Thursday, March 12, 2009

Talking to Jewish People About the Messiah/Part One

Talking to Jewish People About the Messiah/Part One

In a recent outreach attempt to the Ohio State University campus, we had the opportunity to talk to several Jewish people about spirituality and the Messiah. As we arrived at OSU on an early Tuesday afternoon, I told my friends that they should not be surprised if God sent us several Jewish people to talk to about spiritual issues. Sure enough, the first four people we talked to were all young Hasidic Jewish men. This was not the first time I had talked to a Jewish person from a Hasidic background. However, it was the first time my two friends had experienced anything like this. Hasidic Jews are called Hasidim in Hebrew. The Hasidic movement is very focused on the joyful observance of God’s commandments (mitzvot), heartfelt prayer, and boundless love for God and the world He created. Many ideas for Hasidism are directly realted to a mystical movement in Judaism called Kabbalah. Hasidic leaders are called "tzadikim" which is Hebrew for “righteous men."

A tzadik in the is sometimes viewed as a Rebbe which means master, teacher, or mentor. Such an example is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidim. After he died, he has been called "The Rebbe" by Lubavitcher Hasidim and even by many non-Lubavitchers. With the fall of communism and the miracles during the gulf war, the Rebbe stated that these are heralding a time of peace and tranquility for all mankind, the time of Moshiach (messiah). (1) To this end the Rebbe placed much emphasis on the traditional Jewish teachings regarding the time of Moshiach, placing great emphasis in the studying of these concepts.(2) In 1992, at the age of ninety, the Rebbe suffered a stroke; he passed away two years later, on June 12, 1994. Shortly thereafter, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressmen Charles Schumer, John Lewis, Newt Gingrich, and Jerry Lewis to bestow on the Rebbe the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill passed both Houses by unanimous consent, honoring the Rebbe for his "outstanding and lasting contributions toward improvements in world education, morality, and acts of charity".(3)

As we talked to these Hasidic Jewish students, it was clear their view of Messiah was taken from the famous Moses Maimonides. What did Maimonides teach about the Messiah?

In his Mishneh Torah, Book of Kings, Maimonides institutes a two-tiered approach to messianic identification. Meeting the attributes in tier one qualifies one as a messiah potential. Fulfillment of tier two confers the title of King Messiah upon the candidate.As pertaining to tier one Maimonides writes:

And if a king shall arise from the house of David who studies the Torah and is occupied in doing the commandments as his ancestor David according to the written and oral Torah, and compels all Israel to walk in its ways and to strengthen its foundation, and fights the battles of G-d — then it is presumed that he is the Messiah. The qualifying round may be summarized as follows
1. He traces his lineage to the house of David2. He studies Torah 3. He performs good deeds, in accord with Written and Oral Torah 4. He reinstates widespread Torah observance 5. He fights battles for the LordThe fulfillment of these “Five” qualifies the person as a messiah potential, a type of messiah-in waiting.

According to Maimonides, the 2nd century Bar Kosiba, who led a revolt against the Romans in 162 C.E. in an effort to reestablish the sovereignty of Israel, was a messiah potential. He allegedly fulfilled the Five prerequisites. Nonetheless, he was clearly not the Messiah, but instead wrongly dubbed so by Rabbi Akiva, the chief rabbi of the time, and one of the Ten Martyrs in Judaism. Bar Kosiva was slain before he fulfilled any of the second tier activities. Maimonides continues in the method of identifying Messiah by stating: “If he succeeded in accomplishing these [five things], and he subdued all the surrounding nations and he built the Temple in its place, and collected the dispersed of Israel — then this is the Messiah for certain.” Hence, Maimonides believed that there have been messiah potentials throughout the ages, but that the messiah certain had not arisen as yet.

The second tiered characteristics may be summarized as follows: 1. He subdues Israel’s enemies 2. He rebuilds the Temple at the ancient site 3. He re-gathers the dispersed of Israel.Probably, the closest to fulfill these conditions was Zeruvavel, who rebuilt the Second Temple, and some of the dispersed of Israel returned. However, it is obvious that Maimonides was speaking of a future King Messiah who was yet to arrive. Neither did the Christian Messiah fulfill Maimonides’ eight requirements. According to Maimonides, “if he did not accomplish all those [eight things] or was killed, then it is understood that he is not the one that the Torah promised.” Jesus failed to overcome Israel’s enemies, rebuild the Temple and regather the dispersed ofIsrael. And, he was slain before he accomplished these requirements.

Hence, Maimonides, in establishing a type of formulae for identifying messiah, accomplished a number of objectives. He was able to quench the frenzy and the memorization that often accompanies a messianic pretender who arrives on the scene and makes promises to an oppressed and gullible community. At the same time he was able to convey faith and hope in a coming messiah who would indeed restore the oppressed and the dispersed to the inheritance in the Land promised to them by the L-rd. This “wait and see” approach is a practical one that is intended to eliminate the risk of false messiahs. They are not the Messiah until they deliver on the Torah promises. This is exactly the presentation the Yemen community needed to hear. It was premature to believe that the “mad pretender” was the Messiah; and, in fact, he had already disqualified himself by a number of failings.

Maimonides’ conception of the Messiah was rational. This is not surprising. As a philosopher who harmonized Greek rationalism with Jewish law, he paints messiah as a natural person who ushers in a natural order in fulfillment of scripture and tradition. Everything is transitional. Nothing is radical and apocalyptic. Maimonides was truly moderate. He rejected the kabbalists, who embraced mysticism and practically deified messiah, and ascribed supernatural powers to him. He strengthened those whose faith was in danger of being shipwrecked. He fused the Jewish G-d with the Greek mindset and created a harmonized universe. His position, like he prescribed for others in Hilchot Da’ot,80 was the one in the middle, and that is the one that made all the difference for Maimonides and his followers.

His position concerning the Messiah was also pragmatic. Neither is this surprising for one steeped in rationalism. His letters spoke to real issues confronting communities and people who were living in a world of persecution. He could empathize. It was his experience as well. Thus, he tells the community in Yemen that they should reject the pretenders but await the true messiah who will come, and probably in the not-too-distant future, as evidenced by the prophecies and the signs. Maimonides had suffered terribly in his life, with persecution and personal tragedies. He was a rationalist in the mode of the Greek mind, who sought to explain matters in rational terms. Moreover, it was a world of Christians and Mohammedans. They pressed the Jews to convert, and often became brute beasts in their attacks on the Jews. Maimonides was well aware of the need to live and the need to stay faithful to Torah. At great risk to his life he refuted the Islamic Prophet and the Christian Messiah, and encouraged the Jews, in near and distant lands, to hold fast to Torah and to believe in perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah and though he tarry, to wait, and not think that he will be late. (4)

1. Congressional Gold Medal Recipient Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Avaialble at Retrieved March 11, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. This info was taken form my friend Elliot Klayman’s article called A Composite of the Characteristics of Messiah: A Maimonidean View. Available at

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