THE MESSIANIC HOPE AND HISTORY
By Dr. Young Oon Kim
From World Religions, Vol. 1
According to Louis Jacobs the doctrine of the Messiah is one f the most distinctive of Judaism's teachings and it involves the basic conviction that human history will be fulfilled here on earth. Since God will not abandon His world to moral chaos, eventually we will intercede directly to halt tyranny, oppression and the pursuit of evil. Sooner or later the Messiah will be sent by God to redeem Israel and usher in a new era of bliss like that of Adam and we in the Garden of Eden.
Messiah, meaning "the anointed one," originally referred any individual consecrated with sacred oil such as the king of Israel and the high priest. But it was also applied to any person for whom God had a special purpose - Cyrus of Persia, for example (Isa. 45:1). The Biblical prophets clearly envision a messianic age come but not until the appearance of apocalyptic literature can one find the idea that the Messiah will be a supernatural redeemer sent by God to free Israel from bondage. There are therefore two distinct doctrines: that of a personal Messiah and that of a messianic age. Joseph Klausner of Hebrew University is one of the scholars stressing the difference between the general messianic expectation and explicit belief in a specific Messiah. On the one hand, the prophets looked to the end of this age after which the people of Israel in their own land (and the world at large) will enjoy political freedom, moral perfection and earthly bliss. On the other
hand there was also hope for a strong human redeemer who by his power and spirit would bring complete political and spiritual redemption to Israel as well as material blessings and religious enlightenment to all mankind.
For the prophets Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah, God is the redeemer, and the Messiah-King; a human possessing lofty spiritual qualities, is but the leader of the redeemed people. In Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Malachi, Joel, and Daniel, there is no mortal figure at all, because Yahweh alone is the redeemer. In Amos, Ezekiel and Obadiah, the Davidic dynasty serves as a collective Messiah.
Rabbinic literature generally believes in a personal Messiah to come. Rabbi Hillel (3rd century), however, declared: "There shall be no Messiah for Israel, because they have already enjoyed him in the days of Hezekiah." Rashi (1040-1105) interpreted this strange remark to mean that Hillel denies belief in a personal Messiah but believes in the coming of the messianic age. All the medieval Jewish thinkers however, affirm their faith in a personal Messiah.
While apocalyptic literature emphasizes the supernaturalistic character of the Messiah and his Kingdom, rabbinic authorities often stress the naturalistic aspects.
The Jew as opposed to the orthodox Christian is right to insist on the humanity of the Messiah, according to Divine Principle. The Messiah is not to be confused with the notion of a supernatural figure, a co-eternal Son of God, an angel visitant or a god in human flesh.
Rabbi Akiba recognized Bar Kochba, the rebel leader in t e disastrous insurrection of 132-135 A.D., as the Messiah even though he was obviously a human being and one who could perform no miracles. Samuel of Babylonia (3rd cent.) taught: "The days of the Messiah do not differ from the present except for the fact that in that age Israel will no longer be in bondage to the kingdoms of the world."
Medieval Judaism refined messianic speculation considerably. For Maimonides, the King Messiah will not be obliged to perform miracles. As for the Biblical marvels predicted for the kingdom, the miracle of the lion laying down with the lamb merely means that the Gentiles will be at peace with Israel. Maimonides also discourages guesswork about the exact time of the messianic appearance. All Jews should do is believe in a general sense the fact of his coming but not bother with details which are unessential.
How will the Messiah be recognised? Maimonides answers: "If a king arises of the house of David, meditating in the Torah and performing precepts like his father, David, in accordance with the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, and if he will compel all Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and repair its breaches, and if he will wage the wars of the Lord, it can be assumed that he is the Messiah. If he succeeds in rebuilding the Temple and gathering the dispersed ones of Israel, it will then be established beyond doubt that he is the Messiah who will perfect the whole world to serve God together...." (Yad, Melakhim, 11:4).
Maimonides believed that this view was taught explicitly in the Torah or derived from universally agreed upon rabbinic tradition. From two standpoints the formulation is noteworthy. First, it ignores most of the supernaturalistic wonders of Jewish apocalyptic. No mention is made of the return of Elijah, the war with Gog and Magog, the trumpet of the Messiah or the transformation of the earth. Secondly, however, it includes enough very difficult feats to discourage Jews from easily accepting the claims of messianic pretenders.
Joseph Albo (1380-1444) claimed that belief in the coming of the Messiah is not an integral part of Judaism, quite possibly because he opposed Christians who were committed to a messianic interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Rabbi Moses ben Joseph di Trani called the Mabit (16th century) argues that in the messianic age all men will acknowledge the law of Moses as the true religion and the miracles accompanying the arrival of the Messiah will be so powerful as to convince the greatest skeptic.
Reform Judaism in its classic form opposed Jewish nationalism and the dream of a return to the holy land. The messianic hope would be realised naturally as man creates a new world of universal education, social progress, liberalism and greater opportunity. Classical Reform rejects belief in a personal Messiah. Moses Mendelssohn (d. 1791) denied that Jews were a nation and spoke of Germans, Frenchmen, or Englishmen "of the Mosaic persuasion." David Friedlander (d. 1834) urged the abolition of all prayers with a Jewish national coloring and wanted Hebrew discarded in favor of German in public worship. Abraham Geiger's 1854 prayer book eliminated all petitions for the restoration of the Jewish state in Palestine, the rebuilding of the temple, and the ingathering of the exiled. In the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 Rabbi Isaac Wise and other leaders of Reform Judaism in America officially repudiated Jewish nationalism. Hermann Cohen, the famous neo-Kantian philosopher, (d. 1918) argued that the Zionist plea for a Jewish state stands in opposition to Jewish messianic religion.
Zionism too generally conceived of the messianic age in secular terms. Committed to the ideal of a Jewish homeland, it rejected the doctrine of a personal Messiah while thinking of a Jewish state as the fulfilment of the messianic dream. Louis Jacobs, nevertheless, pointedly warns of the greatest danger in indentifying the State of Israel with the messianic age. Nor does he even like the attempt to identify the foundation of the State of Israel with "the beginning of redemption." To confuse the present state of society even in Israel with the kingdom of God, he maintains, is ridiculous. The prophets dreamed of a perfected world and were not in error. The messianic age requires a divine summing-up of the whole human enterprise on a transfigured earth.
Jacobs, however, like the classical Reform rabbis and the secular Zionists, denies the doctrine of a personal Messiah to come. First, because not all the Biblical prophets conceived of a personal Messiah. Secondly, because a democratic age cannot accept the value of a restoration of the Davidic monarchy. Thirdly, he thinks a rebuilt temple at Jerusalem in which animal sacrifices are offered is far from the highest aspiration of contemporary Judaism. Jacobs longs and prays for God's direct intervention but admits frankly we cannot know what will occur in the messianic age.
Even in their prayer books Reform Judaism and the Reconstructionist party within Conservative Judaism changed the traditional hope that God will bring a redeemer into the generalised faith that He will bring redemption. Professor of Judaic Studies Steven S. Schwartzchild of Washington University in St. Louis has argued for a return to belief in the personal Messiah. He gives four reasons which prompted liberal Judaism to tranform the doctrine of an individual Messiah into the doctrine of the messianic age. None of these is any longer valid, he believes.
First, Reform Jews regarded the personal Messiah as part of the obsolete Jewish nationalism they were determined to eradicate. Since they were laboring for acceptance as full citizens of the countries in which they dwelt, why declare that they awaited a person to lead them from their present homes and reconstitute them as a separate nation in a distant land? In Germany, France and America, Reform rabbis declared, "We know no fatherland except that to which we belong by birth or citizenship." Frankfort Jews put their case even more strongly and not without a touch of humor: if the Messiah arrived in our city we would have to meet him at the gate and urge him to remove himself since his presence would obstruct the complete emancipation of German Jewry.
Two historical facts weaken this argument. On one hand, some Reform Jews have since become ardent Zionists without abandoning their essential commitment to liberal Judaism. On the other, right-wing Orthodox Jews have rejected Jewish nationalism because they rely on the arrival of a personal Messiah for salvation. One can conclude that whether one believes in the personal Messiah or not has nothing whatever to do with the Zionist cause.
Secondly, belief in the coming of an individual Messiah implied expectation of a miracle. Nothing less than signs and wonders would enable a man or single supernatural visitor to carry out the functions scripture and Talmud associate with the Messiah. Since modernist Jews had given up belief in miracles they logically abandoned the idea of a Messiah.
Again, Schwartzchild advances two counter-arguments. For Hermann Cohen the philosopher and most 19th century thinkers, history was an infinite process of striving for the ideal. If messianism designates the completion of this process, how can it be manifested except through an end-point of history decided by a divine act? Human history as such merely goes on and on; we swim in an ocean striving to reach a shore that logically does not exist. Perfection cannot come from human endeavor alone. God must set the goal of progress and guarantee that man within some future time will reach it. Not less important is the fact that at least one strand of Jewish tradition denies the startling character of the messianic age. Maimonides himself insisted:
Let it not occur to anyone that in the days of the Messiah a single thing will be changed in the natural course of the world or that there will be any kind of innovation in nature. Rather, the world will continue to exist as it always has.... The Messiah will come exclusively in order to bring peace to the world. (Mishnah Torah, Laws of the Kings, 12:1)
Reform Jews could therefore believe in the coming of a personal Messiah, as did the medieval philosopher, without accepting any of the extravagant miracles tradition ascribes to the end-time.
Thirdly, Reform Jews discarded the doctrine of a personal Messiah so they would remove a bone of contention between Judaism and Christianity. Joseph Albo centuries earlier recognised that a messianic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible played into the hands of the Christian apologists. Our foes used the messianic hope to refute the authority of the Mosaic Torah, he complained. Liberal Judaism was determined to halt irrational pseudo- messianic movements, Christianity or others, and therefore exercised from its understanding of fundamental Judaism all of the theological pre-conditions which might lead to the recurrence of wild messianic claims. Dr. Schwartzchild contends that if one must abandon theological ideas like that of the Messiah because they are subject to misrepresentation and abuse, we would have to reject likewise the idea of God.
Rosenzweig and Buber point out the value which even pseudo-Messiahs have had in Judaism. For Rosenzweig, the false Christ divides each generation of the pious into those whose faith is so strong in a coming redeemer that they give themselves up to an illusion and those whose hope is so strong that they do not allow themselves to be deluded. Martin Buber explains that a pseudo - Messiah is God's way of comforting and nursing His people until the night passes at last and the real Messiah appears.
Fourthly, according to Schwartzchild, the substitution of a messianic age for a personal redeemer grew out of the all-pervasive yet mistaken optimism of the 19th century. For Judaism messianism appeared as a result of overwhelming catastrophe: the fall of the kingdom of Judah and the Babylonian exile. It reappeared as a lively hope in periods when a solution to the human predicament seemed to be beyond natural power: the Roman suppression of the Zealot rebellion, the bloody persecutions of European Jewry during the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the savage pogroms conducted by Cossacks and Russians and the Nazi holocaust. By contrast, the 19th century was a time of hope and progress. Men had no need for a Messiah when they had evidence they were getting better and better every day. Liberal Jews especially felt no need for a supernatural savior hence the doctrine of a coming Messiah looked like a useless relic from an outmoded past. When the pervasive optimism of the last century was succeeded by the dominant pessimism of our times, the underlying reason for discarding the individual Messiah concept lost its cogency. In the 20th century Christian and Jewish supernaturalism has again won a hearing simply because men generally doubt that they can get out of the social mess without God's direct aid. If persecution, pogroms and social disaster provide the rationale for messianism, then our age ought to be the most messianic of all in Israeli history.
For Hermann Cohen and other 19th century thinkers' the problem of the personal Messiah was connected with philosophic perplexities concerning the personality of God. Schwartzchild perhaps rightly notes that the depersonalisation process begun in the age of technology infects our ideas of God, the Messiah and even the meaning of man. By returning to the doctrine of a personal Messiah we underline the supreme value of persons. Concrete individuals are superior to ideas, social forces and historical trends.
Those who find hope in a coming Messiah have been accused of moral quietism. If everything can only be worked out by the divine agent to come, why not sit back and wait for him? Rabbinic Judaism, however, has always insisted upon man's role in the preparation for the messianic advent. Whether the Messiah comes soon or later depends upon man's actions. Samuel Hirsch declared, "It is up to us to turn to God, for the Messiah cannot come before we have become completely good." Some even went so far as to maintain that he will arrive after men have created the messianic state for him and his work will be to guarantee the maintenance of what ordinary men have established.