Modern Jewish Messianism

Jewish messianism has been repeatedly reinterpreted in the modern era.

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Zionism sprouted from the modern political judgment that anti‑Semitism was endemic to European regimes and could not be solved through attempts at societal reform. It also drew upon the romantic nationalistic idea that every people is a nation and every nation should have a state as a national home. Despite the opposition of traditionalists, the modern political aspirations of Jewish nationalists found their deepest psychological support in the Jewish tradition of the messianic return to Zion.

Religious Zionists saw their efforts to rebuild Zion as a partnership with the Messiah. Paradoxically, the popular support for the secular Zionists’ return to Zion came from the centuries‑old tradition of restorationist Jewish messianism, despite the fact that this “return to Zion” would result in a secular parliamentary democracy, not a theocracy.

Secular Messianism

Jewish radicalism can also be seen as a form of modern Jewish messianism. Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and other Bolsheviks, and the New Left of the 1960s are often described as secular Jewish messianists in a “search for redemption that is so strong in Jewish history (Nora Levin, While the Messiah Tarried, foreword).”

According to this theory, you can take a Jew out of the tradition, but you cannot take messianism out of a Jew. [Literary critic] Irving Howe saw messianism as “the most urgent force in Jewish tradition, the force that could send a quiescent people into moments of transport and even collective frenzy (World of Our Fathers, p.223).” He saw socialism and Zionism as secular expressions of this force. The essence of Judaism, in his view, is the hope for a Messiah, which these movements have transformed into a commitment to radical political change.

Liberal Religious Messianism

Modern religious denominations have also had to come to terms with the messianic belief.

Reform Judaism rejected traditional Jewish messianism. Its liturgical changes included the removal from the prayer book of all references to the Messiah and to an eventual return to the Land of Israel. The idea of the personal Messiah was reinterpreted as the longing for universal brotherhood within the context of ethical monotheism. More recently, the Reform concept of messianism has come to mean the result of human effort on behalf of creating the perfect world.

Despite the extremely positive references to the State of Israel in the modern prayer books, there is no preaching of a personal return. This is a messianic age without a Messiah‑‑the fulfillment of the particular destiny of the Jewish people in a modern, universalistic mode.

Conservative Judaism understands the body of rabbinic ideas on messianism as “elaborate metaphors generated by deep‑seated human and communal needs (Emet ve-Emunah, p.29).” The various images of the messianic age express the longing for a time of universal peace and social justice and for the ingathering of all Jews to Israel.

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Dr. David S. Ariel

Dr. David S. Ariel is head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously president of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (formerly the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies). He is author of Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life and The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.