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Waiting for the Messiah

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I was in my mid-twenties, delivering an “Introduction to Judaism” talk to a group of fraternity brothers at Lafayette College, when I first heard the question: Jewish people don’t believe the messiah has come? The young man, who identified himself as a member of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, lingered long after the program ended to try to understand what that meant. He could not imagine how one could live in such a state.

I have since encountered that question many times. At its root is a well-meaning misconception—that Judaism is structurally identical to Christianity. Hanukah is the Jewish Christmas, Passover is the Jewish Easter, Saturday is the Jewish Sunday, and…who is the Jewish Christ?

The Jewish messianic belief plays a central role in the lives of Jewish people, but it is very different than Christians’ belief in Jesus as Christ. The redemption that Christ brought is internal transformation—being saved from one’s sinfulness, achieving the inner peace that comes from receiving God’s love. As a Jew, I rest in God’s unconditional love and the ever flowing blessings that come to me through divine grace. I do not, however, believe that the world has yet been redeemed. In a redeemed world, swords will be turned into ploughshares, nobody will go hungry, the powerless will not be oppressed, and justice will prevail everywhere. This was the vision of the Biblical Prophets, and it remains the foundation of Jewish hope for the future.

There is no single authoritative Jewish belief about redemption, but the one the speaks most powerfully to me is from the medieval teacher Maimonides (known to Jews as the Rambam) in his treatise The Mishneh Torah. Maimonides states emphatically that none of the laws of nature will be altered in the messianic era. Instead, he envisions a world governed by a King Messiah who is wise, righteous, just, and politically adept. There will be no servitude to foreign powers and there will be peace. All people will be free to devote themselves to the study of the Torah and the practice of good deeds, and there will be plenty of material goods for everyone. All of this will happen because of the righteousness and wisdom of the messianic ruler.

Maimonides lived in a time when monarchy was common—but I don’t believe that the messianic era will be ushered in by a king. I do agree, however, that the messianic era is within our reach, without any suspension of the laws of nature. The more that we work collectively to end poverty and injustice and hate and war, the closer we get to ushering in the messianic era—a time when all people will live according to the will and wisdom of God.

Of course, we may never realize such a utopian vision. Maybe the messianic era will never arrive—it’s already taking so long! But Jewish people have recited and sung the following sentiment for many centuries:

“Even though the Messiah tarries, I will wait for him/her every day with great anticipation.”

Even though we say we are waiting, we are not waiting passively to be rescued. We are actively working to hasten the arrival of the messianic era by increasing justice and peace, by fighting oppression and human suffering. Our awareness of the unredeemed state of the world moves us to work to make things better. I believe that this is a major reason why so many Jewish people become social, political, and economic activists, why Jews in the USA vote more liberally than others in the same economic brackets. Our interest in helping the less fortunate derives from a vision of what the world redeemed looks like.

From my perspective then, believing in a messiah or a messianic era that has not yet come—that may never come—is a central and precious core of my religious outlook. My yearning for a messiah not-yet-come raises my consciousness. It keeps me from being satisfied and complacent. It keeps me perpetually aware of the suffering in this world—and of the need to do whatever I can to alleviate that suffering. It’s what helps bring our world a little bit closer to the messianic era.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day.

RRC: Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality; Director, Jewish Spiritual Direction Program; Director, eVolve: Groundbreaking Conversations; Sadie Gottesman and Arlene Gottesman Reff Professor of Gender and Judaism;

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