Messianism: Jewish Messianism

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The term messianism denotes a movement, or a system of beliefs and ideas, centered on the expectation of the advent of a messiah (derived from the Hebrew mashia, "the anointed one"). The Hebrew verb masha means to anoint objects or persons with oil for ordinary secular purposes as well as for sacral purposes. In due course the nominative form came to mean anyone with a specific mission from God (i.e., not only kings or high priests), even if the anointing was purely metaphorical (prophets, partiarchs), and ultimately it acquired the connotation of a savior or redeemer who would appear at the end of days and usher in the kingdom of God, the restoration of Israel, or whatever dispensation was considered to be the ideal state of the world.

This specific semantic development was due to the Jewish belief that the ultimate salvation of Israel, though wrought by God, would be presided over or realized by a descendant of the royal house of David. He, the "son of David," would be the Lord's anointed par excellence. From its original Jewish context the word mashia then passed into general use, denoting movements or expectations of a utopian character or otherwise concerned with the salvation of society and the world. The messianic complex appears at times as restorative in character (the Paradise Lost-Paradise Regained syndrome), in the sense that it envisages the restoration of the past and lost golden age. At other times it appears as more utopian, in the sense that it envisages a state of perfection the like of which has never existed before ("a new heaven and a new earth"); the Messiah will not merely renew the days of yore but will usher in a "new age."

The term mashia in this specific eschatological sense does not occur in the Hebrew scriptures. Isaiah 45:1 calls the Persian king Cyrus II the Lord's "anointed" because it was evidently as the chosen instrument of God that he permitted the Israelite exiles to return from Babylonia to Jerusalem. Using later terminology one may, perhaps, commit a technical anachronism and describe as "messianic" those scriptural passages that prophesy a future golden age, the ingathering of the exiles, the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, the era of peace when the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and so on.

Such is the nature of messianism that it develops and flourishes in periods of suffering and frustration. When the present is satisfactory it need not be redeemed but should be perpetuated or renewed (e.g., by periodic or cyclical renewal rites). When the present is profoundly unsatisfactory, messianism emerges as one of the possible answers: the certainty of a satisfactory natural, social, and historical order (and this certainty was particularly strong in Israel, based as it was on God's promise enshrined in his eternal covenant) is projected on the horizon of an ideal future. As the biblical account amply shows, already in biblical times the present was generally perceived as far from satisfactory (wicked and sinful kings, enemy incursions, defeats), and hence ideas concerning an ideal order under an ideal Davidic king began to crystallize.

The tendency to look toward future fulfillment was reinforced by the destruction of the First Temple (587/6 bce), the Babylonian exile, and the subsequent return to Zion under Cyrus, hailed by "Second Isaiah" as an event of a messianic order. But this "messianic" salvation proved a sad disappointment. The severe persecution under the Syrian Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV (r. 175163 bce) similarly led to messianic-eschatological hopes, as evidenced by the Book of Daniel, the composition of which is generally dated in that period. But the great salvation wrought by the victory of the Maccabees similarly proved, in the long run, a sad disappointment. The revolts against the oppressive "kingdom of wickedness," Rome in 6570 ce (which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple) and again in 132135 ce (the Bar Kokhba Revolt, which ended in the practical destruction of Palestinian Jewry) no doubt had messianic elements. Thereafter messianism was a mixture of firm and unshakable hope in ultimate redemption, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, fear of the dangers and disastrous consequences of messianic explosions"messianic activism," as the historian would call it, or "premature messianism," as the theologian would call it.

The messianic doctrines that developed during the second half of the Second Temple period from approximately 220 bce to 70 ce (also called the "intertestamentary" period) were of diverse kinds, reflecting the mentality and spiritual preoccupations of different circles. They ranged from this-worldly, political expectationsthe breaking of the yoke of foreign rule, the restoration of the Davidic dynasty (the messianic king), and, after 70 ce, also the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Templeto more apocalyptic conceptions, such as the spectacular and catastrophic end of "this age" (including a Day of Judgment), the ushering in of a new age, the advent of the kingdom of heaven, the resurrection of the dead, a new heaven and a new earth. The main protagonist might be a military leader, a kingly "son of David," a supernatural figure such as the somewhat mysterious "son of man" mentioned in some books of the Hebrew scriptures as well as in apocryphal apocalyptic texts. Many scholars think that Jesus deliberately avoided the use of the term messiah because of its political overtones (especially as he was announcing a kingdom that was not of this world) and preferred the unpolitical term "son of man." On the other hand, those responsible for the final redaction of the Gospel of Matthew thought it necessary to provide Jesus with a lineage proving his descent from David in order to legitimate his messianic status, since the mashia (Gr., christos ) had to be identified as the "son of David."

These examples, incidentally, also show that the origins of Christianity have to be seen in the context of the messianic ferment of contemporaneous Jewish Palestine. Messianic ideas developed not only by way of interpretation of biblical texts (e.g., the pesher of the Qumran community and the later midrash of rabbinic Judaism) but also by "revelations" granted to apocalyptic visionaries. The latter tradition is well illustrated by the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation.

But messianic ideas and expectations could also be based on "rational" (i.e., nonvisionary) insights, especially when the interpretation of scriptural prophecies took the form of calculations and computations of the dates allegedly hinted at in the obscure symbolism of the texts. Jewish messianic enthusiasts would often base their calculations on the Book of Daniel (much as Christian millenarians would compute the end time from the "number of the beast" mentioned in Revelation 13:18). Since the high-pitched hopes generated by these calculations would often lead to disaster (or at best to severe disappointment), the Talmudic rabbis had very harsh words about "those who compute the [messianic] end."

One tradition, probably influenced by Zechariah 34, appears to have held a doctrine of two messianic figures, the one a high-priestly "anointed one" of the house of Aaron, the other a royal messiah of the house of David. This belief, which was held by the Qumran community (also known as the Dead Sea Sect), obviously implies that these complementary messianic figures are not so much saviors and redeemers as symbolic types presiding over the redeemed and ideal social order. Echoes of this doctrine seem to be present in the (apparently polemical) insistence of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was both king and high priest. The doctrine seems to have survived into the Middle Ages (by what channels is not quite clear), for it is found also among the Karaites.

Another version of the "double messiah" developed in the second century ce, possibly as a reaction to the catastrophic failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. The messiah of the house of Joseph (or Ephraim)a possible echo of the motif of the ten lost tribesfalls in battle against the forces of Gog and Magog (the Jewish counterpart to the Battle of Armageddon). He is thus not a suffering messiah but a warrior messiah who dies a hero's death, to be followed by the victorious messiah of the house of David. This view of a double messiah also expresses an essential duality in Jewish (but not only in Jewish) messianism: messianic fulfillment is preceded by cosmic, natural, and social upheavals and catastrophes. (The Christian transformation of the Jewish motif is the idea of the Antichrist let loose to rule the world before being finally vanquished at the Second Coming.) Hence, whenever severe sufferings and tribulations were visited on the Jewish people, these could be, and often were, interpreted as the predicted premessianic catastrophe (the "birth pangs" of the messianic age, in the language of the Talmud) heralding an imminent messianic consummation.

Messianism in the wider sense of an ideal future need not imply the belief in a particular, individual savior or redeemer figure. While Isaiah 11 and 2:24 envisage a peaceful and utopian world under a Davidic king, the parallel text Micah 4:4 has even fewer miraculous elements and speaks of an earthly happiness, with every man dwelling under his vine and under his fig tree. For Jeremiah too, though his vision of the future also emphasizes the moral dimensionscompare Jeremiah 31:30ff. and 32:3644 with Ezekiel's "new heart" and "heart of flesh" instead of the previous heart of stone (Ez. 2:4, 11:19, 18:31, 32:9, 36:26)the promised boon is that "there shall enter into the gates of this city [Jerusalem] kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses" (Jer. 17:25). Noteworthy in this text is not only its this-worldly ideal, with Jerusalem as a bustling royal city, but also the reference to kings, in the plural. The idea of the one messianic savior-king had not yet developed.

In later, especially modern and secularized, versions of messianism, the idea of a personal messiah increasingly gave way to the notion of a "messianic age" of peace, social justice, and universal loveconceptions that could easily function as progressive, liberal, socialist, utopian, and even revolutionary transformations of traditional messianism. Thus the Philadelphia program of American Reform Judaism (1869) substituted for the belief in a personal messiah the optimistic faith in the advent of a messianic era characterized by "the unity of all men as children of God in the confession of the One and Sole God," and the Pittsburgh Platform (1885) spoke of the establishment "of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace." Twentieth-century disillusionment with the idea of progress seems to have given a new lease on life to more radical and utopian forms of messianism.

In the intertestamentary period, messianic beliefs and doctrines developed, as we have seen, in a variety of forms. Messianism became increasingly eschatological, and eschatology was decisively influenced by apocalypticism. At the same time, messianic expectations became increasingly focused on the figure of an individual savior. In times of stress and crisis messianic pretenders (or forerunners and heralds announcing their advent) would appear, often as leaders of revolts. Josephus Flavius as well as the author of Acts 5 mentions several such figures. Moreover, the Messiah no longer symbolized the coming of the new age, but he was somehow supposed to bring it about. The "Lord's anointed" thus became the "savior and redeemer" and the focus of more intense expectations and doctrines, even of a "messianic theology." Compare, for example, the implications of Paul's reading of Isaiah 52:20, "and the Redeemer [i.e., God] cometh to Zion," as "the Redeemer [i.e., Christ] cometh from Zion" (Rom. 11:26).

Since many Jews of the Diaspora lived under Christian domination, which meant also Christian persecution and missionary pressure, theological polemics inevitably centered on christologicalthat is, messianicthemes. (Is Jesus the promised messiah? Why do the Jews refuse to acknowledge him? Because of carnal blindness or diabolic wickedness?) Since both religions recognized the Hebrew Bible as holy scripture, polemic often assumed an exegetical character (i.e., it claimed a correct interpretation of the "messianic" prophecies in the Bible). As a rule, Jewish messianism never relinquished its concrete, historical, national, and social expectations and was little impressed by the "spiritual" character of Christian doctrine.

Christian polemics, from the early church fathers to the Middle Ages and later, accused the Jews of an inferior and crude materialism that made them read the scriptures kata sarka, with eyes of flesh rather than with eyes of the spirit. Paradoxically, the Jews considered this reproach as a compliment, since for them the claim that the Messiah had come was, in an unredeemed world plagued by wars, injustice, oppression, sickness, sin, and violence, utterly meaningless. In the famous disputation of Barcelona (1263), forced upon the Jews by Dominican missionaries and held in the presence of King James I of Aragon, the Jewish spokesman, the great Talmudist and qabbalist Moses Nahmanides (Mosheh ben Naman, c. 1194c. 1270), simply quoted Isaiah 2:4 and observed that His Most Christian Majesty, in spite of his belief that the Messiah had come, would probably find it difficult to disband his army and send home all his knights so that they might beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Throughout Jewish history there has existed a tension between two types of messianism, already briefly mentioned before: the apocalyptic one, with its miraculous and supernatural elements, and a more "rationalist" one. Throughout the Middle Ages old, and usually pseudepigraphic, apocalypses and messianic midrashim were copied and new ones were produced by messianic enthusiasts and visionaries. The rabbinic attitude, at least the official one, was more sober and prudent: too many messianic outbursts had ended in disaster, namely, cruel suppression by the gentile rulers. A burned child dreads the fire, and the rabbinic hesitations (probably a result of the traumatic experience of the Bar Kokhba Revolt) found eloquent expression in the homiletic interpretation of Song of Songs 2:7: " 'I charge you, you daughters of Jerusalem, that you stir not up nor awake my love till he please'this verse contains six charges to Israel: not to rebel against the kingdoms of this world, not to force the end of the days and not to use force to return to the Land of Israel" (B. T., Ket. 111a). On a more theoretical level, already one Talmudic master had given the opinion that "there is no difference between this age and the messianic age but the oppression of Israel by the heathen kingdoms [which will cease after Israel regains its freedom under a messianic king]."

The great medieval authority, the philosopher-theologian Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon, 1135/81204), although he enumerated belief in the advent of the Messiah among the basic articles of faith, was careful to rule in his legal code as follows:

Let no one think that the messianic king would have to perform signs or miracles and let no one think that in the messianic era the normal course of things would be changed or the order of nature altered. What scripture says on the subject is very obscure, and our sages [too] have no clear and explicit traditions in these matters. Most [of the prophecies and traditions] are parables, the real meaning of which will become clear only after the event. These details are therefore not articles of religion, and one should not waste time on their interpretation or on the computation of the date of the messianic advent, since these things are conducive neither to the love of God nor to the fear of God. (Mishneh Torah, Kings 11, 12)

In Maimonides' own lifetime, messianic movements occurred in parts of the Diaspora, and as the acknowledged leader of his generation he had to do his best, without offending the messianic enthusiasm of the pious folk, to prevent disasters and backlashes by carefully preaching his more sober approach (e.g., in his Epistle to Yemen and Epistle on the Resurrection of the Dead ). Nevertheless, messianic longing and apocalyptic imagination, fired by persecutions and suffering, continued to flourish and to ignite messianic outbursts. There was no dearth of messianic pretenders ("pseudomessiahs") or precursors announcing the advent of the Redeemer, provided the people would prepare themselves by appropriate means (e.g., penitential austerities).

But no matter whether messianic hopes and beliefs were apocalyptic or more sober, a matter of feverish agitation or of theological dogma, they had become an essential part of the Jewish faith and of the Jewish experience of life and of history. The apocalyptic texts might be rejected by some as too fantastic, but the heritage of messianic prophecy was accepted by allnot only in its biblical form but even more decisively in its subsequent rabbinic development. The most influential factor was, perhaps, the constant emphasis of messianic beliefs (the ingathering of the exiles, the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple) in the daily liturgy, in the grace recited after every meal, and especially in the prayers on Sabbath and holy days. This is not the only instance in the history of religions that illustrates how the prayer book and the liturgy can exert a more pervasive influence than theological tracts.

Messianic movements accompanied Jewish history throughout the Middle Ages, and there were probably many more than have come to our knowledge through chronicles, rabbinic responsa, and other incidental references. Most of them were local phenomena of short duration. The movement usually petered out after its suppression by the authorities or the disappearance (or execution) of the leader. In this respect the movement inspired by the seventeenth-century messianic pretender Shabbetai Tsevi is an exceptional case. Messianic movements are attested in Persia from the eighth century (Abū ʿIsā al-Isfahānī and his disciple Yudghan) to David Alroy (Menaem al-Dūjī) in the twelfth century. Abū ʿIsā, who proclaimed himself the messiah of the house of Joseph, duly fell in battle against the Abbasid forces against which he had marched with ten thousand followers, while David Alroy (known best from Disraeli's fanciful novel) staged a revolt against the sultan. Several messianic pretenders appeared in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in western Europe, particularly in Spain. Later, under the influence of Qabbalah, messianic activism became more mystical and even magical. Spiritual activism, when all realistic and practical outlets are closed, easily becomes magical activism, and Jewish legend tells of masters who undertook to force the messianic advent by means of extreme mortifications, special meditations, and qabbalistic incantations. These legends, the most popular of which was that concerning Yosef della Reyna, usually end with the qabbalist adept falling prey to the demonic powers that he had sought to vanquish.

To understand the various messianic movements properly, one would have to examine carefully, individually, and in detail the specific historical circumstances and external pressures as well as internal tensions that precipitated them. The common fate of Jews everywhere as a despised and persecuted minority, existing in a hostile environment yet sharing the same religious culture and messianic hope, provides a general framework; nevertheless it is clearly inadequate as an explanation of specific messianic movements. The permanent presence of messianic dynamisms is also attested by the phenomenon of smaller or larger groups of Jews leaving their countries of origin in the Diaspora in order to settle in the Holy Land. While less blatantly millenarian than the acute messianic outbursts, these movements often had messianic motivations. Although the Messiah had not yet appeared or called the faithful to the Promised Land, the motivation was often "preeschatological" in the sense that a life of prayer and ascetic sanctification in the Holy Land was thought to prepare or even hasten the advent of the Redeemer.

With the emergence of Qabbalah after the thirteenth century, and especially its development after the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, qabbalistic mysticism became a major element and driving social force in Jewish messianism. This process requires a brief elucidation. As a rule mystical systems have little or no relationship to time or to the process of time, history, and hence to messianism. After all, the mystic aspires to a supratemporal sphere, the anticipation of timeless eternity and the "everlasting now" rather than to the crowning consummation of history. It is therefore not surprising to find messianic tension decreasing in inverse proportion to the mystical tension. This principle seems to hold true also regarding classical Spanish Qabbalah. The new Qabbalah, Lurianic Qabbalah, that developed after the Spanish expulsion in the great centers of the Ottoman empire, but especially in Safad in the Holy Land, was remarkable for its high, one would almost say explosive, messianic charge, especially in the form that it received at the hand of the most original, charismatic, and outstanding qabbalist in that group, Isaac Luria (15341572).

Lurianic Qabbalah interpreted the history of the world in general, and Israel's exile, suffering, and redemption in particular, in an idiom of a type that might be called gnostic, that is, in terms of a cosmic, or rather divine, drama in which God himself was involved. One might also describe the system as a theosophical Heilsgeschichte. According to this strangely "gnostic" myth, a primordial catastrophe or "fall" occurredlong before Adam's original sinat the moment when the divine light-essence externalized itself with a view to creating the world. The vessels that were to carry and transmit the divine light collapsed (the "breaking of the vessels") and the divine light-sparks fell into chaos and have since been imprisoned and "exiled" there, whereand this is part of their tragedythey sustain the life of the demonic realm.

Israel's exile and suffering thus merely reflect on the historical, material, and external level the more fundamental mystery of the exile and suffering of the divine fallen sparks. Redemption thus means the liberation of the divine sparks from the defiling embrace of the demonic powers and their return to their divine source, no less than the liberation of Israel from subjugation to the Gentiles and its return to the Holy Land. Indeed, the latter process would follow as natural consequence from the former, which it was Israel's true and mystical vocation to bring about by a life of piety and holiness. This is spiritual activism at its most extreme, for here God has become a salvator salvandus. To the harassed and hounded Jew, exile became meaningful because it was seen as a reflection of, and participation in, the profounder exile of God, and God himself required Israel's cooperation in the redemption of himself, his people, and his creation. It is not surprising that, at least at first, the personality of the Messiah played a relatively minor role in this system. He was not so much a redeemer as a sign and symbol that the mystical messianic process had been consummated. In fact, the messianic doctrine of Lurianism comes close, at least structurally, to an evolutionist scheme.

This qabbalistic system provided the background of one of the most remarkable messianic episodes in the course of Jewish historythe movement centered on the person of Shabbetai Tsevi. The ignominious debacle of Shabbateanism, with its aftermath of heresy, antinomianism, and apostasy, left a trail of spiritual confusion and disarray as a result of which both Qabbalah and messianism declined, at least in their public and social role. Apart from a few minor messianic convulsions, "automessianism" (as Martin Buber called it) declined steadily. The messianic idea remained alive in Judaism, influencing no doubt also non-Jewish ideologies of utopia and hope (see the influential work of the Marxist thinker Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung ), but no more messianic pretenders appeared. Orthodox Judaism continued to believe in the traditional doctrine of a personal messiah but de facto retreated into a shell of strict halakhic observance. The myth had lost its power to trigger messianic movements.

Hasidism, the great spiritual revival launched in eighteenth-century eastern Europe by the Besht (Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer, 17001760), certainly did not relinquish traditional messianic beliefs, but its main emphasis was on closeness to God through spiritual inwardness or (at times) ecstasy. Gershom Scholem has described this process (though the subject is still a matter of scholarly debate) as a "neutralization of the messianic element." But while Hasidism attempted to provide an answer, in a traditional idiom, for the spiritual seekers as well as for the pauperized masses in the ghettos of eastern Europe, the Jewry of western and central Europe entered the modern age (civil emancipation, assimilation, Reform Judaism).

The implications of these developments for Jewish messianism are still a matter for research. Many of the modern ideologies undoubtedly preserved some of the traditional messianic overtones. At times they made deliberate use of messianic terminology. Of course the progressive liberals and later socialists, and needless to say the national revival known as Zionism, did not think in terms of Armageddon, or a heavenly Jerusalem descending from above, or the "son of David" riding on an ass, but rather of civil liberties, equality before the law, universal peace, all-around ethical and human progress, the national emancipation of the Jewish people within the family of nations, and so on. But all these aspirations were somehow surrounded with a messianic halo. Jews rarely asked the literalist questions so congenial to Christian fundamentalism. They do not, as a rule, inquire whether a particular historical event is the "fulfillment" of a particular biblical prophecy. But it is impossible, for most of them, to pass through apocalyptic events such as the Holocaust, or to experience the end of exile and the reestablishment of Israel as a sovereign commonwealth, without the stirring of messianic chords in their souls.

In fact, since the Yom Kippur War, a trend toward a "messianization" of politics has become noticeable in Israel, especially among groups advocating settlements on the West Bank or Jewish rights on the Temple Mount. Some of this messianized Zionism goes back to the teaching of Avraham Yitsaq Kook, chief rabbi of Palestine from 1921 to 1935. In the Prayer for the State of Israel the chief rabbinate refers to the statein an incredibly primitive dispensationalist fashionas "the beginning of the sprouting of our Redemption." Others, however, feel that messianism as an eschatological concept should be kept out of the pragmatics and ambiguities of current politics, since it tends to demoralize and mythologize them instead of moralizing them (in the prophetic sense). It is still too early for a definitive historical and sociological evaluation of these conflicting tendencies, and of the nature and role of messianism in contemporary Judaism.

See Also

Apocalypse, articles on Jewish Apocalypticism to the Rabbinic Period, Medieval Jewish Apocalyptic Literature; Eschatology; Polemics, article on Jewish-Christian Polemics; Qabbalah; Shabbetai Tsevi; Zionism.


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Revised Bibliography