Essay: Messianism

Messianism has continued to evolve throughout centuries, but the contrasts between Jewish and Christian concepts of redemption have remained the same. As opposed to the Christian internal perspective of redemption, Judaism views it externally as a communal event shown in public to the visible world. The Jewish community continues to strive towards its end goal of fulfillment, yet the tensions in comprehending the relationship of rabbinic Judaism and the Messianic idea have led to confusion. In one of the most significant essays regarding Messianism, ‘Toward An Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism,’ Scholar Gershom Scholem clarifies any uncertainty by uncovering the hidden field of Jewish Messianism. By utilizing various texts and arguments, he explores the notion that the foundation of Jewish Messianism is ‘conservative, restorative, catastrophic, and utopian,’ in hope to convey the essential truth of Jewish history as well as envision the greatly anticipated future.
Scholem first describes the forces of Messianism to be ‘conservative,’ referring to the history’s existing preservation that has always been in jeopardy. The elements of conservatism are explained to be ‘the most easily visible and immediately obvious forces’ that are centralized in the realm of Halakhah by upholding the Jewish Law. Moreover, the Halakhah influenced how the Jews lived during exile. The conservative tendencies are unique in that they are significant to the religion of Judaism, yet were not involved in the growth and development of Messianism within the community.
Scholem then describes the ‘restorative’ forces to be focused on the return to the prosperous past and forgotten homeland. There is a hope held by Messianists to reverse time to ancestral life of the original state of existence. Scholem also draws attention to the concept of tikkun, which is the re-establishment of the ideal circumstances of the past. Not only do restorative forces highlight the desired perfection of the past, but they also look forward to the future, inspired by a utopian vision, which aims to achieve complete fulfillment. Essentially, Messianic time spans from the origin to the end of the days, where there is hope for the coming of the Messiah.
Another crucial element Scholem discusses is ‘utopianism,’ which is expressed through visions encompassing perfection and ideality. Amidst the dread and damage associated with catastrophes, the utopian inspiration brings a positive light to the chaos. Scholem refers to the utopian movement with the re-establishment of Israel and the Davidic kingdom and, as well as the creation of paradise that is foretold by numerous Midrashim, who are the interpreters of Hebrew Scriptures. In the Lurianic Kabbalah, there is a narrow utopian vision; the Kabbalists remained faithful to this utopian conception as they follow the ‘model of a renewed humanity (‘), which represents the prophetic legacy of Messianic utopianism.’ Messianic utopianism’s target audience is believers who are willing to accept a world that no one has experienced before. Though they contradict each other, utopian forces are extremely intertwined with those of restorative forces. According to Scholem, these two forces have never met a ‘measured harmony,’ but their combined power to build a foundation for Messianic hope is more important than their contradictions. This reliance between the utopian and restorative factors ultimately reveals greater tensions of Messianism within rabbinic Judaism.
The last characteristic of Messianism that Scholem introduces is ‘catastrophic.’ Throughout the essay, Scholem mentions this force more than any other, hinting at his belief in its greater significance as he states ‘Jewish Messianism is in its origins and by nature ‘ this cannot be sufficiently emphasized ‘ a theory of catastrophe.’ The catastrophic forces are The catastrophic forces act as the basis for Messianic transformation as well as the revolutionary element that stands as the transition between the present history and salvation. The prophets and apocalyptists emphasize the absence of such a transition, reminding us that the end of time will come suddenly and without warning. Scholem repeatedly emphasizes the urgency of a catastrophe in order for salvation to occur, as apocalyptism involves ‘elements of dread and consolation intertwined.’
Scholem describes the forces indicating the Messiah’s arrival, yet ironically emphasizes that those who ‘press for the End’ are doomed to fail. He uses the examples of Amos’ Day of the Lord and Isaiah’s visions to prove that human action is worthless in bringing about redemption. Scholem exercises the verse in Song of Songs 2:7 that commands, ‘do not awaken or stir up love until it is ready’ to further stress his warning. Scholed continues to deepen his message with similar messages from Rabbi Helbo and author of Fourth Ezra who share the same attitude regarding the relation between human action and salvation. Furthermore, he explains the legend of Rabbi Joseph de la Reyna, who also experiences failure in bringing about salvation by pressing for the end.
Furthermore, Scholem describes the most popular apocalyptic calculations; one based on numbers and constellations and the other, discussed in Talmudic literature, states the Messianic arrival cannot be predicted. Scholem indicates that ‘there can be no preparation for the Messiah’ as he will arrive abruptly without warning, when there is the least anticipation and all hope has disappeared. Scholem touches on the rabbinic fable that claims the Messiah waits ‘where he dwells among the lepers and beggars of the Eternal City.’ It is believed that this catastrophic character will bring salvation through the apocalyptic paradoxes such ‘world wars and revolutions, epidemics, famine, and economic catastrophe.’ These paradoxes directed towards the end of time are recorded in the Mishnah, the first canonical document of the Halakhah. Furthermore, the Talmud describes the most exaggerated formulation of the Messiah’s coming claiming it will be when the world is ‘either totally pure or totally guilty and corrupt.’
The Messianic ideas that Scholem explores is a puzzle with each piece representing a force: conservative, restorative, utopian, and catastrophic. Each element is unique and important on its own, and without one, the puzzle will remain incomplete as the coming of the Messiah relies on the four forces. According to Scholem, until the awaited messianic moment, when each element is perfectly pieced together, there will be a never-ending anticipation to solve the mystery of the Messiah, ironically just delaying the end of time.

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