The Messianic Society: A Jewish Utopia

In Jewish sources, the ideal Jewish society will be situated in Israel and ushered in by catastrophic events.

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If there are prophetic utterances that do suggest such a change, for example, that the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard graze with the goat, then their purport is [according to Maimonides] not literal but figurative and symbolic: to signify, in this particular case, that "Israel will dwell in peace with the wicked men of idolatry who are likened to wolves and leopards" (MT, Hilkhot Melakhim 12:1).

In accordance with his consistent attempt to introduce a cautionary and sobering note into the world of utopian and messianic hope, Maimonides quotes the third‑century Amora of Babylon, Samuel, to the effect that "the only difference between this world and the days of the Messiah is the subjection of Israel to the nations" (BT Sanhedrin 91b).

Cautious Messianism

Similarly, Maimonides warned against any attempt to divine the messianic process by astrology or any other means (cf. Maimonides, Epistle to Yemen). In fact, when it would happen, how it would happen, and what would happen were all concealed; the sages had no clear traditions and, in any case, no article of faith was involved. The whole subject was to be avoided as a fruitless exercise (MT, Hilkhot Melakhim 12:1). On the other hand, Maimonides, in the Epistle to Yemen, did reveal a tradition in his family to the effect that the Messiah would come in 4976, or 1216 C.E.

The attempt to combat messianic hopes and discredit their exponents was perennial, all the more so when messianism was coupled with antinomianism [i.e. movements that eschewed obedience to Jewish law, halakha].

It began perhaps with Rabbi Torta's attack on Rabbi Akiva for his support of Bar Kokhba in 132 C.E. and the anathema pronounced on all "who calculate the end"; it is represented in the Gaonic period by Natronai Gaon [9th century], continues with Rabbi Azariah dei Rossi's attack in 1573 on the predictions and astrological calculations of Rabbi Abraham bar Hiyya in the twelfth century and Don Isaac Abrabanel in the late fifteenth century, and reaches its climax in the onslaught directed by Rabbi Jacob Sasportas on Shabbetai Zevi, Nathan of Gaza, and the [messianic] Sabbatean movement in general, which flourished from 1666 to 1676.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the same tradition is maintained in the attacks made on the Zionist movement by Rabbi Joseph Rozin, the Rogachover Rebbe. It is indeed symptomatic of the new movement's secular and antinomian tendencies that it should produce the closest Jewish counterparts to the conventional utopian fancies of the gentile world‑‑Herzl's Altneuland (Old‑New Land) (1902) and Elhanan Leib Lewinski's Hebrew tract Journey to the Land of Israel in the Year 5800 [C.E. 2040] (1892).

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Lionel Kochan

Lionel Kochan (1922-2005) was Littman Lecturer in Jewish Politics at Oxford University and Sherman Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. His books include Jews, Idols, and Messiahs and Beyond the Graven Image.