Messianism could well be considered an abstruse topic that is irrelevant to most people’s concerns. In his well-organized and highly readable book The Struggle for Utopia, Arnold Slyper explains that the very opposite is the case and that the messianic goals of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have profoundly shaped and continue to shape the lives of individuals and the direction of the world we live in. He also proposes that many of the external threats for Jews and Israel can only be understood from an appreciation of their messianic basis.
Slyper defines messianism as “belief that a utopian existence will be created by miraculous or non-miraculous means under the sovereignty of God, with or without the involvement of a messianic-like figure.”
His book takes the form of biographies of the individuals most influential in developing utopian and messianic concepts for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He elaborates on their basic theologies, how their messianic beliefs were developed from Judaism, the historic context in which these beliefs were developed, and how these faiths would eventually turn against Judaism because of them.
The history of monotheism and messianism
He describes how almost 4,000 years ago Abraham received the mission from God to bring blessing to humanity by promoting a universal monotheistic moral code. Abraham was also promised a nation and a land from which this mission would be accomplished. About five hundred years later, the prophet Moses received a master plan at Mount Sinai for creating an egalitarian, caring, and holy society under the sovereignty of God.
Isaiah is regarded by Slyper as the most influential prophet in terms of messianism. Isaiah comforted the Jewish people that although they had been unable to create the ideal society promoted by the Torah, a golden age could yet be realized here on Earth when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” But what did he mean by this? Was he talking allegorically about a more perfect age following an imminent redemption or a messianic era at the End of Time? Slyper discusses this issue and also compares the utopian visions of other prophets such as Jeremiah, Micah, Haggai, and Zechariah.
He describes the differing approaches of Maimonides and Nachmanides to the messianic age. By way of contrast, there is a chapter on Theodor Herzl and a discussion of his book Altneuland as a secular alternative to a utopian Jewish state. The messianic ideas of Rav Avraham Isaac Kook are discussed and also the influence of his son Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook on the Gush Emunim movement, a messianic movement that promotes Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. In the last chapter, Slyper discusses the relevance of messianic ideas to the Temple Mount and the messianic conflict between Judaism and Islam for its control.
With respect to Christianity, Slyper elaborates on how Paul developed original doctrines that were appealing to the gentile world and how he directed the messianism of his new religion toward a spiritual rather than earthly World to Come that would be achieved through a mystical union with Jesus. Within the supersession ideas of early Christianity for this world and the next and its need to define itself in relation to Judaism were created the seeds of Christian hatred toward Jews.
He also elaborates on the creation of Islam by Muhammad and the development of his eschatological beliefs. He proposes that hatred toward Jews to the point of advocating genocide is a recent phenomenon, and he focuses on Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who mobilized the Muslim world against Israel and Jews. He writes that like al-Husseini, “Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas hold apocalyptic beliefs and regard the murder of Jews and elimination of Israel as a prelude to the Day of Judgment and World to Come”. Moreover “Neither Hamas nor the Palestinian Authority is able to make an end of the conflict agreement with Israel because of its messianic beliefs.”
The book also includes a chapter on the archaeological evidence for the exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan. While interesting, these seem tangential to the theme of the book and could easily have been omitted.
Far from being an irrelevancy, Slyper has shown convincingly that messianism is highly relevant to the Jewish world today. This is an original and thought-provoking book that covers many important topics. It can be a valuable addition for any home and academic library. ■
The Struggle for Utopia: A History of Jewish, Christian and Islamic MessianismDr. Arnold Slyper Kochav Press, 2023; 356 pages, $20 as a paperback and $30 as a hardback. Available from Amazon and bookstores in the US.