiritual perspective, must be Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, who taught Jews that they can, and must, be both separate and universal. He urged them not to opt out of the world, but to opt in, to cultivate the knack, even in Israel, of living in two civilizations at once.

Perhaps it was the resignation of Russia’s Boris Yeltsin. Or the technological relief coming from New Zealand and Australia, that the Y2K bug would not cause computer meltdown. Perhaps it was the amazing lack of violence in Jerusalem, against the threat of apocalyptic zealots waiting for the Messiah and the End of Days.

Wherever it began, the shift that began Friday morning will, I hope, have an impact on us in the years to come. The steam of anxiety, that had been building across the globe for much of the past year, lifted. And most Jews, however they observed it, felt part of it, too.

Looking back now, I understand the desire to run for cover, especially against the messianic fervor of both Christian and Jewish fundamentalists fascinated by red heifers and rebuilding the Temple. But now that it’s over, what a lesson has been taught: Future generations may be able to trust the normal bureaucratic police process to filter out the true crazies, so the rest of us can feel safe to join in the fun.

On Friday, wherever we were on the religious spectrum, we could have our Shabbat in full glory of the holy seventh day, and still acknowledge our place among the world’s peoples. American synagogues acknowledged this need, albeit tentatively. The early abbreviated service (some were too abbreviated, lasting only half an hour) made the point that the Jewish way to bring in the future is to say special prayers on its behalf.

The television cameras panned across the international date line, through Egypt and Israel, China and Paris and even into a Cuban nightclub.

And what came to mind was the Hebrew prayer for universal peace, “Aleynu.” At the end of every prayer service, we say these words daily:

“May all the inhabitants of the world perceive and know that unto you every knee must bend, every tongue vow loyalty.”

A blissfully peaceful millennium shift was celebrated with such sweetness round the world. Everyone was there. Jews too.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of the Jewish Journal. On Saturday evening she joins Gary Rosenblatt of New York Jewish Week and Alan Abrahamson of the Los Angeles Times to discuss “Jewish Ethics and Journalism” for Young Israel of Century City. Call (310) 273-6954. Her email address is wmnsvoice@aol.com

Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through Amazon.com.