In the late 18th century a small group of European Jews made a radical and heretical claim.
There is no Messiah, he isn’t coming.
Given that one of the most important articles of faith throughout the diasporic Jewish community was the statement - “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.” - this claim was a pretty big shift and deviation from the historical norm.
But now this is commonplace. The liberal Jewish community has deleted mention of the Messiah from their liturgy, doesn’t talk about him in any type of mainstream discourse, and most young Jews scoff at the idea of a panacean being who will one day arrive to fix all our worldly problems. Even many of my Orthodox friends have quietly admitted to me that messianic beliefs are difficult to seriously entertain.
But I view belief in the Messiah as a crucial fundament of Judaism. No, not because I think that one day a man will show up and usher in world peace. It has been years since I have believed in the idea of the Messiah or Moshiach. Rather the true importance of the Messiah is that he is never coming.
Let me explain.
Jews view history linearly. Now this might sound obvious, we all do. Once a day passes on our calendar we don’t get it back.
But in the ancient world of nascent Judaism this was considered a novel idea. Most of the parallel pagan societies at the time had a cyclical view of history. From holidays to life and death, time was seen as a moving in a circle where events were repeated like clockwork and people died and their spirits were reborn according to nature’s cyclical essence. The concept of time moving in purely linear fashion towards some ultimate end in the future was virtually unheard of before early Jewish thinkers came onto the scene.
And the importance of this idea cannot be overstated.
Viewing history in a linear fashion is a direct outgrowth of monotheism - the primary belief of Judaism. If there is only one force which controls the Earth then our world is fundamentally understandable. Rather than multiple gods breeding randomness and chaos in an endless temporal cycle - the Judean prophets spread the belief in one God who embedded humans to be his partner in driving the world to moral perfection.
Meaning that history points in an arrow from chaos to order - from moral randomness to moral perfection - and it is our job as humans to aid that process.
The belief in the Messiah is directly connected to the idea of linear history. It means that there is a time, in the future, where we believe that the world will be peaceful, just, and perfect. It means that we believe that our mission, which is to constantly be bettering the world for all its inhabitants, will one day be completed, ushering in a time of perfection.
Interestingly enough, every time a false Messiah has arisen, whether it be Jesus, Bar Kochba, Shabtai Tzvi or some of the lesser known ones, bloodshed follows. This is not simply a correlation, rather the two are deeply connected. Thinking that the Messiah has come means that we are at the end of the moral arc - we have achieved perfection - and this mindset is extremely dangerous allowing horrid means to justify this false end.
To quote Pirkei Avot “It is not upon us to finish the work but nor are we allowed to sit idly by and reject it.” This idea works perfect when applied to Messianism.
For me, the Messianic era is an important belief even though rationally I do not believe that it will ever happen - just as I do not believe that there will ever be a time with zero strife and friction in the world. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try our best to make it happen.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
I heard a friend saying that we are at "the end of days" because the world has gotten so crazy, the weather seems to be changing, rules of morality and nature seem to have gone haywire. Do we as Jews believe in an end of days? Do we know when it is? [Ed. Note: see somewhat similar question at: http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=357]
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