Rabbi Daniel F. Polish
Musings at the gate of the new year
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The Days of Awe, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur (Sept. 13-22), afford Jews an opportunity to reflect on what the enterprise of Jewish life is all about. As with all religious traditions, it must be about more than the symbols or institutions of our respective communities of faith. For Christians, Christianity must be about more than the church or the sacraments themselves. Surely Judaism is about more than “survival” or “continuity”; the project of Jewish life has a purpose and a goal beyond itself. As I reflect on this, I am reminded of one unusual facet of Jewish life today.

 

The Messianic Claim: Heresy?

Christian readers may be intrigued to learn of a significant conflict taking place in the Jewish world today. It is not between Zionists and non-Zionists, nor between Orthodox and Reform. It is wholly contained within the Orthodox world (estimated at between half a million and one million Jews worldwide). When Menachem Mendel Schneerson, rabbi of a group of Hasidic Jews originally from the town of Lubavitch in Russia, died in Brooklyn in 1994, many of his most devoted followers believed that he, widely known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was the Mashiach, the Messiah. Many Lubavitch Hasidim continue to believe that; others do not. The movement today is being torn apart by a kind of civil war between those who hold to the messianic claim and those who reject it. This internal Lubavitch struggle is being compounded by criticism from the non-Hasidic Orthodox world. Serious Orthodox thinkers condemn the very idea of claiming that the rebbe was the Messiah. They call it heresy and argue that the Lubavitch sect runs the risk of straying outside of normative Judaism altogether.

And what do non-Orthodox and non-Lubavitch Jews make of all this? Some find it intriguing to see the Orthodox world at war with itself. There are liberal Jews who agree with the Orthodox criticism of Lubavitch’s messianism, because they find it impossible to take any talk of a messiah seriously. They suggest that all that Lubavitch talk about the rebbe being the Mashiach is ridiculous, because any talk at all of the Mashiach is ridiculous. I know that many of my fellow liberal Jews believe that the idea of a messiah plays no role in our religious life and has no place in our tradition. And I know that many Christians have accepted this depiction of Jewish life and assume that Jews dispense totally with the idea of a messiah.

What Christians might find evocative is the argument from the other pole—from the Orthodox critics. These exponents of Jewish tradition argue that talk of this person or that person as being the Mashiach does not make sense, not because any talk of the Mashiach does not make sense but because the claims of the rebbe to be the Mashiach do not hold up according to normative Judaism’s own criteria. We will know that the Mashiach has arrived when all the ills of humankind have been alleviated: war will be no more, the hungry will be fed, the naked clothed and the sick made whole. Jerusalem, the age-old capital of the Jewish soul, will be a beacon of justice and harmony.

I Stand With Maimonides

To my own surprise, I find myself not in the camp of many liberal Jews, and certainly not in the camp of the Rebbe-is-the-Mashiach-Lubavitchers, but in the camp of normative Orthodoxy. I end up in the Orthodox camp because I believe that concern about the coming of the Mashiach is central to the Jewish enterprise. It is not irrelevant. It is not completely absent, as some claim.

For better or worse the Mashiach has occupied center stage in Jewish thought for millennia. The rabbis often spoke as if the Messiah were waiting just around the corner. The early church emerged out of a Jewish community suffused with messianic expectation. When Maimonides tried his hand at writing a credo of Jewish belief, he argued that belief in the coming of the Messiah was an absolutely essential part of Jewish faith. From time to time, when things became painful for Jews during their 2,000 years of exile, people would step forward and claim to be the Messiah arriving to rescue them. As recently as the 18th century, thousands of Jews in Europe wandered off, selling all their property and venturing to parts unknown to follow one of those false messiahs. Even the Jews of Ethiopia recorded the emergence of a false messiah who led his followers into the jungle to take them back home to Jerusalem. All those Jews followed these false messiahs because for them the ultimate coming of the Messiah was a vital and urgent part of their Jewish belief system.

When Jews were marched to the gas chambers in that dark night of the Shoah, they sang a song based on Maimonides’s ancient theological formula: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even if he tarry, even in the face of that, I still believe.” What a profound final affirmation. And not very much later, when the Soviet Union tried in its own way to eradicate Jewish life, Soviet Jews expressed confidence in their ultimate triumph in a song that affirmed, “Redemption is coming soon, the Messiah is coming very soon.” Jewish life has never been without its faith in the coming of the Mashiach.

I myself, when I was very young, met a man who claimed to be the Messiah. One Yom Kippur he was walking around in front of the synagogue during services handing out pamphlets. I could not understand why the adults were all so sure he was wrong. And I was pained by the eagerness of the leaders of the congregation to have him deterred from disrupting our worship. Imagine driving the Messiah away—and on Yom Kippur no less! To my childish understanding this, of all days, was the time we should invite him in, even ask him to preach to us. But adult wisdom prevailed. Our “messiah” was persuaded to move on. The leaders of the congregation turned out to be right. He was not the Messiah. Peace, health and human well-being did not suddenly burst into fulfillment on that day. Nonetheless, as I understand my own motivation as a Jew, the coming of the Mashiach has never been far from center stage in my own Jewish life. It is never far from my religious consciousness.

A Vision of Human Perfection

Do I believe in an individual who will ride in on a horse led by Elijah? Do I expect him to show up in front of my synagogue this Yom Kippur? No, I confess I do not. If the false messiah I met as a boy were to show up today, I would probably not believe in him either. But I am energized by that ancient vision of an age of human perfection when human suffering will be ended and disease, war and poverty conquered. I do believe be’emunah shleimah—with complete faith—that that time can come. And I believe with complete faith that we can bring it about. Our efforts can create that time of perfection and wholeness, a time of peace and human well-being. I agree with what Franz Kafka once wrote: that the Messiah will come the day after he arrives. That is, once we have done the work and created the time of perfection, then the Messiah will come. This belief has always been a powerful engine for my own Jewish life, and I am convinced that the spiritual rededication of the Days of Awe summons us to it. These days remind all Jews that living a Jewish life means being a person on fire with the promise that the world can be made perfect and impelled by a sense of urgency to bring that about.

Standing at the threshold of a new year is always about reconnecting to what matters most in our tradition, recommitting ourselves to engage more wholeheartedly in the project of Jewish life. For me, the very heart of the enterprise is the effort we expend to bring the coming of the Messiah nearer, to mend the broken world and to do our part to make it whole again.

Rabbi Daniel Polish, former director of the Commission on Social

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