I’m not sure at what point messianism became such a dominanting topos in contemporary Jewish thought. I think it has something to do with the synthesis of Cohen and Levinas in contemporary Jewish philosophy during the 1990s and today under the impress of Benjamin, and now Schmitt and Agamben. A very good friend wrote a very good book about messianism in modern Jewish thought. My own more contrarian opinion is that I don’t think it’s such a big deal in Buber’s I and Thou. In the Star I think it’s penultimate to a more apocalyptic, eschatological conception of redemption, and I think if Cohen had had time to finish the Religion of Reason, the messianic would have taken a back seat to atonement and to the peaceful death assured to a stabilized human subject by the good God revealed by the prophet Ezekiel –not by the social prophets, for whom God was the holy God of morality and pity.
As the messianic assumes all the rage in the political theology discourse since 9/11, I’ve I’ve come to the opposite belief that the “messianic” is and was perhaps always either the wrong answer to the problem of totalitarianism or the pathetic attempt to arrive at one. For Schmitt and perhaps for Benjamin, it was either the State or God (or divine violence, or the messianic, or whatever). Only one or the other can enjoy the status of absolute power. With Agamben, the vision is more anarchic –an inoperative divine law works in tandem with an inoperative state. (If I’m not getting this right, someone please feel free to help out and to correct me).
I wish we could get more critical distance on this rather bizarre concept. Regarding Benjamin, my own souring reflex is to wonder if the messianic was just a little too cute. And if it wasn’t cute, it’s maybe better to say “almost dangerous.” Viewed critically, I think with Benjamin it’s part and parcel with his flirtation with Judaism and totalitarianism, Scholem and Brecht, with Schmitt looking over the shoulder. Almost as bad are Buber’s reflections on the messianic in Kingship of God and Prophetic Faith, texts from the 1930s and 1940s under pressure from Nazism. The idea that the Kingship of God might occupy all areas of life sounds like the flip side of the very totalitarianism that the idea was meant to oppose.
While one can appreciate these things historically, today things like the messianic, “divine violence,” now-times shot through with splinters of messianic time, or even the clarion call to neighbor love sound pretentious or ridiculous. I’m not sure why anyone today would want to adopt this stance.
I think I’m with the Babylonian rabbis on this one, at least as I now understand them. About the messianic, I think they were quite cold. The rabbis, or at least the late redactors, seemed to have thought that for the messiah to come, the whole world, their world, would have to be turned upside down. The generation that preceded the coming of the Messiah has the face of a dog. It’s a world without Torah, and in which scholars are held in contempt, no longer enjoying the status that scholars have always believed that they should enjoy. The messianic signifies to them is the true end of the world they loved because the world they loved was dominated, not by God, but by Torah and by their own hermeneutical acumen.
That’s at least how I read the main thrust of the relevant material in b. Sanhedrin (around folio page 97a), which is a locus classicus for this kind of speculation in the Bavli. I just don’t think the Messiah is something they wanted. To cite from another passage related to ordinary physical suffering, they wanted neither it nor its reward. Anticipating what they saw to be the worst, the rabbis, I think, tried to put the Messiah in a liturgical box. The messianic is a poetic utterance, not a practical desire, and certainly not a political program. For the Germans, one can see what might have drawn them to the messianic. Their milieu was indeed dog-faced. In contrast, the rabbis own political place seemed to have been much more pragmatic.