Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin)


I just finished reading Kenneth Seeskin’s Jewish Messianic Thoughts in an Age of Despair, a lucid modern Jewish philosophical exposition of the messianic idea. In its care and patience, Seeskin’s book might be considered a cool, liberal counterpoint to more apocalyptic variants of hot messianism, forms of expression rooted back in Germany in the early-mid 20th century, as well as the interest in that apocalyptic that are now put to use in current in critical theory. Vested in the rationalism of Maimonides and Kant, Seeksin’s embrace of the messianic idea is disenchanted and deflationary, in a welcome sort of way.

In its more mild form, messianism  is simply the idea of humanity redeeming itself, the idea of just society and the legislation of a just society in defiance against the unreason of history. This secular vision is  synched with a pared down belief in God, understood as “a power in the universe that resists explanation by natural means.” As understood here, the awe before this power is considered one way to stimulate the individual “moral awakening” that is a precondition to this kind of liberal social justice messianism (pp.185, 190). After so much bathos about the messianic in critical theory, Seekin’s restraint is not without a definite tonic. If there were every anything that in need of deflation it would be the messianic idea and all the enthusiasms to which it has been put.

The problems with this reasoned, disenchanted, deflated approach is that, historically, with this exception and that, including Maimonides, who perhaps had no genuine interest in the idea, the messianic is so unreasoning a figure that it’s unclear if a more rational approach can handle it, especially in relation to irredeemable evil and catastrophic suffering before which the moral status of human being has such trouble standing.

Here then is the problem of theodicy, in particular post-Holocaust theodicy. For Emil Fackenheim, Seeskin points out, human history can refute the moral dignity of the human being. His Platonic-Kantianism in opposition to Fackenheim’s broken Hegelianism,  Seeskin rejects this claim. His argument is that that there are things, namely ideas, that history cannot refute” and that this is precisely what lies behind the “resistance” upon which Fackenheim hoped to “mend the world,” this and the very simple idea from the book of Genesis that humanity was made in the image of God (p.167-8); this and by sheer dint of human will that history not repeat itself, which no historical datum, according to Seeskin, can ever refute.

But that’s fideism. With Fackenheim, I suppose I believe the image of God and the image of “man,” male and female created in God are much more fragile things than do Plato, Maimonides, and Kant. Seekin’s rationalism-idealism grounds down into a kind of unreasoning that refuses to expose itself to the falsification that history and human solidarity would seem to demand of philosophical consciousness and conscience. Messianism is rooted in the imaginary of biblical, midrashic, and liturgical source material, whereas the introduction of Kantian conceptual-moral frames struck me as off point. As for solidarity, Fackenheim was more sympathetic to the wilderness generation after the exodus from Egypt, their rebellion and their crying in the desert for water, especially for their children. For Seeskin, they represent nothing more than rebellion and the “despair,” as opposed to critical insight into history and the human predicament and a direct challenge to the belief in God and the messianic idea (p.7-15).


Because a messiah who does not come at the most profound moment of need counts as what? Maybe my problem is that I don’t think too much of messianism as a philosophical and political concept. It’s not clear why one might need this messiah business if  all messianism constitutes is the notion that redemption depends upon human will and act, constitutional democracy and perpetual peace. Why do we need such an inflationary and theological word for such a flat and deflationary thing? 

I understand the poetic-liturgical function of messianism, just not its philosophical one, because, when all is said and done, the messianic idea is “just” an image, and a philosophically foolish one at that. It’s the image that rivets the eye in the prophetic literature, especially as it appears liturgically in the closed off space of the synagogue, or on a Satruday night in a candle-lit Havadalah ceremony, or packed tight at the end of the Passover seder, at which point it becomes a figure sung by drunk people. As a picture, almost like a photograph,  you can pick it up and consider it, and use it to this effect and to that. Seeskin himself understands this. But he wants nothing of foolishness, whereas the very idea of “messiah” and “messianism” have almost always been used to provide the types of images that he wants to be rid of. The melting flesh of an enemy troop, the jingling bells of a horse, Jerusalem transfixed into a crystal city, lions and lambs, etc..

One understands very well that, for the most part, Seekin has very little interest in images, vision, and fantasy, especially as these tend to confuse the distinction between divine and human ends. And about this, I’m actually not willing to disagree. But let’s assume that maybe I’m right, and that the messianic is just a prophetic-midrashic-liturgical visionary image-work with almost no philosophical use value, at least not in terms of determinate propositional truth contents. A theory of messianism would have to account for its irreality. It actually has nothing to do with the world as we know it, qua history. For Seeskin, this invites idealism. But let’s also assume, instead, that its invocation represents the very “empty ritual” or groundless belief that Seeskin’s rationalism commits him to reject. This then would only enhance the status and power of messianism, as an image that is not just counter factual and also counter-rational.

Indeed, all these things like messiah, exile, and redemption have lost much of their “reality” today. One can say it, liturgically, without expecting it; and one can say one expects the coming of the messiah without really meaning it. Because that’s how irony works, even in religion, especially in religion.

Maybe the messianic idea represents the schlemiel figure par excellence in the history of Jewish thought. I’ve been reading a lot of Menachem Feuer over at his blog, The Home of Schlemiel Theory. He writes deeply about the schlemiel in relation to Benjamin, Kafka, Bloch, all the hot messianists for whom liberals like Seeskin and myself have no truck. But I’m finding the idea of the schlemiel theoretically infectious, particularly when drawn in relation to the messianic idea.

How else to explain Seeksin’s book, a serious book about a serious topic written by a serious man ends with a joke. It’s not a great joke, but it’s gentle and kind, like the author. If there are no signs with which we could distinguish and thereby know whether or not redemption has occurred, then how will we know when the messiah has come? Seekin “imagines” a world –and yes, we realize we have returned to the imagination at the end of this book of Platonic-Maimonidean-Kantian Jewish philosophical meditation. In this vision of the end time, all the lepers outside the city gate, one of whom, according to one rabbinic tradition, is actually the messiah, will have been cured; and all enchantment has been removed from the world, which is, perhaps itself an enchanting idea, and there is quick justice, and arrogance and chauvinism are now rare. So to whom then do we give the title of Messiah? Seeskin submits that “after all this” the question no longer matters. Asks Seeskin, Who’s the Messiah? “Anyone who wants it.” Seeskin then adds that “It is the job of Judaism to get the world to this point one step at a time. A tall order, but we claim to be the Chosen People” (pp.194-5). I now know that this is a joke, not necessarily a good joke, but a gentle one.

Who gets to be Messiah? Any schlemiel who wants it. That’s the punchline. At bottom, I’d resist Seeksin’s fundamental claim that rational religion is messianic and that messianism reflects moral teleology (p.78). I’m pretty sure that I would also resist the opening positioning of “our age” as being “an age of despair.” It’s a premise that stacks the deck in favor of messianic conclusions. But I think I’m with Jacob Neusner, whom Seeskin cites, that “Judaism” is more concerned with “sanctification” than with “salvation” (p.21). Against the grain of a lot of contemporary Jewish philosophy, this  would temporally orient Judaism into the present and less towards the future, more with the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud and less with biblical prophecy. Because with this much hindsight in the history of an idea, maybe it’s easier to understand that messianism is aesthetic, and maybe, after all is said and done, a schlemiel aesthetic at that.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin)

  1. dmfant says:

    have you read Caputo’s book on the weakness of God?

    • zjb says:

      yes, yes. there’s a lot in there that i like, but not so much the messianism to come.

      • dmfant says:

        I would be pleased if we left messianisms behind but if we must than I’ll take it to be beyond our grasp.
        I liked more his after-foucault hermeneutics of not-knowing.

  2. Pingback: A Response to Zachary Braiterman’s “Messianism, History, & Schlemiel Aesthetics (Kenneth Seeskin) | The Home of Schlemiel Theory

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