The Political Messianic Idea Is An Incoherent Mess (Joseph Klausner)


Going in, I thought that reading Joseph Klausner’s The Messianic Idea in Israel from Its Beginning to the Completion of the Mishnah would be just a professional chore, a look at an antiquarian piece of ideological historiography. An oddball of a book, it was composed in three parts, each originally published in Germany under separate cover. Part one is devoted to the messianic idea in the period of the prophets (1909), part two to the messianic idea in the books of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (1921); part three, which was actually the first published, explores the messianic idea during the tannaitic period (1902). To complicate the bibliographical confusion, the text I’m reading is the English translation of the third Hebrew edition, published in 1955 by W.F. Stinespring, professor of Old Testament from Duke University. Working through this composite text, I have neither the time nor interest and intention to track down discrepancies between the German language originals and the Hebrew translation.

What Klausner calls “the messianic idea” is a mess of an idea.

Obvious from the very start was the Zionist historiography. This is Klausner attempting to establish a structural continuity linking the messianic idea and contemporary Zionism in order for him to claim that Zionism inherits the messianic idea. With conscious nods to Lebensphilosophie, one expression of this Zionism was the privilege accorded by Klausner to the biblical, Second Temple, and tanaitic sources. This point is to connect the messianic idea with the lived reality of the Jews at home in their own land. At one interesting moment in his introduction to his study of the tanaim, Klausner goes so far as to ascribe an earthy aroma (citing Hugo Gressman, “the odor of the soil of Palestine”) and the “freshness” of soil to the messianic idea (p.389). As for the Babylonian amoriam, Klausner attributes their pessimism regrading the messianic idea not to any superior or worldly wisdom that they might have cultivated, but to their alienation from native ground.

What I did not expect to find in Klausner’s study was the very early articulation of what is today called “political theology.” It stems from Klausner’s own ideological commitments to a form of liberal nationalism. Long before the idea came in vogue in contemporary critical theory and critical religious studies, this is the basic contention that the messianic idea in Judaism (as opposed to in Christianity) is a construct of both political-material-national and by spiritual-ethical-universal component parts. Anticipating presumptions made by scholars at work today in political theology, Klausner admits no separation between religion and society, or between religion and politics. In his view, what counts as the “original” messianic impulse in Judaism is the political. In his discussion of the tanaim prior to the Hadrianic persecutions, his estimation of this putatively original political meaning stands opposed to the dislike for what he sees as the transformation by the amoraim of the messianic idea into something unworldly and merely spiritual about which the amoraim are themselves deeply skeptical and pessimistic.

As a Zionist, Klausner held the amoraic material as “unoriginal” precisely because, alienated from the cradle of its own land, it had lost its political edge. To borrow the term used by Max Nordau during the same time and place when Klausner was writing, the amoraic material could said to have been said by Klausner to be “degenerate.”  This antipathy towards the amoraim comes as no surprise for a scholar writing in the German Zionist milieu at the fin de siècle. One thinks not only of Nordau, but also of the early Martin Buber. One could not but expect the privileging of the prophetic models of religion and religiosity over against a putatively abstract “law.” Alongside ethical monotheism, ethics, and prophecy, Klausner identifies messianism as the fourth gift of the Jews to the world, “the most glistening jewel in the glorious crown of Judaism!” (pp.13-15, 20, 25; cf. p.531).

What I would like to observe is how political messianism deconstructs in Klausner’s own analysis of it. He himself is the one to suggest that, long before the amoraim, the messianic idea will have already crashed and burned in precisely those materials where one would have expected to find its expression to be at its most fresh and original –i.e. already in the biblical-prophetic material.

Here are three basic points that confuse the messianic idea:

[1] The first point of confusion about Klausner’s approach to the material in the prophetic writings concerns the basic definition of the term “messianism.” In many of the prophetic texts, for instance in an early prophetic work such as Amos, hope is held out for redemption, understood as the desire to be free from the oppressive rule of foreign enemies. What is complicating is that this hope is without mention of an individual messiah at all (pp. 34, 44). This same feature comes up again in the appendix to the English translation, an essay “The Jewish and the Christian Messiah.” Klausner understands that, in Judaism, redemption can be conceived without an individual messiah (p.529). It is a claim that might confirm the same thematization in Levinas, Derrida, and others: messianism without a messiah, “messianicity without messianism.”

But the notion is incoherent. Klausner notes that, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “messiah” does not designate the redeemer of Israel.  He himself states that messianism (which I would understand narrowly and precisely as the idea that the redemption of the people ultimately depends upon a messiah) is a post-biblical idea, dating onward from the second century BCE. In the Hebrew Bible, according to Klausner, only God redeems (pp.8- 9, 458). This is no little matter. In Judaism, God is not the messiah and the messiah not God. Strictly speaking, then, there should be no messianism, no messianic salvation, without a messiah. There is certainly no reason to use the term as a political keyword, at not least in Jewish philosophy.

[2] A more serious incoherence stemming from this first confusion is reflected in the claim made twice by Klausner that the biblical prophets who supposedly develop the messianic idea were “practical politicians.” This claim appears once in a discussion of Isaiah, and once in a discussion of Ezekiel. What Klausner means to say is that the prophets of ancient Israel were close to political events and to political power. It also means that the messianic idea entails the realization (i.e. the making real) of religious and ethical ideals in the practical, national, and social life of a people (pp.55, 114). But the claim is undermined by Klausner himself. In one instance, he refers to the first set of prophecies in Ezekiel’s career prior to the exile of King Zedekiah as a “flight of fancy.” They are “generalizing imaginative depictions” with “no concrete description” that might have contained “details  of the new political structure and of the new life”  (p.116; emphasis in the original). In essence, this is the same problem pointed out by Michael Walzer in In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.

For all that he has to say about the political, the messianic idea, even as understood by Klausner himself, is not itself political except only hazily. He notes, for instance, that the political sphere was severely restricted for a prophet such as Deutero-Isaiah. Forced to live under Babylonian and Persian rule, he was said by Klausner to have been unable to express much greater than vague political expectations. For Deutero-Isaiah, God is the redeemer and Cyrus is God’s instrument, with Klausner himself noting that, in this prophetic vision, there is no Jewish messiah (pp.154-6).

So how is this “political” if one assumes that the political cannot escape that precise human element involving determinate institutions, hierarchies, and lines of authority? For political theology to be political would depend upon whether or not its expression is based on a model of human actors acting under, alongside, or in place of God. While there is always a larger and structuring political and geopolitical backdrop to any cultural expression, the messianic idea is not itself political if it is only God and not a human king who redeems the group life of a people from political oppression. That’s why, again, it is Klausner who can say that there can be “no place for bright and immediate messianic hopes” when there is no king in Israel. All that is left is to hope for the return to Zion, and the vague assurance that “the rest will follow” (p.156).

What Klausner describes about the prophecies in Deutero-Isaiah chapters 55-66 is not political per se, but a political grotesque marked by what he calls “extreme spirituality.” Its vision of Israel is of a supreme people, but with no need to conduct its own affairs of state. Physical labor is done by others (by Persian kings, Alexander, kings of Egypt and Syria). According to Klausner, “Jewish statecraft…assumed mostly a form of supernatural authority, in such a manner that all the nations and kingdoms would serve Israel because they might wish to serve Israel’s God and Torah. Thus it came about that the prophets dreamed of a political situation in which there would be no need for Jews to build walls, or even to tend flock and herd or to cultivate fields and vineyard; all these things would be done for them by the Gentiles.” While not ignoring material reward and possession, the messianic idea in Deutero-Isaiah, at the height of its expression, is “adorned” with “imaginative colors.” Klausner knows that it exceeds in many place “the bounds of the natural and the possible, so that even their political and material ideal appeared as if ‘not of this world’” (pp.176-7). As an aside, one notes how far this vision is from the original expression of Political and Labor Zionism. But even in Klausner’s own analysis of the biblical material, it is hard to see how any of this is political in the way he is wont to call the messianic idea in Judaism when he contrasts it to the messianic idea in Christianity.

[3] A third confusion concerning the political status of the messianic idea, even in Klausner’s own analysis, is teleological. Political programs worthy of the name are not based on the idea of failure, whereas the messianic, as a political figure, can promise only failure and disappoint. Failure is worked into the basic temporal structure of the messianic idea as presented by Klausner.  Neither Hezekiah nor Zedekiah, for instance, can deliver the promised goods. The return of the Babylonian exiles was a disappointment. At each moment of failure, the promised messianic redemption is pushed off into the future. To be sure, it is this futuristic structure at the heart of the messianic that has charmed modern Jewish philosophers and contemporary theorists already since Hermann Cohen. But it is this orientation that signals the idea’s greatest failure, which is the failure of a promise to pan out in the present (pp.56-7, 105-6, 114). This Klausner calls “the secret” of how the messianic idea endures as an ideal (p.57). But it is not clear how [1] the idea of an unrealizable hope to turn the machinery of political, social, and national life of the people around the will of the prophet and [2] the realization that “actual life” cannot incline towards the ideal” jibes with [3] the idea that prophets are “practical politicians” (p.114).

Failure hangs over the entire messianic idea, whose sad deneoument is tracked by Klausnser in the late prophecies of Hagai and Zecharya. Historically, the promise went unfulfilled. At the start of the Second Temple period, the whole Jewish settlement was restricted to some seventy square miles within narrow and restricted borders. In the end, real life cannot stand up before the glowing expectations of the great prophets. Now during the Second Temple Period when remote expectations are now near at hand, it turns out that messianic idea is greatly “reduced” and “clipped.” Far indeed from the “sublime expectations of Isaiah and Jeremiah,” Jewish life enjoys no “political grandeur” or “dazzling triumphs” (chapter 13). In a note on Malachi and the end of prophecy, Klausner describes how messianism gives way to the “hour of the Law of Moses.” Displacing prophecy, the Torah is now “accepted as the constitution of the land and people of Judah, that is, as a book regulating every detail of the life of the entire nation and guiding it in the fear of the LORD…by means of firmly fixed ceremonial laws and ethical demands laid down in the form of definite statutes” (p.216).

What’s left in Klausner’s analysis of the messianic idea is its aesthetic status, meaning the messianic idea as an aesthetic formation, and the attention to aesthetic qualities in Klausner’s analysis. From the start to finish of Klausner’s book, the messianic idea is subsumed by understandings of light filled and glistening figures (pp.20, 21, 25), of the identification of prophecy and poetry (p.40), of the power of the “magic dream” of peace and of “the human-eternal” (p.70), of stories and poetry as creative outlets (p.385). Klausner is unable to relieve these figures of the gloom that has always attended the messianic idea as a figure of art. Assuming one still wants to use the term “political” to describe the prophetic promise, Klausner is probably right to trace the bright idea of the messianic as it emerges out of “the dark past of Israel.” These figures emerge with great color and excitement, and then fade off quietly into haze (cf. p.15). Written in Germany at the fin de siècle, the messianic idea in Klausner reads like a score from Mahler. There is an aesthetic affinity here between the messianic idea and something like Das Lied von der Erde, Full of dark chords, soaring images and wistful denouements and barely tethered to this world, the idea of the messiah assumes no firm basis on which to form a political ideology or human community apart from those more tentative forms of human longing brought together by way of poetic fantasy by way of the liturgical and other forms of popular imagination. Religio-aesthetic, the messianic idea is Schwärmerei, not political.

On a more speculative political note regarding Klausner’s own ideological identity, which was classical rightwing Revisionist Zionist, I will leave open the question about the actual causal link connecting this type of Zionism with the disaster-prone flights of poetic fancy represented by the messianic idea. This should be of interest to anyone who follows Israeli politics and contemporary forms of identity-based religious Zionism. Ironically, it is Klausner himself who shows how the messianic idea collapses in on itself. Klausner and people like him want the the messianic idea to do the political work it cannot do or never once did.

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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