Why Judaism — and the World — Needs a Messianic Vision
The course of human civilization, if one can use that term, has progressed and continues to, in a series of slow cycles. The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) introduced the now well-known process of change — a thesis, a positive step forward in human affairs, always provokes an antithesis, a reaction, and a step backward. Then comes a synthesis, the fusion of the two that leads forward to a higher and better level.
There are always regressions, catastrophes, and disasters along the road, but it does seem that, overall, we are improving — even if there are catastrophic regressions and plenty of evidence of human venality.
More people have been lifted out of poverty and slavery in our time than at any other stage in human history. We are seeing how many governments have marshaled their resources and financial power to help mitigate a pandemic faster than any time before.
Of course, the usual pathetic politicians continue to play the blame game in order to bolster their egos. But if one can take a step backward, I believe we will come to see this era as one of remarkable human achievement. And it has come about because of that human spirit that looks forward.
This positive reaction of humanity is what the idea of Messianism, that we Jews introduced to the world, really means.
If we often do not see progress — or the sort of progress we approve of — it is just that we tend to see things in terms of our own short life and attention spans. If we do not see immediate and complete change, we assume that nothing is happening. But in fact, it often does, before our very eyes. Humanity exists on a time scale of billions of years, not just one lifespan.
No one would have foreseen 70 years ago that we would see an Israel that, for all its many faults, is as strong, thriving, and confident as it is today — despite being divided and surrounded by enemies determined to snuff it out. Or that it would become one of the most successful countries and economies on the planet. I don’t think we have been stronger in our history.
Other peoples have suffered horrors and oppression. But no other has been so universally detested as the Jews. For nearly 2,000 years, the Christian and Muslim world has lied about us, and tried to convince, torture, and humiliate us into giving up our tradition. For years, religions killed people if they did not agree with their version of peace on Earth. It is only in the last few centuries that many countries have freed themselves from religious oppression and obscurantism, while others are reverting further back into the Dark Ages.
I have just read “1848: The Year of Revolution” by Mike Rapport, about the second tide of revolutions that tried to push for change in Europe. Crowds of working-class radicals and middle-class liberals in Berlin, Budapest, Frankfurt, Krakow, Milan, Munich, Paris, Prague, and Venice challenged, and almost toppled, the old conservative, aristocratic regimes in pursuit of a new and fairer order. And this same process of arrested change instead of hoped-for progress happened in the US as well, in the aftermath of the Civil War.
What started so hopefully soon receded, as the old guard fought back. Their grip took a long time to loosen.
The fight for change has often had unforeseen consequences. And ironically, it is almost always a rise in antisemitism that is the canary in the coal mine. Wherever Jew-hatred has erupted, it has poisoned its perpetrators, and undermined them financially, politically, and mentally. Every action has a reaction. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Hatred begets hatred. Violence begets violence. And as we look around us now, we see the same forces at work. Progress, anti-progress, and hopefully resolution.
The rabbis 2,000 years ago warned us not to try to predict when the Messiah will come. “ A curse on those who try to predict when the messiah will come,” says the Talmud in Sanhedrin. “Because if you do and then no one turns up, people will become disillusioned and lose faith.”
Many Jews blithely ignore the warning. But we need to encourage the idea of hope (if not the image of the Messiah riding in on a donkey). We need a messianic vision to help us rise above the pettiness and antagonism.
The author is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.