It is often said that both Jews and Christians believe that there will be a “messiah” – but their definitions of the word are so completely different that it may be misleading to use the same word. Many Jews thus use the Hebrew word – moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ, which means ‘anointed one.’ In ancient days a prophet would anoint a King with oil, and the Hebrew Bible sometimes refers to kings as moshiach.
How does the Christian definition of messiah differ from the Jewish definition of moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ?
In Christianity, the messiah is identified as a human, Jesus, who is:
(a) literally the son of God
(b) and simultaneously, God’s own self
and (c) a necessary intermediary between man and God
In Jewish theology, moshiach/מָשִׁיחַ is a mortal human being, not even having supernatural abilities, who has a specific task. Descriptions vary, but a general consensus is that moshiach will
1. Bring Jews back to observing Judaism
2. Will gather Jewish people back to the land of Israel.
3. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt.
4. Israel will live among the nations as an equal, and will be strong enough to defend herself.
5. Eventually most war, hatred and famine will end, and an era of peace and prosperity will come upon the Earth.
This is a completely non-supernatural belief. Here is the view of Maimonides – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon – in his commentary to tractate Sanhedrin, of the Babylonian Talmud.
“The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him…. Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much….”
” it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase…war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation…. The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God. “
“Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true. The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted “The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations. All nations will return to the true religion [monotheism, although not necessarily Judaism] and will no longer steal or oppress.”
“Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical – Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us. Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles….the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom.”
Alternatives to the idea of a personal messiah
It is usually assumed that the only authentic Jewish belief concerning the messiah is the standard interpretation as explained by Maimonides. He explains that eventually the messiah – a descendant of King David – will will arrive and usher in a Messianic era in which the Davidic Kingship will be re-established. On the other hand, many religious Jews today do not believe in a personal messiah.
There is another theological strand in our tradition, which indicates that Judaism is not totally welded to the classic figure of the messiah. Gerald Blidstein, a board member for the Orthodox Jewish journal _Tradition_, writes:
We all know of of the prophet Samuel’s strong opposition to the appointment of a king, despite the ostensibly clear Deuteronomic command to do so….Actually, of course, that command is somewhat ambivalent, and this ambivalence probably led to the tannaitic discussion of whether the people Israel were in fact unambiguously commanded to have a king, a discussion which continues in later midrashim. Some Ge’onim, in fact, decided the question in the negative, as did R. Sa’adya and Ibn Ezra in their commentaries. Maimonides, of course, decided with a thunderous positive.
Gerald J. Blidstein _Tradition_ Vol.32, No. 1, Fall 1997 “Halakha and democracy” p.6-39
A number of rabbis within the tradition questioned the assumption that we are obligated to set up a new Davidic monarchy. Abarbanel is well known for his anti-monarchic posture. [Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508)]
Others who concur are the Netsiv and Rabbi Yeruham Perlow.
Rabbi Hayyim David HaLevi goes so far as to write that Maimonide’s monarchism is not really representative.
– Netsiv: Ha’amek Davar to Deut. 17:14 and Meromei sade to Sanhedrin 20b, s.v. BaMishna.
– Gerald J. Blidstein “Ekronot Mediniyyim be Mishnat ha Rambam (Ramat-Gan, 1982).
A few Orthodox rabbis have downplayed the idea that there will be a personal Messiah in the form of a king, and instead propose the idea of a Messianic era, which is consistent with the beliefs of many Conservative Jews. One example is R. Shlomo Goren (Shana beShana, p.127-136, 1975.
On this topic, Gerald Blidstein writes “Perhaps it is wiser to leave the messianic monarchy of the end of days in the realm of the future whose structure and content is known only to God, all the while wondering whether the belief in redemption…ought to be so powerfully focused on the person or redeemer in any case. Indeed, there are some aggdic indications of the downplaying of the messianic element in that redemption in the interest of the kingship of God.”
For rabbinic reservation concerning the monarchic messiah, see E. E. Urbach “The Sages, I” (translated by I. Abrahams; Jerusalem 1975), p.690-692. (Glidstein, “Halakha and Demoncracy”, p.12)
Could there be 2 messiahs?
There is a minority opinion in the Talmud that there may be a second messianic figure: In this minority view, we first will encounter Moshiach Ben Yosef, who has a prepatory role, which then leads the way for Moshiach Ben David. We see this in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukka 52 a,b, but not much is mentioned.
R. Saadya Gaon (Emunot V’deot 8:6) seems to believe that his existence is only necessary if the Jews are not ready for the Messiah and need to do t’shuva to merit the redemption.
It is a common idea that the Messiah will come either if the Jews are meritorious, or if they are not, at a predetermined “deadline”. R’ Saadya is referring to if the Messiah must come at the “deadline”, and the Jews need preparation to be redeemed. In this case, the Mashiach ben Yosef will lead the Jews back to God’s good graces allowing them to be worthy of redemption, and later he will die in battle (of Gog and Magog), allowing for the succession of the “real” Messiah, Mashiach ben David.
Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel, and the Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser), in their commentaries to the Prophets, treat the existence of Mashiach ben Yosef as a “kabbala” (tradition) known to Chazal from the prophets themselves. (See Abarbanel to Ezekiel 32 and Malbim to Ezekiel 37:19.)
In their opinion, he will be (as indicated by his name) from the tribe of Yosef, or at least from one of the ten “lost tribes”, who were exiled by Sennacherib (King of Assyria, 700 BCE.) He will be instrumental in uniting the ten tribes with the rest of the Jews in exile, as well as uniting the Jews in exile themselves, and leading them in the final war leading to the Redemption, thereupon dying in battle.
According to some sources, Mashiach ben Yosef will be resurrected immediately after the war in the “Techiat Ha’meitim” (Resurrection of the Dead). Others maintain that he will remain dead so as not to detract from the monarchy of the Mashiach ben David.
View of Conservative Judaism
Throughout the course of human history, Jews have differed as to what can be done by human beings to bring these dreams [of a Messianic era] into reality. Generally they have spoken in two voices: a radical or revolutionary voice, and a more gradualist or evolutionary voice. Revolutionary messianists are impatient. They despair about humanity’s ability to deal with its intrinsic problems in the normal course of affairs. They view themselves as responsible – even required – to take radical action to effect this transformation, to force God’s hand. They are less likely to satisfied with baby steps that their contemporaries are taking, with the small partial redemptions they witness. They thus become militant activists and resort to aggressive political activity and even, in the extreme, military action and violence to bring about their goals. They see the age to come as emerging out of a cosmic upheaval (which they will attempt to precipitate) that will destroy the familiar world of nature and history.
In contrast, messianic gradualists see the age to come as emerging slowly and imperceptibly out of the world as we know it today, restoring a pre-existing harmony. Theirs is a more patient and humanistic voice. With a basic confidence that human beings can and will work on the infinite details of their social, political and interpersonal lives, they are prepared to accept these practical redemptions as forecasts of the ultimate redemption yet to come. They see the eschatological scenario not as an immediate demand but as a vision which yields hope for the future and infuses all of their day-to-day activities with infinite import.
The dominant eschatological voice today is clearly revolutionary – In Islam, in American fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity, and among certain groups of Jews in Israel and throughout the world. We understand the concerns that impel communities to resort to such programs. We are also convinced of their dangers: exclusivism, triumphalism, radical political action and in the extreme, militarism and even terrorism.
We therefore affirm a gradualist or evolutionary eschatological approach. We are aware that it too has its inherent dangers: inertia, quietism and a generalized sense that since God will send the Messiah in His good time, what we human beings do has little significance. We strive, therefore, to remind ourselves of the classical Jewish teaching that God and humanity are partners, not only in creation and revelation, but in redemption as well.
We do not know when the Messiah will come, nor whether he will be a charismatic human figure or is a symbol of the redemption of humankind from the evils of the world. Through the doctrine of a Messianic figure, Judaism teaches us that every individual human being must live as if he or she, individually, has the responsibility to bring about the messianic age. Beyond that, we echo the words of Maimonides based on the prophet Habakkuk (2:3) that though he may tarry, yet do we wait for him each day.
- Emet Ve-Emunah, p.30-32
The Messianic Era
In regards to the future of the individual, the nation of Israel and the nations of the world, the classical texts of Judaism provide a rich source of speculation, but do not provide us with one definitive framework. Since no one knows what will happen “in the days to come” each of us is free to fashion personal speculation. Some of us accept these speculations are literally true, while others understand them as elaborate metaphors, generated by deep seated human needs, and woven out of Judaism’s most intuitive values and commitments. Thus, if “the age to come” is an age of universal peace and justice, it is because our Torah commands that we strive to create that kind of social order in the here and now and because our Nevi’im (the Prophets) railed against our ancestors failure to do so in their own day.
For the world community we dream of an age when warfare will be abolished, when justice and compassion will be axioms of all, as it is said in Isaiah 11: “…the land shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
For our people, we dream of the ingathering of all Jews to Zion where we can again be masters of our own destiny and express our distinctive genius in every area of our national life. We affirm Isaiah’s prophecy (2:3) that “…Torah shall come forth from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”.
- Emet Ve-Emunah, p.28,29
The Most Important and Dangerous Jewish Value: The Messianic Impulse
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
“We want Moshiach now!” Have you sung it? What did you mean?
The Torah teaches us about the 4 stages of redemption (Shemot 6). Through God’s miraculous interventions in the world (the 10 plagues), there was a mass exodus, perhaps the greatest story of liberation and redemption in human history. But we have to ask ourselves, is this the historical model for future redemption? Is this the way that we want it to occur? As a miracle of God?
In the middle of the plagues the Torah says, “Ain kamoni b’chol ha’aretz”—there is none like me in all of the land. It is not only distinguishing God from the belief in other gods. It is distinguishing what God can and should do versus what humans can and should do. In general, we follow halakhta b’drachav (imitatio dei) that we emulate the ways of God, but here there is a limitation. It may be that the text is saying: I (God) can redeem the world through a punishment of the other but do not think that you should emulate this in search of your own redemption. “Ain kamoni b’chol ha’aretz”—there is none like me—there is no one on earth that may act as I am acting here, for a higher reason than you can understand. Thus, the redemption from Egypt is different from the future model of redemption.
Jewish Messianism is everywhere in modernity, including Zionist, Chabad, and secular Jewish messianists (Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky and other Bolsheviks). It seems we cannot take the messianic impulse out of the Jew.
Today, the messianic impulse can have very dangerous expressions. More and more, we see messianism leading to extremism and also to the watering down of core Jewish values; the notion of the coming of Moshiach not only becomes disproportionately important in Jewish thought, but also a justification for lack of responsibility. The concept of Moshiach becomes a religious excuse, a crutch, a shortcut. When it is our collective version of the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus, we risk religiously remaining children, constantly expecting a supernatural intervention that will instantaneously change all of nature. We interpret a prophetic hyperbole too literally. But there is, of course, a very different model at the foundation of Jewish thought.
In the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a), Rav Yehoshua ben Levi wrestles with the question of when and how messianism works, and asks Eliyahu HaNavi when the Messiah will come. Eliyahu replies that he should go ask the Moshiach himself, who is sitting at the entrance to the city of Rome. Rav Yehoshua then asks Eliyahu HaNavi how he will recognize the Moshiach at the gates of Rome. Eliyahu replies profoundly that he will be sitting amidst the poor and sick, putting bandages on them one by one.
The Messiah exists on the periphery of society (gates of Rome) and is a healer! Rav Yehoshua runs and finds the Moshiach and asks him when he will come. The Moshiach replies, “Today!”
Rav Yehoshua, confused, goes back to Eliyahu questioning why the Moshiach said “today.” Eliyahu replies, quoting Psalms, that it is today “If you will hear His voice.”
The Gemara is teaching us that Moshiach is here already. Messianic possibility is always right in front of us in a very real way.