Messianic Judaism

Friday, April 24, 2009

The idea of the Messiah has wielded an enormous influence in Jewish history, but the nature of the belief always was in constant flux. There seems to be a tension between varying perceptions of the Messianic phenomenon.

The word Messiah comes from the Hebrew word that means to anoint. This already suggest or alludes to the monarchal aspect of the Messianic figure. Kings of Israel were anointed. If you call someone a Messiah, you are suggesting that he is part of a dynastic leadership that once existed and will exist in the future.

The Two Opposing Views of Messianism: Restorative and Futuristic

At some point in time, this was understood to allude not merely to an existing historical dynasty, but to a future heir to the throne that would appear. He would be the Messiah. We refer to this as the coming of the personal Messiah. This idea understands the Messianic figure as being a particular person.

The nature of the future reestablishment of a son of David was also interpreted to mean different things at different times. At times, there was emphasis on the belief in a return to the old glory of Israel. When you talk about the Messianic king, you talk about a king that would recover Jerusalem and restore the grandeur of Israel to what it was.

At other times, this expresses an utopian vision of the future as an age of perfect peace. The restorative vision is far more Judaic-centered and it looks to the past as its model. The futuristic utopian image not only looks to the future, but is far more universal. It encompasses all the nations.

There is another important difference between these two perceptions of the Messianic phenomenon. In the restorative account, the process would be apparently this-worldly. That is to say, the Messianic phenomenon would take place in a world whose laws of nature are those that are in practice in our world today. Whereas the utopian image suggests almost by definition a total revision of the laws of nature. Animals that were natural enemies would now be friendly neighbors and lie down peacefully one near the other.

These two visions did not always alternate and replace one another, but they probably coexisted at times among different sections of Jewish society. History played a role in determining when the restorative would have the upper hand and when the more spiritualized view would.

For example, the last military attempt by Jews to remove Roman rule from Palestine occurred in the years 132 to 135 under the leadership of Simon bar Kosiba. Simon bar Kosiba appears to have had Messianic aspirations. He was actually described by rabbi Akiva as the potential Messiah. When you examine his image, you note that he is not a rabbi nor a spiritual figure, he is a military commander. His one aim in life was to kill Romans and kick them out of the land.

Bar Kosiba failed. With his failure, something very interesting happens. The pendulum of Messianic thought turned to the totally opposite direction. From a military this-worldly Messianic figure that would restore the grandeur of Israel, now comes a much more spiritualized hope.

Messianic Pretenders in the Middle Ages

As we head into the Middle Ages, messianism becomes much more spiritualized. At the same time, there is a downplaying of activist messianism.

By the 12th century, Maimonides could categorically state that the Messianic age was not about politics. It was a period that would enable the study of Torah in preparation for the coming world.

Messianism would constantly appear on the scene in Jewish history. The medieval period knew a number of Messianic pretenders. One of them, called Sabbatai Zevi, appeared in the mid 17th century, and vast numbers of Jews, both in Europe and in the Middle East, embraced this figure as being a potential Messianic leader. The only problem was that this fellow was influenced by all sorts of mystical teachings. As strange as it may sound, in the end, this Messiah actually converted to Islam. This brought about a tremendous devastation within Jewish communities. It was one of the great tragedies of the late medieval period.

Zionism: Secular Messianism?

Many would argue that the appearance of Zionism in modern times was a result of Messianic aspirations. It also thrived for restoration by returning to the land. The only problem was that Zionism is a secular movement. In many ways, we encounter here something that can be called secular messianism. Many people would claim that Zionism is in fact a secular Messianic movement.

The issue that constantly came up in Zionism was about “can you haste the coming of the Messiah?”. There seemed to have been two strands within Judaism. There were those who believed it was totally in God’s hands. According to them, there is no way of hastening the process. It is fixed in a future time. In fact, this people thought that if you try to haste the Messianic age, you show a lack of faith. In other words, you do not believe in the promises that were made for a restoration.

Others believed that you have to take the first step. There were some Zionist leaders who tried to put these two movements together. They tried to combine religiosity with activist Zionist mentality, creating something that some people referred to as Religious Zionism.

In the recent generation, there were groups of Jews that actually believed that their rabbi was an image of the Messiah. In their lifetime they were convinced that he was the ultimate Messianic figure. Even upon his death, many of them still believed that he was a potential Messianic figure that somehow never came to ultimate flourishing.

I think that all this tells us what a potent force the belief in a restorative process was. Many people actually consider it to be the dominant force in Jewish history. That might be an exaggeration, but not by very much.