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Thoughts on the Messiah in Judaism

19 December 2005

Isn’t amazing/annoying/ridiculous how you can have an idea for a blog post that is so pervasive in your mind that if you don’t have time to write it up and do it justice, it can prevent you from blogging anything else? I’m afraid that’s what happened with this one, which is over a week old in its inception, but I hope to finish it now. It’s more of an essay than a blog post, and perhaps I should delegate longer articles such as this to a special ‘essays’ blog, but then… then I have two blogs to take care of. That’s dumb. I’ll just try to not let the more complicated/deep posts keep me from the shorter/more mundane info. I’ll shut up now and present you with the blog post I started last weekend, and just add to it without changing any of the tenses, etc. I’ve done some research on the subject since then, so I have included information not only from the talk I attended, but from other sources as well. This is by no means a full exegesis of the subject, and I don’t quote my sources — if you’re at all interested, I’ll point you in the right direction. Mostly this is just about my exploration.

This morning our temple (it feels weird that I can even say that) had a lecture in their ongoing lecture series given by the rabbi of the temple on the historical and current views of the messiah in Judaism, and on a whim I decided to attend. Being a recovering Christian, my relationship to Judaism has been interesting in its precarious ambivalence. On the one hand, everything that I have experienced about Reform Judaism (and Jewish Renewal, a more liberal offshoot) has been a positive, with themes of living in the now instead of worrying about the hereafter, and topics of social justice and personal responsibility dominating over issues of sovereign divinity — and yet, there is a tradition in Christianity that it is the fulfillment of scores of ancient biblical prophesy, and it is undeniable that there is messianic content all over modern Judaism. References to the messiah are prevalent in its prayers, referenced in its holiday rituals… and so, for one who is considering (and re-considering) the meaning of faith and organized religion in his own life, the issue has been one that’s been a sticky one for me. Am I exploring an ancient predecessor to Christianity, or am I looking at an entirely new religion that shares nothing with Christianity other than the race of their founders.

So, I attended in hope of answering some of these questions for myself, or at least get a better idea of what I might be dealing with, since I am (with my family) on the path of a Jewish life. What I discovered both about Judaism and about myself was illuminating. Firstly, I discovered that the subject isn’t a simple one, and it merits a more complete investigation for a full understanding of all the nuances. The discussion can be broken into several parts: 1) What is the Messiah (and what is it not)?, 2) What is expected of the Messiah?, and 3) What is the value of the Messiah to Judaism and Jewish thought?

As it turns out (very much in conflict with the traditional Christian teachings), there are very few references to what could be construed as the messiah in the Torah, and only a few more when you consider the whole Tanahk (the equivalent of the ‘old testament’, or the Hebrew Bible). It turns out that messianic thinking is post-bibical, and doesn’t really take off in earnest until a hundred years or so after the death of Jesus, during what is referred to as the ‘Rabbinic’ period, after the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem. Obviously there were those who had ideas of a savior, and it was active in the Jewish imagination, and bolstered by some oblique references to a descendant of David rescuing the Jews and during the time of Roman oppression, otherwise the cult of Jesus wouldn’t have arisen when it did. That being said, it seems that the cult of Jesus arose out of a misunderstanding in translation of the meaning of certain phrases in the Tanahk which refer to ‘the son of god’, which evidently is not to be taken literally, but is a mark of piety used to describe the favored of god, either marking the Jewish people, or its leaders. The attribution of divinity to Jesus is completely outside of the traditional jewish messianic tradition, which marks the messiah not as a literal son of God, but as the mortal leader of the Jews who would deliver the Jewish people from persecution, and in some traditions lead them to redemption (as in the End of Days). I have to say, this information was enlightening to someone that’s been told the stories from a very young age that Jesus was the fulfillment of thousands of years of irrefutable prophecy and yearnings of the Jews. In the light of this new information of such a fundamental misunderstanding, it’s now comprehensible how a people could turn their back on their savior in the way that is described in the gospel. Even if you take the report of the gospel as literally historically accurate (with or without the accounts of miracles), you must account that the Jews of Jesus’ time were not looking for a literal avatar or incarnation of God in their messiah. Rather, they were looking for a mortal leader who was a descendant of the line of David, who would lead them out of oppression on the physical plane.

So, as the idea of the messiah developed over the time between the destruction of the temple and more-or-less modern times, there have been several postulations of the meaning of the messiah, and there have been multiple claims to the Messiah title by would-be saviors over that same period. Each story is interesting and unique, and each had its effects on the Jewish people, but I won’t go into that here as it is unimportant to my personal exploration (though I must say each story fascinates me and I’m liable to do some more reading on the subject) — what is interesting is that there have evolved several differing ideas of what the coming of the messiah actually means. From the first century up through the 11th or 12 century, the idea of the messiah was the arrival of an actual individual who would assume the mantle of leader for the Jewish people, and deliver them from their woes. In specific, these are the expectations of the messiah from the perspective of the traditional view, pulled from wikipedia entry on Jewish Eschatology:

The Hebrew word Mashiach (or Moshiach) means anointed one, and refers to a mortal human being. Within Judaism, the Mashiach is a human being who will be a descendant of King David continuing the Davidic line, and who will usher in a messianic era of peace and prosperity for Israel and all the nations of the world. The job description, as such, is this:

  • All of the people of Israel will come back to Torah
  • The people of Israel will be gathered back to the land of Israel.
  • The Holy Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt.
  • 4. Israel will live superior among the nations, and will have no need to defend herself.
  • 5. War and famine will end, and an era of peace and prosperity will come upon the Earth.

Pretty basic, nice idea — not sure I buy into it, but nowhere is there mention of being God. The second idea of the messiah comes out of the Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism, born out of 13th century Spain), which is the idea not of an individual human who comes as the savior, but of the ushering in of a messianic age in which all the happy things about what the messiah would do would just ‘happen’.

This is all a gross oversimplification, and there are many nuances around modern belief of the messiah, but what strikes me as interesting are the questions of the value of messianic thinking in modern Judaism, as that is what particularly pertains to my own experience. What’s interesting to note is, at least in Reform Judaism (which I am learning more and more about every day), talk of the messiah is pretty much missing from the average person’s minds and perspectives as the religion tends to focus on the social activism work of the day-to-day. The idea of the messiah remains in the background, in the prayers and in the rituals for reasons I see as more practical than spiritual. For the messiah to appear, it is postulated by the rabbis and philosophers that either the Jews will be in a really really bad place, or in a really really good place (there are details to those qualitative states, but I’ll spare you and tell you that either condition is asymptotical and not really a possibility) — so I see these possibilities as incentives towards good works and an evolutionary mechanism to hold together a group in despair through the hardest of times with the carrot of divine intervention. The Jewish faith, at base, is a method for ‘the good life’, meaning life here and now, not after death. The questions of the afterlife are relatively unimportant to the common practitioner. Starting to sound a bit like secular humanism? I thought so too.

In doing this exploration, all sorts of other interesting information came up for me such as the nonexistence of Hell for the Jews (beyond a pergatory-like place called ‘Gehenna’ which the max time you can stay there is one year, and is there to help purify the soul), the non-focus on an afterlife (this is also underdescribed in the religion in practice and in text), as well as what it means to the Jews to be ‘chosen’ (this is a misreading — they are not THE chosen people, but instead are A chosen people FOR a specific purpose, not precluding other chosen peoples). I’m sure I’ll be filling you all in later in future blog posts, but this one has gotten too long already. I’m finding it all very fascinating, and very comforting. This is not Christian-lite, but really an entirely different animal altogether. I am down with that.

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