Wednesday, August 24, 2005

On Messianism and Its Discontents

I had occasion today to chat with a Jewish journalist from abroad about the future of Zionism The conversation was eye-opening on many levels, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity. One point, that has been dogging me for weeks, kept resurfacing and I'd like to address it here.

I'm really sick of the way 'messianism' is bandied about in public discourse, especially as a pejorative. In current parlance, messianism is a synonym for wild-eyed, irrational religious fanaticism. It is globally invoked when referring to religious zionists in general, and settlers in particular. I often feel (lately, on a daily basis) that when the Haaretz Tabernacle Stereo Choir (Schocken, Samet, Levi, Golan, and Strassler) and its sub-woofers (London, Tirosh, Man, and Baram) speak about messianic settlers, they are conjuring up the image of Rasputin with a yarmulke and an Uzi. 'Messianic' has become a term of opprobrium, a weapon in the arsenal of those who would demonize the Jew.

It probably is beside the point to note that the messianic ideal is one of Judaism's most precious gifts to humanity. It is irrelevant to note that the world's second largest religon is called 'messianism' (aka Christianity'). Never mind the fact that Socialist Zionism began (and, at first, succeeded) as a self-conscious form of secular messianism. [No, I didn't make that up. Gershom Scholem and Zalman Shazar said so. David Biale proved it.] Never mind that, as Ari Shavit noted years ago, in a series of articles in Haaretz, the most radical and dogmatic messianic movement in Israel today is the Israeli Left/Peace movement [with Habad tied for first place].

Yes, Gush Emunim (or what little is left of it) was a messianic movement. Also true, the Rav Kook (pere et fils) school of thought pushed out the more pragmatic school of Religious Zionism represented by Rav YY Reines and Rav Soloveitchik, all זצ"ל. At the same time, it is also true that the overwhelming number of Jews living in Yesha do not subscribe to messianic politics. Then again, arguing the facts is well-nigh futile, when the other guy is banging on the table.

So what is it, pray tell? Actually, pray is the operative word because 'messianic' has simply become a synonym for belief in God, commitment to the Torah, to the Jewish People and an unshakeable belief that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish People in perpetuity (with caveats). In the face of the power of faith, those who are made uncomfortable thereby must demonize it. It must be a pathology. It must be an expression of the 'dark side.' Otherwise, one would need to take it seriously. Ironically, such an attitude is profoundly Manichean, or typical of medieval Christian thought. Catholic and Protestant theologians were absolutely stumped by the stubborn persistence of the Jews to remain as Jews. They could not understand why the Jew was waiting for the Messiah, when (as far as they were concerned), he had already come. At best, as Desiderius Erasmus observed, such stubborness was the height of stupidity, testifying to the utter folly and inanity of the Jew. Most Christians could not comprehend why they insisted on remaining in the dark, and did not leave the shadows for the light ('ex tenebris in lumen Jesu'). The only way that they could explain it was by demonizing the Jew and attributing his obduracy to an alliance with the forces of darkness, or unreason, of Satan himself.

So it is with those who invoke the word 'messianic.' It is not messianism that bothers them. It is the reality of profound, abiding faith in God, Israel and Torah. Whether human initiative can bring the messiah is a matter of theological debate. (Personally, I think it's God's call.) The enduring strength of Judaism however, is a fact.

It is time to call a spade a spade. The use of 'messianic' to stigmatize (again, a 'messianic' usage) all religious zionists is yet another part of the ongoing kulturkampf. Let's face up to it, engage it head on respectfully, intelligently and with determination. Luther stared down the Vatical with his faith. We can stare down Haaretz and Tzavta with ours.


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Anonymous said...

The "messianism" that has bothered me in the news images this past week is the clearly chabad messianism-- the flags w/the crown, the kippot w/the slogan.

Jewish Atheist said...

You're missing the point. "Messianism" is the belief that the Messiah is coming soon, this generation, so we don't need to plan for the future. It's ridiculed because there have been so many messianic groups for millenia and none of them have been right. There's always a first, I suppose, but one could argue even if the messiah did come this generation the current incarnation of messianism just got lucky.

Jeffrey said...

I agree with your observation, but it doesn't explain the global, vicious (bordering on hysterical) use of the term. I was stressing the automatic equation of Religious Zionist=Messianic (which is ludicrous, aside from some aging students of Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook, from whom leaderhip of the RZ community should be taken).

Anonymous said...

See this line from Haaretz's editorial today. At least they are willing to call a spade a spade:

נראה שהם מסרבים להפנים את העובדה, שבקרב הנוכחי על זהותה של מדינת ישראל כמדינת חוק חילונית (שבו המאבק על ההתנחלויות הוא רק ביטוי חיצוני) ועל עתידה הגיאוגרפי והדמוגרפי - הם נוצחו.

Anonymous said...

every shabbos, virtually all rz shuls say reishis tzmichas geulaseinu.
assuming congregants are not lying and believe and understand what is being said, they are all messianist.

personally i am not a messianist, but calling a spade a spade, this is what most rz believe, often to an extreme. i think there is a strong undercurrent of this in the whole disengagement thing.

Jeffrey said...

Excuse me. The phrase 'Reshit Tzemihat Ge'ulatenu" is a very vague, intentionally vague, phrase that can accomadate both messianic expectation and messianic passivity. You can say the same about Mamonides' doxology. Every traditional Jew, on some level, is a messianist. That does NOT mean that he subscribes to the politics of irrationality (Arthur Herzberg's phrase).

Ittay said...

"To see holiness as the essence of some object existing in the world of nature or of history is to raise that thing to the level of the divine-and that is idolatry," Yeshayahu Leibowitz.

Messianism, as I understand it, and as I think the term is being used by the media, is when one sees the LAND of Israel as an object that is holy and desirous of worship. My belief is that it is the study of Torah and performing of mitzvot that are most important. Not the location where these mitzvot are performed.

Rambam did not even include living in Israel as one of his 613 mitzvot. A messianist is one who believes that a Jewish government must rule on all land from the Nile to the Euphraites. Chabad definitely falls into this category.

Jeffrey said...

I agree and disagree. First, Leibowitz' philosophy is, imho, very problematic religiously and borders on religious fascism. Second, I alluded to the idea of mitzvot becoming idolatry by my reference to the Nahash ha-Nehoshet. However, I do not believe that anyone worships EY, and the idea of innate sanctity is a normatively Jewish one, as extensively developed by the Brisker School of Analysis. Third, Rambam did not list livibng in EY as one of the 613. He DID pasken that one must live there. The argument between him and Ramban is one of classification, not one of essence. Fourth, Habad is in the midst of its owbn mesianic crisis of faith. Fifth, the only people who think Israel wants to conquer all of Arabia are the Arabs.

tafka PP said...

"the Haaretz Tabernacle Stereo Choir (Schocken, Samet, Levi, Golan, and Strassler) and its sub-woofers (London, Tirosh, Man, and Baram)"

-Love it!

Anonymous said...

jeffrey -- calling the state of israel, created by jews risking everything to create a land where they can determine their own destiny [god assisting, of course] the reishis tzemichas geulaseinu does not leave a lot of room for passivity. that is certainly not 'pashut peshat' of the expression, certainly not in the context of jewish statehood.

by 'messianist' i have assumed the meaning of the belief in the imminent arrival/nascent arrival of the messiah. this is nowhere required by rambam. possibility of arrival, yes. that he will come, no.

Jeffrey said...

OK. Don't say it. I see no necessary contradiction. BTW, setting up a refuge for Jews, in EY, where Torah can flourish with Divine Help is a great religious goal. Period. Do you mean that if, as R. Hillel said, there will be (GF)no messiah that doing this has no meaning? Was the first Shivat Zion a messianic movement? I really don't think so. What if we do end up living in history for all time? Having a country is not worth the sacrifice. I fear that staking too much on redemption makes Torah an Ahava ha-Teluya be-davar.