Taking the cautious road to redemption

While the idea of waiting for God to bestow on the Jews a messiah was rejected by Secular Zionists in traditional terms, many aspects of redemption were maintained and promoted.

By
June 6, 2015 20:53
4 minute read.
Temple Mount

A view of al-Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Was the Six Day War a miraculous harbinger of the coming of the Messiah or simply a military victory played out in a secular world devoid of religious and redemptive meaning? The rabbinic attitude to the messianic idea has always been ambiguous. Rabbi Akiva, the greatest legal mind and mystic of his generation, believed the revolt against Rome led by Simon Ben Kosiba in 132 was a messianic war. He gave Ben Kosiba the messianic name of “Bar Kokhba” and believed that this rebellion would restore Jewish sovereignty to Israel and lead to the building of the Third Temple in Jerusalem. But there was not unanimous agreement among the rabbis on the messianic nature of this revolt. During the rebellion, Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta is supposed to have said to Rabbi Akiva: “Akiva, grass will rise from your cheeks and the son of David will not yet have come.” With the Roman Empire’s crushing of the rebellion in 135 CE, Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta seems to have been vindicated.

While Jews continued to pray for messianic redemption and declared “Next Year in Jerusalem!” at the conclusion of the Passover Seder, the rabbis actively discouraged any action to rebel against non-Jewish authority or to make aliya to Israel with the purpose of founding a state. They feared that any more messianic rebellions would lead to the complete destruction of the Jewish people.

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They neutralized the messianic idea and pushed it off to the end of history. They understood that messianic yearnings were attractive and alluring to many Jews and they did the utmost to remove it from historical reality. For 1,800 years they were successful at maintaining self-governing and autonomous communities that thrived through negotiation with pagan, Christian and Muslim authority. This strategy worked brilliantly until the onset of modernity.

Rabbinic suspicion of messianic activism was heightened with the 17th century Shabbetai Zvi debacle. Messianic expectations ran high at the time – the traumatic expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain and the devastating Chmielnicki massacres in Eastern Europe fueled the belief that redemption of the Jews would follow these “birth pangs of the Messiah.” But the movement was premature.

The Turkish Sultan ruled the Land of Israel with an iron hand and would not allow any attempt at Jewish sovereignty in his empire. Shabbetai was forced to convert to Islam and Jews who had packed their bags for the trek to Israel – from Yemen to Poland – were disillusioned and demoralized. Messianic activism was a great failure in this case and any attempt to radically seize redemption was actively discouraged.

Tragically, the caution that had worked so well in the Exile for centuries began to fail 150 years ago. Jew hatred and assimilation reached unprecedented heights. The rabbinic authority that maintained Jewish communities for so long began to break down. The ambiguity to messianic activism created a passivity that proved crippling, dangerous and fatal. The Zionist movement, influenced in part by the messianic idea, promoted the return of Jews from all over the globe to the Land of Israel and strove to achieve Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Modernity provided Jews with an embrace of politics that would prove central to Jewish survival.

While the idea of waiting for God to bestow on the Jews a messiah was rejected by Secular Zionists in traditional terms, many aspects of redemption were maintained and promoted. Thus, the messianic idea did not die with the rise of the modern Zionist movement.

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But today the reality is different than it was when Shabbetai Zvi proclaimed himself the Messiah. There are no longer any great empires ruling over Israel and preventing Jews from building up a state. The Shoah and the worldwide explosion of Jew hatred today have vindicated the prophets of the Zionist movement. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook has recalibrated our understanding of the messianic nature of Zionism.

Whether he believed redemption would be achieved through a state is open to question; he still imbued Zionism with messianic potential. He has provided a way to correct the rabbinic suspicion of the messianic idea in action.

Still, I would urge Jews to take the rabbinic caution to messianic activism seriously. Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is not solely a political achievement. The unification of Jerusalem is imbued with deep theological and redemptive meaning. It was not solely a military victory played out in the secular realm alone. Yet, we should follow the words of S.Y. Agnon’s Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel: we are in the beginning of the flowering of redemption. Those are hopeful words, but cautious words. Are we truly ready for Israel to be a Davidic monarchy with a rebuilt Temple? Israel is thriving as a Jewish state and a democracy – we must be cautious lest messianic expectations lead to disaster. We will never lose hope in the coming of redemption.

But I believe we should take the cautious path toward a drama that will be unparalleled in human history and the history of the Jewish people.

The author is a rabbi and teacher living in Boca Raton, Florida.

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