Wednesday, / July 17, 2024

Do We Want Moshiach Now?

From the time that I was a child attending cheder, and even earlier than that, there began to take form in my mind a vision of the future redemption: the redemption of Israel from its last exile, redemption such as would explicate the suffering, the decrees and the massacres of exile.

 

—The Rebbe, in a 1956 letter to Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi

At the conclusion of the Seder, Jews throughout the world will proclaim their desire to celebrate next Passover in Jerusalem. But will we really mean it? 

Whether we encounter Jewish liturgy on a daily basis or once a year at our family Seder, we’ve all come across this suggestion: we’re supposed to want Moshiach now. This messianic ambition is embedded at the center of religious life. Yet, there is possibly no other tenet of Jewish thought that is more mystifying. For many, the promise of a messianic era remains a bewilderingly foreign concept, tangential to our understanding of Judaism.

Whereas we might struggle to articulate an affirmative account of Jewish messianism, we inherit plenty of opinions about what Jewish messianism is not. Discussions on the idea of Moshiach invariably focus on historical figures and the catastrophic effects provoked by pretenders to the crown. As a result of the false messianic claims of Shabbatai Zvi and Jacob Frank, any attempt at a meaningful enquiry into Jewish messianism is often treated with suspicion. To put it in a more forthright manner, as a result of so many prior upheavals, the Jewish mainstream is heavily defended against messianic speculations.

This poses a particular challenge to those of us who have been tasked with disseminating Jewish and Chasidic thought. The Rebbe’s teachings and directives aimed to bring messianic consciousness to the fore of Jewish life. Moreover, the Rebbe emphasized that the very purpose of Chasidic thought in general, and Chabad thought in particular, was to imbue Judaism with messianic awareness, preparing us for an ultimate redemption.

If the phrase “Moshiach Now” makes people think of the harrowing images in “Apocalypse Now,” then we need to reframe the conversation.

However, we find ourselves at a certain impasse, which the Rebbe himself bemoaned many times. If the phrase “Moshiach Now” makes people think of the harrowing images in “Apocalypse Now,” then we need to reframe the conversation. How can we develop a discourse on Moshiach that is understanding of reservations while simultaneously being bold and creative? The formulaic declaration of a wish for the coming of Moshiach at the end of a sermon or its inclusion as a symbolic postscript at the bottom of a wedding invitation is most definitely not what is called for. As the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas put it, “There is nothing more hypocritical than the messianic prophetism of the comfortable bourgeois.” 

In order for the full ramifications of a statement such as “We want Moshiach now” to become sensible across the spectrum of Jewish life, I believe we need to come to some common understanding that Judaism and being Jewish is a project with a goal. I doubt we will ever come to agree on the exact nature of that project and what the anticipated goal should be; however, if we can just agree on this alone, we have the basis for a meaningful discussion about the future. If we allow ourselves a moment of brutal honesty, until we embrace the possibility of a different future, in one form or another, we will want Moshiach neither now nor ever.

Moreover, not just Judaism, but the entirety of creation is valued and appreciated as part of a project with a goal. For all the talk of Maimonides as the thinker who brought Aristotelian philosophy into the Jewish world, it is precisely in that moment where he rejects Aristotle that our Jewish messianic orientation is secured. Aristotle imagined an eternal existence, but Maimonides argues that the world was chosen into existence. If the world was chosen into existence, then it was chosen for a purpose. If we then acknowledge Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s addition, that the choice was made not long ago, but is being made continually, then each and every moment becomes pregnant with purpose, and our ambivalence is shaken to its complacent core.

And while a discussion on the future can no doubt include a full examination of the wide-ranging components of Jewish messianic beliefs, from the identity and role of the messianic king to the apocalyptic visions found in the books of our prophets, those details rely on a more elemental premise: that Judaism and being Jewish is a project with a goal. I firmly believe that this awareness is at the core of Jewish survival. 

If Judaism and being Jewish were not a project with a goal, then why would it be so essential to so many to preserve it, even to the point of self-sacrifice? After more than twenty years on shlichut, and being engaged with Jews of all stripes and colors from all over the world, I can say with confidence that every Jew is subconsciously aware of this project. I have yet to meet a Jew who doesn’t have a red line, a point of no return. The absolute obliteration of their Jewishness is not an option, even if it means hanging on by a shoestring. On the whole, these are matters that run deep within the self, far beyond any rational considerations, but they speak of an enduring purpose, an eternal flame, that even the tumultuous waters talked of in the Song of Songs cannot extinguish.

Until we embrace the possibility of a different future, we will want Moshiach neither now nor ever.

When thinking about how to conceive of this messianic project of Judaism, I am always drawn back to what, at first glance, appears to be a slightly banal Chasidic aphorism I once heard from the Chasid Reb Nachum Shmaryahu (Reb Shmeryl) Sasonkin (1889-1975): 

When Moshiach comes, don’t expect the world to look drastically different from the way it looks now. The most significant change will be how the realm of the sublime and the profound become natural and normal. Someone will be able to ask their friend which profound idea they had meditated on that morning, and the friend will be able to reply without any sense of awkward pride or piety. 

In our current state of exile, there is a disconnect between the mundane, ordinary aspects of life and our more spiritual pursuits. This disconnect works both ways: we might attribute a higher value to our soulful activities while ignoring the profundity of the daily routine. Reb Shmeryl’s insight was that, in the milieu of Moshiach, we will be able to move beyond these tensions.

This down-to-earth and very personal evaluation of exile and redemption might look like escapism from more global concerns. However, to be exiled from one’s self, unable to blend together the body and the soul, is our first-hand experience of broader societal dysfunction, of which war and violence are just the most disturbing examples. 

This dilemma of soul-body dualism has preoccupied Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. Some have leaned towards emphasizing the undesirability of bodily and material things, while others have focused on the superiority of the spiritual. In both instances, the oppositional binary of soul and body becomes hardened, potentially exacerbating our state of inner exile. By contrast, Chasidut values both and seeks to integrate them. The goal is for the two to be so thoroughly fused that one cannot detect where either of them begins or ends, for only both of them together will complete the perfection desired by the Creator. 

The study of Chasidic thought thus becomes a necessary prelude to, as well as an instantiation of, a messianic era when the purpose of all aspects of existence are realized. When early morning contemplation on the wonders of creation exists harmoniously with breakfast, such that an inquiry about one or the other will be responded to by the same self, then the individual journey out of exile has begun. Being the change that we want to see in the world is not escapism, but the necessary groundswell that can overcome and overwhelm the current order.

Messianic speculations can sometimes be damaging and harmful, but a Judaism drained of any awareness of what it is for and how it can get there is possibly even more dangerous. Our recent and ongoing exposure to war and violence is an urgent wake-up call that our world desperately needs to realize its purpose and not further descend into depravity and corruption. Wanting Moshiach now is not an empty slogan but our commitment to a different future and our rejection of the status quo. While the vision of the redemption that began to take form in the Rebbe’s mind as a young child may not resonate with everyone, the importance for us all to appreciate the need for such a vision should be uncontroversial. 



Reuven Leigh is an affiliated Lecturer at the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, UK, and is the director of Chabad of Cambridge. He is the author of The Philosophy of Shalom Ber Schneerson: Language, Gender and Mysticism.

Comment 1
  • David Horstman

    The Rebbe’s vision is indeed a lovely one, and it represents ultimately the endpoint of a certain process of distillation initiated by precisely the two false messiahs you criticize. The timing of the birth of the Baal Shem Tov between these two individuals’ famous conversions to Judaism’s two child faiths is no coincidence – indeed the mechanism by which this extraordinary individual was able to find the font of spirituality which would eventually produce Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was precisely in bridging the gap between the two of them. The spirit of Chasidus is the spirit of a Judaism which sits within the narrow overlap between Christianity and Islam’s successes at the exclusion of their complementary excesses. It is however subject to the flaws which both faiths share in common. The Rebbe, Shabtai Tziv, Jacob Frank, and even Joshua of Nazareth share one common thread – they brought value to the world and to the Jewish people by giving us one more example of what might approach the disposition of the last messiah. A vision which represents the universal embrace of the Oral Torah by all of Jewry seems as unlikely to me as a vision of the universal worship of the Holy Trinity seems to all Jews. However, a vision of the universal embrace of the excitement and joy of Hasidism seems to me not only plausible but eminently probable, because this would be a vision which speaks to the needs of all the world’s Jews.

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