Throughout Jewish history, despite the constant injunction to refrain ‘from calculating the date of the end,’ men have arisen who have claimed to be messiahs, and these have mostly asserted their claim on nationalistic pleas. They were to be kings of Israel as well as inaugurators of a new regime of moral and spiritual life.
But though this is true without qualification, it is equally true that the philosophers of the Middle Ages tried to remove all materialistic notions from the messianic idea. It is very difficult to assert nowadays whether Judaism does or does not expect a personal messiah. A very marked change has undoubtedly come over the spirit of the dream.
On the one hand the neo-nationalists deny any messianic hopes. When that great leader, Theodor Herzl, started a Zionistic movement without claiming to be the Jewish messiah, he was putting the seal on a far-reaching change in Jewish sentiment. Dr. J. H. Greenstone, who has just published an interesting volume on the Messianic Idea in Jewish History, writes:
“After the first Basle Congress (1897), when Zionism assumed its present political aspect, Dr. Max Nordau, the vice-president of the Congress, found it necessary to address an article to the Hebrew-reading public, in which he disclaimed all pretensions of Messiahship for himself or for his colleague Dr. Theodor Herzl.”
We have thus this extraordinary situation. Many orthodox Jews stood aloof from the Zionistic movement because it was not messianic, while many unorthodox Jews joined it just because of the movement’s detachment from messianic ideas.
Sacred as Zionism is to many of its adherents, it cannot and will not take the place of the messianic hope. Zionism aims at the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine under the protection of the powers of Europe. The messianic hope promises the establishment, by the Jews, of a world-power in Palestine to which all the nations of the earth will pay homage. Zionism, even in its political aspect, will fulfil only one phase of the Jewish messianic hope. As such, if successful, it may contribute toward the full realisation of the hope. If not successful, it will not deprive the Jews of the hope.
The messianic hope is wider than the emancipation of the Jews, it is more comprehensive than the establishment of a Jewish, politically independent State. It participates in the larger ideals of humanity, the ideals of perfection for the human race, but it remains on Jewish soil, and retains its peculiarly Jewish significance. It promises universal peace, an age of justice and of righteousness, an age in which all men will recognise that God is One and His name One.
The messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all children of God in the confession of the unity of God, so as to realise the unity of all rational creatures and their call to moral sanctification. This view sees in the destruction of the Temple and the dispersal of Israel not a punishment but a stage in the fulfilment of Israel’s destiny as revealed to Abraham. Israel is High-Priest, and can only fulfil his mission in the close neighbourhood of those to whom he is elected to minister.
This, no less than the non-messianic Zionism, is a considerable change from older beliefs. As a messianic hope it transcends the visions of Isaiah. The prophet looks forward to an ideal future, a reign of peace and felicity, but the nations are to flow to Zion. The significance of the change lies in this. The messianic idea now means to many Jews a belief in human development and progress, with the Jews filling the role of the messianic people, but only as primus inter pares. It is the expression of a genuine optimism.
Judaism is the exception that proves the rule. It has been a permanent force in the world’s history. Jewish ideals have exercised recurrent influence at all important crises. The birth of Christianity, the rise of Islam, the mediaeval Scholasticism, the Italian Renaissance, the German Reformation, the English and American Puritanism, the modern humanitarian movement, are exemplifications of the continued power of Judaism to mould the minds and souls of men. The claim is just.
Israel is the protestant people. Every religious or moral innovator has also been a protestant. Socrates, Jesus, Luther; Isaiah, Maimonides, Spinoza; all of them, besides their contributions—very unequal contributions—to the positive store of truth, assumed also the negative attitude of protesters. They refused to go with the multitude, to acquiesce in current conventions. They were all unpopular and even anti-popular. The Jews as a community have fulfilled, and are fulfilling, this protestant function. They have been and are unpopular just because of their protestant function. They refuse to go with the multitude; they refuse to acquiesce.
It is better that a people should be composed of diverse elements and of many races. If the Jew differs from us, so much the better; he is the more likely to bring a little variety into the flat monotony of our modern civilisation. And the same argument applies to religions. There is a permanent value to the world in Israel’s determined, protestant attitude. The handful of protestants who, in Elijah’s day, refused to bow to Baal and to kiss him, were the real saviours of their generation. And though the world today is in no need of such salvation, still the Jew remains the finest exemplification of the truth that God fulfils Himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Zionism is either non-religious or, if religious, brings to the front what has always been a corrective to the nationalism of orthodox Judaism. For the separation of Israel has ever been a means to an end; never an end in itself. Often the end has been forgotten in the means, but never for long. The end of Israel’s separateness is the good of the world. And the religious as distinct from the merely political Zionist who thinks that Judaism would gain by a return to Palestine is just the one who also thinks that return is a necessary preliminary to the Messianic Age, when all men shall flow unto Zion and seek God there.
Adapted from Judaism, by Israel Abrahams, M.A. (1907). Published under a Creative Commons license. Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit.