Today I had the opportunity to deliver a lecture at a church service on the Jewish ideas of the Messiah. The church, Chapel without Walls, conducts its weekly service in our sanctuary on Sunday mornings. It is an intimate congregation that usually attracts 35-40 people. Today there were about 100 people. How ironic that my friend Rev. John Miler would introduce me as a guest speaker to my own pulpit! We all got a laugh out of that observation. The experience was a positive one because when Christians and Jews speak about the Messiah we are really talking about apples and oranges. Yet my sense is that because both Jews and Christians were sitting together inside a synagogue sanctuary in a church service was a sign of the importance of learning and sharing ideas between the religions. We need to do more of it.
For mainstream Christian theology the Messiah represents an internal process of redemption and salvation usually connected to believing in Jesus of Nazereth as the Messiah, the son of God as a precondition to entering Heaven. For Jews the concept is very different. We see the Messiah as a human being performing acts of heroism which unite a people and return the Jewish people to their homeland. In fact the five criterion of the Messiah in conventional Jewish theology are, defeat the enemies of the Jewish people, establish the Temple service in Jerusalem, bring together the Jewish people back to the land of Israel and, finally, usher in an era of peace for the Jewish people and the world.
The Messiah ideas have changed from the times of the Bible to the period of late antiquity and then into the Middle Ages. Jews followed the law-halachah- and the belief that not only were the Scriptures holy but also the rabbinic literature of the Talmud as well. The Jewish people have had to defend their beliefs over history, particularly with the Catholic Church in Spain and other nations. Jews also had to contend with a history of false Messiahs going back to the times of the Romans when Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Cochbah, the Jewish general who defied the Roman army in 136CE, as the Messiah. Sabbatai Tzvi called himself the Messiah in the 17th century in Europe. Most of the Jewish communities believed him until the Turkish authorities arrested him and he converted to Islam before his death.
The period of the Enlightenment in the 18th century ushered in a new era of thinking about the Jews. The messiah ideas reflected themselves not in a person but or in a return to the land of Israel. Instead it was to integrate Jews into the mainstream of European life. But by the time of the latter part of the 19th century arrived, the Messiah ideas grew into the movement to settle Jews into the land of Israel. Theodore Herzl led that movement and the settlement of Jews in Palestine. Zionism took on a kind of Messianic movement in Jewish life. In America the reform movement took the opposite view. In the 19 century the reform rabbinate come up with their platform which said that the Reform Judaism would no longer accept a belief in the Messiah nor in a return to the land of Palestine. Of course that all changed by the middle part of the 20th century when Reform Judaism changed its tune and embraced the call to resettle Jews in Palestine. In those early days of Reform Judaism the movement was trying to embrace American culture and acculturate German Jews into the mainstream of American culture.
Today we see resurgence in the Messiah ideas with the HABAD Hasidism one side and progressive Judaism on the other side of the theological spectrum. The reform movement now advocates social justice and in that way we do not need a personal messiah but we can bring about an era when social justice and learning combine to repair the world and heal it. Part of that thinking comes from Jewish mysticism in the 17th century. How powerful ideas are and how they reappear centuries later in places we would never imagine!
The upshot of today’s lecture is that Judaism has many different ideas about the Messiah. It is an act of communal not individual redemption. This is consistent with Judaism’s focus on the history and promise of the Jewish people. Communal revelation and salvation define our religious underpinnings. Yet history has certainly influenced the creative instincts of Jewish communities to defend the traditional ideas of the Messiah as well as to create new adaptations of the Messiah as the times required.
Finally, today was a wonderful opportunity for all of us who attended the service to discuss the teachings of our respective religion’s teachings on the Messiah. Different religions learning together the similarities and differences of our respective faiths goes a long way to show how religion is a force for unity and good in our country. We need to do more of it and not less.