A Dialectical Tradition of Prediction
The suspicion with which Jewish messianism is often regarded may well stem from the apparent contradiction it embodies. To await the Messiah is to live a life marked by optimistic anticipation for an unimaginably brighter future. But to live as a Jew requires full immersion in the demands of the present moment. The false-messiahs that litter the history of Jewish exile are nothing other than the failure of real events to live up to idealistic hopes. And yet a Judaism stripped of messianic inspiration is inconceivable. It is precisely such inspiration that has continued to sustain us despite all the trying upheavals of the ages.
For messianism to be authentically Jewish, and for it to inspire an authentically Jewish future, it must somehow bridge the gap between idealism and realism. As the writer, philosopher and critic Leon Wieseltier has put it, “Messianism is commonly interpreted as a variety of idealism. But if idealism is only a part of Judaism’s attitude towards the world, messianism must stand in a relationship also to realism.”
The paradoxical nature of Jewish messianism is well illustrated by the phenomenon known as hishuv ha-ketz, “calculating the end.” Even before the children of Jacob became a nation, even before they were enslaved by the Pharaohs, the Bible records the first attempt to reveal the date when the Messiah would appear. As the patriarch Jacob lay on his death bed, his sons gathered to witness his last pronouncement, “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Gather and I will tell you that which will occur at the end of days.’” In the next verse the tension builds, “Gather and listen to the words of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father.” (Genesis, 49:1-2.) Then Jacob / Israel changes the subject. He blesses each of his sons in turn, but nothing more is said about the end of days. Following various Talmudic and Midrashic texts, the great commentator Rashi explains, “He wished to reveal the end, and the divine presence departed from him, so he began to say other things.” Jews have ever sought to predict the end. The end has ever remained elusive.
Since Talmudic times it seems that almost no generation has gone by without a rabbinic authority who practiced such calculations and another who condemned them. Maimonides famously stood on both sides of the fence. In his great legal code, Mishneh Torah, he rules that it is forbidden to calculate end dates (Hilchot Melachim, 12:1). In his Epistle to Yemen he also warns against such predictions, but goes on to note “an extraordinary tradition which I received from my father” that the Messianic era would begin in the Hebrew year 4970 (1210 according to the secular calendar) with the renewal of prophecy.
“Today - If You Listen”
Closer to our own time, two great scholars usually perceived in direct opposition to one another were both inspired to calculate end dates. Both were well versed in Jewish law and in the mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. But while one was the most authoritative opponent of the Chassidic movement, the other was one of Chassidism’s most abidingly influential leaders. The former was Rabbi Eliyahu, the famed Gaon of Vilna, the latter was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founding rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Several scholars have argued that it was the calculation of 1781 as an end date that inspired the Gaon’s unrealized attempt to travel to the Holy Land. This end date was grounded in the rabbinic notion that history is divided into six millennia, corresponding to the six days of creation, and that the seventh millennium, corresponding to Shabbat, will be the era of the Messiah. (See Nachmanides commentary to Genesis 2:3.) The year 1740 coincided with the Hebrew year 5500, the midpoint (“midday”) of the sixth millennium. While some Kabbalists had predicted that this milestone would mark the onset of the Messianic era,Jews have ever sought to predict the end. The end has ever remained elusive. others fixed the decisive date a “half hour” later, which in millennial terms translated to 1781.
Explicit evidence of the Gaon’s attempt to divine the precise date of the end of exile, as well as his reluctance to reveal it, is found in his commentary to the Zoharic text, Sifra di-Tsni`uta, “Know that all these days hint to the six millennia, which are the six days... and from this you can know the end date of redemption, which will be in its time if we are not meritorious... And I make the reader swear by G‑d, the Lord of Israel, not to reveal this.” This citation includes an important caveat. We need only await the predicted date if we are not meritorious. If our conduct as human beings is sufficiently worthy, the final redemption will transpire in an instant.
The notion that the Messiah’s arrival can be hastened through positive human behaviour is rooted in the Talmudic account of yet another attempt to find out when the exile would end. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi once met the prophet Elijah at the entrance to Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai's tomb, and asked him, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah directed him to put this question to the Messiah himself, saying that he could be found amongst the lepers at the city gate, and could be identified by the distinct manner in which he untied and retied his bandages. The Messiah, the Talmud tells us, replied to Rabbi Joshua’s question with a single word, “Today.” When the day passed without the Messiah’s promised revelation, Rabbi Joshua complained to Elijah. Said Elijah, “This is what the Messiah said to you, ‘I will come today - if you listen to G‑d’s voice.’” The Talmudic sage Rav put it slightly differently, “All end dates have passed. The matter is dependent on nothing other than repentance and good deeds.”
Collapsing the Interval of Time
The Talmudic narrative implies that by listening to the voice of G‑d in the present, we bring about the arrival of the Messiah in the future. Simply speaking, this suggests that the realistic present and the idealistic future are separated by the interval of time. But a passage in Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Tanya suggests that the fulfillment of G‑d’s commandments during the time of exile actually has a much more immediate result. In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s conception, the commandments are not simply rituals, and the Messiah’s coming is not simply a reward for our obedience. The commandments are intimate expressions of divine wisdom and will, and as such they are synonymous with the messianic ideal. By listening to G‑d’s voice and acting upon G‑d’s commandments as revealed in the Torah, we are drawing divine enlightenment into the environment that we inhabit, and actualizing the messianic ideal in real time.
In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s own words: “The ultimate completion of the Messianic era…, which is the revelation of the light of the infinite, is dependent on our work and toil throughout the era of exile… because in practicing the commandment the individual draws forth the revelation of the light of the infinite.” According to this formulation, it is specifically in the present that the messianic ideal is to be realized. But this realization is a cumulative process. With By listening to G‑d’s voice and acting upon G‑d’s commandments... we are actualizing the messianic ideal in real time.the fulfillment of each additional commandment another element of the messianic revelation is actualized.
Echoing Maimonides, Rabbi Schneur Zalman and later leaders of Chabad displayed some ambivalence when it came to end date calculations. His grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known in Chabad as the Tzemach Tzedek, chastised anyone brazen enough to predict a date that even the patriarch Jacob had been unable to reveal. And yet there is irrefutable evidence that Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself made such a calculation. This reckoning does not appear in any of his written works or letters, but in the transcript of an orally delivered discourse that has reached us in several manuscript copies. One of these manuscripts even includes notes appended by the aforementioned Tzemach Tzedek.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s reckoning is framed as an interpretation of a Biblical verse describing details of the temporary sanctuary built in the desert. Specifically, it records that Moses used one thousand seven hundred and seventy five silver shekels to make hooks upon which to hang the curtains from the pillars (Exodus, 38:28). In Zoharic literature this passage, along with its masoretic cantillation marks, is obscurely connected to the time span of the exile. Taking various other allusions into account, Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains this to mean that there will be 1,775 years between the destruction of the second temple and the onset of the Messianic era. Considering that the temple was destroyed in the Hebrew year 3828, the addition of 1,775 years brings us to the year 5603, which began in September 1842 on the secular calendar. Recent reports claiming that the prediction was made for 5775, whose start coincides with September 2014, do not appear to have any basis in original Chabad sources.
To make things even more complicated, several corroboratory traditions agree that although this calculation points to the Hebrew year 5603 (corresponding to 1842-3), which is the year recorded in the manuscripts, Rabbi Schneur Zalman actually mentioned a different date, causing some confusion among his listeners. There are contradictory accounts about what he actually said, but the consensus seems to be that instead of saying 5603 he said 5608 (corresponding to 1847-8).
Be this as it may, both years passed by without the foretold event actually transpiring.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s grandson, the Tzemach Tzedek, had by then succeeded his predecessors as the third Chabad rebbe. When asked what had become of the projected messianic revelation, he pointed out that in the year 5608 a collection of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s oral discourses, titled Likkutei Torah, had been published for the first time. In some versions of this story it is recorded that the questioner was not satisfied with this response, “We need the Messiah,”To have access to a new font of learning and spiritual illumination... is to be exposed to a new degree of messianic revelation. he insisted, “in the most literal sense.”
The underlying assumption reflected in the Tzemach Tzedek’s response is that the onset of the Messianic era is a relative notion as well as an absolute one. To have access to a new font of learning and spiritual illumination, such as that embodied by Likkutei Torah, is to be exposed to a new degree of messianic revelation. And yet the questioner’s unanswered comeback, demanding the literal arrival of the Messiah, stands as a hard reminder that small victories can never be cause for complacency. Only if we vigorously fan the flame of spiritual enlightenment will it expand into the all-embracing fire of the ultimate messianic revelation. Like other predicted end dates, the opportunity foreseen by R. Schneur Zalman was realized partially, but not completely.
The idea that the spiritual insight provided by Chassidic teachings carries a distinctly messianic quality is rooted in the famous letter penned by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, the movement’s founding figure, in which he described his heavenly visit to the chamber of the Messiah. The Baal Shem Tov asked, “When will sir come?” And the Messiah replied, “When your wellsprings spread to the outside.”
In Chabad thought this linkage between the Messianic advent and Chassidic teachings (the Baal Shem Tov’s wellsprings) is understood to be far more than cause and effect. The seventh Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, explained that at their core both the Messiah and Chassidism embody the quintessential purpose of all existence. The function of Chassidism, and especially the intellectually inclined Chabad school, is to cumulatively draw the Messianic ideal closer to its cognitive and practical apprehension. In the words of Rabbi Yoel Kahn, contemporary Chabad’s preeminent scholar, “Chassidism and the Messiah are one and the same.”
“Not Like My Fools”
On Simchat Torah of the year 1919, Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, discussed the end date set by Rabbi Schneur Zalman and shared another related anecdote: It once happened that Rabbi Schneur Zalman sent two emissaries to Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl, a contemporary Chassidic leader, regarding a certain matter. They arrived late on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and on the eve following Rosh Hashanah they sat together in the fashion of Chassidim, sharing inspiration and schnapps. At one point, R. Nachum turned to his guests and said, “This year the messiah will come.” The response of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s emissaries was both affirmative and reserved, “If the messiah will come,” they said, “all will be well.” Said R. Nachum, “You are not like my fools, they would already be packing their travel chests.”
As recounted by Rabbi Shalom DovBer, this episode sheds light on the balance of realism that Chabad’s messianic idealism attempts to strike. We must always expect the Messiah to appear at a moment’s notice. But that expectancy must never distract us from the realities of the present moment. So long as the Messiah has not arrived in actuality, we can never allow ourselves the luxuries of over-optimism and over-satisfaction. To truly perceive the end is to see beyond the various forms of messianic hype that so easily proliferate.
The messianic revelation is most essentially characterized by the implementation of our loftiest ideals in real life. Accordingly, messianic opportunity always lies within our immediate grasp, but we must never turn a blind eye To truly perceive the end is to see beyond the various forms of messianic hype that so easily proliferate. to the dark realities of the exile. The reality of exile is that we are simply unable to fulfill all of the Torah’s precepts in actuality. And it is the Torah’s vision of a world where we will fully live in accord with G‑d’s commandments that enshrines the ultimate arrival of the Messiah an eternal certitude. It is only by living the Torah’s precepts as fully as we can in the here and now that we can hope to live them fully in the future. To live messianically is not to abandon the present moment, but to live the present moment so completely that it transcends its own limitations.
There are end date predictions that incite speculation and hysteria, hype and sensationalism. And there are end date predictions that bring the ultimate destiny of humankind into palpable relation with the here and now. According to Leon Wieseltier, “It was not knowledge that these dates furnished, it was hope. When the predictions were valued, it was not for the historical illumination that they provided, but for the spiritual fortification.” In this he is only partially correct. These end dates cannot be reduced to an attempt to inspire hope. The foresight of a true visionary stands as a lasting testimony that the Torah’s concrete idealism can and will be successfully implemented, if only the messianic moment is properly embraced.
The seventh Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, often emphasized that each end date predicted by the spiritual giants of bygone generations actually embodied a real opportunity for the realization of the complete redemption. But in every case so far society has failed to rise to the occasion. End date calculations express an authentic vision of the ultimate power that can be unleashed in a single moment. Missed opportunities should only intensify our resolve not to let the next messianic moment pass us by. In the words of Maimonides: “Every individual should the entire year see themselves as if they are half meritorious and half guilty, and similarly the entire world… one mitzvah turns themselves and the entire world to the side of good.”
Messianism is so essential to the Jewish experience that there has not been a generation of Jews, nor any significant Jewish movement, which did not have a messianic self-perception. As has recently been demonstrated by scholars Moshe Idel and Israel Bartel, even purportedly secular Jewish movements could not escape their inherent messianism. According to Idel, most of the formative leaders of Israel’s intellectual culture, including David Ben Gurion, overtly conceived of their Zionism in messianic terms; Gershom Scholem was the notable exception. Bartel argues that Zionism as messianism actually had its roots in the end date widely predicted for the Hebrew year 5600 (1840), a year that is alluded to in the Zohar.
According to Leon Wieseltier, Scholem’s attempt to distance himself from messianic idealism was rooted in a misconception. To embrace a messianic vision, Scholem thought, is to embrace “a life lived in deferment.” To live in hope, Scholem wrote, “diminishes the singular worth of the individual… he can never fulfill himself… nothing can be done definitively, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished.” If you are always looking towards a future ideal, must not the realities of the present be dismissed as inadequate? Wieseltier rejects Scholem’s characterization of Jewish messianism as “spectacularly wrong.” The absolute opposite, he asserts, is true: “It was the objective of halacha... to ensure that something can be done definitively, that something can be irrevocably accomplished, and this objective was achieved annually, monthly,If we abandon our sense of history or our vision for the future, then the present too will lose its significance. weekly, daily, and hourly.”
Scholem’s conception places messianism in direct opposition to existentialism. The present moment is seen as nothing more than a deficient stepping stone towards the future ideal. But as Elliot Wolfson has pointed out, Chabad messianism is intimately tied to a unique conception of time. We normally think of time as a linear sequence of distinct events; the past precedes the present, which is followed by the future. G‑d, however, transcends the limitations that distinguish one moment of time from another. From the divine perspective, which is more real than our own, the past is never lost and the future has already come. Likewise, no single moment can be divorced from its context in the greater expanse of history. Time is not a succession of isolated events, but the unfolding of a united singularity.
It is this more essential notion of time that Scholem failed to grasp. As we have already seen, Rabbi Schneur Zalman does not perceive the messianic revelation as something that will only be attained at some future date. On the contrary, messianic revelation can only be drawn forth via our actions in the present. To arrive in the Messianic era is not to lose the inadequate past, but to bring the incremental permanence of history to its ultimate culmination. It is the Torah’s prescription of repentance and good deeds throughout the era of exile that gradually uncovers the full spectrum of divine manifestation. Every thought, speech or action for the good carries the infinite potency of the messianic ideal.
In order to understand what is demanded of us in the present moment, we must look both backwards and forwards. Real life is raised beyond mundane drudgery by messianic hope and inspiration. If we abandon our sense of history or our vision for the future, then the present too will lose its significance. The ideal of Jewish messianism can only be realized through our actions in the here and now.
The Maimonidean declaration of messianic anticipation and hope, “though he tarries… I await his coming every day,” unequivocally anchors Jewish idealism in the concrete present. A contemporary slogan puts it even more succinctly: “Moshiach now!”