Judaism 101: The Messiah

Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I believed Jesus was the Jewish Messiah—I was taught that he fulfilled hundreds of Old Testament prophesies. I was also told that the Jewish people had missed the coming of their own Messiah. Even as a child, I always found this curious—how could they miss something so big and important? As I began to step outside of the world of evangelical Christianity and into a world of greater nuance, however, I knew that there was a part of the story I had never been taught. For that reason, I was especially excited to ask the Judaism 101 panel about Jewish perspectives on the Messiah. Now on to our panelists!

Rachel

Here’s a question, and feel free to ignore it if it feels too personal (it almost does tome): do you believe in the coming of the Mashiach, e resurrection of the dead, the everlasting Third Temple? It’s part of our prayers, it’s been part of Jewish thought for millennia, but do you believe?

I feel like personally, I believe in it in sort of an “of course” way, I’ve never questioned its existence, but it also doesn’t really affect my daily life very much — I don’t think about it on a day-to-day basis, and it seems somewhat impractical compared to other structures of Jewish life. It’s more than a superstition to me, but it’s also so irrelevant to my daily life that I don’t really think about it. Just because it’s not a personally relevant belief doesn’t mean I want to discard it, though…so I’m conflicted.

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Anat

Ever since I became comfortable with my atheism (age 17) I no longer hold any supernaturalistic beliefs, which includes anything interesting happening to oneself after one dies (that was a relief) as well as there being some pre-designated fate in future history for any group of people. Just to make sure our readers understand. Before that – as a child I more or less accepted whatever belief that was presented to me as what ‘we’ believe, or are supposed to. In my teens I was working on trying to make those beliefs work within a scientific worldview. Hence atheism.

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Hilary

Regarding resurrection of the dead – like I mentioned, I hadn’t even heard of it growing up and I can’t quite take the thought of a righteous zombie uprising seriously.  However, it was interesting to learn about how that idea developed in “Jewish views of the Afterlife.”  Ditto for praying for the return of the Temple and sacrifices; I am totally fine with them never coming back.  They’re interesting to learn about, what they were, what type of world that was, how we got from there to here, but I’m going with Ben Zakkai’s advice after the Temple was destroyed, “We have other means of atonement, charity and acts of loving kindness.”

About the Messiah, a literal belief in some great Messiah coming to save us, re-create Israel, bring all the Jews there to live in peace and generally create peace throughout the world was another traditional view Reform ditched from its beginning.  Instead we get the ‘Messianic Era’ of universal brotherhood and peace, which we as Jews are supposed to work for ‘as a light unto the nations.’  The other way I’ve heard the Messianic age described is that we have to do the work of healing the world in order to bring the Messiah to us.  This taps into Tikkun Olam – bringing together the broken pieces of the world to make them whole, and help bring a little more peace into the world. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not rise sword against nation, nor shall they study war . . . All shall sit under their fig tree, and none shall be afraid.”

I have a couple of opinions on this:

1. It’s a good way to describe our covenant with God as a partnership, where each side (God and the people of Israel) both had responsibilities to fulfill, but  needed the other to work together in order to fulfill the promise of a world at peace.

2.  It’s also a very good way to inspire/manipulate/guilt trip liberal Jews to try and solve everybody else’s problems, without too closely examining our own.

3.  It makes us feel good about ourselves for all the important social justice work we did because that’s what Judaism was, to the point of sometimes feeling like that was all that Judaism was, social justice with some Hebrew thrown in.*

4.  It’s a cop out, where we have to do all the hard work of fixing things down here, and only then would the Messiah show up and be like, ”Hey, I’m here now – the party can finally get started!” And we’re all too tired from the centuries of hard work to overcome all the hate, fear, greed and evil in the world to even flip him the bird for showing up so late.

*In the book “Jewish Literacy” by Rabbi Telushkin for the entry on Reform Judaism he includes this joke: “There are two kinds of rabbis, those who think Judaism is all about social justice, and those who know Hebrew.”  It’s a cruelly pointed joke that cuts both ways, and is very dismissive of both non-Orthodox scholarship and any care or concern more traditional Jews have for the rest of the world. I got the feeling that he admitted the value of Reform Judaism’s emphasis on social ethics and justice through gritted teeth in his book.

However, my counter argument with myself on points 2 & 3 was that even if it was a little on the manipulative side, or self congratulatory side, at least it inspires people to get good things done.  Although to counter that counter point, I know it is also true that good deeds should be done just for the sake of doing them because they are worth doing whether or not the Messiah ever does bother to show up. Which gives me a total of six opinions on the Messianic Era when I even bother to think about it which wasn’t very often.  It’s not like it’s a big topic of conversation or very important, and I think that does have something to do with Jesus.  Because as liberal American Jews we don’t shut ourselves away from our Christian neighbors (we tend to marry them instead) and generally live in such a predominantly Christian environment that the words ’messiah’ or ‘savior’ meant Jesus Christ, not Mashiach ben David. Actually talking about or praying for the Messiah feel like a Christian thing to do, and therefore not very Jewish. But at least in our vague beliefs about the messiah we didn’t get ride of this song:

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Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah of Gilead.

Soon, in our days, he will come with the Messiah, the son of David.

Some of my fondest memories are singing this doing havdalah, both at home, temple, and camp. I know the YouTube clip is during Passover, but we sing this for Havdalah for both Shabbat and at the end of Yom Kippur.

As an adult, especially after starting a personal study of 1st and 2nd century Judaism last summer, sometimes I do hope for God’s help achieving the messianic era.  I think it would take divine intervention to get all the Jews in the world living peacefully with ourselves in Israel, even more then working out a decent peace treaty with Israel’s neighbors and creating a workable two state solution for Israel and Palestine. Then again, given what’s in the Torah and Quran and how we’ve used those books, we’re probably better off trying to work things out ourselves.

One thing I find ironic and fascinating is that with all the violence in the Torah, we still hope for a messiah of peace.  Peace for us and peace for all the world.

Micah 4:3-4

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares

And their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation shall not take up sword against nation;

They shall never again know war;

But every man shall sit

Under his grapevine or fig tree

With no one to disturb him.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that the ancient Hebrews and Israelites who lived through such violent times would long for a day of peace, and justice for all the injustice in the world.  Given how much violence, pain and fear there is in the world now, we still hope for peace and justice.

What do I believe now?  I hope for a better future for the world, that we don’t destroy everything with global climate change, and that North Korea doesn’t start a nuclear war.  I know that whatever is going to happen we have to make happen.  I hope that every act no matter how big or small can add up to something better, even if only for a little while.  I take great comfort in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, from the Pirke Avot “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to abandon it.”  I take it to mean that I’m not expected to fix the world and solve everything, or even knowing everything there is to know about Torah which was his original intent. Yet I can’t walk away from doing what is in my ability to do, both within the world and studying to understand what I can about my religion.  I hope that what I do with my life can add to the balance of goodness in the world, corny as that may sound.  I know I can’t stop a nuclear attack or end the violence in Israel and Palestine, but I can support the people over there who are trying to work together for peace for both people. I can donate money and time to causes in my home state, and take care of my friends and family.  I can reach out to people on line and hope my words can bring a small measure of comfort, meaning, or at least a moment’s laugh.  I can try to make choices that have less negative impact on the environment, and even some positive impact.

I know that nothing in the paragraph above is exclusive to Judaism, except for the quote from Pirke, and it is completely within the range of atheism and other religions.  That’s fine, we’re all in this together, but for me the context of doing all of that is within Reform Judaism. As long as there is enough mutual respect for us to live peacefully together and work together, that’s more important to me than other people’s specific beliefs about religion and God.

Here’s what Rabbi Tarfon’s saying sounds like, in four part harmony.  The melody is from the Jewishband Kol B’seder – it’s a popular camp song.

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And just for fun, here’s a great song about the messiah, from the Klezmatics. It’s part of an article that includes lyrics in both Yiddish and English.

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Anat

Yeshayahu Leibowitz said that any Messiah that came is by definition a false Messiah. The Messiah is always in the future, always coming.

Historically Jews tended to interpret the troubles of their times as the pangs of Messiah. Hence tendency toward messianic fervor in times of greater-than-usual persecution. But also, messianic fervor is a symptom of a religious tradition that fears losing its leadership – when a leader has no obvious heir the followers hope the leader is the Messiah (and thus will not need an heir). In Hasidism that happened at least twice – with the followers of Nachman of Breslov, and more recently with the Lubavitchers.

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Hilary

Considering the track record of failed messiahs, Leibowitz has a good point.  There’s always Shabbetai Tzvi, he was quite a character and one heck of a false messiah.  What you said about messianic fervor during times of great persecution, considering that this happened during the Chmielniki massacres I’m not scornful of the people who followed him.  Sometimes I think it takes more courage to believe that the world can be good then it does to believe in God.  It takes chutzpah to refuse to give up the hope that the world can get better, that the brokenness of the world isn’t forever permanent and it isn’t the way things should be, no matter what happens in our history.

That Judaism is a messianic religion is another thing greatly swept under the rug in Reform. I think it comes from the struggle to form a positive unique Jewish identity – it can be so much easier to define yourself as what you are not when you aren’t too confident about what you are.  We’re still Jews, not Christians, so we are not going to have a personal relationship with some Mashiach ben David who saves us from sin, but we’re not Orthodox either to pray for the return of the Temple and the resurrection of the dead. This left the watered down ‘messianic era’ of universal brotherhood.  I learned more about Jewish messianic beliefs reading ”The Chosen” and “My name is Asher Lev” as a kid then anywhere else.

It wasn’t until I started studying the Gospel of Matthew and went through each reference to the Old Testament in the first 4 chapters with a fine tooth comb, Torah commentary, JPS Tanakh and Hebrew/English dictionary that I even realized that we don’t expect our messiah to save us from sin. I mean I did already know that, but until I started looking into what the Jewish messianic beliefs really were that I connected the dots that we never expected to pray to him, hold him as somehow equal to/part of/made of similar substance with Adonai, or have him redeem us from sin.  It’s not just that Jesus failed to fulfill our prophesies for messiah, which he did, but also that Jesus and Christian theology about sin and redemption in general is the answer to a question we don’t ask or need answered.  At least not the way they answer it – we have our own methods of dealing with sin: prayer, repentance, charity and Yom Kippur like we’ve been discussing.

Which brings me to one last point I want to make about Yom Kippur.  We’ve been talking about how it is the time set aside as a community to come together and repent of our sins of the past year and forgive others for their sins against us. But my prayer book is called Sha’arei Teshuvah, The Gates of Repentance, from this line on the first page of the book: “The gates of repentance are always open.”  Deuteronomy Rabbah, commentary on Deuteronomy. So we do teach that we can turn and repent at any time, but Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are times specifically set aside to do so as a whole community.

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Ki Sarita

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Song from  Modzetz, said to have been sung on the trains to Treblinka. Apropos of Yom HaShoah a couple of days ago.

As Anat says, the importance of the Messiah waxes and wanes throughout Jewish history, depending on the persecutions Jews are going through and the sense of insecurity they feel.

But I got news for you folks- the Messiah is here. The era are forefathers dreamed of is here. The Messiah the Jews in the cattle trains sang about is here. But 2 years after the holocaust the State of Israel was established. The ingathering of the exiles took place. The city of Jerusalem was not only rebuilt but expanded as never imagined. Imperfect, but realistic, for those of us who took the prophets as metaphor and not literal.

The prosperity the average person enjoys today is beyond the wildest dreams of our forefathers. (I’m reminded of how the Mishna desribes Rabbi Yehuda the Princes great, impressive wealth: Never did he lack lettuce or radishes at his table in the sunny or rainy seasons!) The technology we enjoy today is miraculous. Related to this, the access most of lay people have to Torah study and resources is beyond what the Rabbis of olde every thought possible.

We are truly in the Messianic era.

Sometimes walking to Jerusalem I’m struck by the prayers and tears for generations and how it actually came true and it symbolizes what I’ve seen in my own life too. There is always hope. Even May He Tarry,  I Await Him Daily. These and other songs come to my lips today as I walked down the street.

What’s missing? World peace for one, and the sense of insecurity that the Jews have that this is all a house of cards about to fall any second. Which it may.

Because as Anat says, the Messiah is always in the future, never really here. The prophets spoke in words of grandeur, in words of poetry, of great hyperbole; that there is always what to strive for.

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Rachel

I respectfully disagree with Ki Sarita; this is not the Messianic Era, nor can it be while people are hungry, while war is fought, while the specter of destruction hangs over us — and while great inequality still exists, even in the land of Israel. But in another way, I agree with her: we no longer wait for the Mashiach, but urgently must make the world into the world we want it to be.

 

(Tangentially, I wonder: nearly all of our writings about the Mashiach are written pre-Industrial Era. Will we beat our laptops into plows? Will we all return to being farmers? When the Mashiach comes, will there still be lolcats?)

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Hilary

Here are the transliteration and translation for Ani Ma’amin:

Ani Ma’amin be’emunah shlaima bevias haMoshiach, ve’af al pi sheyismame’ach im kol zeh achake lo b’chol yom sheyavo. Ani Ma’amin.

Translation:

I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he may tarry, I wait daily for his coming.

I thought about this song too, talking about the messiah.  Both with the utter awe at people’s faith and refusal to give up hope for a return to goodness in the midst of such evil, and equal bitterness that such evil even happened.  Penny and I lit a yahrzeit (memorial) candle and said the Mourners Kaddish at home, then watched RuPaul’s Drag Race to remember all the people who wore pink triangles, as well as those who wore yellow stars.

Rachel, I agree with you – it just won’t be the messianic era without lolcats to laugh with.

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Alexis

Just remembered something I wanted to chime in with: I was raised with the idea that just as the Messiah influences us (more as an abstract notion of Jewish nationalism than anything), so do we influence the Messiah. That it wasn’t some arbitrary roll of the cosmic dice that would decide the date and time of its arrival, but that certain conditions had to be met which were entirely under our control first. Mainly they involved a concerted effort towards eradication of poverty, a sense of humankind as a unified species, and a universal acknowledgement of Adonai as soverign deity of the world. I learned it as part of Tikkun Olam; We begin to repair the world on our own so that the Messiah will come and help us fix the rest.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Sally

    Wow, very interesting. Thank you all.

    I am struck by the notion of a Messianic era, and how that reminds me of the idea Christians hold that the Kingdom of God is now and yet is to come. It is the way Christianity has dealt with the fact that clearly Jesus himself, and then the early Christians thought they were ushering in the apocalypse (the swords into plowshares) and yet it hasn’t yet occurred. So like those who believe they’re living in the Messianic era now, Christians believe we’re living in the Kingdom of God now. And both expect a Messiah still to come (or return in the case of Christians).

    And like there is some debate as to whether or not this really is the Messianic Era, Christians debate whether we’re in the “end times” which, as you may know, is not the same as the Kingdom of God which is now, but is the beginning of the Kingdom of God which is still to come (swords into plowshares, etc).

    I talked about in the last 101 comments about the fact that most Christians don’t even know that we’re expected to be resurrected from the dead. It sounds like that is fairly downplayed in modern Judaism, too. Although maybe that varies.

    To me, Christianity is a religion built entirely on the coming of the Messiah who didn’t actually come. What do you do when your Messiah (Jesus) doesn’t actually user in the apocalypse? You keep modifying your expectations, and build a religion on that.

    An excellent book dealing with all this is From Jesus to Christ by Paula Frederickson http://www.amazon.com/From-Jesus-Christ-Origins-Testament/dp/0300084579/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1372336492&sr=8-2&keywords=From+Jesus+to+Christ . There’s a DVD based on her book that’s very interesting, but the real meat of the book is only in the book, imo. She deals with Jewish history and how that affected what Jesus was trying to do. And then what happened after he died which created a new religion.
    Thank you again, panel, for your explanations.

  • gimpi1

    Lots of good information here. I find it fascinating how these beliefs have evolved from their roots. I am especially interested in the idea that humanity needs to make progress in eliminating poverty and war before any Messiah would step in to help us. That aspect seems to have been lost in the translation.

    Libby, do your Evangelical parents know anything about the roots of Messianic beliefs? Do you think they could take any of this on-board?

  • Karen

    Thank you all for your contributions. While I currently identify as a secular humanist, I was educated through high school by a bunch of subversive Catholic nuns. Their message was: yes, Jesus Christ will come again sometime. Now, get out there, roll up your sleeves, and help your fellow humans!!! God is counting on YOU! I ditched the religion, but the inclination toward social justice remains, and gets stronger as I get older.

  • Truthspew

    If you think Judaism has problems, Christianity has even more. The whole notion of the tripartite God – that wasn’t cemented until the 325AD 1st Nicean Council.

  • kisarita

    Hey Sally, Thanks for providing me with language to reiterate my point above (in the panel) about the kingdom of god being now, of this world, and yet to come. I’m unfamiliar with Christian discourse so hadn’t thought of it that way. But I think both are important. The days of the Messiah are now, as I wrote above, the redemption that was prophesied, is here. This is so important as Jerusalem is the eternal symbol of hope. The sense of hope that I absorbed from the realization of the formerly impossible jewish dream carries over into my personal life as well. And yet, the utopian world of the Messiah is yet to come, the world of pure justice and peace, remains just beyond for us to keep reaching.

  • Scott_In_OH

    Thanks again to the panelists. I find again that my upbringing was similar to Libby Anne’s, leaving me with a quiet perplexity that the Jews didn’t recognize their own Messiah. I never worried about it much, but I do think it’s interesting to find out more about how two groups (OK, actually lots of different groups) came to two (lots of) very different interpretations.

    • Hilary

      You’re welcome, I’m glad you are enjoying this. Either the next post, or the one after that should be about sin and human nature, and Freud has a short guest appearance in it.

      I can empathize with why Christians would be perplexed about this. If you’ve spent all your life peering through the looking glass from one direction, it can be hard to realize that the people on the other side are looking in the opposite direction you are, and thus seeing something very different. Perhaps it’s easier for you to understand now, that the hopes for the Messiah, while they included hopes for a military defeat of Rome, also included a restored nation of Israel, and the hope of a peaceful world.
      Jesus, Yeshua, simply didn’t accomplish that with his life or death. Rumors and stories of miracles was not proof of actual miracles, not with the Romans demanding even more in taxes. Even stories that his followers claimed to have seen him after being executed like a common criminal didn’t change the facts on the ground of the continued existence of oppression, violence, poverty, and hunger.

      • Quid

        Interesting article. I always had the exact same question growing up in Christian schools. It seemed so obvious to me through the Old Testament that Jesus was the messiah that I wondered how the Jews could have missed it. This is actually the first article I’ve ever found with a Jewish defense to the messiah. I wish more people wrote on the Jewish channel here. I’m really interested in Jewish philosophy and theology, but for some reason there doesn’t seem to be a lot out there that I can find.

      • Hilary

        Well, there is a lot philosophy and theology covered already in the earlier Judaism 101 posts you can enjoy. I recommend books in several of them, and in the post about texts and sources of holiness I offer links to all of the different denominations. If you like I could recommend some books, and maybe other panelists or Jewish readers will chime in with their favorite books.

        If you are interested in learning the ethical beliefs of 1st century Judaism, read the Pirke Avot. It’s part of the Mishnah, the earliest writings of the Talmud, written down about 220 ish CE, but it is a record of teachings that range about 200 – 250 years back. In other words, the Mishnah is the closest Jewish text we have written about the same time as the Gospels. Overall it is dense as all get out and hard to read through, but the Pirke Avot is a collection of ethical teachings, and easily available on line and in print books. My favorite copy is “Pirke Avot: wisdom of the Jewish sages” by Rabbi Chaim Stern. Not only does it have the verse of the Avot in both Hebrew and English, it also has a lot of historical information about the men recorded in there, additional teachings of theirs from other parts of the Mishnah, and quotes from other Jewish Rabbis and philosophers down the centuries.

      • Hilary

        My iPad is being weird. The book is copyright 1997, and a lot of it is still used today. The song I linked too, Lo alecha / you are not expected to complete the task from Tarfon is from the Pirke Avot, and so is this:

        The world is based on three things: on Torah (study) on worship, and on acts of loving kindness.

        This is part of my temples identity statement, that as a community we come together to study, worship and celebrate, and are committed to acts of loving kindness. This trifecta of communal values is found throughout Reform Judaism, throughout Judaism period, and dates back about to the time of Jesus, give or take a few decades.

        Another good starting place is ‘Judaism for Dummies’ and ‘The complete idiot’s guide to the Talmud.’ I’ve used both of those books to check things.

  • Stephanie

    I find it generally offensive when Christians tell me (oh and they have told me) that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Not just in a “you dummies, you missed your own Messiah” way, but because it sweeps under the rug the next 2000 years of suffering- destruction of the second Temple, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the holocaust. That stuff is definitely not the makings of the messianic age.

    When I hang around the Lubavitchers, they speak about the Messiah all the time, it’s an active part of their belief and practice. My rabbi’s wife once said to me: “the Moshiach will come when the Jews are completely deserving or completely undeserving.” Even as they try to bring more people closer to God and inspire them to more Jewish practice in order to make the world deserving, they also acknowledge that it’s at least as likely that the end of Judaism as a practiced religion will be the thing with ushers in the Messiah. Which I found fascinating.

    • Hilary

      Yeah, that’s the other reason Jesus really doesn’t hold water as the Jewish Messiah – everything his people have done in his name to Jews over the last two millennia. It’s interesting about the Lubavitchers, I never knew that about them, but then I don’t know any personally.

      It was weird, studying the first few chapters of the Gospel of Matthew. Reading them, the narrative holds together on it’s own pretty well. But as I checked each and every ‘and this fulfilled what was said by the prophets’ against the text in my JPS Tanakh and Torah commentary, it was like one of those pictures that looks coherent at a distance, but up close is nothing but colored dots that don’t really connect into a picture. Having one book in front of me reading left to right, and another open reading right to left was the least surreal aspect of that study.

      I could never understand the Christian claim that the ‘Old Testament’ quote unquote, points to the coming of Jesus. But I tried . . . it’s like looking at a picture you are familiar with seen in shades of green, blue, and purple at one level of depth perception, only wearing glasses that changes everything into shades of red, orange, and yellow with a completely different type of depth perception. Which gives me a little empathy for how disorienting it must be for Christians to try and see the Torah as whole in and of itself, without Jesus peeping out at them from every page.

      A couple times when I’ve had Christians press me about Jesus naturally being the next revelation of God, I tell them I’ll accept Jesus when they become Muslim. /snark/ That usually ends things.

    • kisarita

      the messianic movement within lubavich offers some insight into how early christianity might have developed while it was still a jewish stream


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