Climbing Jacob's Ladder: Jewish Teachings on the Messiah
Do you have a childhood memory of sitting on the knee of some department store Santa Claus? I do. The memories come back to me as I stroll in the mall these days, surrounded by the trappings of the Christmas season. One rabbi I know has a name for the discomfort that some Jews feel at this time of the year -- our sense of being a minority engulfed by someone else's holiday. He calls it "Santa Claustrophobia."
Why do many parents - even some Jewish parents - tell their children about Santa Claus, want them to believe in Santa Claus? They say it's because Santa is fun for kids. But it also has to do with nurturing children's fantasy life and innocence. Many parents remember a time in their own lives when they believed in mysterious acts of goodness and beauty, when the ordinary world had an exciting, magical luster, when a marvelous stranger could come into their lives suddenly, bearing gifts that made everything all right.
Children outgrow their belief in Santa Claus. They learn that reality is all there is; there are no delightful secret visitors slipping down the chimney - and Santa is just a fat man in a red suit with a fake beard. But it's hard to outgrow the need for hope. The need to believe in a marvelous stranger who can make all the ugliness go away, make everything turn out all right. Small wonder that so many people are fascinated by the idea of a Messiah.
"The Messiah has come," announced the newspaper ad, "and his name is Yeshua." Full-page ads like this are placed in the New York Times and other major newspapers by Jews for Jesus especially at this time of year. They offer the by-now familiar message that Yeshua, Jesus, was the Messiah promised by the Jewish Bible. To acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah is simply to "complete" one's Jewishness.
It's not pleasant to see such an ad in our daily paper. Particularly at Christmastime, when we're feeling sensitive about our Jewish distinctiveness, it's disturbing to see a Christian group appropriate our name, our language, our sacred symbols. For there is no such thing as a "Jew for Jesus." It's a contradiction in terms. Where Christians and Jews divide most profoundly is over the question of the Messiah. For Christians the Messiah has come; for Jews the Messiah is still in the future. Christianity, in fact, is a faith built and centered on Messianism; but the Messianic hope is just one aspect of Judaism.
And not a very important aspect, one would say, judging from the scant attention paid to the Messiah in liberal synagogues today. Rabbis rarely speak on the subject. It is a slightly embarrassing topic, difficult to discuss without sounding like a naïve Jewish Pollyanna. But discuss it we must. During the Holocaust, Jews went to their death singing words taken from Maimonides' 13 principles of Jewish belief: "Ani ma'amin. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, even so, I still believe." Writes Eugene Borowitz: "How can one hope to understand Judaism without insight into so stubborn a faith?"
What has been the Jewish view of the Messiah? And what, if anything, makes sense for us today?
There is no doctrine of a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. But some passages, particularly in the prophetic books, do envision an ideal future time. They are familiar to us, for they have become part of our liturgy. Listen, for instance, to the words of the prophet Micah:
"In the days to come
The Mount of the Lord's House shall stand
Firm above the mountains...
And many nations shall go and say,
Come, let us go up to the Mount of the Lord,
To the House of the God of Jacob;
That God may instruct us in His ways;
And that we may walk in God's paths.
Ki mi-tziyon teitzei Torah...For Teaching shall come forth from Zion,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem..." (4:1-4)
Other prophets warn of a catastrophic judgment day to come. Daniel teaches that on the judgment day the dead will rise from their graves to be judged by God (12:2-3). These passages speak merely of what God will do in an extraordinary future time. But there are also passages that describe an ideal king who will participate in the redemption. Here, for instance, is Isaiah's vision:
"A sprout will come forth from the trunk of Jesse (King David's father)
...The spirit of Adonai will fill him,
A spirit of wisdom and understanding...
With righteousness he will judge the poor
And bring justice to the lowly of the land
...The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard lie down with the kid...
No one shall hurt or destroy
In all My holy mountain..." (Is.11:1-9)
But in all the biblical references to an ideal king he is never called the Messiah, mashiach in Hebrew. Mashiach means "the annointed one." When a new Israelite king or priest was installed in office the Bible calls for him to be touched with oil. Hence, any such priest or king could be called "mashiach."
Only in post-biblical times, when the Jews lived under Roman oppression, does the term "mashiach" take on a concrete, specific meaning: a perfect king, descended from David, who, with God's help, would rule Israel, defeat its enemies, restore the exiles to their land, reconcile the people with God and introduce a time of physical and spiritual well-being. The mashiach was always envisioned as a human being, an agent of God - a figure who combined the roles of warrior, judge, king and teacher of Torah.
Followers of Jesus - though not Jesus himself - claimed that he was the promised Messiah, and called him Christos, the Greek translation of mashiach. But since Jesus had failed to do what Jewish tradition said a Messiah was supposed to do, Jews did not accept him as Messiah. A Hasidic story illustrates well this Jewish attitude towards the Messiah. In the 18th century, the rebbe of Vitebsk, Menachem Mendl, journeyed to Jerusalem. One day a man went up to the Mount of Olives and began blowing a shofar. People cried out that the Messiah had come, and someone ran to Menachem Mendl with the good news. He went to the window and saw the Jerusalemites going about their normal business. "The Messiah hasn't come," he said, and went back to his studies. That has always been the Jewish response to those with Messianic claims: look out the window and see if the world has changed. If it is still unredeemed, still full of poverty, war and suffering, then the Messiah has not yet come.
Repeated disappointments with promised redeemers gave rise to a rather negative, even cynical, attitude among the Talmudic rabbis regarding Messianic speculation. When Rabbi Akiba proclaimed the first century military leader Bar Kochba as the Messiah, for instance, Rabbi Johanan ben Torta said to him, "Akiba, grass will grow from your cheeks - you'll be long in your grave - and the Messiah will still not be here" (T.J. Ta'anit IV). Or note the famous statement by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai: "If you have a plant in your hand and someone comes and says the Messiah has arrived, first go and plant the plant" (Avot d'Rabbi Natan). Nevertheless, despite disillusionment, the Messianic hope never died; in the 17th century a man named Shabbetai Tzvi managed to convince a substantial part of the Jewish world that he was indeed the Messiah.
The emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century led to a thorough re-working of the doctrine of the Messiah. The early Reform Jews of Germany made an important change: in the 1841 prayerbook of the Hamburg Temple, the traditional prayers for the coming of the Messiah were replaced by references to a "Messianic age." The early Reformers believed that praying for a King Messiah would hurt their chances of gaining German citizenship. If they were loyal German subjects, how could they justify praying for a king who would re-establish the Jewish state and bring the exiles back to their homeland?
They were also distressed by the miraculous aspect of Messianism. How could a rational person believe that one man, aided by special powers, could single-handedly revolutionize the world order, and inaugurate a time when the dead would be resurrected and judged?
Finally, the Reformers felt that the traditional concept of the Messiah gave human beings too passive a role. Instead of relying on God to redeem the world, they put their faith in enlightened humankind, working together to bring about an era of social justice and universal peace.
The Reformers' dream of a Messianic age was born out of their confidence in human perfectability, their optimistic conviction that modern science and the spread of democracy would eliminate human misery.
Who takes Messianism seriously today? After the Holocaust and the Gulag, who still believes that education and scientific advancement lead to virtue? After mass murder in Cambodia and genocide in Rwanda, who still believes in the innate goodness of humankind? In an age when hatred and famine and disease still dominate the globe, the sentiments of 19th century liberals sound hollow and naïve. It's hard to share their faith in the steady march of progress, hard to believe, as they did, that "day by day life is getting better and better in every way."
Once the followers of the rebbe of Kosov asked him why the Messiah was so long in coming. And the rebbe answered, "Because we are no different today from what we were yesterday."
So what about us? Do we believe in our own power to transform the world? Do we believe that each of us can transform ourselves, that we can be different tomorrow than we were the day before? And do we live as if we believed?
Every time I think I'm too sophisticated for the Messiah, every time I wonder if I'm all grown up and still believing in Santa Claus, I remember a handful of precious words. "I have a dream...Free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last." "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream..." "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they ever again learn war. But every man shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:3-4). "Im tirtzu, ain zo agada...if you will it, you can make it real."
I no longer put my faith in human goodness. Left to ourselves - without moral teaching and religious principles, without the strength and discipline of an ethical community, we are capable of infinite atrocities. But I can't let go of the dream. For deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome the evils of this world...not by our own efforts alone, but with the help of God. God's power, working through us, inspiring us to put our minds and hearts and bodies to work in pursuit of the dream.
In this week's Torah portion, Jacob dreams of a ladder set on the earth and reaching up to heaven. The Midrash tells us that Jacob set out to climb the ladder himself. He took one step, then another and another and another. His foot slipped and he fell back a few steps, but he kept on going. Eventually, though, he was exhausted and frustrated, because he seemed to be getting nowhere. "I'm tired," he called out. "I have to stop." Then he heard God's voice: "Climb, Jacob, climb." "But I'm tired," he answered, almost in tears. "I can't go any further." And the answer came back again: "Even if you're tired...climb, Jacob, climb."
That is all the answer we get. Jews are people who see a ladder and know that, like it or not, our task is to keep on climbing.