What Does the Concept of the Messiah Mean Today?
I’m a secular Jew. I am in dire need of sober political leadership, not of a messiah. But let me tell you this. In Judaism, the messianic idea is only reliant in the future tense. Any Jewish messiah in Israel being transformed into the present tense is false messianism. Primarily, I mean the claim that the Messiah is here, or around the corner. He may be around the corner, but that’s where he should always be. It doesn’t mean not to do much and everything will be taken care of. In the Jewish tradition we have to act, every day, every hour. We have to make moral decisions, almost every minute. Sitting idly waiting for the Messiah is a sin.
Amos Oz is a renowned novelist, journalist and author of the recently published Scenes from a Village.
On the one hand, the idea of messiah has probably produced more difficulty than any other single concept. In some sense, it was the issue of messianism that led to the break-off of Christianity from Judaism. The real question in Judaism is what the Messiah is supposed to be, what kind of model do we want? Is the Messiah going to be a warrior who throws off oppression of other nations? Is the Messiah going to be a scholar, a teacher of the Torah? Is the Messiah going to abrogate the Torah? Some scholars think the Messiah will come when the Jewish situation is so awful that we can’t stand it anymore. Some rabbis think the Messiah will come when we’ve perfected ourselves. So there really isn’t much of a consensus.
On the other hand, the simple truth is that we can’t live without the idea that the future does not have to repeat the mistakes of the past. The idea that we have to devote ourselves to making it better and that it’s God’s providence that things will be better is so essential to Judaism that I think if you took it out it wouldn’t be Judaism anymore.
Kenneth Seeskin is the Philip M. and Ethel Klutznick Professor of Jewish Civilization at Northwestern University. His most recent book is Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair.
To me, the Messiah doesn’t connote that some entity, deity or event will suddenly arrive and change the circumstances in our lives—either good or bad. That’s a notion of childhood wish fulfillment. I believe that we all have a partnership with God to do our part to heal and improve the world. The notion of a messiah is that in a time of troubles—which is what we have now—we are called on to do much more, in partnership with each other and with a world force, to make things better. It won’t happen because someone drops out of the sky. If more people believe in the possibility of improvement and understand themselves as agents to bring about change, then that in a way is messianic work. You don’t have to have a connection to the Messiah to understand the responsibility we each have to help heal the world. That obligation exists even if we reject the concept. Whose job is it to create more justice and equity? Everyone’s. In times of crisis, we need prophets to point out what is wrong, but we also need activists to make the changes.
Ruth Messinger is the president and CEO of the American Jewish World Service.
The messianic idea has long been a trope in fantasy and science fiction. The idea of being the Chosen One is very powerful, as is the idea of a super-someone who can fix all the problems of the world. In genre literature, characters who are “chosen” are often people who believe themselves to be ordinary, only to discover that they are destined to be saviors. Thus, you have Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, a messianic figure who defeats the evil one and suffers the consequences, and Merlin, who is a sort of messiah in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength.
Twenty years ago I would have said that the idea of a messianic message was dying out in the popular culture, that it was being overtaken by a more sophisticated secularism. Obviously I was mistaken. More and more people seem to be embracing the idea that a messiah will appear to fix everything. I find that surprising and discouraging. In a non-religious context, many Americans attributed miraculous power to Barack Obama and then became terribly disappointed because he couldn’t single-handedly turn things around. The expectations set for him would be impossible for anyone (other than a mythical hero or a messiah) to meet. And there was, indeed, the idea that he was anointed. Many people were in a sort of religious ecstasy over the man who was supposed to save the country. Well, I suppose they’ve waited long enough. They want their messiah right now!
Jack Dann is an award-winning science fiction author who has written or edited more than 75 books, including The Memory Cathedral.
There is an apocalyptic pattern in ancient Judaism—catastrophe, followed by renewal, ushered in by the Messiah. We think of apocalyptic Judaism as having fallen into disuse, but I think it is at the center of modern Judaism. Our catastrophe was the Holocaust, and God’s Kingdom is the State of Israel. The apocalyptic myth has been recast to suit the 20th century, with the Messiah figure cut out, because there was no corresponding figure in reality. The hopes we once invested in a messiah have been pinned onto the State of Israel. By losing our land and our national cohesion 2,000 years ago, we lost something that had been promised to us and that made us real. The State of Israel reverses that injustice. But Israel remains part of the religious myth. We have unrealistic expectations of it. Nevertheless, illusion is the essence of religion and part of what we need to survive as human beings.
David Halperin, author of Sabbatai Zevi: Testimonies to a Fallen Messiah, has recently released his first novel,Journal of a UFO Investigator.
As a scientist and an observant Jew, I think a lot about the Messiah. The broad concept of a Jewish messiah has been around for thousands of years, so that you can even think of technological advances as a move toward a messianic age. The Jewish texts mention phenomena during the messianic age that are beyond miraculous—such as corn the size of your head. But we can now think of an example like that—which may have seemed unbelievable at the time—as having resulted from science, technology and elaborate genetic engineering. If someone had told me 30 years ago that we’d be able to ask a phone where the nearest Thai restaurant is, I wouldn’t have believed it. But this is a movement toward the miraculous and a true representation of progress. The Jewish concept of a messianic age doesn’t preclude these miraculous things from happening because of technology. The concept of a messiah is a general underlying and unifying notion that we are partners in making the world better, in moving the world forward. The Messiah is progress, participation, suiting up and showing up for life.
Mayim Bialik starred in the sitcom “Blossom,” and is now part of the cast of “The Big Bang Theory.” A neuroscientist, she is the author of Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way.
I think [the concept of the Messiah] is as personally useful and globally destructive as it’s ever been. It works for individuals because it gets them through the day but when it starts becoming a way that you live your life and dictating what you do and what other people should do, people tend to kill each other. If there is a messiah I suspect he’s laughing his ass off at us.
Shalom Auslander is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Hope: A Tragedy.
Messiah today means the same thing that it has always meant, except that we are now a step closer to his arrival. We are living in the days of eekvesei d’mashiach—when the footsteps of Messiah become audible. However, we have to know how to recognize that sound, and sadly, in our assimilated, immoral, tumultuous world, we can no longer discern the sound of footsteps. We are the generation described by the Prophet Amos: “Hinei yamim ba’im—And days shall come upon you, sayeth the Lord, and I shall send a hunger into the land…. not a hunger for bread nor a thirst for water, but a hunger for the Word of G-d…”
Everything described in the Torah and in the Prophets regarding the period prior to the coming of Messiah has unfolded and continues to unfold before our very eyes. Events are happening with such rapidity that even those among us who can discern what others have difficulty identifying cannot comprehend, such as the rebirth of the State of Israel after almost 2,000 years, the ingathering of the Jewish people from the four corners of the world, and the present threat from Iran. It is written in the midrashic text of the Yalkut Shemoni that in the days beforemashiach comes, the King of Persia (Iran) will develop a weapon that will “terrorize the world”…and we see it unfolding before our very eyes.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis is founder of Hineni, a Jewish outreach organization, columnist for The Jewish Pressand author of four books.
When we talk about the Messiah, we’re talking about a rescuer. In existential psychology, there is the idea of an ultimate rescuer—a savior or a leader who can deliver us from our trials and tribulations, who can bring peace to the world or can make life easier for us. It’s a deep-seated archetypal notion: the idea that someone will come to our aid. In existential therapy, we see this as an attempt to avoid being responsible for ourselves. People tend to look outwardly for salvation and to look for someone who can lead us, take care of us and tell us what to do. But it’s potentially problematic and dangerous. The German people saw Hitler as their messiah, and he saw himself as the Messiah. The same is true for cult leaders such as Jim Jones, who thought he was a reincarnation of Jesus and Buddha, and 900 people committed suicide at his behest. David Koresh and Charles Manson are two more examples. Osama Bin Laden, on some level, believed that he was a messiah for his people. His followers also saw him this way, and they were nearly successful at starting World War III. To have a messianic impulse and to want to save the world can be put to good use and can motivate us to do good things. But when we start to believe we have special powers and that people should listen to us, that is very dangerous.
Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.
It’s important to add “to whom” to the question because the Messiah means different things to different people. For those who are secular, it is a reminder of the endless powerlessness in Jewish history during centuries of exile and the articulation of consolation and hope. To Kabbalists, it’s a mystical expression of unity with God. For Lubavitchers, it is both mystical and simplistically utopian, when the relationship between God and the believer is so direct that there’s no separation between human desire and what God wants. There’s another view, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe’s view, that the messianic age can be hastened and will come as a reward for certain good behavior. And so he created a cadre of people to go to every corner of the world to get people to do Jewish acts in public: put on tefillin, light Shabbat candles, light the menorah. The cosmic significance in these acts is that they will hasten the Messiah. But by that measure, the messianic age is very far away: There are fewer public acts of Jewishness than ever before. For most Jews, the messianic idea has receded; it’s not on the top of the agenda, and they don’t see history as inexorably moving to that day.
Samuel Heilman is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College in New York and author of 11 books, including The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
I believe that the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson, is the mashiach, though I realize that there is a controversy about this within Chabad. The Talmud says that if the mashiach is alive, it will be Rabbi Yehuda, but if he’s chosen among the dead, it will be someone like the prophet Daniel. This shows us that the mashiach can come from the dead and in fact, there are many different classic sources that talk about the mashiach as rising from the dead. It’s not that extraordinary: one of the 13 principles of faith is belief in the resurrection of the dead. I just feel, hope and pray that it happens soon. Even within Chabad, there are a lot of people who have doubts, and when the rebbe died, I also had many questions. The rebbe’s death shook up a lot of people, and not everyone was able to resolve their questions and move on with greater faith.
Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui heads the Chabad-Lubavitch house of North Palm Beach, Florida.
The coming of the mashiach has become so mystified that many think that a building of several tons, i.e., the third temple, will come down from heaven already built. In reality, the mashiach is a non-mystical figure, a human being who is “the cherry on the top” of a long historical process. He will be a military leader, a diplomat with a strong force of personality who will continue the process of geulah (redemption). In the Torah world, so many Jews are praying for the geulah, but geulah is about sovereignty—and that has already happened. God gave us the miracle of the State of Israel; we are now in the days of mashiach, although many Jews don’t recognize it as such. The Messiah could be among us right now; we might not know that it is him.
Rabbi Chaim Richman is International Director of the Temple Institute, which aims to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Most people think the Messiah has already come, but Jews are waiting. It could be anybody. You don’t know, so it’s best to be gracious to everyone. It’s a very sexy idea. There’s a blind date with the sacred that awaits you at any moment. We’re all called upon at different times to act as messianic stand-ins. There are moments when a situation calls for us to rise in some way, to be slightly better than we are and to do exactly the right thing for a stranger and disappear, as the Messiah would surely do. It’s a form of praying for the Messiah—acting as her or his stand-in. The need to act in the Messiah’s stead while we wait elevates us morally. There are moments when I’ve stepped right into someone’s life, supported them, brought them ease of spirit and disappeared, and there are countless moments when people have done this for me. I consider these messianic moments, moments of waiting. Waiting is a very beautiful thing. Milton says, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” I love being Jewish in the act of waiting for the Messiah, which isn’t passive. It’s necessary to pray for the coming with one’s actions, with joy, with bringing ease of spirit and with comedy. Laughter is everything. Laughter is underwritten in blood and mortality, and when we laugh we redeem those things from the dark place where they live.
Deb Margolin is a playwright, performance artist and founding member of Split Britches Theater Company. She is also an associate professor in Yale University’s undergraduate theater studies program.
For most people, the Messiah means absolutely nothing, but for a small minority, the concept means everything: what they do, what they live for and what they work for. It’s a problem, though, for several reasons. That type of belief leads to overreacting—going too far, too quickly. People don’t realize the impact their theology has on the world around them. You see this with the Haredim in Israel. Underneath the politics and the jockeying for power and control is the idea that “we are right and everyone else is wrong.” They believe themselves to be the only true Jews—the only ones who are doing God’s will to bring the Messiah. They reject everyone else as non-kosher, and that becomes a very serious problem. The Haredi rejection of modernity and the state—and the vehemence with which it is done—is based on the idea that the state cannot happen unless it is through the Messiah, and so anyone associated with it is deemed illegitimate. Any changes in how they perceive Judaism can only happen in the framework of the Messiah. As far as they are concerned, there’s no difference between Nazi Germany and the state of Israel; Israel is not legitimate and neither are the aspects of Jewish power that it wields. They believe that only the Messiah can create a sovereign Jewish state.
Shmarya Rosenberg blogs at Failed Messiah and writes a weekly columm for Heeb.
From biblical times to the present, we have felt deeply that the Messiah, whether present in the flesh or only in our thoughts, was our champion and was made available to us by our need and the will of our God. Who at different times in their life hasn’t had a belief—more than that, a hope—that someone, a messiah, can help them and help the world? Wherever there’s a problem, there could be an answer. And the messiah is the biggest answer to the biggest single question: “Does God care about me?” We are lonely—Jews in particular—and we have long had evidence that God didn’t care about us or our grandparents. And so we create a messiah who is somehow heroic when we are fallible; with the Messiah, fear is of an entirely different order.
Harris Lenowitz is a professor emeritus of languages and literature at the University of Utah and author of The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights.
My favorite quote about the Messiah is from the scholar Yeshaya Leibowitz who said, “Who is the false messiah? The one who comes.” The concept of the messiah is a personal one. It is not waiting for some gigantic creature to come. Nobody knows who the Messiah is or who it will be. Therefore, every human being should conduct his or her life as if he or she were the Messiah and doesn’t know it yet. BeYimot HaMashiach [Days of the Messiah] is more of an aspiration to be like God or to be god-like and create a future ethical world for individuals. Life is all about the future, and the moment the Messiah comes there is no future. Once human beings reach a goal, they suffer from something like post-partum depression. Any kind of finality is ideologically dangerous, especially in monotheistic religions that have totalitarian and authoritarian instincts. The only way to get around it is to make it a process. Maimonides was a minimalist; he said the Messiah was someone who brought Jews back to the land of Israel. So for him Theodor Herzl would have been the Messiah. Who am I to argue with Maimonides?
Tsvi Bisk is a futurist and director of the Center for Strategic Thinking in Israel.
I’ve been completely fascinated and at times even obsessed with the notion of the Messiah since I was a child. I had an Orthodox upbringing, and I was also a very literal child. The rabbis were always telling these great stories about how the Messiah was going to come and the world was going to be a better place, and I was almost mesmerized by this notion. I have mixed feelings about a modern secular society. Along with the growth of secularism, the fact that so many Jews may think of themselves as “cultural Jews” but not much more, there has been a real and, to my mind, a very sad loss in faith. But along with that we have seen the growth of the Lubavitcher movement. The Chabad movement’s messianist impulse is very strong, for better and for worse. I do like their complete and passionate belief in the notion of messiah. That’s one of the most hopeful elements in Judaism, and their push to bring people and with that to bring back the belief in the Messiah is wonderful in my opinion. (But I am troubled by the fact that some continue to insist that the late Rabbi Schneerson is the Messiah—I have major problems with that.) People have stopped believing in God, in the possibility of miracles, in the mystical, and in that most mystical belief of all—the idea that somebody’s going to come along and make the world all better. I think that’s a sad development of the modern world.
Lucette Lagnado, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is the author of the award-winning The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, From Cairo to Brooklyn.
In the Jorge Luis Borges story “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” there’s a long footnote about an ancient Persian parable that describes how birds set out on a quest to find their mythological king, who would unite and protect them. At the end, the birds that manage to survive the hardships of the quest discover the king to be themselves. The old Jewish idea of the 36 righteous people—thanks to whom the world continues to exist—supports the notion of collective messiah-hood; if we only could become better individually, collective redemption would be moot. Contemporary science offers new insights. The human mind lives mostly in the brain but is not confined to a single human skull; rather, it reaches out to connect to society and the rest of the world, forming a great web of cause and effect. Once you realize how that works on all kinds of scales—what thinking consists of, how language works, how morality emerges—you become better positioned to improve things. As the saying goes, change must come from within. By expecting things to be solved for you from the outside, and not appreciating the potential of the avenues that are open to you as an individual and a member of society, you delay redemption.
Shimon Edelman, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Cornell University. His most recent book is The Happiness of Pursuit.
Today the Messiah must represent an ideal of peace whose fulfillment lies in our own hands. The age of magic formulas or mitzvot flipping the eschatological switch is past. The nobility in the messianic vision is to live so that when the Messiah comes, we will no longer need him. That may prove beyond our powers, in which case, quite literally, God help us.
Rabbi David J. Wolpe is an author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.
The idea of the Messiah gives people hope. We have to have something to look forward to, to know that we’re not alone and that good things are coming. This concept should inspire people to be better. People are so intrinsically selfish—they want what they want and just care about today. Giving goodness out for the sake of the better world: that is the Messiah. Redemption is when we’re taking care of each other, when we have consciousness of each other, when we’re not pushing each other away but bringing each other closer. What messianism means to me is collective redemption, not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world. My father believed that we are meant to be one—we’re meant to come together and to know that God loves every one of us. I feel that’s mashiach—when people are singing one song together, dancing together, crying together. How amazing to see it happen during a song as opposed to during something tragic such as a tsunami or a hurricane. What if we made space for each other when there’s no crisis? How amazing would that be!
Neshama Carlebach is a singer and the protégé of her late father, the Jewish singer-songwriter Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Messianism is the belief in the linear progress of history. Whereas the eastern religions believed in a more cyclical universe, where things are created and destroyed constantly, the western monotheistic system at its heart believes in historical progress. Societies advance. You may have setbacks, dark ages, for example, but by and large things get better and better. Why do we spend billions of dollars looking for a cure for cancer? Because we believe there is a cure. That’s not a rational belief—why should there be a cure when it has eluded us for all this time? Or take Marxism, which at heart is a belief in messianism, because it’s a vision of utopia. All utopian ideas are messianic, even if they’re atheistic.
We need one person who will coalesce all of these disparate efforts of humanity into one powerful stream. Imagine the Messiah as a person of great wisdom, great learning, saintly authority, who could convince the world that war solves nothing. Once peace and harmony are established, the biggest beneficiaries are the Jews, because we’ve been the objects of so much violence throughout history. Once we don’t have to use all of our energy defending ourselves, we can concentrate on tending to the other messianic promises, rebuilding the temple, building a national polity based on our spiritual character rather than on our business acumen or our military might. You need one person to do it, and that’s who the Messiah is supposed to be.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of Kosher Sex, and most recently, Kosher Jesus. He is also running for Congress in New Jersey’s 9th district.
One of the greatest gifts the Jewish people gave to the world was the idea of a messiah and the messianic era. It’s very different from Greco-Roman thought. The Greco-Roman image is the myth of Sisyphus—everything is cyclical and repetitive. Judaism said that’s not the case—the world is moving, not always in a straight line but toward a positive endgame. It teaches that humankind will perfect itself, society and the world in the kingship of God. This is one of our most important teachings, and it’s given an optimistic bent to the world.
The Messiah is not a deus ex machina, a superman who flies down from the sky. He’s not even himself the great redeemer. The Messiah requires the backdrop of a world ready to receive him and to redeem itself. That’s what we are waiting for, and that’s what we must prepare for. Someone who claims to be the Messiah when there’s not peace on Earth cannot be the Messiah.
The messianic vision informed and to a very great extent sparked our return to Israel. The place for the Messiah to appear is Israel, according to all the prophets. All the nations will rush to the Temple to learn G-d’s will, which is first and foremost that the nations beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and not learn war any more, according to Isaiah and Micah. Micah repeats Isaiah almost word for word, but then he adds, “Every man shall call upon G-d in his own way, and we shall call upon our G-d forever.” It’s a vision of religious pluralism but ethical absolutism. It emanates from Jerusalem out to the whole world.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and dean of the Ohr Torah Stone Institutions in Israel, and founding chief rabbi of the Israeli town of Efrat.
Interviews by: Daphna Berman, Sarah Breger, Nadine Epstein, Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, Sala Levin,Amy E. Schwartz