Jacob Neusner’s Messiah in Context: Israel’s History and Destiny in Formative Judaism should sheds a lot of critical light on the question of messianism that should be of cutting interest to anyone who works in the fields of modern Jewish thought and continental philosophy. About the rabbinic tradition, this assiduous study belongs on the shelf alongside the essays collected in Gershom Scholem’s classic The Messianic Idea in Judaism as well as those in Essential Papers on Messianic Movements and Personages in Jewish History, edited by Marc Saperstein. Messiah in Context goes hard against the grain of the tradition of modern Jewish thought and continental philosophy that have placed a premium on messianism. Indeed, I don’t know what should bother Jewish thinkers and philosophers more, either the substance of the claim argued in Messiah in Context or the possibility that they have been duped, not by Scholem, but by the messianic idea itself. Our starting point is this very blunt assertion. As read through the canon of rabbinic literature, Neusner’s critical conclusion is that Judaism is not a messianic religion (pp.1, 17ff, 231).
To the best of my knowledge, Messiah in Context has gone unobserved much less remarked upon in the modern Jewish thought literature, much less in continental philosophy where messianism (the messianic, messianicity) is a pop-up character in works by Benjamin, Levinas, Derrida, and Agamben. The absence of Neusner from any of these discussions should not be too surprising. The basic studies on messianism indicate that most contributors reflecting on Jewish messianism omit the rabbinic sources, which, it must be stated, evince little to no enthusiasm for messianism. Levinas is an exception but the sources come out arguably mangled in his readings of messianic texts. About all this, I have already raised similar sets of questions in previous posts here at the blog (one on Saperstein’s edited volume, the other on Rethinking the Messianic Idea in Judaism, edited by Morgan and Weitzman). Adding to the line of questioning that I have sought to pursue, Neusner’s study puts a serious damper on claims that messianism represents a basic and central structure in the phenomenology of Jewish thought, history, and culture.
The key conceptual opposition underlying Neusner’s structural analysis of messianism in the rabbinic tradition is the one between “sanctification” and “salvation.” The argument is that rabbinic sources (Mishnah, Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud, Midrash Rabbah anthologies, and Babylonian Talmud) are invested primarily in the former, not the latter. While the two figures intersect in interesting ways, the base structure to Neusner’s speculation is simple. Messianism is to salvation as law and system are to sanctification. Salvation refers to “the historical-messianic way, stressing the intrinsic weight of events and concentrating upon their weight and meaning.” In contrast, sanctification, especially in the Mishnah, is “the meta-historical scribal-priestly-rabbinic way, which emphasized…the construction of an eternal, changeless mode of being, capable of riding out the waves of history.” In what might seem like a contradiction, priests and sages turn inward, toward the concrete everyday life of the community (or, one might add, to some semblance thereof). The concern of the sages are domestic, relating to “home and hearth, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, the village and enduring patterns of life within it.” Opposed to this, the messianic-apocalyptic is turned outward to state and national affairs (i.e. to what we might say is the life and death of empire in relation to the destiny of Israel). As understood by Neusner, at issue ontologically for priest and rabbi is “being,” whereas “becoming” is the order of prophecy and messianism (pp.13-14).
Confusing what could have been an otherwise sharp binary opposition is that Neusner continues to postulate that, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE, rabbinic Judaism fused the function of priest, sage, and messianist into an amalgam of “messianic hope and holy way of life” (pp.14-16). This garbles the opening line of thought in the book’s preface, which on second look –namely confusing somewhat the negative answer to the question as to whether or not Judaism is “a messianic religion.” Neusner’s own diction is confusing. His answer to that basic question is, at one and the same, “a qualified negative” and a “flat no” (p.1; emphases added). By confusing I mean to say that the negative answer should have to be either qualified or flat. It cannot be both.
What this confusion does not dispel is the near certainty with which Neusner presents the data as they appear in the rabbinic sources themselves, which seem to be non-messianic if not actually anti-messianic. Neusner asserts polemically that the messianic idea never existed in the composite form other than that of the “imagined Israel” and “made-up Judaism” of modern scholars like Scholem and Joseph Klausner. Reading Neusner closely, the actual resolution to this confusion is probably to follow his speculation that the rabbis had no choice but to neutralize by incorporating and co-opting popular folk beliefs regarding the messiah under their own intellectual and cultural rubrics (p.227-30). The idea of salvation is maintained while being made by the rabbis to depend upon a prior act of sanctification (pp.215, 230).
Here are my quick takeaways about the textual strata and mass of data as surveyed “in context.”
The Mishnah represents, in Neusner’s scheme, the original and in most ways determining document of formative Judaism. Of primary interest to the framers of the Mishnah is the system of law itself. Messianism is not a major preoccupation for a system that is represented as already complete and perfect. In this metahistorical view of the world, the “life of Israel” is “lived above and beyond time,” indeed, “on eternal waves of nature and supernature” (p.205). The messiah in the Mishnah is either an “anointed priest.” Insofar as the messiah is mentioned as “anointed savior,” the references are casual and “merely factual,” by which I think Neusner means without much interest or excitement (pp.25-6). In a discussion of the messiah in m.Sotah 9:9-15, Neusner notes that source places emphasis upon common virtues, not upon the messiah himself, whose coming is associated with grim tidings (crop failure, war, heresy, licentiousness, desolation, the collapse of rabbinic authority) (29). Any discussion of history relates to lager patterns, not to specific events and persons.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, the Messiah, and with him an interest in history, enters into the system as a specific person (90). The main them of the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerusalmi) is the power of the rabbis. The Yerushalmi thus deflects the Mishnah’s focus on priest and Temple onto the rabbi and rabbinic circles. In this way, the Yerushalmi combines the stasis of the Mishnah with attention to the historical suffering of Israel, incorporating the messiah into the mishnaind c system (81-5). The Yerushalmi affirms belief in the coming of a personal messiah. There are stories about David and about the messiah’s birth (y. Berachot2:4), and also about R. Akiva and Bar Kochba (y. Taanit 4:5) The interest in history is from viewpoint of Israel, but while Neusner does not say this explicitly, his readings suggest that the messiah stories in the Yerushalmi always end in disaster, in particular the well-known story relating to Akiva’s misbegotten support of Bar Kochbah. (y. Taanit 4:5). It turns out that the coming of the messiah depends upon repentence and observing law, that the messiah will come only if Israel wants the messiah to come, for instance, by keeping a single Shabbat (y.Taanit 1:1) (113-2). In the end, however, it is the miracle miracle-working supernatural rabbi, with his power over individual life and the natural world who supplants the messiah. They are the ones, not the messiah, who save Israel (pp.126-30).
The world view of the Midrash compilations is Torah-centric. In his review of the early tanaitic midrashim even those Scriptural texts that would require a messianic interpretation (having to do with future apocalyptic curses and the like in Lev. 26 and Deut 32) are read according to their own primary interest in Torah study and the observance of mitzvoth (p.133). The nearly one hundred references to the messiah in Sifra refer to anointed priests, not to a savior at end of days. The amoraic midrash collections (the ones examined here belonging to the Midrash Rabbah set) show interest in history and the oppression of Israel, for instance in Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah. They speak to the passive acceptance of gentile rule as that virtue which will lead to the coming of the messiah. According to Neusner, one finds these themes especially in Lamentation Rabbah, Song of Songs Rabbah, Esther Rabbah, and Ruth Rabbah. But note. In his summation to the chapter dedicated to midrash, Neusner notes that the messiah was never at the center of these compilations whose “exegetical fulcrum” is Israel. He claims further that messiah is not the pivotal force in a history shadowed by the defeat and suffering of Israel. Instead, the messiah and other related figures are part of an “undifferentiated background of ideas” (158, 163).
The Bablyonian Talmud collects and resorts previous rabbinic teachings, including those concerning the messiah in the Yerushalmi and midrash collections. Among these are miscellaneous teachings about the messiah with no systematic function; these would be ad hoc statements, mentioned almost in an offhand way, of “isolated facts, expressive of little beyond themselves” (pp.187-191). In addition to these, Neusner identifies a coherent understanding of a messianic program, which includes, in this order, the ingathering of exiles, the establishment of a righteous government and the punishment of sinners, the exalting of the righteous in rebuilt Jerusalem, the return of David and the restoration of the Temple (b. Megillah 17b) (pp.182-3). The program sets its political task as the freeing of Israel from gentile rule and instituting a peaceful world-order (p.181). But the basic paradox of the messianic program in the Bavli is one in which humility undermines political power. The paradox lies in the assertion that Israel has the power to shape its destiny only by giving up belief that it can save itself by shaping its own destiny (pp.184, 210ff).
The messianic plays will have played only a limited, instrumental function in the Bavli, whose key focus is the Torah system itself. That is the nutshell of Neusner’s argument that the messiah does less to transform the reality of Israel, but to keep things as they are, re-enforcing the larger program of Torah study and mitzvot (p.177). Examples include all those formulaic passages in the Babyonian Talmud where the fall of Jerusalem and the coming of the messiah are seen as dependent upon the non-observance or observance of a single particular mitzvah (e.g. Shabbat) or upon the widespread existence of this or that moral vice or virtue (e.g. impudence or humility). (pp. 177, 200ff). The messiah is thus subordinate to a system which is meant to endure (p.177). Even the interest in apocalypse (chiefly, the apocalyptic fall of Rome and Persia) is subordinated to the value of Torah and Torah study. Again, Neusner is alert to paradox. “History in the end is made by people who study Torah. But the one thing you do not do when you study Torah is make history.”
Instead of introducing change, Torah study in the Bavli preserves the creation of the timeless, eternal order established in the Mishnah (206). In a complex interchange, the Bavli remakes the Mishnah’s system by introducing the history and eschatology rejected in the Mishnah, even as the Bavli modifies the messiah myth by reframing it into the “philosophical mode” of the Mishnah’s own static ontology. Impervious to historical rupture, Torah retains its status as an enduring pattern of holiness in “the here-and-now-of-everyday-life.” Messianic salvation remains subordinate to the sanctification of Israel through Torah, which can now accommodate “an ongoing social and psychological reality: the presence of terror, the foreboding of doom, and Israel’s ironclad faith in the God who saves.” The difference is between “doing” and “being.” “Israel could do absolutely nothing. But Israel could be –become—holy,” thereby by making itself worthy of “God’s sudden intervention, the institution of God’s rule through King-Messiah.” The bottom line and concluding words of the main body of Messiah in Context is that Judaism makes use of messianism to make its own “statement” without itself being a messianic religion (pp.230-1, emphases added)
Pouring through an enormous mass of conflicting data, the one major inconsistency in Neusner’s approach concerns the relation between system and teleology. Here and there, Neusner suggests that the system points to the consummation represented by the messiah (pp.2, 3). To be more precise, that would mean that the system of sanctification points to the salvation promised by the messiah. At one point, it is even suggested that the messiah is a moving force of theological thought in the Bavli (p.229). The problem is that such assertions make it sound like Judaism is a messianic religion, which runs counter to Neusner’s own basic thesis. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot claim that the Messiah is subordinate to the system while also claiming that the messiah is the teleological meaning of the system.
All of this confusion should have been unnecessary. On the basis of Neuesner’s own review of the data, it would be more exact to say that the messiah is just one piece of the mental furniture of the Bavli and the Jewish tradition as a whole. Neusner’s study suggests to us that the idea of the messiah functions as a placeholder, an instrumental figure with which to buttress the experience of sanctification that is the primary concern of the rabbinic system starting with the Mishnah and including the Bavli. A part of a tradition based in Scripture and popular folk belief, the Babylonian rabbis had to include the messiah in the system if only to neutralize it (cf. p.228). One nevertheless comes away with the suspicion that Neusner’s analysis is not sufficiently structuralist, despite his own use of binary structures and taxa. Insisting on a teleology misses the point in systems theory that the meaning of a system is auto-telic, immanent to the system itself.
While confused perhaps by system and teleology, what Neusner catches quite clearly is the overriding importance of “design” in the structuring of rabbinic modes of thought. I’m reading here his otherwise anodyne assertion that the Bavli is primarily concerned with the problem of “how to design the life of Israel” (p.199). What indeed is design? What component parts go into design? Specifically, how does the messiah fit into the design of this system or composition? Using terminology drawn from Religious Studies, Neusner’s preferred term is “the messiah myth.” But putting the messiah in context would be to understand that the messiah myth is itself a figure. It would be to grasp the aesthetic structure of Neusner’s own analysis when he notes that the messiah does not belong at the forefront in the rabbinic thinking established in the Mishnah. Instead, the messiah “forms part of the inherited, but essentially undifferentiated, background of factual materials” (p.30). What matters is the pattern of living, impervious to change, capable of riding out and absorbing the frisson of historical catastrophe (pp.13, 34-7). The Messiah, as introduced by Neusner in his examination of the amoraic sources, is something of a blank screen onto which members of a given community can project its own concerns (p.xl). Mentioned not infrequently here and there, the messiah is not the subject of a single tractate and the object of only one sustained analysis in the Bavli. As such, the messiah is marginal, not central, to the backdrop design of the system (p.159).
An exception to this general rule relegating the messiah to background pattern is one single rabbinic work, Pesikta de Rav Kahana. About this text, Neusner maintains that messianic eschatology is both “prevailing and dominant” (Piska 5 and 6). In this text, the figure of the messiah is attended by none of the doom and gloom surrounding it in the Bavli. Drawing from a rich “filigree of verses” from the biblical Song of Songs, the messiah is associated with such cheerful tidings as the celebration of spring. God is shown wearing white garments of forgiveness for Israel, red garments of judgement against the nations, garments of righteousness and streaming splendor. There is an eye for art here. In Neusner’s estimation, the messiah theme in this text is “fresh and original because of its aesthetic force.” In my view not unrelated to art, Neusner notes further how the place of the utterance has been essentially transformed. The messiah statement no longer belongs to the house of study. Its place is rather in the synagogue, meaning that the messiah is an aesthetic-poetic-liturgical figure, not a theoretical one, much less a practically political one (pp.155-7). There is also the place of the messiah in the Siddur, the book of Jewish prayer, a non-rabbinic text that Neusner notes is “saturated through and through” with the “raw hope” of messianic expectation and “simple and compelling petitions” (p.235).
The takeaway for Jewish philosophy is this. Neusner’s reading of the aesthetic freshness of the messiah myth in Pesikta de Rav Kahana and its raw expression in the Siddur are part of his attention to patterns and design. Taken together, they highlight the scholar’s overarching sensitivity to fantasy. Writing about the Mishnah as whole, he describes it as “work of imagination –using bits and pieces of facts, to be sure – made up in the minds of [its] framers.” This description of the Mishnah speaks just as well to the particular figure of the messiah as it appears in the tradition in its entirety. As a figure, the messiah is a work of the religious imagination pieced out of fragmentary mental bits. Going to school with Neusner, Jewish and continental philosophers might come to see the messiah not so much as a political or ethical figure, but rather as an object either unreal or sur-real, relating to the “realm of made-up memories, artificial dreams, hopes, and yearnings,” a “[totally fantastic fantasy]” (p.24).
The messiah is a difficult figure to “place” in the history of Jewish religion and intellectual history starting with the rabbis. In the study house of the Bavli, it is an ambivalent figure. On one hand the messiah anticipates the end to the oppression of Israel under gentile empire and the promise of glad tidings. It serves as a buttress to the rabbinic system of Torah, Torah study, the observance of mitzvoth, and rabbinic authority. On the other hand, the most sustained discussion in the Bavli more than suggests that the coming of the messiah threatens with terrible troubles the very system or pattern established by the rabbis with such devotion. In the study house, the messianic age is something that the rabbis might rather not want to live to see. There is no such ambivalence in the synagogue, in which the messiah is given a much brighter mark.
What is the relation between the theoretical thought and prayer as it relates to the figure of the messiah? In the Siddur and High Holiday Mahzor, the messiah belongs to a poetic idiom. It is sung, not said. As a poetic figure, the messiah rivets the imagination of the congregation and binds it up together. It provides a peek into a better future, which it casts in bright light and colors. The messiah would be one figure among others, a little piece of nature and supernature placing the congregation one foot out of this world. As poetry, one can sing the radiant world promised by the messiah without meaning anything beyond its status as sheer expression. Reflecting virtual worlds, liturgy (represented by prayer) and theoretical thought (represented by the Bavli) are both in tension with actual life. But the split between the virtual and the actual is intensified by a further disjoint between the faith expressed in prayer and the intellectualism or skepticism on evidence in the Babylonian Talmud. More so than the Siddur, about the messiah the Bavli simply knows better.