Not-Messianic (Jewish History)


Working on a chapter revolving on messianism (or rather non- or anti-messianism) as a topos of “philosophical Talmud,” I’m embarrassed to say that I’m coming late to Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History (1992). Edited by Mark Saperstein, the volume includes essays by Zvi Werblowsky, Eliezer Schweid, Morton Smith, Israel Friedlander, S.D. Goitein, Gerson Cohen, Salo Baron, Scholem (of course), Benzion Dinur, Arthur Green, Jacob Katz, David Biale, Jacob Taubes, and others. These are, indeed, essential papers without which one should not even think about approaching the subject.

I had been worried that these historical studies written by eminent scholars was going to put a sudden and rude damper on my own more skeptical ruminations, which I have based on what are undoubtedly idiosyncratic readings of the Bavli. As my luck would have it, the historians have only confirmed my doubts regarding the existence of messianism as a central or defining phenomenon in Jewish history and the history of Judaism, and how we should locate its position as a figure of religious thought and philosophical reflection.

How essential a feature is messianism to Judaism? Note that in this volume we are no longer talking about “the messianic idea,” the “messianic,” or “messianicity.” As explained by Saperstein in the excellent introduction he wrote, the volume for the most part ignores those poetic and theoretical speculations that appear in Jewish literary texts (biblical, rabbinic, liturgical, poetic, mystical) but which are devoid of practical actual social-political effects (p.1). In this volume, what counts as a messianic movement is one organized around a messiah, as charismatic figurehead and leader (p.4). What we learn from many if not all of the contributors is that the “appearance” of messianism is unevenly distributed historically and geographically. The critical conclusion is that We this appearance is not a consistent feature or essential component part of “Judaism” as such.

From Scholem, readers of contemporary Jewish philosophy know that messianism is non-normative, that messianism was rejected by traditional Jewish authorities particularly for the way it threatens political stability and nomian order (pp.5, 16). (This is an argument actually contested by Friedlander and Baron who point out that Persian Jewish messianic figures did not reject rabbinic law; pp.117-18, 173, 174). But more to the point is this self-reflexive moment when Saperstein admits that volumes such as this that are focused on a single theme will perforce distort the object of analysis by overemphasizing its centrality and importance in the larger cultural matrix in which it appears. While he concedes the possibility that messianism may well have been a popular phenomenon in the history of the Jews, the evidence would suggest otherwise. By and large, messianic movements after the Greco-Roman period were not mass movements, and indeed, Sapperstain notes, there were centuries without any documented messianic activity at all. The non-messianic in Judaism would seem to stand out as the standard norm.

At stake are epistemological questions. How do we know anything about messianism when the messianic would appear to be a virtually indiscernible phenomenon? Messianic movements flit into and out of view as episodic affairs, local and brief. About most messianic movements, we are reminded that they are known only through terse descriptions mentioned briefly by chroniclers and letter writers (pp.10, 16, 45). Given this non-appearance, messianism is not a clear object of analysis as much as it is an abstract or theoretical object of speculation (p.103). One can track the idea in literary sources while remaining unclear as to its historical impact.

One such speculation about messianism in Judaism relies on quasi-psychoanalytic theories of culture. This would be the claim that messianism represents a constant but latent energy that animates Judaism by feeding the eschatological hope of a beaten people or described in terms of ambient “overtones” and “undertones” that strike “responsive chords in the Jewish soul.” This is Werblowsky’s speculation, although he also understands that, in actuality, such movements were always doomed to fail (pp. 43-6, 50-1). The precise nature of the contradiction or tension between animation and failure (even catastrophic failure and disaster) goes unexplored in the literature, although perhaps it might have to do with fantasy and illusion.

The epistemological problem, of course, is that if the messianic is an indiscernible phenomenon in the history of Judaism, then it cannot be known. At best, it can only sensed, perhaps as a vague horizon of expectation or even an affect. As an invisible thing, however, one would be well to judge that theories regarding an abiding latent messianism animating the psychic and social life of the Jews are unfalsifiable. There’s no way to prove or disprove its existence, except by seeking out historical traces, which turn out to be only minimal. We can claim to detect in the outbreak of a modern political movements (e.g. Zionism, socialism) secular forms of messianism. But here too the evidence at hand is cursory at best; such identifications on discretely distinct historical phenomena and ideological super-structures are based on either the charisma of the scholarly interpreter or by loose inferences made possible by structural analogies (see Schweid, pp.61, 66, as well as the essay by Jacob Katz). In the end, these analogies between messianic movements and secular political movements ultimately rely upon mid 20th century modernization/secularization theories that have been since been discredited. One could posit the messianic as some kind of latent force, even though there’s too little manifest content to do so with any real assurance.

One could point to literary, especially liturgical sources as a way to buttress this kind of speculation regarding the central position of messianism in the history of Jewish ideas. But on what hermeneutical basis? Do ideas and images transpose into practical programs of action. Can one identify an expression with a formal semantic content? Must one mean what one says? Saperstein asks if praying three times a day for the coming of the Messiah predisposed Jews to embrace an individual who claimed to be the anointed messiah (p.17). Would a liturgical performance predispose an actor to this or that project of restorative or utopian justice? There’s reason for skepticism, assuming that a poetic expression does not always track neatly onto sematic beliefs and practical programs of action. As Saperstein reminds us, Zionists accused traditional Jews of praying for the Messiah to come while remaining indisposed to leave the Diaspora, suspecting that there might be a kernel of truth to this polemical exaggeration (p.17). I would put it this way. Perhaps, after all, prayer has nothing directly to do with semantic content; one can pray three times without it “meaning” anything at all.

A look at the historical sources, because they are so local, does much to dissolve the figure of the messiah as a clear and orienting point in Judaism.

As historical movements, one can locate them with relative ease. There are basically four historical junctures:

[1] The messianic tradition is originally shaped by biblical traditions (images) of anointed kingship, the figure of the family redeemer who extends protection over his dependents, the righteous judge whose judgments are just, and, finally, the cosmic and supernatural messiah (Schweid; pp.55-60)

[2] The reappearance of these traditions-figures during the Greco-Roman period when messianic figures emerged from a social milieu determined by bandits, teachers, lunatics, and magicians (Smith, pp.73-80). As noted by Richard Horsley, mentions of the messiah and son of David are “remarkably infrequent” prior to the first century of the common era. Horsley posits the combination in Roman Judea of a “great tradition” of scribal, pietistic, and pharisaic circles and the little tradition” of the illiterate classes forming around popular kings who lead the people in their fight against the illegitimate rule represented by Herod and Rome.

[3] Essays by Friedlander, Baron, and Cohen locate the appearance of minor messianic movements as ripple effects of the multiple religious and political currents in early Islam, the rise of sectarianism around the time of the collapse of the Ummayad caliphate, and then especially Shi’ite messianism (with which Jewish messianism shares many features, inter alia, the idea of the messiah’s return, the idea of the one true prophet, successive incarnation, the politicization of messianism, the appearance of messianic forerunners, and so on. From the wild east of the Abbasid empire, Persian Jewish messianic movements were removed from the influence exercised by rabbinic centers of learning and from the authority of geonim and exilarchs.

[4] Messianic movements appear in a Spanish and North African milieu defined by rationalism, not by apocalypticism. Spanish Jews, in particular, sought to predict the coming of the messiah based on astrological calculations, a confidence that the coming of the messianic age was based on the harmonious movement of stars and planets, committed by the Creator to the immutable laws of nature; the coming of the messiah was seen to be part of the natural order. This was not the religion of the oppressed, as much as nativistic pride in genealogical purity picked up from Babylonian sources. Spanish messianic activity, it is speculated, built on the success of Spanish Jewish viziers, and the revival of Hebrew, all of which whetted appetite for power and the restoration of Zion (p.222). The glimmer of messianic activity in the 12th century occurs only under Islamic cultural ambit stretching from Spain, across North Africa to Baghdad, Palestine, and Yemen.

It turns out that Jewish messianism is a largely Greco-Islamic phenomenon, and a curious and wayward one at that. From Friedlander, Baron, and Cohen, we are given to understand that the appearance of messianic movements was not an Ashkenazi phenomenon. Cohen makes this explicit, stating that, between 1065 and 1492, there was not a “single, unequivocal instance” among Franco-German Jews of messianic revolt. There is no messianic movement in Europe until the beginning of the 16th century and even that one Cohen calls “obscure and short-lived, with traces of Sephardic influence, leaving no original messianic literature. All of this Cohen calls a “startling phenomenon.”  Cohen chalks this up to Ashkenazi “quiescence and passivity,” faith in a free, omnipotent, and inscrutable God not subject to nature, the tranquilizing effect of apocalyptic and mystical ascent literature, and the proclivity for martyrdom as an atoning act of sacrifice combined with certainty in God’s just and vindicating power (pp.216, 219, 222, 223-5).

The upshot would be that Jewish messianism is a fantasy structure with relatively little historical impact. With the exceptions of the early Christian movement, the Bar Kochbah revolt, and Shabbtai Zevi, what is on hand is a small group of pretenders and a handful of followers leaving few extant writings (pp.24ff). What one observes instead is how that messianism was channeled by the rabbis into visionary fantasy and commemorative ritual (p.203); or perhaps later into the beautiful tales of Rabbi Nahman, even though these end in failure and tears (422-5). Once again, there is no getting past Scholem, who understood like no other this “uninhibited” fantasy aspect in Jewish religion and intellectual history (see especially p.296), although the actual effect remains unclear up until the emergence of religious Zionism after the 1967 and 1973 wars in Israel. Historically, the messianic idea along with messianic movements came to nothing, and explains nothing. In Judaism, there is no actual messianic event structure per se. As a figure of thought or historical moment, messianism appears here and then there. The power that it enjoys is the power of the virtual.

What’s left is almost just barely a phenomenon. Messianism is an idea, and image, the echo of this or that theo-political figment and failure from a long time ago and then crystallized in Jewish liturgy. The appearance of messianism in nineteenth century Germany as a figure of thought was something of an accident, in large part the responsibility of liberal historians whose writings are suffused with strong predilections for “oriental” literature and poetry.

The messianic character of Zionism would be the only outstanding question mitigating if not refuting entirely the takeaway I am seeking to grab from Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personalities in Jewish History. There is, of course, an enormous literature on Zionism and messianism. In peculiar way, classical Zionist historiography (represented in Saperstein’s volume by Schweid, Werblowsky, Katz, Morgenstern, Tal, and Kellner) and anti-Zionist writing have both made it a point to set Zionism in synch with Jewish messianism. In doing this, Zionist historiographers create a usable tradition linking modern Zionism (a nationalist movement) with a centuries old religious tradition meant to establish the people of Israel in the Land of Israel. For their part, it would seem that the intent of anti-Zionist writers is to associate in a critical way Zionism with an unreasoning eruption of atavistic and racist religion, secularism, liberalism, socialism, and the like. Lending proof to the connection between Zionism and messianism are the writings of Abraham Isaac and Zvi Yehudah Kook, the domination of religious Zionism by messianism after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and what seems to be the domination of the State of Israel today by the settler movement. In contemporary Israel, messianism, it is safe to say, has not been neutralized, at least not yet.

Katz’s essay, “Israel and the Messiah” is indicative of so much confusion surrounding this argument. It suggests a kind of structuralism, presuming that messianism is built into the mental DNA of the Jewish people. He menions “a residue” of former national existence maintained through constant reading of the Bible that provided “oundless energy” to Zionism (pp.477, 489). Appealing to “popular sentiments” and “the popular imagination,” Katz maintains that “ideal” of messianism is “deeply ingrained” in “the Jewish mentality” (pp.486, 487, 479). He presumes that Zionist settlement in the economic backwater of Ottoman Palestine was an “irrational act” lacking “logical consistency” (p.484). None of these kinds of claims lend themselves to empirical verification or falsification.

It would have been simpler to say that statements and beliefs about messianism and Israel are part of the systems of Judaism. Throughout most of Jewish history after the Bar Kochba revolt, messianism was a structural element that was largely neutralized. That secular Zionists, especially under the influence of neo-romanticism and Russian utopianism in the 1890s and early 1900s, drew poetic idiom from a rich reservoir of messianic expression does nothing to establish the subterranean messianic undertones of Zionism as a political movement. If anything, it was the success of Zionism as a political movement in 1948 and 1967 to acquire, maintain, and expand territorial possession that lent itself to attempts by religious actors to realize all kinds of what Scholem called “uninhibited fantasy.” Attempts since 1973 to fuse politics and religion only make Jewish messianism all the more fantastical, not less so. Unless one wants to entertain essentialist beliefs about latent psychic energies and religious and cultural DNA, one would be more correct in concluding that the appearance of messianism today in contemporary Israel is itself a contingent phenomenon of profound historical accident. It remains to be seen if it will be enflamed or neutralized by responsible political authorities, representatives of the religious establishment, and members of the broader public.


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.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply