In case you haven''t heard, the world may end on May 21. Or it will be a new beginning. I have never been able to puzzle my way through the claims and calculations of those who are certain about these things.

From what I do understand, the prediction means that just about everyone who receives these notes is destined for something ugly on that day.

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If it comes as a tsunami I should be all right. According to my GPS, the balcony outside my window is 744 meters above sea level. Friends and family in New York, Seattle and Tel Aviv might want to roll up their trousers or take more serious measures.


True believers may be saved and blessed on that day, but there is a problem in identifying who they are. A serious Christian friend, who says that I do not understand millennialism, pre-millennialism and post-millennialism, is pretty sure that that most of his fellow Christians are being misled by their leaders. He also knows that the unpleasantness will occur on September 29. He has no idea about May 21.

I admit to ignorance about millennialism, pre-millennialism and post-millennialism. I also see an insight in my friend''s lack of knowledge about May 21.

For some time now I have received his notes expressing the clarity in holy text, but indicating that Catholic priests, Jewish rabbis, and most Protestant pastors have gotten it all wrong and are misleading their flocks. "I''ve urged you to turn away from views of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish ''scholars'' about the Bible and what it says." He insists that "The Bible is very clear." It appears to me, however, that the Bible is very clear only to him and a few select others in whom he has confidence.

My friend is a decent man, who I enjoyed talking with on my balcony during one of his visits to Israel. Yet he displays the fervor of a true believer, whose limitation is viewing most others as led by their errors. If he sees clarity in the Bible, he must be reading a different version than mine. Or he is reading the same version differently than I do.

My credentials as a biblical scholar may be shaky. All who want to make the effort can judge Israel and Its Bible for themselves. You won''t find it in most bookstores, but a decent university library should have it, and there may not be a long line wanting to read it before you.  There I argue that the dissonance in the Bible, or its plurality of themes is an important element of its charm. That trait helps explain Jewish openness to dispute and Israeli democracy.

My Christian friend disparages my study of the Talmud due to the faults of the rabbis whose ideas it reports. The Talmud makes it clear that the rabbis recognized the lack of clarity in the Torah at least a couple of centuries before the Common Era. Indeed, an essential purpose of the Talmud is to clarify God''s laws, insofar as He did not make them all that clear or explicit in His Torah.

The rabbis were a long way from accepting what German Protestant scholars perceived in the 19th century, and what numerous Jewish scholars have sought to understand more recently, i.e., that the Torah and other segments of the Bible reflect accretions of stories, poetry, expressions of wisdom, as well as ancient editing and re-editing. For Orthodox rabbis, the Torah came as it is from the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the remaining books of the Bible came as they are from Samuel, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, or other Prophets. The rabbis who contributed to the Talmud were post-modern in recognizing the problems in perceiving and unraveling nuances, weighing what is written alongside what is not written, and extrapolating what is said about X to what might be said about Y.

The Talmud presents an image of rabbis who argued, occasionally insulted one another, and left some issues unresolved. Actually, the participants in many of these arguments lived in different times and places. The people who assembled the Talmud presented what they knew about the opinions of esteemed rabbis, and arranged them as if they were face to face. The editors valued the positions of those rabbis, and the points they made on one or another side of the many issues considered in the Talmud.

According to Jewish tradition, dispute assures that we will approach more closely to God''s will that if we insist on the truth as uttered by any person, no matter how exalted.

While my own faith in anything is far from certain, I see that particular tradition as having great value. Argument is essential to science and political decency, and superior to anything I perceive as certain about May 21 or September 29.



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