Written by: Marc A. Krell
Once they established their grounding in the Oral Torah, the rabbis debated about how to craft a messianic doctrine that would give them the theological and political authority to lead their people forward. On the one hand, in chapter 11 of the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, there were various rabbinic predictions of when the Messiah would come in their generation that were consistent with the miraculous messianic speculation of the Second Temple period. On the other hand, in light of the messianic foundation for the "Great Revolt," the early Jewish-Christian messianism articulated in the Christian Gospels, and the failed messianic revolt of Bar Kochba, the rabbis formulated a substantial number of anti-messianic statements in the very same Talmudic tractate. These completely suppressed the human role in achieving redemption while leaving it wholly in the hands of God.
|The Three Oaths|
In fact, Jewish historians argue that post-Bar Kochba rabbis were actually responsible for attributing anti-messianic, pacifistic statements to the 1st-century Rabban Yochanan in order to justify their position. These later rabbis ultimately articulated the radical anti-messianic doctrine of the "three oaths," based on a midrash or interpretation of a thrice-repeated statement from the biblical book, Song of Songs 2:7, "Do not rouse love until it pleases." The rabbis interpreted this to refer to three oaths made between God, Israel, and the nations in which God made the Jews swear not to force the coming of the Messiah or collectively immigrate to the land of Israel in exchange for the nations' promise that they would not oppress the Jews "too much." This amounted to a Jewish doctrine of political passivity in exchange for foreign toleration.
|Presumed line of descendants|
|Biblical king David|
Rabbinic leaders of 2nd and 3rd centuries
Yet in response to the extreme views of apocalyptic and passive messianism, a group of rabbis articulated what had been referred to as "realistic messianism," a doctrine that channeled the revolutionary aspects of messianism into a mainstream political and religious movement to restore Jewish sovereignty. This view was implied by the 3rd-century Rabbi Samuel who argued that the only difference between the present and the messianic future is that Jews will no longer be controlled by foreign political powers. In fact, the rabbinic leaders of the Babylonian and Palestinian communities in the late 2nd and 3rd centuries were perceived as messianic figures based on their lineages in the royal line of King David, whose descendant would be the Messiah or "anointed" King who would usher in the third Jewish commonwealth. Moreover, the Babylonian leader or Exilarch acted like a substitute monarch possessing a royal court that actually became a source of controversy to other rabbinic leaders who also made claims to the Davidic lineage. Regardless, the prevailing view in the rabbinic community was that the rabbis were the precursors to the messianic era who would create the political infrastructure necessary for the Messiah to reestablish the Davidic kingdom and govern according to the laws of the Torah.
1. Is it appropriate to think of Judaism's early rabbis as pacifistic spiritualists? Why?
2. How was power legitimated among early rabbis?
3. What was the “realistic messianism,” and what was its purpose?