Waiting for the Messiah?

A key component of current Religious Zionist thought is that the current State of Israel is the beginning of the Messianic redemption. Traditional rabbinic opinions about the days of the Messiah vary, with Maimonides positing that daily life in the Messianic era will look pretty much the same.* Part of the reason for this diversity is that Judaism has not traditionally been Messiah-focused, since the Messiah had no current, real world halachic implications. Jews were instructed to believe in the Messiah, and act as if he (or she?) could come any day, but to focus on building their lives in the here and now, and shape their futures on the assumption that the state of the world would remain as is. Without that assumption, the entire corpus of Diaspora-based halacha could not develop, and no Diaspora Jew could ever open a store. The rabbis also shied away from giving predicted due dates for the Messiah; current Religious Zionism, in contrast, goes beyond giving the Messiah a predicted due date, for if the current state of Israel is the beginning of the redemption, then in fact, the Messianic era has, in a sense, already begun.

The problem is, that when you believe that the Messiah is on his way, you have very little incentive to solve current issues. Most mainstream Religious Zionism supports settlements, ignoring the fact that Palestinians live in the West Bank, because that’s not a fact that concerns them. Keep building now, and one day, the Messiah will come and solve the problem.

Similarly, discourse surrounding social issues – which, in rabbinic thought, is one of the factors that led God to kick the Jews out of Israel during the Roman era, and thus, hypothetically, should be the key to making sure God lets us stay in Israel this time around – is largely absent from mainstream Religious Zionist discourse. How often do we hear hesder rabbis raising their voices to speak about workers rights, or racism, or the wage gap? Giving workers a day off is listed as a reason for the Sabbath, yet that aspect is largely absent in public discourse surrounding what a modern Israeli Sabbath should look like.

In essence, proclaiming the inevitability of Israel as the Messianic state is to absolve the modern State of Israel and modern Israeli society of responsibility for their actions, claiming that those actions have no real long-term consequences, since the Messiah will soon come and fix everything.** This is the opposite of traditional Judaism, which is all about responsibility. When God appears to Abraham for the first time, he appears as an imperative “Go forth”.*** It is with words of obligation, that Judaism’s path begins.

On a more practical level, this Messianism provides a real dilemma for right-wing Religious Zionist political leaders; the Messiah’s solutions are always perfect, however, the world of politics – or at least, of effective politics in democratic nations – almost always requires compromise. The decision to compromise implies the belief in a need for current solutions based on an assessment of the current reality. However, acknowledging that the current reality might have real, long-term consequences is a denial of the Messiah-as-political deux-ex-machina belief that is a core part of Religious Zionist theology.

One could, perhaps, even take it a step further, and see Religious Zionism as a  radical postmodern rejection of objective reality itself, but rumor has it that discussing postmodernism is dangerous after two mugs of tea -though quite satisfying after two cups of wine and a piece of chocolate.

*Mishnah Torah, Laws of Kings, Chapter 12

** The rabbis also believed that idol worship, the act that got the Jews kicked out of Israel during the Babylonian Empire, was used by the Jews of that era as a theological “Get out of responsibility free” card.

*** Genesis, Chapter 12

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.