On Tisha B’Av, the day that Jerusalem was destroyed, tradition holds that the messiah will be born. The hope for redemption inspired generations. On a day fraught with messianic expectation, all would be well advised to be careful what we wish for.
On the one hand, the messianic idea provides hope, and encourages acknowledgement that the way things are is not the only way that they must be. No doubt that messianic ideas pushed movements of rebellion and resistance, of freedom and justice. For the downtrodden, originating with and including the Jews, the hope for messiah was a potent survival tool and source of empowerment.
At the same time, the messianic idea is also a total, all encompassing aspiration. It is not about incremental reform. It is about transformation of reality from roots to roof. In ancient Jewish and Christian literature, visions of natural upheaval and cosmic disaster are often precursors of the messianic age.
Historically, messianic movements – seeking different versions of heavenly kingdoms and utopias – justified human suffering on massive scales believing that The Grand Plan justified all means towards consummation and redemption. From the Crusades to the European conquest of the Americas, and through the horrors of the 20th century, absolutist politics driven by total belief have been exemplars of the road to hell being paved with would-be heavenly intentions.
The Talmudic accounts of the Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 CE) warn of the dangers of the arrogance of a politics driven by messianic confidence. Simon Bar Kosiba received his nom de guerre – Bar Kochba (the Son of a Star) based on Rabbi Akiva’s enthusiasm for revolt against Rome. Judaea and the Jewish people had already been defeated in two revolts against Rome. In 70 CE, the Great Revolt ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Zealot activists re-ignited the flames of revolt against Rome in the Diaspora (114-117 CE). Across North Africa and into Mesopotamia, Jewish communities were ruined. The community of sages were split about Bar Kochba as the messiah who would redeem Israel from foreign rule. Although Akiva was a powerful, charismatic influence; there were some who openly mocked him, warning against messianic certainty. Yohanan Ben Torta was among Akiva’s most vocal critics. Ben Torta taunted Akiva, “Akiva you will be dead and buried and grass will be growing from your jaws, and still the messiah will not have come.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:8, 68D) Talmudic literature and the Roman Dio Cassius paint a picture of Judaea devastated in the wake of the failed revolt. Rivers flowed through the canyons of Judaea filled with blood. Roman troops were determined to brutally impress the irrefutable impotence of Jewish political revolt against Rome. All of Jewish history carries the scars of this calamitous messianic escapade.
Through the centuries, much of Jewish law and literature sought to limit and discourage messianic politics. Maimonides – although he included belief in the Messianic age and the resurrection of the dead as part of his 13 tenets of faith – was a rationalist. His version of the messianic age was largely a political sea change and did not include an upending of the laws of nature and physics. In his Epistle to Yemen, he extended comfort to Yemeni Jews as they faced Islamic repression and messianic temptation. He decried messianic enthusiasm and false messiahs. Maimonides sharply condemned attempts to calculate the end of days and wrote: “The rabbis invoked God to frustrate and destroy those who seek to precisely determine the advent of the Messianic era, because they are a stumbling block to the people, and that is why they uttered the imprecation “May the calculators of the final redemption come to grief” (Sanhedrin 97b).”
In the modern age, Zionism was born of two parents. Zionism was a secular nationalist movement aimed at providing the Jewish people with the most basic of needs – some form of sovereignty on some piece of viable territory. Zionism had to overthrow the political passivity entailed in the messianic idea. Simply, the Jews could not wait for a messianic Deus ex machina. The Jews needed to save themselves and take the worldly fate of the Jewish people into their own hands.
Yet, Zionism was also inspired by messianic rhetoric and imagery. Zionism mined Jewish memory and employed a secularized language of return and redemption to motivate the Jewish people towards building the national home. Settlers of the 1st Aliyah named their small villages using phrases from the Bible – Rishon L’Zion, (First to Zion) Rosh Pina (Corner Stone) , Petah Tikva (Hope’s Gate). The small but influential revolutionary cell that settled Gedera and was seen as a pioneering inspiration for subsequent generations – the Bilu – based their name on an acronym from Biblical verses describing the messianic age and the return to Zion – ‘House of Jacob Let Us Go Up.’ (Isaiah 2:5).
David Ben Gurion – a socialist and secularist – often painted the Zionist movement and the State of Israel in messianic terms. Ben Gurion’s use of messianic language was about his appreciation of the importance of rooting the new State of Israel in the Jewish past, about developing a public consciousness that led from the ancient prophets of Israel, through the rebels and sectarians of the 2nd Temple, through centuries of Exile and longing for Zion to modern times. At the same time, Ben Gurion famously used the phrase, “We need the Messiah so that he may not come.” Although he sought inspiration from Jewish memory and messianism; Ben Gurion’s politics were guided by a hard-nosed pragmatism, and even a surprising willingness to compromise in the short term.
A visionary and stateman of profound acumen, Ben Gurion understood that calculated decisions of what is possible today would help achieve more long-term aspirations tomorrow. Most famously, Ben Gurion in both 1937 and in 1947 pushed the Yishuv and the Zionist movement to accept the respective partition plans establishing both a national home for the Jewish people and an Arab state side by side in Mandate Palestine. In both versions, partition offered the Jews a small territory whose sustainability was suspect. In both versions, the partition plan did not include Jerusalem as part of the future Jewish state. Ben Gurion’s acceptance of partition was not based on an enthusiasm for the plans. But neither did messianic dreams of expanded borders nor the historic and spiritual significance of Jerusalem prompt him to reject partition. His hardnosed, pragmatic approach to state-building recognized that for a starving man even a small piece of the pie is better than no pie at all. The 1947 UNSCOP partition plan was presented to a Jewish world on the brink of annihilation. Ben Gurion’s push to accept the partition plan was in many ways a rejection of the ‘all or nothing’ attitude of messianic politics in favor of the realpolitik of ‘something is better than nothing.’ At least with something, progress can be made; and advances can be marked towards tomorrow.
In contemporary Israel, the debate continues. Trends that encourage that reality is mainly shaped by stalwart allegiance and unflinching belief fail to take seriously the limits of power of the State of Israel, and the shifting sands of international politics. A child does not differentiate between what they want, what is right, and what is possible. An adult continually is faced with navigating between desire, justice, and the achievable. Being an adult means being able to hold on to dreams while also recognizing that our dreams clash with those of others, and life is all about the complexity of navigation.
When will the Messiah come?
“The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last day.” (Franz Kafka)