Belief in the Messiah: Religion, Politics or Mental Health Problem
Context is important. In this day and age, the solitary, unkempt figure who wanders the streets with a gleam in his eye, telling passers-by that he is the Messiah and has been sent by the Lord to save them from impending doom, is more likely to attract a diagnosis of mental ill-health than a following of devotees. Terms like ‘grandiosity’, ‘delusional thinking’ and ‘narcissism’ readily spring to mind, whereas in another era, the question might have been whether to welcome him as a true Messiah or brand him as a false one. Today, prescriptions are more likely to be issues than proscriptions.
Belief in a supernatural saviour runs deep in religious thought. It stems from an awareness of vulnerability in the face of danger. At the same time, it provides an escape from feelings of despair by constructing a vision of hope. The idea that a Messiah, a person like us except for his state of perfection, would arrive infused with the Holy Spirit in order to pluck us out of our misery and transport us to a world of eternal happiness, still has tremendous appeal. It gives people something to live for and inspires them to improve themselves.
In an attempt to understand more about why religious Jews believe in the Messiah, I consulted my copy of ‘The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth of Nations’, a relic of my South African days. This book lists thirteen principles of faith, the twelfth of which states, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry, I wait daily for his coming.” Beyond that, I hit a brick wall. Belief in the Messiah is purely and simply a question of faith. There can be no reasoning with that.
As far as Judaism is concerned, the Messiah has yet to come. Christianity, on the other hand, holds the position that the Messiah, in the form of Jesus Christ, has been and gone from a world which was not ready for him but that he will return at some undefined moment in the future, loosely characterised as ‘the End of Days’. The word ‘Christ’, in fact, derives from the Greek word for a person who has been rendered holy in preparation for his special mission by having been doused with oil, (in a word, anointed), hence the Hebrew word Messiah (Mashiach). Other religions entertain similar beliefs, which suggests a universal tendency in the human psyche to escape from feelings of helplessness and despair by constructing a narrative of hope involving rescue by a supernatural being.
The Jewish belief that a person so charged will be an emissary from God has been bedded in by a thicket of religious texts elaborating on the laws to be observed in order to achieve the perfect life. These laws are reinforced by stories, prayers and rituals repeated from one generation to the next. However, this is not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, or even a religious one. The myth of the hero who will show up in time to rescue innocent souls in trouble has echoes in folklore and fairy tales and provides a satisfying, if naive plotline in literature and theatre, as testified to by the quaint theatrical device of the deus ex machina, by which means a godlike figure is cranked down from the heights to resolve a seemingly insoluble plight.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, wrote the poet Alexander Pope. However, hope has its antithesis in fear. In many religions, a grim alternative to the hope of the paradisiacal dream is a nightmare scenario in which devilish beings inflict punishment on those who fail to meet the requisite standard of goodness. The imagery of the struggle between good and evil has morphed over the centuries but is still with us today. Heroes continue to clash with villains and the holy wrestle with the unholy, albeit in a thousand different guises.
Reason tries to make itself heard against this backdrop of polarisation but is invariably drowned out by the seductive music of passion and prejudice. The belief endures in an all-powerful force controlling our destiny, while at the same time, the forces of evil continue to be personified as ‘the enemy’. This primitive mindset places the origins of both good and bad powers somewhere ‘out there’, vying with one another for possession of the soul.
Society creates its leaders, who, it is hoped, will meet the needs of the people at a particular time. For a long time, Jewish communal leadership was rooted in observant practice and the study of the written word, but the murderous persecution of the Jews and the constant threat of annihilation meant that something more than devotion to prayer and learning was needed to rescue the people from catastrophe, so a different type of leader was conjured up, who would be able to meet force with force. Priestly and martial facets would combine into a unity, guarding the Jews against both spiritual and physical destruction.
In 70 CE the Romans wiped out Jewish resistance in Palestine, capturing Jerusalem and destroying the Second Temple. The time was ripe for belief in a strong man invested with spiritual qualities, to come to the rescue of the Jews. The light shone briefly on Simeon Bar Kochba, an impressive figure of a man, a religious zealot and a protege of Rabbi Akiva, who proclaimed him as the new Messiah. Belief in Bar Kochba was fuelled by his early military successes against the Romans. However, the full might of the Roman Imperial army was brought to bear on the Jews and the light of Bar Kochba was extinguished, leaving behind only the afterglow of his bravery without the hope of his messianic mission being accomplished.
Thereafter, belief waned that a holy person would descend to rescue the Jews from exile and lead them back to the Promised Land. Over the next sixteen hundred years or so, several claimants to the title of Messiah announced themselves, the most well-known being Shabbetai Zevi, who lived in 17th Century Turkey. Zevi attracted a large following, but his subsequent embrace of Islam, possibly to save his own life, shattered the hopes of many and further weakened the messianic vision.
Today, some parts of the world, including Israel, are witnessing a new type of messianic leader – the political strong man, professing religious beliefs, militaristic in outlook, hardened in his view of who constitutes the enemy and dismissive of the democratic process. Millions, who have become impatient with inconclusive political solutions to age-old strife, turn their faces upwards towards him and eagerly soak up his polarised views. It remains to be seen whether the world will sink more deeply into yet another era of extremism in which the choice is seen to lie between hero-worship or rule by demons. The question is whether we can break out of the grip of such a fairy-tale mindset or give in to it. It is a sobering thought that there is no single human being invested with messianic qualities. The Messiah is in all of us.