Meaning in Messianism (Judaism)

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

Whether we read it in its Jewish, its Christian, its secular, or its heretical version, the underlying messianic theme has always been that of hope. 

Though the Jews were able to find their suffering meaningful, meaning for them did not end there. It climaxed in Messianism. 

We can work our way into this concept by way of an arresting fact. The idea of progress—belief that the conditions of life can improve, and that history can in this sense get somewhere—originated in the West. Insofar as other peoples have come to this notion, they have acquired it from the West.

The idea of progress—belief that the conditions of life can improve, and that history can in this sense get somewhere—originated in the West.

Striking as this fact is, it seems explicable. If we confine ourselves to the two other enduring civilizations—South Asian, centering in India, and East Asian, centering in China and its cultural offshoots—we find that their presiding outlooks were forged by people who were in power; in India these were the brahmins, and in China the literati. By contrast, the West’s outlook was decisively shaped in this matter by the Jews, who for most of their formative period were underdogs. Ruling classes may be satisfied with the status quo, but underdogs are not. Unless their spirits have been crushed, which the Jewish spirit never was, oppressed people hope for improvement. This hope gave the biblical Jews a forward and upward looking cast of mind. They were an expectant people—a people who were waiting, if not to throw off the yoke of the oppressor, then to cross over into the promised land.

The West’s outlook was decisively shaped in this matter by the Jews, who for most of their formative period were underdogs. 

Sweet, sweet the open spreading fields
Lay decked in shining green;
So to the Jews fair Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.

To sum up the matter: Underdogs have only one direction to look, and it was the upward tilt of the Jewish imagination that eventually led the West to conclude that the conditions of life as a whole might improve. 

Oppressed people hope for improvement. The Biblical Jews were waiting, if not to throw off the yoke of the oppressor, then to cross over into the promised land.

Hope has more purchase on the human heart when it is rendered concrete, so eventually Jewish hope came to be personified in the figure of a coming Messiah. Literally, Messiah (from the Hebrew mashiah) means “anointed”; but as kings and high priests were anointed with oil, the terms became a title of honor, signifying someone who had been elevated or “chosen.” During the Babylonian Exile the Jews began to hope for a redeemer who would effect the “ingathering of the exiles” to their native homeland. After the second destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.), the honorific title “Messiah” was used to designate the person who would rescue them from that diaspora. 

During the Babylonian Exile the Jews began to hope for a redeemer who would effect the “ingathering of the exiles” to their native homeland. 

Things, though, are never this simple, and in the course of time the messianic idea became complex. Its animating concept was always hope, and this hope always had two sides to it: the politico-national side (which foresaw the triumph of the Jews over their enemies and their elevation to a position of importance in world affairs), and a spiritual-universal side (in which their political triumph would be attended by a moral advance of worldwide proportions).

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears
into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

These three features of the messianic idea—hope, national restitution, and world upgrade—remained constant, but within this stable framework differing scenarios were scripted. 

The messianic idea had the stable framework of hope, national restitution, and world upgrade.

One important difference concerned the way the messianic age would arrive. Some expected an actual Messiah to appear—a priest or king who, as God’s deputy, would effect the new order. On the other side were those who thought God would dispense with a human agent and intervene directly. The latter view, appropriately called the messianic expectation, hoped for “an age in which there would be political freedom, moral perfection, and earthly bliss for the people of Israel in their own land, and also for the entire human race.” The first concept includes everything in the second, but adds the figure of a lofty and exalted political and spiritual human personality, who comes to prepare the world for the Almighty’s kingdom. 

It hoped for an age in which there would be political freedom, moral perfection, and earthly bliss for the people of Israel in their own land, and also for the entire human race.

A second tension reflected the restorative and utopian impulses within Judaism generally. Restorative Messianism looked for the recreation of past conditions, typically the Davidic monarchy but now idealized. Here hope turned backward to the reestablishment of an original state of things and to a “life lived with the ancestors.” But Messianism also accommodated Judaism’s forward-looking impulse, so there were versions that were utopian in envisioning a state of things that never before existed.

Restorative Messianism looked for the recreation of past conditions, typically the Davidic monarchy but now idealized. But Messianism also envisioned a state of things that never before existed.

Finally, Messianists differed concerning whether the new order would be continuous with previous history or would shake the world to its foundations and replace it (in the End of Days) with an aeon that was supernaturally different in kind. As the power of the Jews dwindled in the face of a rising Europe, and hope of political restoration in Israel seemed increasingly impossible, the expectation of a miraculous redemption strangled political yearnings. Apocalypticism, elements of which are visible in the prophets themselves, replaced hopes for military victory. The Messianic Age would break in at any moment, abruptly and cataclysmically. Mountains would crumble and the seas boil. The laws of nature would be abrogated to make way for a divine order that was unimaginable save that the “birth pangs of the Messianic Age”—its fearful images excited by terrors the Jews were actually experiencing—would be followed by peace. Thus even this apocalyptic version contained a utopian element. Peril and dread were balanced by consolation and redemption.

Finally, there was also an element of the Messianic Age breaking in at any moment, abruptly and cataclysmically, and to be followed by peace. 

In all three of these polarities the alternatives were deeply intertwined, while being contradictory by nature. The messianic idea crystallized and retained its vitality out of the tensions created by its ingredient opposites. Nowhere do we find a pure case of one without the other; only the proportions between them fluctuated, often wildly. The direction in which the pendulum swung was determined by historical events and the individual character of their proclaimers, a number of whom—the “false messiahs”—assumed the messianic title for themselves and in several instances attracted large followings. In periods when the Israelites were still living an independent political life in their own land, ethical perfection and earthly bliss were emphasized; whereas in periods of subjugation and exile the yearning for political freedom was more prominent. In times of national freedom the worldwide, universalistic part of the hope was basic; but in times of trouble and distress the nationalistic element came to the fore. Throughout, however, the political component went arm in arm with the ethical, and the nationalistic with the universal. Political and spiritual longings united, as did hopes for themselves and the world at large. Both themes figure in Zionism, the modern movement for political and spiritual renewal of the Jewish people, which helped the Jews return to Palestine and found the State of Israel in 1948.

Throughout, however, the political component went arm in arm with the ethical, and the nationalistic with the universal. Political and spiritual longings united, as did hopes for themselves and the world at large. 

So we return to the underlying messianic theme, which is hope. Moving into Christianity, it took the form of the Second Coming of Christ. In seventeenth—century Europe it surfaced as the idea of historical progress, and in the nineteenth century it assumed Marxist idiom in the vision of a coming classless society. But whether we read it in its Jewish, its Christian, its secular, or its heretical version, the underlying theme is the same. “There’s going to be a great day!” That says it prosaically. Martin Luther King, Jr., drawing his images from the Prophet Isaiah, said it rhetorically in his address to the audience of 200,000 in the 1968 civil rights March on Washington.

I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill
and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain,
and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord
shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

The underlying messianic theme has always been that of hope. 

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