Ask the Rabbis | Are Jews Still Expecting a Messiah?
Very few of us ever expected the Messiah. We spent most of our history hoping for one. And one day, indeed, the dove will return with those hopes grasped firmly in its beak. But it is up to us to do what Noah did—open the window of the Ark.
Truth be told, the Messiah has probably been here a few hundred times but got spat at on the way to school, or told he wasn’t Jewish enough and had to re-convert, or got ousted from a temple board meeting because he couldn’t pay dues. Who knows? The second-century Rabbi Bibi bar Abaye taught that “If ever a Ro’chom (desert buzzard) would chance to sit on the earth and sing ‘Rak rak,’ it is a sign that the Messiah has come” (Talmud Bav’li, Chulin 63a). I believe that one day the Ro’chom will alight upon the earth and go “Rak rak,” restoring within us what has become fragmented. Since buzzards carry the lifebreath of struggle, she will sing her messianic song with the same breath we sighed at moments of challenge in our lives. Then all our grief will be transformed into dance (Psalms 30:12), our weeping into song (Psalms 126:5), and every sigh you ever breathed will be breathed back into you as renewed life and joy. “Rak rak!”
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, CA
Years ago, a popular evangelical bumper sticker read, “I found it.” The Jewish version would read, “I’m still looking for it.” In contrast to Christians who assert that the Messiah has come, Jews would never be satisfied with any applicant for the job. Messianic claimants have all fallen short in the past and will in the future. Waiting around for messianic redemption is therefore a distraction from life’s immediate challenges. Our focus should be on bringing redemption in our own lifetime and with our own two hands.
The idea of a Messiah supports a top-down model of power that invests far too much influence and responsibility in one solitary super-mensch who will single-handedly save the day. I prefer a different mythic construct that promotes the worth of every person: the legend of the 36 righteous people on whom the world is sustained on account of their goodness and unpretentious deeds. Because the 36 are concealed even from themselves, it is incumbent on us to treat everyone—family, neighbors, co-workers and ourselves—as one of them. Just think of the ripple effect that would bring to the world. It could even bring peace.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
The messianic belief—whether in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or even secular capitalist and communist worldviews—can lead to complacency if it means a belief that human history is inevitably progressing toward complete harmony. If God or history dictates the necessary linear progression to olam ha ba (the world to come), or the final conflict, then we need only wait patiently for its arrival, though it may tarry.
But we do need to worry, and we cannot afford to wait patiently while the ice caps melt and economic disparity grows worse each year. So what do we do with this age-old vision of harmony and resolution for which we pray in Oseh Shalom?
Isaac Luria’s vision of tikkun olam—repairing a broken world—has been reinterpreted in our time to acknowledge that there is nothing inevitable about its realization. It depends upon us. We must also acknowledge that there will always be something that needs fixing—even after we restore ecological balance and have eliminated all chauvinisms and corruption. Perhaps the goal will always lie ahead of us. So mashiach might not be a moment in time, but rather a moment in eternity. It may be the eternal vector by which we direct our efforts to perfect the world toward a malkhut Shaddai—a kingdom of G-d.
Rabbi David J. Cooper
Kehilla Community Synagogue
Only in Israel could a smash 1985 pop song about a recession be titled “Waiting for the Messiah.” For fans of Israeli culture, Shalom Chanoch’s text is now a touchstone: “‘The stock exchange collapsed, people chose to leap off the roof; Messiah jumped too, and they reported he died’… mashiach lo ba [he’s not coming], mashiach gam lo m’talpen [he won’t even call].”
Chanoch’s sarcastic refrain warns of misplaced faith, whether in free markets or in messiahs. Yes, the best Jewish teachings discourage searching for wonder-workers. But to deny all messianic possibility is defeatist. Moderate messianism leads us to enlightened activism.
Like many progressive Jews, I hold out for a messianic era, a distant vision that inspires and sustains today’s necessary work. For our descendants to realize someday that they brought mashiach, we must begin now by enfranchising everyone, saving the ecosystem, eradicating poverty and broadening what we mean by salvation. As Rabbi Leila Berner added to our Havdalah ceremony, “Miriam the prophetess, strength and song in her hand: Miriam, come dance with us, to enlarge the eternal song, to repair the world.”
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Every year at Passover, we set an extra cup of wine at our Seder tables for the prophet Elijah. At baby naming and bris ceremonies, we set a seat of honor for Elijah. Each Saturday night, as Shabbat comes to a close with Havdalah, we sing about Elijah.
Who is Elijah? We meet him in the Hebrew Bible, in Kings I and II. He is a prophet like many others who speaks to the people of Israel, imploring them to cleave to their Israelite ways. Later, in the book of Malachi, Elijah is understood to be the harbinger of the Messiah. As we sing during Havdalah, Elijah is the one we hope will come soon, in our time, and bring with him the Messiah, son of David.
Who is Elijah? We all are Elijah. As Jews, we are each God’s partner in the creation and the ongoing perfection of the world. God calls upon each of us to heed the prophets’ call to heal the sick, feed the hungry, fight injustice and bring about a time of peace, prosperity and wholeness. This work gives us hope and looks ahead to the messianic time. An individual Messiah cannot and will not do that for us. We are all part of the messianic process.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Union for Reform Judaism
Traditional Judaism teaches that there will be a leader, an individual who will bring about redemption. In some ways I like to imagine that this is true. At a bris or baby naming, I imagine the many ways this bundle of love will influence and change the world. It seems easy to sit back and hope that a Messiah will come. Although I have no idea whether or not most Jews are expecting the Messiah, I am certain that most Jews recognize there is much suffering and great sadness in our world. Speaking for myself only, I am not waiting for a personal messiah who will bring a kingdom of God on earth. I prefer a more active approach. I believe that each of us is created in the divine image. We increase holiness when we accept personal responsibility for bringing about a “messianic age.” Our tradition teaches that human beings have the power to help God save the world, by effecting justice, finding cures for diseases and fighting poverty. For more on this worldview, I recommend Robert N. Levine’s book, There Is No Messiah and You Are It.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
By continuing to live as Jews, all Jews are stating that the Messiah has not yet arrived. Jewry pledged at Mount Sinai and elsewhere that as long as the world is not totally redeemed, we will go on with our testimony as Jews. As long as there is poverty, hunger, oppression and war, the world is still not perfected. We maintain this against the Christian claim that the Messiah has arrived and against secular messianic redemptive movements (Nazism, communism, socialism) that claim they have brought the true, final perfection. This continuing testimony of “not yet” is why would-be world redeemers have hated and persecuted Jews.
After great catastrophes, many Jews lifted their level of expectation because of the need to rebalance the world toward the victory of the good. In this post-Shoah generation, some Lubavitchers and followers of Rav Abraham Kook were convinced that the Messiah had arrived or was almost here. Unfortunately, all celebrations have been premature.
It would appear that secular Jews have renounced belief in the Messiah. But I believe that the choice to continue living as a Jew is the statement “I still believe the world will be perfected” and, by implication, “I will work to bring the Messiah.”
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
It is impossible to accept the notion that God would create a deeply flawed world, filled to the brim with injustice, corruption and immorality, for all eternity. We must therefore proceed with the conviction that one day, humankind will achieve true enlightenment and will abandon the endless pursuits of power, wealth and selfish pleasure that have dominated its consciousness since the dawn of time and are responsible for the disharmony and conflict that prevail on earth. Like all social and political movements, this transformation will take place under the guidance of a wise teacher, a brave pioneer with the courage to stand up and to fight for principles of eternal value and enduring truth. Like all revolutionaries, this leader will initially be ignored, later reviled and finally resisted until the sheer power of his message can no longer be denied. At that moment, our civilization will attain its greatest spiritual breakthrough; the search for wisdom and justice will supplant hankerings after material wealth and instantaneous gratification; and human beings will live in peace and harmony, united in the service of the Almighty. The architect of this cultural upheaval is the person we call the Messiah. And our faith in his arrival is a necessary corollary of our belief in God: that a perfect and omnipotent Creator would not allow His handiwork to wallow in imperfection forever.
Rabbi Joshua Maroof
Magen David Sephardic Congregation
As much as a Jew may wrestle to rip away from his G-d and his people, the undercurrent of indignation remains endemic to his Jewish psyche, a gnawing conviction that the world is not the way it should be. The Jew aches with expectation and blatantly demands that the world act according to the beauty it inherently contains.
Do we await a human Messiah? The last century left us deeply scarred with a wariness of demagogues, of glorifying any individual beyond the humanness of all others. So we yearn yet more for a truly Jewish Messiah—less about power and more about empathy, education and insight into life. A leader like an orchestral conductor, directing musicians from their fragmented discordance into a magnificent symphony. After all, by now all the instruments are in place—instruments to plunge the fathomless depths of our universe, to know its oneness and the oneness of its Creator, to make hunger both for food and for knowledge obsolete. What’s missing is a singular voice of wisdom, universally respected, a voice for the human soul. A very human, modern-day Moses.
No, we don’t expect a Messiah. We want, need, pray in every prayer: Mashiach now!
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Maimonides, codifier of Torah law, lists 13 principles of faith that are incumbent on a Jew. The 12th of these is “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may delay, nevertheless I anticipate every day that he will come.”
Torah literature contains many references to the Messiah. We are told that the Messiah may come at any time, if Jews deserve it by following the teachings of the Torah. However, there is a fixed point in time at which the Messiah will come even if Jews are not meritorious.
It was predicted that prior to the coming of the Messiah, Jews will experience great anguish and suffering. Prayers are rendered that we be spared this agony, but many see the Holocaust as this pre-Messiah ordeal. At the end of the Talmudic volume of Sotah, there is a frightening description of the degeneration of morals and ethics in the world prior to the coming of the Messiah, with flagrant rejection of all authority, parental or otherwise. Some of the esoteric writings predict that prior to the coming of the Messiah, the people of Ishmael (Muslims) will dominate the earth.
These harbingers have unfortunately occurred, and we anticipate the imminent coming of the Messiah.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
Founder, Gateway Rehabilitation Center