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Messiahs and Messianism
by Rabbi Berel Wein

One of the central tenets of Judaism is the belief in the coming of the Messiah and the betterment of the human condition through his efforts and presence. The biblical prophets of Israel foretold the coming of this great messianic era. Over the long exile of Israel from its homeland and the terrible persecutions visited upon the Jewish people, the Messiah came to represent the deliverance of Israel from its enemies and its proper restoration to its sovereignty and nationhood in the Land of Israel. Through the centuries, this messianic belief has cut two ways in Jewish life. Without this hope and faith in the coming of a Messiah that would redeem Israel and right the injustices done to the Jewish people, there is grave doubt that the Jews could have survived the terrible tests of exile and persecution. In the darkest hours of our history, Jews always saw the ray of light that the Messiah represented shining through the abject darkness of hatred and discrimination that surrounded it. Yet, on the other hand, this firm belief in the coming of the Messiah spawned many grave crises and disasters in Jewish history. Charlatans, misguided fanatics and other assorted characters spawned a host of false messiahs over the ages, and always with damaging consequences to Judaism and Jews. Thus messianism became at one and the same time the symbol of Jewish hope and of abject disappointment. As the exile lengthened and the troubles persisted and increased, this ambivalent feeling regarding the coming of the Messiah deepened. We needed and longed for a messiah but were now very cautious in believing anyone who claimed messianic qualities.

The Talmud, sixteen centuries ago, was already wary of the subject. "Let the Messiah come, but I do not want to live to see him" was the statement of many of the great scholars of the Talmud. In fact, the Talmud according to the opinion of Mar Shmuel (third century scholar and leader of Babylonian Jewry) painted a very bland picture of the messianic era. The only difference between the pre-messianic era and the post-messianic time would be that Jewish sovereignty would be established in the Land of Israel, free from influence and obligation to other nations. In short, true independence. We would not have to quake every time Condoleeza Rice or Jack Straw deigned to visit us here in our homeland. Rambam, in his discussion of the messianic era, follows the opinion of Mar Shmuel. He envisions a post-messianic world little different from our current world and interprets all of the prophecies of "the lion lying down with the lamb" in a purely allegorical sense. He does posit a time of prosperity and time for study of Torah and spiritual development in the messianic era but he specifically rejects the idea that "apples made of gold will fall from the trees." In his days there were a number of false messiahs that appeared in the Jewish world and this fact undoubtedly influenced him when he stated that we cannot know anything about the Messiah and that era until the event finally actually occurs. Yet, history and the troubles of the Jews negated the Rambam's opinion amongst the masses of Israel.

After the Crusades, the expulsion from Spain, the pogroms of 1648-9, World War I and then the Holocaust, it became very difficult for Jews to accept a bland, completely natural messianic era. The investment, so to speak, over the ages in the struggle to survive and remain Jewish, was so great that only a supernatural extraordinary messianic era could justify it. Therefore every twist in the Jewish road over the past decades and even centuries was seen as being a forerunner to the messianic era. Certainly the return of the Jews to sovereignty in their own state in the Land of Israel was viewed by many as being messianic in nature. Great religious leaders viewed this process of Jewish independence as the "footsteps of the Messiah." But other great Jewish scholars denied that any messianism at all was involved in the creation of the Jewish state in the Land of Israel. And other sections of the Jewish people "secularized" themselves away completely from any form of religious belief in messianism and created for themselves a secular messiah that invariably proved to be false and misleading. We apparently therefore will just have to follow the wise counsel of Maimonide s and just wait to see what happens when the Messiah does arrive. How we will recognize him may be debatable but that we will recognize him somehow remains a core belief of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Reprinted with permission from RabbiWein.com

 


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