Happily Ever After: The Jewish Messiah

Dear Josep,

So as we rise from the floor this afternoon and begin to ease ourselves out of deep mourning for the Temple, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look to the future, and write about what it is that we are praying for and hoping for when we talk about rebuilding it.

Let’s start from the beginning: what does “messiah” mean? It comes from the Hebrew word משיח, meshiaḥ, which means “anointed.” Back in the days of the Bible, you didn’t “crown” a king, you “anointed” him with oil. King Saul, the first King of Israel, was anointed this way, as was King David. So the Messiah will be a king–a human king–from the line of King David, who will reestablish the Kingdom of Israel in the Holy Land.

The same prophets who predicted the destruction of the Temple (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah were the big three, but there were more) also foretold the coming of the Messiah. They described him as an individual with great wisdom and sensitivity, who will bring universal peace and justice. They described him rebuilding the Temple–one that will stand forever, and not be destroyed like the previous two. They described the Messiah ushering in a new era, where all of humankind will know God and be aware of Him, and recognize the Jews as His chosen people. The Messiah will facilitate an “ingathering of the exiles”; Jews from all over the world will return to our homeland to establish the renewed Kingdom of Israel. We will stop being a hated and persecuted minority we still are today, and will reestablish our role as a nation of priests, who will be teachers and spiritual leaders for the rest of humanity. And people from all over the world will come to see the Temple–“a house of prayer for all nations”–and serve God there. Some scholars believe that the redemption will come about through miraculous means; others, including Maimonides, believe that it will happen in accordance with the laws of nature. Humanity will be at a completely different spiritual level, and the near tangible presence of God will again be felt at the Temple, where the human and the Divine will embrace. Prophecy–which, according to Jewish belief, stopped existing after the destruction of the first Temple–will return, with the Messiah being the first new prophet. And the world will be a place of harmony, peace, and love.

Cue doves, rainbows, and Handel's "Hallelujah."
Cue doves, rainbows, and laughing children.

Now, reading this description, it’s fairly clear why Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Simple: none of this happened. Not in his lifetime, and not in the 2,000 years since. He did not fulfill any of these prophesies. Now, Christian scholars would obviously disagree with me; they would interpret the same texts differently, and say that all this will come true when Jesus returns in a “second coming.” But none of the prophets mentioned anything about the Messiah dying and then disappearing for a few millennia before coming back and fulfilling the prophesies. And then y’all started with the Trinity business…. and the thing about him dying for our sins… and that stuff is totally off the map of Jewish beliefs, so… yeah. The Jewish Messiah is not supposed to be Divine. He’s supposed to be a human king and a prophet, just like David and Saul. And there is no connection between him and atonement. That all goes down on Yom Kippur. But we’ll be talking about repentance and atonement next month. 😉

Anyway. I think it is also fairly obvious from the above description why religious Zionists (such as myself) believe that the establishment of the State of Israel is a step along the way to the fulfillment of those prophesies. We have seen an “ingathering of the exiles”; we have seen the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for the first time in 2,000 years; we have seen the miraculous reunification of the city of Jerusalem; we have seen the land turn from a desolate wasteland into a thriving, fertile land flowing with milk and honey. We have even seen the Hebrew language, once a stagnant, archaic language reserved mostly for Jewish scholarship (not unlike today’s Latin), turn into a living, breathing vernacular. These phenomena are baffling to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s impossible. And yet, it happened.

Still, going from the return of the Jews to their ancestral land–a phenomenon described as “spooky” by Nobel Prize laureate and physicist Leon Lederman–to a vision of all humanity living in peace and harmony and uniting around a single idea and belief in God is… quite a stretch.

Personally, I think of the Messianic Era as the culmination of everything we as humans are striving for… and towards which have already been advancing at breakneck pace, even though it may not feel like it. Because of how “plugged in” we are and how fast news spreads, violence, bloodshed and turmoil seem worse than ever before, but the fact is that they aren’t. There is actually much less violence in the world today than there was a hundred, certainly two hundred years ago. Though the Middle East is falling to pieces and some crazy stuff is going down, it’s a mere blip in the general trend, which is of a sharp decline in violence and oppression. We are so horrified by beheading and drowning videos, not because that type of cruelty is unprecedented, but because it has become so uncommon that we are not used to it. Think about it. Executions–beheadings, hangings, etc.–were a popular form of public entertainment less than two hundred years ago. And that’s without getting into the kinds of horrific things people used to do to each other in the Middle Ages and in the Roman Empire.

So, while we are very, very far from the “beating our swords into plowshares” thing, I don’t think it’s completely crazy to believe that sometime in the future, humanity will refine and improve itself to a point where the Messianic visions will no longer be visions, but reality. I believe that that’s why we are here. That God wants us to bring the world to that point through free choice and free will. And I believe that it is possible… and that we are on our way there.

"Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - “Slichot” Prayer (2)" by http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05 - http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/8005892765/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Flickr – Government Press Office (GPO) – “Slichot” Prayer (2)” by http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/8005892765/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I know it’s a pretty starry-eyed thing to be saying these days, especially from over here under the shadow of Daesh and a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. You know me… to my sorrow, I’m not the world’s most positive person, and sometimes (often) I despair, too. But if a nation could emerge from under the shadow of the Holocaust and turn this hunk of desert into a vibrant oasis of democracy and innovation after dreaming of Jerusalem for 2,000 years… who knows, Josep, who knows.



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