Rethinking Jewish Messianism


What is one to conclude about Jewish messianism on the basis of Rethinking the Messianic Idea in Judaism? An edited volume, the chapters are based on the proceedings from a working group run out of the Tikvah Fund over a course of three meetings between 2009-2011. Included are essays by editors Michael Morgan and Steven Weitzman, as well as contributions by Annette Reed, Kenneth Seeskin, Menachem Kellner, Mat Goldish, Benjamin Pollock, Shai Held, Shaul Magid, Emily Kopley, Martin Kavka, and others. While individually the essays are all more or less excellent, a critical reader might very well suspect that, as a whole, the volume does not add up. The fault lies with no single contributor nor with the work of the editors in their attempt to rethink the concept. The problem is with the messianic idea itself. A theological and political category, messianism lends itself necessarily to contradiction.

The first point to note is that the volume throws its reader into the world of ideas, not things. While the essays reflect primarily a mix of history and philosophy, the volume very obviously privileges the latter. The history is meant to support an idea-project. To what kind of philosophical work is the messianic idea being put? Surely political, having to do in a general way with “[moving] Jews to contribute to the redemption of the world and history” (p.4). Above all, the reader is invited to consider the “plausibility” of the concept from theoretical and prosaic perspectives. Based, however, on what might very well be an implausible idea (i.e. messianism) that the reader is supposed to take plausible, the volume deconstructs, almost by necessity. Indeed, many of the contributors themselves lend to the demolition of the concept that stands at the book’s center. Underscored is that, as a phenomenon in the history of Judaism, the messianic idea, which starts with such heady political and theological promise, ends up as a farce that no amount of rethinking can undo.

As per the introduction, Rethinking the Messianic Idea in Judaism understands itself as a critical move beyond Scholem’s theses about messianism. It would seem that Scholem’s analysis is put away as a stage or episode that might, at best, open out new interests and problems for readers today (p.2). No doubt, the anti-essentialist argument proposed in the introduction is, in part, an argument against Scholem’s perhaps most important contention that messianism is essentially a theory of catastrophe. Instead of the apocalyptic, we are asked to consider messianism in terms of edifying philosophical topoi such as “the meaning of history,” “the good life,” “the here and now.” Lost from view is the problem of evil and the demonic, upset and suffering, fantasy and failure that were so important to Scholem’s deliberations. For all that, the very essentialism ostensibly rejected in the introduction is re-inscribed by the confident assertion, made also in the introduction, that “common” to all messianisms are commitments to optimism, hope, possibility, perfection, and grounds for moral and social repair by way of “linking redemption to an absolute source” (p.5).

In this vein, rethinking the messianic idea is conceived as a commitment to a conservative project, one which, by the way, is out of step with Scholem’s own anarchism. From Scholem we would have already known that which the introduction seems to occlude, that the messianic is a desperate gambit and a dangerous idea. But there is another possibility as well. To re-read an older anthology of essays, Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History (1992) edited by Marc Saperstein, is to begin to understand that messianism remains a limited and isolated political phenomenon in Jewish history. Far from being an essential structure in the phenomenology of Judaism, it does no practical philosophical work. Politically, it has contributed nothing per se to making the world a better place. About Saperstein’s collection I’ll say more in a separate post. But for now, considered this way, one might begin to suspect that the messianic idea –assuming that the messianic idea is not, actually, a major political leitmotif in Jewish thought and culture—does nothing at all!

Regarding this more recent collection of essays, what goes almost entirely missing are three kinds of kinds of skepticism about the subject at hand; insofar as skepticism does appears one might have wished to see more.

The first skepticism would be the one just mentioned. Is the messianic idea a central determining force in Jewish political history or in the history of Jewish ideas? Insofar as the idea appears in Judaism, is its structural function political or poetic? Even if we grant the overlap between politics and poetry, which is the primary function at work in messianism? Is messianism a concept around which Jewish ideas and life are organized and pressured on a consistent basis? Does it form an active horizon of historical and political expectation? Does it energize and animate Jewish consciousness, even as a latent, subterranean power? Or is it there, off to the side, as perhaps an ornamental device? Is its figure virtual? Is there not, in fact, Judaism without actual messianic hope?

A second and related skepticism is that of the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud. This skepticism goes entirely unmentioned in this volume (even in Morgan’s essay on Levinas’s reading of messianic texts in tractate Sanhedrin). The cross-eyed and ultimately rewarding tonic provided by Neusner in Messiah in Context his own 1984 study of the messianic idea in rabbinic sources is referred to only once and in passing (by Magid on p.335). More to the point, the notion that the rabbis reject messianism goes unobserved as is Neusner’s contention that the Judaism of the rabbis is not messianic religion. (On Neusner, more later)

A third skepticism represents a critically important, but minor note included in this study, namely the one regarding philosophy and Jewish philosophy. This would be the argument by Weitzman that a de-personalized, abstract philosophical messianism is not very good at producing stories (pp.82-3), or what Goldish maintains is the inability of Jewish philosophy to take into account “the realm of human imperfections in the annals of our people” and other “more sobering realities on the ground” (p.171) such as those that come with the subversion of conventional moral norms based on a false sense of certainty (p.157).

The move most basic to philosophical appropriations of messianism (on evidence here in this volume) is to treat the messianic as a concept which is universalizable as such. But what if the messianic is at bottom stubbornly particularistic, a thought-image or figure more than it is a concept? Any philosophical embrace of messianism would then have to be defined as an absurdity, if not a contradiction, before it is out of the gate. Some examples: Pollock notes the question of fanaticism as raised by Rosenzweig only to proceed to ignore the actual problem of fanaticism in Rosenzweig’s use of the messianic, i.e. as a figure from the future, drawn from the past, that already stands to be realized by bursting into the present, always possibly now at the very next moment (pp.180-3). Kellner understands that Maimonides contributed to the kind of messianism that now looms as a threat over the State of Israel, while turning to Maimonidean messianism to make things right. With Levinas, Morgan ignores the more thoroughgoing doubts of the rabbis about the horrible messianic tribulations that the rabbis definitely do not want to live to see. What Held holds out as a better form of religious Zionism turns out to be secular, not religious (p.247). Jewish philosophy does not take catastrophe to heart, which is a point raised but then neglected by Kavka, for whom the “catastrophic” is skepticism (a person says, “No,” or “I doubt that very much –let me show you how the text can be read differently”), not the acute suffering that is the constant attendant of wide-scale social disruption (p.414).

What saves Rethinking the Messianic Idea in Judaism from these kinds of gyrations and what makes the volume worth reading are those realizations expressed in the volume that go against the grain of the surface optimism regarding messianism. From such deconstrutive moments there is much to learn about messianism as a concept. For instance, Seeskin’s observation that Maimonidean messianism is powerless means that the messianic has no serious political function (p.104). Noting that “ethical breaches” are “a common part of Jewish messianism,” Goldish is right to suggest that the idea of an unethical messiah is paradoxical; and even more correct to suggest that such an idea is “farcical.” For her part, Kopely more than implies that as a literary figure, given its sprawling theme, the messiah is always bound to “[fall] flat on its face (p.392). And while Magid, in his own work as a whole, is always alert to the power of heresy, to the blurring of the difference between the divine and the human in the Jewish mystical tradition, he remarks that what we’re left with in modern day contemporary American Habad Hasidism is a complete banalization of the messianic idea; people can sing “We want Moshiach now,” and it means absolutely nothing, caring more about “meaningful lives” in America, and not a wit about the occluded status of the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson; radicalizing Scholem’s thesis, Magid winks, that the messianic, as an expressive figure, has been normalized, not just neutralized.

Is there any way to rethink messianism without the witty bite of irony brought by Scholem to its study? Why would one want to? By the end of Rethinking the Messianic Idea in Judaism, messianism has done none of the foundational work in politics, ethics, and religion with which it was tasked in the introduction. What is left? Messianism is a mess of a figure; it’s not even a concept, not plausible at all, an episodic historical curiosity, a pseudo-political, pseudo-ethical, pseudo philosophical poetical-fantasy object. To rethink messianism along those lines as imagistic in character would be to pick up and re-assemble the various pieces left to us by Scholem.

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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