When I was a kid, my parents explained to me the basic difference between Jews and Christians. What they told me was: “Christians believe that their Messiah has already come, but we’re still waiting because we see that the world is far from perfect.” (Or something like that.)
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that there are many differences between different Jewish groups and whether or not they really anticipate the coming of the Messiah at all. I thought it was a fundamental belief, but it doesn’t seem to get that much attention in the Conservative and Reform movements, where I spend most of my time. What’s the deal here?
-Mixed up about mashiaḥ
Dear mixed – up,
This is a really big question, and I will declare upfront that I won’t be able to tackle the whole thing in one little column! But trying to keep it to the bare minimum, I have three points I will cover: the Rabbis, interfaith relations, and what I’ll call “the new spin.”
First, the Rabbis: When we say Rabbis with a capital “R,” we mean the rabbinic leaders responsible for writing and editing the early works of Rabbinic Literature (Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim), from about the first through the sixth centuries CE. In these works, the Rabbis tell us a lot about their beliefs, way of life, and interpretations of the Bible, which became the basis for what we now call “Judaism.” One of their beliefs concerned a future Mashiah ben David – an anointed [king], descended from King David – who would be empowered by God to bring the entire Jewish people together and restore them to a state of political independence in their land. This is typically the expectation that there would again be a functioning Temple, with regular ritual sacrifices, overseen by hereditary castes of Priests and Levites.
Where this vision comes from is hard to pin down. It does not appear in the Bible but rather arises from a school of biblical interpretation that is likely older than the Rabbis. Explicit biblical mentions of a mashiah (“anointed one”) deal almost exclusively with kings and High Priests, who were literally anointed with oil in order to indicate their ascent to their particular office. A notable exception is one prophetic verse (Isaiah 45:1) that depicts God speaking to “His anointed one,” King Cyrus of Persia – “anointed” (selected) by God to serve a particular function in history: to conquer Babylonia and send its Jewish captives home.
The birth of the idea of Mashiah ben David seems to occur in the Second Temple period, with the rise and fall of the Hasmonean dynasty (~140-37 BCE). This dynasty brought together the crown of kingship and the crown of priesthood in a single family. In contrast to the expectation that kingship would always belong to the tribe of Judah and the house of David (see Genesis 49:10, II Samuel 7:16, Hosea 3:5); the Hasmoneans were of the tribe of Levi and the house of Aaron. According to the limited historical accounts of the period, the Hasmonean rulers and their adoption of Greek names and customs ultimately proved unpopular with the people (particularly, the religious traditionalists). Two centuries of non-Davidic rulers, Hasmoneans and then Herodians, were followed by the Roman Empire’s oppressive rule over Judea. Perhaps for these reasons, the idea began to circulate in certain Jewish groups that God would one day send a proper ruler descended from King David to restore the people’s fortunes.
The Rabbis wrote about this idea both directly and indirectly, and it came to play a big part in their vision of the future fate of the Jewish people. Subsequent generations of rabbinic thinkers continued this trend, with Maimonides (in 12th century Spain) ultimately stating in his Thirteen Principles of Faith that one of Judaism’s core beliefs should be “the coming of the Messiah.”
Today, the Messiah concept is influenced by our contact with Christianity because Messianism is central to Christianity’s very identity. The prevalence of Christian assumptions in secular and interfaith spaces can make it difficult even for Jews to differentiate Jewish expectations of the Messiah from Christian ones or to imagine certain biblical verses as being unrelated to the idea of a Messiah. In Judaism, Messianism is a belief not so much about individual spiritual destinies as collective historical ones. Nevertheless, if our Christian friends’ and neighbors’ belief in a personal Messiah can offer them spiritual meaning and a charge to walk a path of kindness and virtue, then we can see this as a spiritual benefit (dare we say a kind of “salvation”) that we should try to respect, as we seek similar benefits through our relationship with God, Torah, and Jewish peoplehood.
Finally, we can look at “the new spin” concerning Messianism in Judaism. Since the mid-to-late eighteenth century, many Jewish thinkers have come to place an increasingly strong emphasis on the idea of a “Messianic Age” (or “Era”), rather than on a personal Messiah. Some of those who have espoused this view have looked to general human progress and advancement across all cultures as a basis for their convictions. Others have been strong advocates of Jewish nationalism.
The upshot, in any case, is the same. Rather than saying that we can know what to expect about the future based on the traditional religious expectations of the past, perhaps the best way to find continued relevance in Jewish tradition is to acknowledge how contemporary events might both subvert and fulfill those expectations at the very same time. We can be mistaken about some of the details of what we expect out of God while still embracing, in a general sense, what God places in front of us through faith. In this way, we cling to two important Jewish values in equal measure: humility and hope.