Yom Kippur for heretics

Forgiveness in religion is hardly a monopoly of Christianity, but rather is rooted in biblical concepts of redemption. Early Christianity indeed elevated forgiveness and atonement, which were embodied in their prototypical messianic theology and Rabbinical Judaism later developed an antitypical messianism that underemphasized these values. But Jewish messianic movements in the middle ages would reclaim forgiveness and reinstate the Day of Atonement with spiritual and eschatological significance.

Jesus of Nazareth lived at the beginning of the first century between the Galilee and Judea. He was a spiritualist and teacher, critical of the religious establishment and of the Romans. The evidence of his life lies in what we would know as the ‘gospel’ accounts in the New Testament writings. These were composed after his life by sectarian ‘Jesus-cult’ members and it remains a mystery as to what Jesus himself really did and said. What we do know, is that this is the first record of an historical figure deemed as ‘messiah’ in all of 2nd Temple literature.

It is anachronistic and questionable to speak of ‘messianism’ in regards to other national-religious movements in late antiquity, though many scholars still do so. Messianism was not an established set of ideas, as far as historians can tell, at the time of Jesus. In the New Testament writings, Jesus is revered and exalted. These early Christian scribes are each developing a messianic theology of Jesus, while “messiah” is just one term amongst many. More commonly used terms are son, son of man, son of God, rabbi/teacher, lord/master and king.

As we consider the New Testament as creative religious thought to commemorate the tradition of the man Jesus, the concept of forgiveness and atonement provide a central theme. The mysterious Jesus anticipates his death and tells his disciples as they celebrate the Passover meal that the wine is his blood shed for forgiveness and the bread his body that will be broken. He tells them that he is the sacrificial paschal lamb. The New Testament tradition develops that with the metaphoric “servant of the Lord” in Deutero-Isaiah whose function is forgiveness and redemption of Israel by God. The ‘new covenant’ slogan is of course part of this motif, derived from Jeremiah 31 there it reads God will ‘forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’ Thus, in the physical absence of their redeemer, the early Christians launched Jesus-messianism pivoted on forgiveness and atonement.

Another important twist to the developing Jesus-messianism of early-Christianity is evident in the ‘letter to the Hebrews’ by an anonymous author. This theologian takes things a step further and merges the aforementioned forgiveness and atonement theme with that of the High Priest and the priestly ritual of intercession for the salvation of mankind. As the ultimate and celestial High Priest, Jesus enters the holy of holies ‘behind the veil’ to approach the very throne of God. This is altogether a picture of the Day of Atonement and is either competing ideologically with the Temple cult or against the proto-Rabbinic movement in the aftermath of the destroyed Temple.

The Rabbinic tradition, opposite Christianity, developed an alternative messianism. This appears in post-Mishnaic texts; in the Midrash exegeses and in the Talmud. Most importantly is the tale of Rabbi Akivah supposedly declaring Shimon Bar Koziva aka Bar Kochva as the ‘star that came out of Jacob,’ the messiah of Israel. It is doubtful though, that even the Bar Kokchva revolt was really a messianic movement since there is no real evidence except the Akiva incident, which merely tells that he spoke to Bar Kochva of his messiaship. The texts don’t state this was even public or that it was picked up by anyone else.

What is significant, is that the Rabbinic literature in the 3rd-5th century dealt with the messianic idea and in doing so made use of the Bar Kochva scenario from the past to tackle something in the present. This theoretical literary discussion sorting out various messianic ideas is addressed in Sanhedrin perek chelek. At any rate, the messianic archetype of Rabbinic Judaism is totally void of the spiritual redemption like Jesus-messianism with forgiveness and all. It is national redemption of historical Israel. An even more drastic version of this was presented famously by Maimonides in the 12th century, keeping strictly to a political leader messiah. Despite Maimonides, surely repentance and spiritual renewal were, as always, part of the ideal messianic expectation like any national religious revival in Israel.


The next opportunity to witness a full-blown messianic movement in the Jewish nation was the 17th century phenomenon of Sabbateanism. The eccentric Shabbtai Zvi and the charismatic Nathan of Gaza mobilized this powerful campaign equipped with paranormal experiences and propelled by the widespread worldview of Lurianic kabbalah. Nathan of Gaza didn’t hesitate to call upon the masses, rather effectively, to repent from sin and prepare the way of Messiah. For this reason Gershom Scholem, the monumental professor of Jewish mysticism and historian of Sabbateanism, compared Nathan to John the Baptist before Jesus.

Nathan obsessively composed letters and edicts, instructions and decrees for acts of penitence. He called for fasts and special meditations, foremostly amongst esoteric groups of kabbalists, but also to the Jewish public. In accord with Lurianic kabbalah that spiritualized religious life and practice, penitence was geared to break forth the messianic redemption led by Shabbtai Zvi. Along with their penitence, Shabbtai Zvi as kabbalistic messiah had a special messianic mission as swayed between bipolar moods of anguish and ecstasy. Nathan explained this as messianic birth pangs.

Shabbtai Zvi also did many “strange acts” or abominations. He purposely feasted on religious fasts, particularly the seventeenth day of Tammuz, to say that redemption has begun and statutes are reversed. He also spoke the ineffable name of the Lord, for example, and consumed the forbidden fat on the meat of ritually sacrificed animals. He was mysterious yet daunting when in his moments of ecstasy, while hordes of followers threatened anyone who dared not to believe in him. The ultimate kabbalistic act of Shabbtai Zvi, as interpreted by Nathan of Gaza, was apostasy in the fall of 1667. The Sultan had arrested him and gave Shabbtai the options of death or conversion. Unlike Jesus, Shabbtai Zvi prefered not to die.

Though prior to his conversion Shabbtai Zvi was understood strictly as Messiah son of David, when his demise unfolded Shabbtai was reinterpreted more as Messiah son of Joseph. He was the nihilistic suffering servant of God from Isaiah 53, not the victorious King David messiah. Yet instead of being “wounded of our transgressions,” Shabbtai Zvi was “profaned” rather, all for tikkun. The sin of Shabbtai Zvi was the instrument of messianic redemption. By spiritually infiltrating the evil empires of the world, he was descending deep into the mythological divine sparks trapped in the sitra achra husks of evil. It was redemption through sin, cosmological tikkun.

Shabbtai Zvi died on the Day of Atonement in 1676, while exiled in Albania. Some say he died early in the day, other reports claim his passing occurred during the solemn neila prayer at sundown. Incidentally, there is a legend that Moses died precisely at neila. His body was taken to a cave and there disappeared in a great light. Though himself somewhat dismayed at that point, Nathan of Gaza affirmed the new legend of Shabbtai Zvi’s death that he in fact did not die like other men but rather was exalted on that Day of Atonement.

Hassidic messianism generally toned down the overall eschatological anxiety, though today in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv people cannot ignore obnoxious efforts of Breslevs and Lubavitcher messianists. Whether the more or less religious public imagines the coming of a personal messiah, vibes of repentance and atonement still ring loud. This is due to the trendy Neo-Hassidic spirituality, rooted in messianic history. So for those of us who can imagine, be written in the book of life, for the sake of tikkun.

About the Author
Natar has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He likes to read and write about politics, Jerusalem and messianism.
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