Third in a Series (Part 1)

Through all the dark hours of Israel’s history the promised and longed-for messianic redemption was “the one prop and stay” of the Hebrew community.

Various expectations concerning the Messiah of Old Testament promise determined acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ. Jewish religious leaders in the first century looked for a supernaturally-endowed ruler who would restore the nation to socio-political greatness. Until his very ascension even Jesus’ disciples harbored this hope of an immediate earthly manifestation of the divine Kingdom (Acts 1:6).

In view of Revelation 20 many Christians still expect an earthly millennium to consummate the divine plan of redemption. And in view of Romans 9–11 they insist that in the crowning days of the Christian era the Jew will play a significant role in relation to the Church.

Except for a small remnant, modern orthodox Israelis regard the return of the Jews to Palestine and the revival of the State as a spiritual event that relates somehow to a coming divine era of justice and peace on earth. In at least one significant respect, however, these Israelis differ from New Testament Jews. First century Hebrews like Matthew, Mark, John, Peter, Paul, and many thousands more (Acts 21:20) believed that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of Old Testament promise. This conviction prevailed even though inquiry about the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel yielded no information about “the ‘times’ or the ‘seasons’ ” (recall the clue to the mystery of the “end of days” in Daniel, the one canonized apocalyptic tract). These early believers rejoiced in their newfound Messiah. And they recognized the relationship between the unbelief of the Jewish nation and the divine founding of the Church as a primarily spiritual rather than earthly body. By contrast, while modern orthodox Israelis see providence at work in the Jews’ return from dispersion and in restoration of the nation, they are uncertain about the messianic concept.

In New Testament times both believing and unbelieving Jew’s referred the messianic promises to a person (John 1:19 f.; Acts 8:34). Today the Natorei Karta, a small cluster of some 5,000 Orthodox Jew’s in Jerusalem, consider the State of Israel a profane development because it is “Messiahless.” They believe that messianic redemption will accompany the promised return of the dispersed Jew; they therefore dismiss the Zionist movement as an effort of self-redemption. Most strictly Orthodox Jews now look for an ideal messianic leader who is spectacular in his exploits but not supernatural in essence. They are unsure, however, just how to link this expectation to the already inaugurated state. Besides those who await a personal reigning Messiah are 200–300 Messianic Jews or Christian Hebrews who look to the supernatural and glorious return of Jesus of Nazareth to inaugurate the messianic age. For them the recent regathering of the Jews even in their present “preliminary state of unbelief” in the Christian Messiah is a spiritual sign. Most Israelis, however, have no expectation of a personal Messiah.

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The Messiah In Judaism

Modern confusion over the messianic concept results from the confluence of biblical and philosophic influences. Already in New Testament times Jewish hope of national socio-political deliverance overshadowed the importance of personal spiritual-moral redemption. And in modern times further deference to religious philosophers, especially to the medieval codifier Moses Maimonides (A.D. 1135–1204), has complicated the messianic hope still more.

In the Old Testament, Messiah (the Anointed) appears first as a designation for the anointed King Saul (at a time when David resists the temptation to kill him). Here Messiah 1. is a man in the flesh and 2. fills a special office in an exalted spirit. At this stage this office does not necessarily uniquely qualify the nature of the exalted one. Appearance of the Messiah in flesh and blood was never realized in Old Testament times. Jewish thinkers recognize that Christianity, by contrast, spread because Christians worshiped Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah who unites humanity to both a divine office and nature.

It is noteworthy that in most statements idealizing King David, the Talmud exonerates David of the very sins which the Bible attributes to him. A distinguished traditional Jew, Professor Ernst Simon of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, comments on this fact. He explains David’s exoneration from fault by inability of the Jews of the Diaspora any longer to withstand thorough prophetic self-criticism, and by their widening preoccupation with the ideal David who was to come.

Later tradition, however, dimmed this expectation of a personal Messiah. In the third century A.D. one rabbinic authority, Samuel, declared: “There is no difference between the times of the Messiah and our times today, except that the yoke of the foreign kingdoms on us will be broken.” This view virtually reduces messianic hope to the expectation of an era of peace that Israel will attain in connection with universal freedom.

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A third tradition—which combines the vision of an era of national and international justice and peace with the expectation of a personal Messiah—reaches back both to the Old Testament prophets and to the Talmud.

Today’s typical Jew, however, gains spiritual inspiration less from the Old Testament itself than from rabbinical interpretation in respect to messianic expectation. It is significant, therefore, that Maimonides, one of the great rabbinical ‘deciders,’ offered decisions not on practical problems alone but on questions of theology and philosophy as well. Maimonides’ Review of the Torah ends with an exposition of “The Messianic Era” (Yale Library of Judaica recently published this work under the title The Book of Kings). Here Maimonides differentiates between 1. the days of the Messiah and 2. eschatology (the last days). With certain reservations he adopts the “political” interpretation of the former. The Messiah-King who liberates the Jews from their yoke must have moral perfections—unlike Bar Kochba (leader of an ill-fated rebellion in the second century A.D.) who died in the fulness of his sins. For Maimonides the messianic reference has also a second stage: “the last days” in which Isaiah’s prophecy will come true, and God’s word will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.

An illuminating treatment of the messianic movements and so-called false messiahs studding Hebrew history is Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s book, A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel (Macmillan, 1927). Silver indicates that messianic stirring quickens in times of international crisis when the map of the earth is subject to swift change, and that the messianic spokesmen have consistently pledged the restoration of the Jews of Palestine.

What Of Messiah?

During my 11 days in Israel this summer, I spoke with hundreds of Israelis—taxi drivers, tour guides, government leaders, university professors, religious leaders, and many others “at my side.” In these conversations, I invariably posed one question: “And who or what is Messiah, as you see it?” Their answers were remarkably illuminating.

Although here and there the reality of God is energetically rejected, there is little open philosophical atheism in Israel and the number of vocal atheists is small. “Once I believed, but the Jews’ sufferings under Hitler put an end to that,” said one of our drivers. By and large, Western European Jews drifted much farther from Orthodoxy than Yemenite, Iraqi, and other Jewish immigrants. Agnostics may be found in government posts, university faculties, and among the common people. But even Jews who reject supernaturalism as well as “practical atheists” retain overtones of religious idealism through the restoration of the Jewish State which attracts a socio-political content to the messianic-idea. Virtually all Jews are messianists (that is, they expect Messiah) even if they are unsure whether Messiah is a person, an outpouring of the Spirit, or an ideal of political justice. “Messiah is not a person,” said a staff member of the Foreign Office (giving his personal view), but rather “an ideal State, and Israel will lead the nations in establishing it.” But another Foreign Office staff member expressed his view in this way: “Messiah is an ideal of justice, peace, and good will. This ideal holds universal significance; its realization is not suspended on Israel as the bearer of political redemption.”

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Unbelief in Messiah as a person leads to a wide diversity of views, but widespread retention of the messianic-idea. Many Hebrew rabbis contend that the messianic concept is “deliberately vague” in Jewish theology, that the element of biblical faith animates people in many ways. Intellectuals may complicate the subject by looking for “dialectical development” of the messianic idea. “The messianic concept,” such spokesmen argue, “doesn’t begin and end with Isaiah, nor the Talmud, nor the medieval mystics.” Rabbi Bernard Casper, dean of students of the Hebrew University, says Messiah is a “forward-looking” concept which links the Hebrews and their ingathering to the Holy Land. Many rabbis therefore refer the messianic concept to an era, not to a person. It includes also the condition of peace and co-operation between all peoples as a national outlook for Israel, and as a universal development that enlists and preserves other nationalities as well. The late Dr. Leo Kohn, political advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, commented that “there are many, many interpretations,” but recalled especially Maimonides’ view of a coming age of freedom and universal peace. “This age will be not simply another pax Romana when all were subject to the (Roman) emperor. Instead it will fulfill the vision of Isaiah 2: all nations will be equal before God, and all will come to his holy mountain.” But, added Dr. Kohn, there may be more to the messianic concept than an era: Messiah could be an ideal King—a man—who rules the earth.

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It is interesting that in Jaffa, where he ministers at a “synagogue” for Bulgarian Jews, “Rabbi” Zion—no longer a ‘recognized’ rabbi among Jews—affirms that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, in fact, he may be the very Son of God. Zion (sometimes misrepresented in the American religious press as a convert to orthodox Christianity) thus represents a mediating view. He personally acknowledges difficulties with the doctrine of the Trinity.

Blocs Of Messianic Opinion

About 200–300 Christian Jews along with many Christian Arabs in Israel worship Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of the Old Testament promise and look for his return in power to usher in the millennial era.

But the majority of Israelites reflect other lines of thought and speculation. While messianic vision remains, expectation of the Messiah has waned. Ben-Gurion has said, “Whereas two centuries ago a Jew would have described himself as “a descendant of Abraham, who obeys the commandments and hopes for the coming of the Messiah,” this definition no longer satisfies “a large part of our people, perhaps the greater part. Ever since the Emancipation, the Jewish religion has ceased to be the force which joins and unites us. Nor is the bond with the Jewish nation now common to all Jews, and there are not many Jews in our time who hope for the coming of the Messiah.” But he added: “The Messianic vision of redemption … fills the very air of Jewish history … and … in our own day has led to a revolution in the history of our people.”

Some 35 to 40 per cent of the population is reportedly indifferent to the question of Messiah and disinterested in its precise definition and exposition. On the other hand only a small proportion deliberately dismiss the messianic question. Such persons usually assimilate whatever spiritual nourishment the idea of messianic mission provides but insist that because it “produced” the messianic vision Judaism is therefore not ultimately dependent on it. For some, covenant replaces messianism as the central concept. For others neither the Hebrew vision of redemption in our times, nor attachment to the Holy Land or to the Hebrew language rests on devout attachment to Hebrew religious law and tradition.

While the support for differing major positions is difficult to gauge, a long-time Israeli resident on the faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem distinguishes them as follows:

1. Messiah is a man (supernatural in office but not in being), an ideal ruler. This is now the Orthodox Jewish view held by 25 to 30 per cent of Israeli Jews (mainly immigrants from Oriental lands and elderly Jews), and taught in the Orthodox religious schools.

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2. Messiah is a personal outpouring of the divine Spirit upon individuals. About 10 per cent of the Israeli Jews, mainly liberal intellectuals and some socialist youth and (as our informant put it) some other “nice vague people,” hold this theory.

3. Messiah is the moral ideal of justice and peace wholly transcendent to present history, but to be manifested historically in the “messianic era.” Only a small percentage, mainly “real intellectuals,” believe this interpretation. Its advocates equate messianism with the idea of socio-political-spiritual fulfillment or perfection, a condition as yet completely outside present reality.

4. Messiah is the socio-political ideal of justice and peace gradually being realized in the Israeli State. Perhaps 10 to 15 per cent of the people follow this view. Professor Mordecai Kaplan declares that Hebrews live no longer in the age of “the coming” of Messiah, but in the days of the Messiah himself. Dispersed Jews now live in freedom, hence are redeemed, he says, even if this “salvation” is, as it were, a kindness of the Gentiles, while the State of Israel is Messiah for the others. (Kaplan’s view has been criticized because it no longer stresses “the ingathering of the exiles,” one of the chief historic tenets of the messianic concept. Zionists oppose the tendency to equate the experiences of the Diaspora and those of immigrants regathered from exile.)

5. Messiah is the state of Israel in its ideal development. Ten to fifteen per cent of the people follow this concept. They represent many “primitive” citizens as well as Ben-Gurion and others who speak of “the messianic character of the movement of the State.” In Ben-Gurion’s words the prophets of Israel not only preached righteousness, loving-kindness, and mercy, but also foretold “material and political redemption for their people.… After the rise of the State and even after the ingathering of the exiles … we … shall not have reached the end of the vision … a vision that is both Jewish and universal … comprising all man’s supreme aspirations and values. This is possible only in the Messianic vision.… The vision of redemption of the prophets of Israel … was not confined to the Jewish people, although the redemption of Israel was a basic and inseparable part of the vision.

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… Together with the redemption of Israel our prophets foretold the redemption of all the nations, the whole world.… The miracle that has taken place in our generation is that there has been established an instrument for the implementation and realization of the vision of redemption—and the instrument is the State of Israel, in other words the sovereign people in Israel.” The messianic vision, Ben-Gurion contends, assumes different forms in different periods. In our time he identifies the “inner kernel” of the messianic vision with the national sovereignty of the Jew. This inner kernel has “germinated in the State of Israel,” an event which signals national redemption of the Jew in the promised land. Ben-Gurion considers the state, however, not just an end in itself, but an instrument for a mission. The renewal of national sovereignty in a moral state assertedly constitutes the Jewish people once more a chosen people whose mission promises human redemption by replacing tyranny and cruelty with international peace, justice, and equality.

Messianism And State Policy

Many Hebrew writers do not hesitate to personify the State as redeemer of the people. One writer, for example, asserts that the new State “redeemed hundreds of thousands of Jews from poverty and degeneration in exile, and transformed them into proud, creative Jews … it poured new hope into the hearts.…” By restoring “as in the days of the Bible, a complete unity of existence and experience, which embraces in a Jewish framework all the contents of the life of man and people …” the State has delivered the Jew in Israel from the Diaspora’s divided allegiance to Gentile rule in political-economic affairs and to Jewish authority in their restricted community of Mosaic faith.

Precisely this tendency to reduce messianism to state policy by elevating the political factor has brought criticism from scholars like Dr. Martin Buber. He agrees that the messianic vision imposes a unique divine demand upon nations to realize Messiah’s Kingdom and thus to participate in the world’s redemption. But he considers today’s tendency to secularize messianism quite unjustifiable. Many, Buber protests, think only in “the narrow naturalistic form which is restricted to the Ingathering of the Exiles,” and thereby eliminate belief in the coming of the kingdom of God. “A Messianic idea without the yearning for the redemption of mankind and without the desire to take part in its realization is no longer identical with the Messianic visions of the prophets of Israel.”

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This widespread tendency to merge the biblical vision of an ideal messianic society with the new State of Israel elicits sharp fire from American critics of Ben-Gurion’s Zionism. Hebrews, of course, have long linked the messianic hope of redemption with their national existence and destiny. Zionism, therefore, gives religious significance to the current politico-historical events that established the new state, and regards the new state as the national center of “the whole house of Israel.” Some dispersed Jews, especially in America, criticize the Zionist movement because it seems to advance a nationalistic political thrust behind a façade of Judaism. In this respect American nonorthodox Jews criticize the new state as severely as the orthodox Naturei Karta, although from a different perspective than personal messianic expectation. They argue that since 1900 the Zionist movement has been essentially political, despite some religious elements and motivations. They call it a well-financed national political mechanism that exploits the traditional messianic hope to gain the support of those who profess Judaism. Critics of Zionism note the tendency to identify movements toward independence as modern revival; to designate new social ideals and opportunities as integral to the vision of messianic redemption. These critics trace establishment of the Jewish state not to God but to the Hebrew’s self-confidence in his own ability to shape a new destiny. Nowhere does the newborn state’s Proclamation of Independence mention God’s name except for figurative reference to the “Rock of Israel.” Motivation for establishing the state, it is contended, was not religious (an impulse from the Torah) but rather patriotic—an achievement of Jews weary of persecution, exile, and foreign rule. The new state therefore assertedly rests on secular, and not on messianic foundations, and stems from human organization rather than from divine providence.

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