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Jewish Concepts: The Messiah

Many Jews have long been skeptical of predictions announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah (Ma-shi-akh). The first century sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai once said: “If you should happen to be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out and greet the Messiah.” An old Jewish story tells of a Russian Jew who was paid a ruble a month by the community council to stand at the outskirts of town so that he could be the first person to greet the Messiah upon his arrival. When a friend said to him, “But the pay is so low,” the man replied: “True, but the job is permanent.”

Yet, the belief in a messiah and a messianic age is so deeply rooted in Jewish tradition that a statement concerning the Messiah became the most famous of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith: “And Ma’amin, I believe with a full heart in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry, I will wait for him on any day that he may come.” In the concentration camps, it is reported that many Jews sang the Ani Ma’amin while walking to the gas chambers.

On the one hand, ironic jokes and skepticism; on the other, passionate faith: What then is the Jewish position on the Messiah?

Most significantly, Jewish tradition affirms at least five things about the Messiah. He will: be a descendant of King David, gain sovereignty over the land of Israel, gather the Jews there from the four corners of the earth, restore them to full observance of Torah law, and, as a grand finale, bring peace to the whole world. Concerning the more difficult tasks some prophets assign him, such as Isaiah’s vision of a messianic age in which the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the calf with the young lion (Isaiah 11:6), Maimonides believes that Isaiah’s language is metaphorical (for example, only that enemies of the Jews, likened to the wolf, will no longer oppress them). A century later, Nachmanides rejected Maimonides’s rationalism and asserted that Isaiah meant precisely what he said: that in the messianic age even wild animals will become domesticated and sweet-tempered. A more recent Jewish “commentator,” Woody Allen, has cautioned: “And the lamb and the wolf shall lie down together, but the lamb won’t get any sleep.”

The Jewish belief that the Messiah’s reign lies in the future has long distinguished Jews from their Christian neighbors who believe, of course, that the Messiah came two thousand years ago in the person of Jesus. The most basic reason for the Jewish denial of the messianic claims made on Jesus’ behalf is that he did not usher in world peace, as Isaiah had prophesied: “And nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). In addition, Jesus did not help bring about Jewish political sovereignty for the Jews or protection from their enemies.

A century after Jesus, large numbers of Palestinian Jews followed the would-be Messiah, Simon Aroha, in a revolt against the Romans. The results were catastrophic, and the Jews suffered a devastating defeat. In 1665­1666, large segments of world Jewry believed that Shabbetai Zvi, a Turkish Jew, was the Messiah, and confidently waited for Turkey’s sultan to deliver Palestine to him. Instead, the sultan threatened Shabbetai with execution and the “Messiah” saved his life by converting to Islam.

In the modern world, Reform Judaism has long denied that there will be an individual messiah who will carry out the task of perfecting the world. Instead, the movement speaks of a future world in which human efforts, not a divinely sent messenger, will bring about a utopian age. The Reform idea has influenced many nonorthodox Jews: The oft-noted attraction of Jews to liberal and left­wing political causes probably represents a secular attempt to usher in a messianic age.

Among traditional Jews, the belief in a personal messiah seems to have grown more central in recent years. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, the subject of the Messiah was rarely, if ever, mentioned at the Jewish school I attended, the Yeshiva of Flatbush. Today however, one large movement within Orthodoxy, Lubavitch, has placed increasing emphasis on the imminence of the Messiah’s arrival. At gatherings of their youth organizations, children chant, “We want Ma-shi-akh now.”

At the same time, the subject of the Messiah has become increasingly central to many religious Zionists in Israel, particularly to many disciples of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. The event that helped set the stage for a revived interest in the Messiah was the Six-­Day War of 1967, in which Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem and, for the first time in over two thousand years, achieved Jewish rule over the biblically ordained borders of Israel.

A sober reading of Jewish history, however, indicates that while the messianic idea has long elevated Jewish life, and prompted Jews to work for tikkun olam (perfection of the world), whenever Jews have thought the Messiah’s arrival to be imminent, the results have been catastrophic. In 1984, a Jewish religious underground was arrested in Israel. Among its other activities, the group had plotted to blow up the Muslim Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, so that the Temple Mount could be cleared and the Temple rebuilt. Though such an action might well have provoked an international Islamic jihad (holy war) against Israel, some members of this underground group apparently welcomed such a possibility, feeling that a worldwide invasion of Israel would force God to bring the Messiah immediately. It is precisely when the belief in the Messiah’s coming starts to shape political decisions that the messianic idea ceases to be inspiring and becomes dangerous.

Source: Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy. NY: William Morrow and Co., 1991. Reprinted by permission of the author.