When someone asks me Judaism’s position on a particular subject, I usually answer, “Which Jewish tradition do you want to hear?” I’m not just talking about the differences between contemporary religious movements, but the fact that Judaism — from biblical times to the present day — offers contradictory ideas about a variety of topics. For example, as Rabbi Elaine Rose Glickman notes in “The Messiah and the Jews: Three Thousand Years of Tradition, Belief and Hope” (Jewish Lights Publishing), there is no one idea concerning the Jewish messiah. The word itself comes from the Hebrew root mem-shin-chet, which means “anointed.” Anointing played a role in biblical times for priests, recovering lepers and kings, but, as Glickman writes, it simply meant that “oil [was] poured onto a person’s head.”
Glickman’s interest in the topic comes from her belief that “the conviction that the Messiah is coming is Judaism’s greatest gift to the world. It is a promise of meaning. It is a source of consolation. It is a wellspring of creativity. It is a reconciliation between what is and what should be. And it is perhaps our most powerful statement of faith — in God, in humanity, and in ourselves.”
However, she also believes that many people don’t understand the Jewish messianic concept or realize the many different representations of the messiah that have occurred throughout the centuries.
The author clearly notes that while the messiah is revered, he is not a divine being: “For all of the Messiah’s singular acts, he does not share in the divinity of God and, like all of God’s creations, must yield his place — and his glory — before the Most High.”
Jewish tradition generally accepts that the messiah will be a descendent of King David; however, his nature and his expected accomplishments are open for debate. For example, will the messiah be constrained by the physical realities of the world or will he have the ability to abridge natural law? Many stories treat the messiah as a kind of superhero, who will — as the prophet Isaiah suggests — make the wolf and lamb live together in peace.
One debate centers on whether the messiah’s miracles will be restricted to the people of Israel; by the time of the Babylonian exile, writers suggest that while God’s main focus will be on the chosen people, the rest of the world will not be ignored.
There are similar discussions about whether or not the Messianic Age will be preceded by a time of war and destruction. Those who prescribe to this idea see the messiah as a warrior. Apocalyptic literature focuses on the battles the messiah will have to fight, for example, with mighty chieftains and primordial creatures. Since the idea of a warrior messiah clashes with the image of a peaceful messianic reign, a second messianic figure came into being: Known as Messiah ben Joseph, he is said to be a descendent from Jacob’s son Joseph, as opposed to the patriarch’s son Judah (the ancestor of King David and, therefore, the second messianic figure now known as the Messiah ben David). In one variation of this tale, the Messiah ben Joseph will lead an uprising, only to be cut down by his enemies. After 40 days, the Messiah ben David will arrive and lead the Israelites to their final redemption.
Other traditions focus on a different type of messiah, the poor beggar who waits patiently for the world to be ready for redemption — a redemption that will only take place when all Jews perform a particular mitzvah, for example, celebrating the Shabbat at the same time. That raises the question of whether one can force the messiah to come. Some groups — including several mystical ones — believe it’s possible if only they can create the right circumstances. Others see this as an affront to God’s wisdom, noting these attempts can only end in chaos. Glickman also discusses false messiahs, the best known of whom is Shabbatei Zevi, a self-proclaimed messianic figure who converted to Islam when threatened with death.
The author also offers other interesting tidbits concerning the messiah and the end of days. There are debates about whether the dead will rise once the messianic age begins. If so, will they wear clothes? Would those with disabilities return whole? If a widower took a second wife, will he spend eternity with his first spouse or his second? Will humanity need to eat during the messianic age? Some tales do include a feast of the righteous, which will feature wine and the flesh of three great mythical beasts. Others see the feast as allegorical, interpreting the idea of food and wine to mean the ability to receive “esoteric knowledge of God so far withheld from humanity.”
Glickman concludes with a personal note about how she experiences a taste of the messianic age “through the observance of Shabbat.” She notes that “the rituals and ceremonies of Shabbat expressly foreshadow the days of deliverance. The elaborate Shabbat dinner parallels the Feast of the Righteous, the shunning of work corresponds to the era’s endless serenity and abundance, and the prayers and songs herald a time when all shall know Divine Presence.”
While I love the imagery Glickman uses, her suggestion will not satisfy skeptics or those who long for a time of peace and justice. However, her thoughtful exploration of Jewish ideas of the messiah makes “The Messiah and the Jews” an excellent education resource.