By Leila Leah Bronner
Within Judaism the term Messiah has many connotations. In the Hebrew Bible the term referred to an “anointed one,” a divinely chosen figure who would bring to fruition God’s plan for his people and for all humankind. The term also conjured up images of a future world filled with peace and divine tranquility. These two biblical ideas were elaborated upon in the post-biblical era. The purpose of this study is to explore how references to a Messiah originated, developed and were expanded upon in Jewish thought and history. I will trace messianic imagery beginning in the Tanakh (Bible), and follow its reinterpretation through Mishnaic, Talmudic, Midrashic, Medieval and modern sources. I desire to show how the Messiah idea developed throughout the ages and offer comments on why the idea developed as it did.
What does “messiah” mean?
In biblical usage the word “messiah” (mashiach) referred to any person charged with a divine office as king or priest, who was physically anointed with oil, a symbol of being chosen for a special purpose. The English word “messiah” is derived from the Latin and Greek messias, related to the Aramaic ajyvm, ultimately with its source back in the Hebrew mashiach, “anointed one.” The word mashiach was translated into the Greek Septuagint as christos, which also means “anointed.” This Hebrew word mashiach as we noted above was thus first applied to the kings of Israel who were installed in their royal office by a ritual act of investiture. These antecedents of the Messiah figure in the Bible may have their origin as far back as the enthronement of David in Jerusalem who reigned from 1010 to 970 BCE. With the symbolic act of anointing, it was believed that God endowed the king with wisdom and strength to fulfill the duties of royal office. The redeeming functions of the Anointed One was expressed by the Prophet Isaiah: “The spirit of God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble, to bind up the wounded of heart…” (Isaiah 61:1). This religious act of empowerment with the gift of God’s spirit would furnish the model for post-biblical messianic figures.
Since Israelite kings were installed in office by anointing, they could all be considered “messiahs,” i.e., anointed ones. We read accounts of the first three kings of Israel: Saul (1 Sam.10:1), David (1 Sam.16:13), and Solomon (1 Ki.1:34-39) being anointed by prophets. Therefore we note that “messiah” could refer to anyone divinely appointed to a task that affected the destiny of the Jewish people. Eventually the term came to denote a divinely-inspired future king with eschatological dimensions, that is, one who would arrive at the end of time. This future messiah was expected to restore the kingdom of Israel and usher in an era of peace. Although the longing for an ideal order under an ideal Davidic king began to crystallize already in biblical times, in the Bible the term mashiach was not yet used in its specific, later eschatological meaning.
In the time of the kings and prophets from about the eighth century BCE until the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, the hope of salvation began to play a dominant and conspicuous role in the life of the people. These expectations originated in the dynastic promise offered by the prophet Samuel: “Your house and your kingship will ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16). In the Jewish imagination, the Davidic persona and era became the pattern of the Messianic figure and age. The later prophets, such as Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and others, embellished and expanded the vision of the Davidic King and the Messianic Age to come, although some omitted reference to the Davidic ruler. They simply described the future age as a time of unparalleled material plenty and spiritual tranquility (Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:1-9).
The prophets offer hope of future redemption in the face of evildoing and social iniquity in their own day. If the problems could not be solved in the present, at least hope was held out that resolution would come at the end of days, when a king of the highest ethics, wisdom, and strength would at last bring about a time of peace and righteousness. Scholars of the messianic idea have distinguished between two types of messianism: “restorative,” (“renew our days as of old”) and “utopian,” (“no eye has seen it”). The first evokes the national historical memory of the “good old days” of the Davidic kingship; the second looks forward to a highly developed persona leading all the earth’s inhabitants into an idealized, perfected world.
The prophets foretold that before the vision of this perfect future age, the sins of the people would first lead to their punishment, suffering, and exile. Only then, with sincere repentance, would they enjoy forgiveness and a return to the Land. Amos and several other later prophets describe this period of affliction and harsh judgment to come as the yom yhwh, “day of the Lord.” This difficult passage of time would be followed by the ingathering of the scattered people and a recovery of independence in their land in an era of peace. This future age would be characterized externally by liberation from oppressive foreign rule, and internally, by a moral reawakening and reformation within the nation. In the poetic writing of the later prophets we find various descriptions of this golden era which follows on the heels of the “Day of the Lord.”
We will quote briefly from a few verses to illustrate the graphic images both of the terror of the Day of the Lord, and the beauty of the ensuing peace that is to follow. Amos, for instance, speaks about the dark Day of Judgment when God would destroy Israel for its wickedness:
Woe to you who wish for the Day of the Lord. It shall be darkness, not light, as if a man should run from a lion and be attacked by a bearÖ.blackest night without a glimmer. (Amos 5:18 ñ20)
He continues, stating that Israel would be exiled, but eventually would return and rebuild the land:
In that day I will raise up the fallen tent of David. I will fix its breaches and restructure its rooms. I will build it firm as in the days of oldÖ. “Days are coming,” declares the Lord, when the ploughman would overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes with the one who sows the seed. The mountains shall drip with sweet wine and the hills will wave with grain. I will restore my people IsraelÖ.(Amos 9: 13-15).
These verses refer to an overflowing abundance of the earth’s fertility. So abundant would the grain harvest be that it would take all summer to gather it in, such that the reaper would still be harvesting when the ploughman would begin preparing the fields for the next season’s planting. The vine would also yield so richly that the treader of grapes in the wine press and the sower of seed in the fields would overlap (as in Lev. 26:5). Metaphorically, these agricultural images in Amos symbolize the spiritual plenty which will follow for the repentant people restored to their land by God.
Isaiah also spoke about the havoc and terror to expect in the Day of the Lord:
Howl! For the Day of the Lord is near. It shall come like havoc from Shaddai. Therefore, all hands shall grow limp, and all men’s hearts shall sink; and be overcome by terror, they shall be seized by pangs and throes, writhe like a woman in labor. They shall gaze at each other in horror, their faces livid with fright” (Is. 13:6-9).
After these images of affliction on the Day of the Lord, Isaiah introduces the image of a righteous king, and pictures the peace and plenty that would result from this ruler’s reign.
But a shoot shall sprout forth from the stock of JesseÖ the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and insightÖ. He shall not judge by what his eyes see nor decide by what his ears hear. Thus he shall judge the poor with equity, and decide with justice for the lowly of the landÖ. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kidÖ. Nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:1-10).
The prophets Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah see their redeeming Messiah as an ideal human leader possessed of lofty spiritual and ethical qualities. This future king is seen as a natural successor to David, a righteous judge and a protector of the weak, as described in Isaiah above. While these prophets speak about a future redemption being ushered in by an ideal human king with high spiritual and ethical qualities, other prophets, such as Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, Malachi, Joel and Daniel, do not describe a human figure from the House of David, but rather God himself ushering in the redemption of the future messianic age.
Most of the prophets do predict the coming of a Golden Age for Israel and for the whole world. As mentioned, each prophet dwells on particular aspects of this future age. Together, they present a complete picture of the principle features of that messianic age. These elements include the great judgment on the wicked world, the Day of the Lord, the establishment of Israel in its land under the rule of a righteous king, the acknowledgment of the God of Israel by the nations of the world, the spread of the rule of justice, righteousness and peace, the taming of wild creation, and restoration of the pristine fertility of the soil. These comforting words of the prophets foresee a future when all humankind will worship the true God, warfare will be banished from the earth, and peace will reign supreme.
Eventually all these ideas regarding the Messiah were elaborated upon in the Apocrypha and other writings. However the doctrine of Messiah that developed within Judaism came mostly out of the writings of rabbis in the Mishna, Midrash, and Talmud. The rabbis use the Bible for inspiration in their musings of the Messiah. Whereas the biblical prophets were more literary and poetic in their descriptions of a messianic figure or age, the rabbis attempted to make the idea more concrete by discussing different aspects and elements of the messiah (or messianic age). Now we will turn from our focus on biblical material to commence with an analysis of the concept of Messiah found in rabbinic sources.
Messianism in the Mishna
How prominently does the Messiah feature in the Mishna? Surprisingly, not so much. Not much place is devoted to the subject of the Messiah. The Mishna, a seminal rabbinic source, compiled by Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi in 200-250 CE, gives a few references to the messianic age, but none to the actual person of the Messiah. One reference is in Mishna Brachot in connection with the Exodus. Another appears in Sota describing the havoc that will reign at the end of time when the Messiah is expected to come. Let us look more closely at each of these references. First, the discussion in Brachot: The sages asked “What is the meaning of the verse ëYou should remember the day of your departure from the Land of Egypt all the days of your life’?” (Deut. 16:3). An answer was that if Scripture had simply stated “the days of your life” this would mean only during the days, but since it stated “all the days of your life,” this is taken to mean also during the nights one must remember the Exodus from Egypt. The sages further expanded on that first interpretation. Thus, “days of your life” would refer to this world only, but “all the days of your life” would also include the Days of the Messiah (Mishna Brachot 1:5).
The section in Mishna Sota, which some scholars designate as the “little apocalypse” because of its catastrophic contents, reads:
With the footprints of the Messiah arrogance shall increase and dearth reach its height; the vine will yield its fruit but will be expensive: and the empire shall fall into heresy and there be none to utter rebuke. The council chamber shall be given to immoral practices…. children shall shame their elders, the son will dishonor the father, the daughter, the mother. The face of the generation is as the face of the dog….. (M. Sota 9:15).
This is the one Mishnaic text that becomes almost apocalyptic in tone and content when picturing the social and political upheavals, hunger epidemics, and economic wants caused by apostasy, desecration of God’s name and forgetting the Torah. It is interesting to notice that the person of the Messiah does not feature in this dramatic text, only the messianic age. In general the Mishna only speaks of a messianic age, not the person of the Messiah.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was the sage who negotiated with the Romans during the days leading up to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. He sought permission for control of Yavneh and her wise men, as a center for study, rather than putting his efforts into opposing the conquest of Israel by the Romans. We have some information about his messianic leanings. While the tendency of the people was to follow any person that promised to be the Messiah and free them from Rome, Yochanan ben Zakkai played down messianic sentiments among the people, as he feared antagonizing the Romans. In like manner, R. Yehuda HaNassi, the compiler of the Mishnah in around 200 CE, was also reluctant to encourage any mention of the Messiah, especially after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 CE.
R.Yochanan ben Zakkai, as we saw, made only one positive pronouncement about the Messiah, which in his case, referred specifically to King Hezekiah. Ben Zakkai identified with this historical persona because he believed that, like the king, he had devoted his life to saving his people. Yet, often he worried about the fact that he had not saved Jerusalem, while Hezekiah had miraculously saved Jerusalem in 702 BCE. Ben Zakkai, who was alive during the destruction of the Temple, and who according to rabbinic tradition, lived 120 years, also possibly saw the rise of Bar Kochba, and thus was suspicious of messianic movements. The issues encapsulated in the myth and person of the Messiah are scarcely addressed in the Mishna. One story states that prior to ben Zakkai’s death he said “Prepare a throne for King Hezekiah, who is coming” (Ber. 28b ARN 25:40). This is probably the only messianic proclamation of the sage. He said once “If the young say to you, come, let us build the Temple, do not listen to them. If the old say come let us destroy the Temple, listen to them.” These sentiments indicate that he wished to curtail any rebuilding of the Temple, which smacked of messianic steering. He also said, “If you have a seedling in your hand, and they say, look here comes the Messiah, go on and plant first, and then meet the Messiah.”
As an endnote, we can posit that the limited material regarding the Messiah may be attributed to the Jewish leaders’ fear of antagonizing the Roman authorities with messianic aspirations. These rabbis also lived through the rise of the Bar Kochba debacle and were thus suspicious of false messianic figures. Conversely, the later rabbis of the Talmud were sufficiently removed from these events and could freely speculate of a future Jewish Messiah. Now we shall turn from the Tanna’im of the earlier Talmudic period to the Amora’im of the later Talmudic period. In later Jewish literature, rabbinic discussions regarding the Messiah abound.
Messiah in Talmud and Midrash
“On the day that Jerusalem was destroyed the Redeemer was born.”
The above adage from rabbinic sources (Eicha Rabbah 1:51; Yer.Brachot 2:4) is suffused with optimism regarding the messianic concept. It expresses faith that on the day the Temple was destroyed the Messiah would be born; the seeds of redemption are seen as planted in the ashes of destruction. The belief in a Messiah is the supreme expression of the Jewish spirit, enabling the Jewish people to endure all the trials and tribulations throughout the ages. The concept of the Messianic Age endows life with perspective, lends purpose to history, and offers hope to humanity. This hope for a Messiah projects toward the final goal in history when a new era will be ushered in, warfare will be banished from the earth, and peace will reign supreme. It is permeated with an aura of hope and redemption for Israel and humanity.
The Talmud, unlike the Mishna, had hundreds of references to the Messiah and the messianic age. The question that occupied the minds of the sages, was what actionsóhistorical, social, religiousówould bring the Messiah? Having learned from the Bar Kochba tragedy, they tend to veer away from the political into the spiritual. No practical or political steps are ever taken by these sages to bring the Messiah. Unlike the Mishna, which quoted the Tanakh sparingly, the rabbis of the Talmud study scripture to discover prooftexts to show that the Messiah is not only historical but becomes ahistorical. Will the coming of the Messiah be a metaphysical or a natural phenomenon? Then, as today, they agonize over the messianic problem. The Talmudic sages discussed catastrophic events that would end in the coming of the Messiah (San. 97a). Whereas in Sota, the moral and spiritual decay was emphasized, in the tractate Sanhedrin the elements of nature cause suffering to society. But Sanhedrin describes a person, the son of David, who will usher in salvation. Here we get the paradigm for messianic discussions in the future; you have both the age and the person. The rabbis discuss the character of the Messiah, and draw on the book of Isaiah, to show that he must have outstanding qualities of mind and soul. They endow him with the highest spiritual powers (Is. 11). Accordingly, solely by smell he can decide who is just and who is wicked. In these discussions, the sages evaluate Bar Kochba and decide that he did not have the qualities necessary to be the Messiah, and he therefore failed. The Bar Kochba defeat changed the attitude of the sages to the Messiah, whereas Rabbi Akiva demonstrated belief in the Messiah as judge, warrior and leader. Subtle Talmudic combinations after the method of midrash developed a picture of the Messiah diligently drawn where everything political or figurative in Isaiah’s description was taken in a literal sense and expounded and dogmatized accordingly. These sages and their highly colored flights of fancy on the redeemer greatly influenced their success to glorify the personality of the Messiah. The era of the messianic figure with metaphysical qualities bordering on an eschatological person begins, grows and develops.
Names of the Messiah in the Talmud
The sages discuss the names of the Messiah and offer a variety of explanations. There is one opinion, that the name of the Messiah was one of the ten things created before the world. The Talmud describes great teachers competing in puns about their teachers names. Each school selects a name for the Messiah, resembling the name of the school’s head. Biblical passages were studied and interpreted in a messianic sense to yield a variety of names by which the Messiah might be called. R. Shela said that, “the Messiah Shilo for it is written, ëuntil Shilo comes'” (Genesis 49:10). R. Yannai said, “It was Yinnon” (Psalm 72:17). R. Haninah said, “It was Haninah” (Jeremiah 16:1) (San.98b). Each school displayed keen interest in identifying the Messiah by identifying the name of a leading scholar with him. The name of Menachem, the son of Hezekiah, was also suggested as the name of the Messiah. The names were suggested also because of their respective meanings, so that each name told something of the characteristics of the Messiah. For instance, Menachem, is symbolic rather than a proper name, and suggests that the Messiah must be the comforter and redeemer of the Jewish people. Haninah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “compassion.” All of the names thus far are positive. However, we also find a negative designation. One of the strangest names given to the Messiah is hlpn rb, which means “fallen.” R. Nahman noticed the negative connotation of a name like “Fallen.” He explained it by referring to the work of Amos, who speaks of the tent of David falling and then being raised up from its destruction (San.96b). This name then demonstrates how the Messiah might emerge after a time of tragedy. This is often a theme within rabbinic thought: good will come out of bad. All these discussions regarding the name of the Messiah indicate that the sages searched to discover who the Messiah would be and when the Messiah would come.
Other Messianic Notions in the Talmud
One of the important issues regarding the Messiah dealt with the conduct needed on the part of Israel to usher in his arrival. Two leading sages of the Talmud, R. Eliezer and R. Joshua discuss this conduct (San.97b). R. Eliezer makes redemption dependent on repentance: “If they do not repent, they will not be redeemed. Repentance comes first. Redemption is not an eschatological act, and has no appointed time.” R. Joshua differs in his interpretation of the sources. He claims that the nation will be redeemed, even if it does not repent. R. Joshua does not sever the connection between repentance and redemption, but states that it is impossible to believe that Israel will not be redeemed even if they do not repent. He offers as a proof the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt was based on God’s loving-kindness rather than on Israel’s repentance.
The question of who the Messiah would be is also discussed frequently by the Amoric sages, 200 ñ 500 CE. Whereas the M. Sota 9:15 stressed the dominance of moral and spiritual decay, Sanhedrin stresses havoc in the all negative elements that bring suffering in society: “In the seven year cycle at the end of which the son of David will come, in the first year, this verse will be fulfilled: ëAnd I will cause it to rain on one city, and not at all on another city'” (b. Sanh. 97a). Sanhedrin describes in great detail the troubles that will afflict the generation when the son of David comes. The most surprising feature of this passage is that less is said about the person of the Messiah and more about the Messianic Age.
The Talmud uses biblical verses as an impetus to predict the coming of the Messiah. Foremost among these is Isaiah 11:1ff, which opens with the hope for a restoration of the Davidic dynasty. It depicts the Messiah as a human being, a person of wisdom and understanding.
“And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a twig shall sprout from his trunk. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-2).
Surrounding the arrival of this unique personality, amazing events, contrary to nature, would be observed:
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together” (Isaiah 11:6).
The rabbis of the Talmud, as we have shown, have much to say about the Messiah and the messianic age to come; we have barely scratched the surface. We alluded to a few references, but there are many more. These references often veer away from the political to the spiritual, from the natural to the supernatural, from the rational to the emotional. Whereas in the Mishna the word mashiach and quotes of Scripture occur sparingly, in the Talmud both the word mashiach and numerous scriptural references as prooftexts appear again and again. They aim to show that the Messiah is not only a historical figure but also an ahistorical one. Will the coming of the Messiah be a natural or a metaphysical phenomenon? The answers of the sages differ greatly on this matter. Although the Bible speaks of a future Davidic king who would usher in an era of peace and prosperity, the rabbis further develop this notion. According to the rabbis the Messiah will bring an end to all the suffering of the Jewish people. Overall, we find that the rabbis of the Talmudic period were most taken with the idea of a personal Messiah. Their ideas were transmitted and passed down through the ages.
Some of these ideas were developed by the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides, one of whose 13 Principles of Faith deals with belief in the Messiah. The belief continued to occupy the minds of medieval Jewish philosophers and thinkers, often during times of persecution and suffering. The Spanish persecutions in the 13th century, which resulted in the expulsions of 1492, brought about a new mystical movement known as Kabbalah. This mystical movement provides an example of another doctrine that arose during tumultuous times and encompassed some messianic ideas. In the Kabbalistic doctrine of the holy sparks, the Messiah will come when all the sparks have been rescued from the domain of the demonic powers. This ideology gave rise to the 17th century figure, Shabbetai Tzvi, a sad example of misdirected messianic yearning. The community pinned its hopes on a flawed human individual who disappointed in the end. But eventually these yearnings found expression in the Hasidic movement of the 18th century. Now we will delve into some modern concepts regarding the Messiah.
Modern Trends in Thinking
The modern age brought new and different interpretations of the traditional messianic hope. The Jewish leaders of the modern era were heirs to all the concepts we have already outlined, and they contributed their own ideas to the long-held Jewish belief in a Messiah. Here we will briefly delineate the major trends and explain how these newer ideas differed from the older beliefs.
A new era dawned in Judaism with the emergence of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Philosophers of the Enlightenment (Haskalah) stressed rational thinking and de-emphasized the supernatural. One outgrowth of this time period was the advent of Reform Judaism, a movement that brought fresh interpretations regarding messianic hope and belief in a personal Messiah. The Reform rabbis disregarded belief in a personal Messiah and interpreted the ancient messianic hope to refer to a period of peace and human regeneration. Although early on, the Reform movement was not Zionist, they changed their views eventually with the establishment of the Jewish state.
Another modern movement to arise out of the ancient stream of messianic thought was modern Zionism. Zionism was a movement to secure the return of the Jews to the land of Israel. Although a consciously secular movement aimed at solving the Jewish problem it could draw emotionally as well as ideologically on a long religious tradition of messianic hope in an ultimate restoration of Zion.
With the rise of religious Zionism at the end of the 19th century, messianic belief again underwent reinterpretation. One of the forerunners of this theory was a very pious and religious rabbi, Rabbi Hirsch Kalisher, who was the founder of religious Zionism. He said that the beginning of redemption would be brought to pass in a natural way, by the desire of the Jews to settle in Palestine and by the willingness of the nation to help them in the work. The Messiah would come, it was asserted by Kalisher, and all the miracles and wonders would occur only after a goodly number of Jews would have established their home in the holy land and after Jerusalem would have been rebuilt and the temple erected again. The religious Zionists were eventually reorganized by Rabbi Reines. He specifically founded the religious wing of the Zionist organization. It was called Mizrahi, a word formed from the abbreviation of “spiritual center.” The motto of the movement was: “The land of Israel to the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel.” There are other religious movements within the Zionist movement too numerous to discuss here.
Perhaps the leading exponent of religious Zionism was Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, who was the chief rabbi of Israel from 1921 to 1935. He perpetuated the notion that we were living in the “beginning of the sprouting of our Redemption.” Influenced by this phrase Orthodox synagogues utilize these words in their prayers for the welfare of Israel and many messianized Zionist groups still hold this philosophical position. Others, however, in contrast to Kook, feel that messianism as an eschatological concept should be kept out of the pragmatics and ambiguities of current politics.
Different schools of interpretation arose regarding biblical and Talmudic messianic texts. We will discuss some of these. The most radical anti-Zionist interpretation is that of the Satmar Rebbe, who vehemently opposed the establishment the state of Israel, as his followers still do today. The Satmar Rebbe, for instance, offered the following explanation based on the Talmud: 1. Israel should not return to their land by force, 2. Israel should not rebel against the nations of the world, and 3. the nations of the world should not oppress Israel too much (Talmud Bavli Ketuvoth 111a). In short, his theory was that the Jews should not attempt to bring about the redemption (the coming of the Messiah) on a natural level, but accept their suffering and oppression and wait for miraculous redemption by a divinely appointed Messiah.
Rabbi Aaron Soitchik’s view was a much different view than that of the Satmar Rebbe. He taught that the nations of the world did not observe the oath of the Talmud that the Satmar Rebbe said they should. Using the Holocaust as proof, Soitchik pointed out that the nations of the world had persecuted the Jews, and further taught that the Jews deserved a safe haven from all their suffering. According to Soitchik, it is not only permissible, but mandatory for the Jews to fight in order to establish a homeland for themselves. Unlike the Satmar Rebbe, Soitchik believed the Jewish people needed to take a proactive stance in procuring their own survival and obtaining a Jewish state. Soitchik had two different theories regarding the Messiah. He taught that the Messiah may come on a meta-natural level (“from the clouds”), or on a natural level (“within the framework of history”). The method of the Messiah’s return would depend upon Israel’s repentance. If Israel repented the return of the Messiah would be immediate and supernatural. If Israel did not repent, then the Messiah would still return, but his return would take place gradually, on a natural level. The return of the Messiah and the Zionist hopes were wedded together in Soitchk’s mind. He taught that messianic redemption on a natural level would take place through colonization, settlement, and reclamation of the land of Israel.
At this point in our discussion of modern messianism, we feel compelled to mention a recent unique phenomenon in the Jewish world, the emergence of a modern messianic figure. Never before heard of in the modern Jewish world, some followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, proclaimed him the Messiah. Though the Rebbe never wanted to be called the Messiah while he was alive, many of his followers believe he is just that and are still awaiting his resurrection which will bring about the messianic age and their own redemption. Presently, the Hasidic community is divided into two different sections: the meshechisten (messianists) and the anti-meshechisten (anti-messianists). This fringe messianists believe that the Rebbe will be resurrected to bring them to redemption in Israel and feel it is their duty to publicize this fact. This view has not however found widespread acceptance even among the Rebbe’s own followers, let along mainstream Judaism.
Belief in the Messiah has been described as the most glistening jewel in the glorious crown of Judaism. It was the comforting and uplifting faith in the Messiah which sustained the Jews through their long and torturous march through history. “I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.” This proclamation recited by Jews all over the world underscores the importance of the concept within Judaism.
Historically, Jewish opinion has held that the Messiah would be sent by God to usher in a new era in which all humankind would worship the true God, warfare would be banished from the earth, and peace would reign supreme. With strong antecedents in the Bible, the doctrine of the Messiah was developed, elaborated upon and given a variety of interpretations throughout Jewish history as we have demonstrated above. The biblical prophets allude to a coming messianic figure and age, the rabbis elaborate upon this theme, and religious Zionists see the beginning of its culmination in the founding of the state of Israel. According to Jewish belief, redemption can only come about by God’s direct intervention. For that moment we pray, and wait eagerly for the full flowering of the Redemption of Israel and humankind. “If it tarry, wait for it, for it will surely come.”