Skeptic: You know something, I think that you are doing injustice to the idea of Moshiach with your unyielding orthodoxy. You insist on preserving the concept of Moshiach exactly as the Prophets spoke of it over twenty-five centuries ago: the return of all Jews to the land of Israel, the restoration of the royal house of David to the monarchy, a Holy Temple, sacrifices — the works.

The idea behind all this is beautiful and inspiring: the quest for a peaceful and harmonious world, a world free of jealousy and hate, a world in which the pursuit of wisdom takes the place of today's rat race for power and material wealth. The Prophets expressed this in terms of their world, terms that hardly apply to our century. Why don't you take the gist of what "Moshiach" stands for and discard its out-of-date packaging? To my mind, your literal-minded approach colors your entire message with a biblical-religious flavor and detracts from its power and relevancy.

Believer: This brings us back to your earlier question, "Why bring G‑d into the picture?" You felt that everything that we are speaking about — the inherent goodness of man, a meaning and destiny to life and history — could be conceived of without a supreme creator of life and author of history...

Skeptic: And you said that without G‑d there can be no objective definition of good nor a true sense of meaning to life. But even if Moshiach represents the Divine purpose and end-goal of creation, why must it include all the things I mentioned?

Believer: Well, its either one or the other. Were the Prophets prophets or merely social philosophers? Were they putting forth their own humanly conceived ideas — in which case we can take them or leave them or else take whatever we identify with and reject the rest — or were they indeed doing what they said they were doing, conveying the word of G‑d to humanity?

Skeptic: Even if G‑d did speak to us through them, it's still G‑d speaking 25 centuries ago. Perhaps their words represent what that generation was to aspire to, while we must adapt these ideas to fit our times.

Believer: You know who you remind me of? You remind me of Feivel the Coachman.

Skeptic: Who is Feivel the Coachman?

Believer: A character in an old Chassidic joke. Once, a group of Chassidim decided that they wished to spend Chanukah with their rebbe. The only problem was that it was already a week before the festival, and no coachman was willing to guarantee that the long and difficult journey could be made in that time. Finally, they found Feivel, who, eager for the high price the chassidim were offering, agreed to their condition. "If I am not there by Chanukah," Feivel promised cheerfully, "you owe me nothing."

Anyway, they set out in the dead of winter and, as the father of all cynics put it, anything that could possibly go wrong, did. One of the horses slipped on an ice patch and broke its leg. The coach skidded off the road and had to be dug out of a snowdrift. They lost their way in the forest. You get the picture. In short, when Feivel and his coachful of Chassidim finally hobbled into the Rebbe's courtyard it was two weeks after Chanukah.

When Feivel realized that his passengers had no intention of paying him, he was outraged. He immediately summoned them to the town's rabbinical court. After carefully listening to the arguments offered by both sides, the presiding rabbi ruled that the Chassidim have no obligation to pay their hapless coachman. Now poor Feivel turned on the rabbi: "This is justice?! Have you no heart? I work myself to the bone for a month, and I don't get anything for my trouble?"

Patiently, the rabbi tried to explain. "My dear man," he said, "I do not decide these things on my own — I can only rule by what the Torah says. According to Torah law, if a person makes a contract and is aware of all the implications of the agreement, he is bound by it. There is absolutely no other decision I could have arrived at." "You mean the Torah says that they don't have to pay me?" demanded Feivel. "Yes," replied the rabbi. "Aha!" cried the coachman triumphantly. Now I understand. The Torah was given on Shavuot, right? On Shavuot the roads are perfect, the days are long, the weather is beautiful. Of course! If I would have failed to make the trip in time for Shavuot, they certainly ought not to pay me. But had the Torah been given on Chanukah, it surely would have ruled in my favor!"

Skeptic: That's a cute story, but still, you will certainly acknowledge that times can change in a way that does affect the way we orient our lives.

Believer: Just a minute. Let me explain the point that I wished to make with the story. Obviously, a law written in the summer applies equally to the winter. We assume that the author of the law is well aware of the differences between summer and winter, and that if the seasonal conditions are a factor he would have said so explicitly.

Now, if G‑d, before whom the entirety of time is an open book, communicates to us His vision of a perfect world and says to us, "This is the goal of my creation. This is what I want you to make of my world" are we to assume that a day, a year, or a millennium later the message no longer applies?

Skeptic: So what are we to make of the fact that the Torah's description of the messianic era —a king, a Holy Temple, etc. —appears to be 2,000 years out of date? Perhaps G‑d wants us to constantly re-assess this vision and to re-apply to the times in which we live?

Believer: Look, I think that we have to get to the root of our differing perspectives on the "datedness" of the Torah. Earlier, we had a long discussion on two of the issues connected with Moshiach that are "archaic" in your eyes — Moshiach's kingship and the korbanot in the Holy Temple. I explained their ageless significance and relevancy, and you probably saw my words as a philosophical effort to force deeper meaning into concepts that my stubborn orthodoxy refuses to let go of. Until we clarify our views on what exactly the Torah is, we will be forever talking circles around each other.

Skeptic: Okay, I'll let you talk circles first (you seem to be pretty good at it). How do you see Torah?

Believer: First of all, let me say this: If the Torah seems "out of date" today, then it was far more out of date on the morning of the revelation at Sinai 3,300 years ago. Think of all the then revolutionary ideas which Torah introduced: The concept of a One G‑d. Prohibitions against murder, theft, rape, incest, or the sacrifice of one's children to a pagan god. The obligation to honor and provide for one's parents. The duty to share one's wealth with the needy. Today, we find it incredible that such things needed to be commanded to us, but back then, they were no less fantastic than those elements of Torah which you find so hard to accept.

What happened? 600,000 people took G‑d's plan for existence and began to implement it in their lives, regardless of how well it fit in with the world in which they lived. Over the millennia, they inspired other monotheistic and near-monotheistic religions and great social movements. They deeply influenced many other doctrines, legal systems, ideologies and cultures. In a word, they brought the world that much closer to the Torah's ethos and ideals.

Torah is not a creed which came in response to a given century and set of circumstances, but one which came to impose its principles and practices on an as-of-yet unperfected world. So it is always out of date. It is the "times" which are steadily approaching the Torah, not the other way around. If the Torah were entirely "up to date" it would mean that it has fulfilled its function — it would mean that Moshiach has come.

Skeptic: As you said, that is your view of Torah. Others may have different theories on the matter...

Believer: Still, I think that before anyone formulates his own "theory" on what the Torah is, he ought to be aware of how the Torah sees itself...

Skeptic: That's exactly what I've been saying to you until I'm blue in the face: How can you tell me what I am, instead of asking me how I define myself! Of course, my self-definition may be wrong, and you might know some things about me that I'm not aware of. That's how psychoanalysts get rich. But to construct a theory about someone or something without first consulting its own self-definition is not only arrogant — it's downright foolish!

Believer: I agree. And I wonder how many people who've expounded on the Torah and its function know what the Torah says about itself. Here, this is from the Midrash Rabbah on the first chapter of Genesis:

"The Torah says: 'I was the tool of G‑d's artistry.' An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own: he has scrolls and notebooks which he consults how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G‑d: He looked into the Torah and created the world."

In other words, the world that G‑d created in the initial "six days of creation" represents not the completion of His works, but the installation of the raw materials of which man is to develop the finished product. At Sinai, the architect delivered his plans to his contractors: G‑d communicated the Torah to man, imparting His vision of reality to those whom He had charged to implement it in his creation.

Imagine, then, the workman who consults the original state of his materials rather than the architect's plan. "The blueprint calls for a square plank," he muses, "but the log I have is round. Perhaps we can edit the plans a little?" Why labor to change the world, if we can conform our moral vision to reflect it?

Skeptic: You know, I've noticed that we're forever getting off the subject. We start talking about Moshiach, and we end up discussing good and evil, freedom and servitude, totalitarianism and pluralism, orthodoxy versus revisionism...

Believer: But all that is the subject. Moshiach is not a side issue but the sum total of everything the Jew believes in. That is why it is one of the thirteen "foundations" of Judaism. If life has meaning, it leads to Moshiach.