My Policy Regarding Messianism

Image: Shabbatai Tzvi, a 17th century self-proclaimed messiah. Public Domain.

Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai used to say: “If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you ‘The Messiah is coming!’ first plant the sapling and then go to greet him.” – Avot de Rabbi Natan, 31b

Lately I’ve noticed an uptick in comments reflecting a “Messianic Jewish” point of view. It’s time for a policy statement about that, so here goes.

Rabbinic Judaism came into being in the first and second centuries when the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem closed the period of Biblical Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism subscribes to the notion that we have both a Written Torah (the five books of Moses) and an Oral Torah (the interpretation of those books passed down by a group of people known to us as the rabbis.)

There is a huge range of belief among Rabbinic Jews. We are more focused on actions than on belief, on keeping mitzvot (commandments) than on a particular orthodoxy (with a small-o.) We do not have creeds.

We do not have a messiah. Those of us who expect one (and not all of us do) are waiting for a political or military leader. We are not waiting for or interested in a savior to save us from our sins. This has been a matter of some distress to Christians, who historically want us to accept the person they believe to be a messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, but early on separated itself from us partly over doctrinal issues and partly over the fact that in the Roman world after the year 135 it was not healthy to be mistaken for a Jew. We Jews were rebels, we were trouble, and the Roman establishment did everything it could to put us out of business. Small wonder that the Christians of the time, who were interested in converting Romans to their faith, took care to differentiate themselves from Rabbis (aka Pharisees) in the Gospels, which were all written after at least one revolt against Rome.

Jews have suffered for centuries for our unwillingness to accept the Christian messiah. Those centuries of suffering  – of murders, of robbery, of stolen children, of persecution, of genocide – inform a certain testiness when someone comes along cheerfully talking about “being both,” or of conversion to Christianity under cover of a Hebracized name for Jesus.

By the way, Jesus isn’t the only candidate for messiah in Jewish history. By some counts as many as 24 individuals have been proposed as messiahs for the Jews. Some disappear into history, taking a few followers with them; others have been major disasters. The fellow pictured at the top of this post, Shabbetai Tzvi, was one of those who did terrible damage to the Jewish People.

So-called Messianic Judaism is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon. I do not teach Messianic Judaism. To my mind, it smacks of cultural appropriation – the adoption of the elements of a minority culture (Judaism) by members of the dominant culture (Christianity.) From where I sit, if someone thinks Jesus is their messiah, fine – but then they’re Christian, not Jewish. A person who worships Jesus as God may have Jewish ancestry, but their acceptance of that doctrine makes them no longer Jewish, no matter which of their ancestors were Jews.

And no, I’m not interested in a debate about this.

From now on, I’m simply going to delete “messianic” comments in this blog. Those who want that material have many websites upon which to find it. I can’t stop them from using materials on my site but I can prevent them from proselytizing at people who come here to learn about Judaism.  That same policy also goes for Christians who proselytize.

So that’s the policy. Don’t bother posting that stuff, because I’m going to delete it.

 

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Ask the Rabbi: What about the Messiah?

Frank asked: “In the messianic era when mashiakh is here will all the sacrifice be… thanksgiving offerings?”

Before I can answer that, I need to write little bit about Jews and “the Messiah,” or in Hebrew, mashiakh.

There is no explicit mention in the Torah (Five Books of Moses) of a mashiakh. The term appears first in the books of the Prophets as mashiakh ben David, anointed son of David, referring to a king of Israel. Kings of Israel were not “crowned,” instead they had oil poured on their heads (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).

Later in the prophets, we have more detailed descriptions of a future mashiakh and what this person will be and do:

  1. He will be a descendant of King David.
  2. He will be a political and military ruler over the land of Israel, rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
  3. He will gather the Jews in Israel (the ingathering of the exiles.)
  4. He will lead them to full observance of Torah.
  5. He will bring peace to the whole world.

Exactly how those things will be accomplished, or when this person will arrive, is a matter of considerable disagreement. Several individuals have been declared, or declared themselves, mashiakh. Two of the most famous led the Jewish nation to disaster: Simon bar Kokhba and Shabbatai Zvi, Such “false messiahs” have been attractive to the Jewish people during periods when our situation was particularly difficult.

“What about Jesus?” Christians might ask. He met only the first of the five criteria above. He was a member of the tribe of Judah, but did not have a political/military rule over Israel, did not bring Diaspora Jews back to the land, did not restore full observance of Torah, and while the world was under the so-called Pax Romana at the time, subjugation of the world under the fist of Rome is not “the lion and the lamb” lying down peacefully together. For Jews, Jesus simply did not fit the description of mashiakh.

Sometimes people confuse the word mashiakh with a similar-sounding Hebrew word, moshiah, meaning “savior.” While the words may sound alike to the ear of an English speaker, they are not even related: mashiakh is from a root mem-shin-chet, which means “to smear or anoint.” Moshiah is derived from the root yud-shin-ayin, which means “to save.” The word mashiakh denotes an anointed king, not a savior.

As scholar Stanley Rosenbaum wrote in 1982, not all Jews, in the past or present, are waiting for a mashiakh. For some of us, it is enough to live a life of Torah in the present and leave the future in God’s hands.

Today, Reform Jews do not expect the coming of a literal mashiakh. Some look forward to a messianic age in which the world will be perfected; the concept is still evolving in Reform circles.

However, in some circles of Orthodoxy, notably the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and Israeli religious Zionists, the concept of mashiakh has seen increasing interest in recent years. One teaching that circulates is that once the mashiakh reigns the only sacrifices that will be offered in the Temple will be sacrifices of thanksgiving, since there will be no more sin (Zephaniah 3:13.) For more information about Chabad concepts on this matter, check out this article.

Personally, I am guided by the words of the great rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who said:  “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.” In other words, there are important mitzvot (sacred duties) to do in this world, some of them rather ordinary and possibly boring. While the thought of mashiakh is very exciting, it is important not to allow it to distract us from the ordinary business of living Torah to the fullest.