Tradition Today: Waiting for the messiah

The origins of the concept of a messiah are in the hope for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty of kings.

Will the real messiah please stand up? In addition to the myriad posters plastered all over the country proclaiming the late Lubavitcher Rebbe to be the messiah, we now have a competing contender for the title. Pictures of a rather tame looking unidentified man in haredi garb are appearing proclaiming that the messiah is in Tel Aviv. Well, that seems no more surprising than having him reside in Brooklyn.
Belief in the messiah is certainly an integral part of Judaism as it has developed over the ages, but it is also a very complicated doctrine with a long history and with many different interpretations of its meaning. Anyone wishing to really understand messianism in all of its complexity should read Joseph Klausner’s monumental book The Messianic Idea in Israel and/or Louis Jacobs’s more concise chapter on the messiah in his volume Principles of the Jewish Faith.
The origins of the concept of a messiah are in the hope for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty of kings which arose at the time of the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. The Hebrew term mashiah simply means “the anointed one.” From this simple beginning there have been innumerable permutations, including those who saw the messiah as more than human, those who saw it as symbolic of a messianic age, those who viewed the coming of the messiah as the end of history and those for whom it was a matter of the redemption of the people Israel from subjugation to foreign powers and its restoration to independence in its own land. Kabbalistic doctrines went much further in their conception, connecting the miraculous coming of the messiah with the redemption of divine sparks scattered throughout all creation.
Normative rabbinic Judaism has been very cautious in its approach to belief in the messiah. Note how seldom the word messiah is found in our prayers. It is more frequent in the Sephardi tradition than in the Ashkenazi – appearing there in the kaddish – possibly under kabbalistic influence. In our central prayer, the Amida, the 15th blessing prays for the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, but avoids using the word “messiah,” preferring to speak of the “branch of David,” a term taken from Jeremiah 23:5: “See a time is coming – declares the Lord – when I shall raise up a true branch of David’s line. He shall reign as king and shall prosper, and he shall do what is just and right in the land.”
Similar ideas are found in Psalm 132. It is also significant that when the Amida outlines the steps needed for redemption, the appearance of the Davidic king comes after and not before the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. God is the redeemer of Israel, not the messiah. In other words, the sages chose to use the most ancient and the least apocalyptic concept of the messiah, the true, righteous king, and not even to utilize the title “messiah.”
WHAT ACCOUNTS for this reluctance? Perhaps it was fear of the dangers of messianism, which had already led to the split of Christianity from Judaism over the issue of the messiah’s identity. Perhaps the tragic outcome of the great revolt, resulting in the destruction of the Second Temple and of Jerusalem, had cooled the enthusiasm for messianic movements. Unfortunately in the second century messianic fervor again resulted in tragedy in the crushing of the Bar Kochba revolt. Even the great Rabbi Akiva had succumbed to messianic fever and proclaimed Bar Kochba messiah, although he was not from the house of David. Akiva was told by others that “grass will grow in your cheeks and the messiah will still not have come” (Lamentations Rabba 2:2), but he paid no heed. The tragic result is too well known. Shabtai Zvi and other false messiahs continued to cause problems. Indeed there has never been a messianic movement in Judaism that resulted in anything but tragedy.
When I hear people proclaim that this one or that one is the messiah, I want to ask, “What are your expectations from a messiah? What has this person done to make you believe that?” I have yet to hear a convincing answer. Charisma does not make one the messiah, nor does wonder-working. Has anyone ascended the throne of David or made some drastic change in the world?
Maybe Theodor Herzl was the messiah – some people acted as if he were when he was alive. After all, he did bring about the restoration of Israel to its own land. The third-century teacher Shmuel had taught, “The messianic age does not differ from the present time except for the fact that at that time Israel will throw off the yoke of the nations and become free again” (Brachot 34b). Maimonides accepted this as the basis for his messianic belief, adding that the king-messiah will reign at that time and that people will live better and longer lives.
Obviously there is no consensus in Judaism concerning the messiah. The most we can say is that the messianic ideal asserts that there is hope for the future and that God will somehow bring about an age of perfection and freedom. How that will happen, when it will happen and by what means, all remain in the area of speculation.
I have always been taken by the statement of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai that if you are planting a tree and someone tells you to stop because the messiah has come, first finish your planting and then go and see if it is so (Avot D’Rabbi Natan B 31). That sounds like very good advice.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.