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.