The Sherman Lectures in Jewish Studies 2012


The Messianic Idea in Judaism Revisited

Philip Alexander, FBA, Emeritus Professor of Post-Biblical Jewish Literature, University of Manchester

16-19 April 2012, Manchester, UK


Series Abstract

Messianism is integral to the theology of Judaism, and is one of the big ideas that Judaism has bequeathed to the world, influencing, as it has, profoundly, Christianity and, to a lesser degree, Islam. Much has been written on the subject, but much, I would argue, remains to be said. In this series of lectures I will attempt to draw together more than twenty years of thinking and writing on Jewish Messianism to present a systematic account of my ideas. I will offer a critical overview of previous scholarly work, discuss the problems of defining Messianism (a surprisingly tricky task), trace the history of Messianism within Judaism from earliest times to the present, and then offer a series of probes into three particular versions of the Messianic Idea – Messianism as a historical-political process, Messianism as a drama in the spiritual realm, and “neutralized” Messianism – all based on close reading of primary sources. I will then propose a descriptive, analytical grid which will attempt to capture comprehensively the structure and key motifs of Jewish Messianism, onto which any specific form of the phenomenon can be mapped, and its distinctive character, as opposed to other forms of Messianism, ascertained. I will conclude by offering, as a historian of Judaism, some reflections on the implications of my analysis for the future of Jewish theology and for Jewish-Christian dialogue.

1. What is Jewish Messianism? (16 April)

The opening lecture will be mainly devoted to clearing the ground – defining the subject and the methodology, and locating my work in the history of scholarship. I will begin with a critical overview of previous studies, paying particular attention to the famous essay, “The Messianic Idea in Judaism” by Gershom Scholem, who is my main dialogue-partner in the present exercise. I will then offer a definition of Messianism which tries to lay bare the underlying structure of the Messianic Idea. We need a good, analytical tool with which to cut paths through the dense thickets of tradition, which will help us to discover the wood as well as the trees. It has to be forged with care. The definition has to steer a middle way between being too broad, and so catching too much, and being too narrow, and so leaving out significant elements that should be included. My definition of the deep-structure of Messianism will focus on the key concepts of time and history, the divine purpose, and agency. The definition of Messianism is more problematic and disputed than one might suppose (e.g., is it possible to have Messianism without a Messiah?). It involves a complex process of inference and abstraction which may well be contested by other scholars. I will make my proposals, explain their hermeneutical status and defend them against the obvious objections.

My approach will be fundamentally thematic, and so synchronic, but a diachronic perspective is also important. I will offer this in the closing part of the first lecture by tracing briefly the history of Messianism in Judaism from late biblical times to the present day – noting the main phases, the key events, the major texts and messianic figures, and so clarifying the corpus of evidence on which my analysis will be based.


2. Messianism as an Historical-Political Process (17 April)

Handouts: Psalms of Solomon, The Amidah

I will begin my detailed analysis of the Jewish Messianic tradition by considering some texts in which Messianism is viewed as essentially a this-worldly, historical and political process. The Messiah, where he occurs in these scenarios, is a purely human figure – a man like other men, who, however, acts as a special agent of God in fulfilling the divine purpose. He is usually depicted as a warrior who defeats the enemies of Israel in battle, and then rules as a wise king over the Messianic Kingdom, which, though idealized, is an everyday political entity. I will argue, in agreement with Scholem, that this should be seen as the default version of the Messianic Idea in Judaism, but will reject any suggestion that it is the only view that is truly Jewish. The alternative views, though often expressed in ways that suggest they are reacting to this version of Messianism, also have deep roots in Jewish thought, going all the way back to Tanakh itself. And the “naturalism” of the historical-political scenario should not be over-stressed. It is commonly presented in heightened, poetical language (drawn from the Prophets), and elements of “magical realism” creep in, which suggest that we are not dealing with humdrum, run-of-the-mill events.

We will examine in some detail a number of texts which classically express this view, starting with one of the most influential – the Eighteen Benedictions or Amidah. We will then look at an earlier exemplar of this position – the Messianic Psalms in the Maccabean work known as the Psalms of Solomon. We also take in a later text, Book 8 of Sa’adya Gaon’s Book of Beliefs and Opinions, which was hugely influential in domesticating historical-political Messianism within the mainstream Rabbinic worldview. Finally we will look at how the centrality of this form of Messianism has been reinforced by modern Political Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel, and explore the complex relationship between Messianism and Zionism, with particular reference to the ideas of Rav Kook. 

3. The Messiah as a Spiritual Redeemer (18 April)

Handouts: Pesiqta Rabbati 34 (Friedmann), Pesiqta Rabbati 34 (new translation)

Lecture Three will explore the opposite end of the messianic spectrum from Lecture Two. In Lecture Two, the emphasis will be on Messianism as a this-worldly political and historical process. In Lecture Three we examine texts where it is seen as primarily a process, a drama, which takes place, unseen, in the spiritual world. The enemies to be defeated before the redemption comes are first and foremost spiritual forces: the scene of the action is heaven or the realm of spirits. I will begin my analysis of this theme with Pesiqta Rabbati 34 – one of the most startlingly theologized messianic texts in the whole of Jewish literature. I will try and set this passage in its historical context, and consider its relationship to Christology. Is it an inner Jewish development which has simply drawn some logical conclusions from elements of earlier Jewish Messianism, or has it directly borrowed Christian ideas, and applied them to Judaism? Does it matter one way or the other?

We will then consider messianic doctrine in the mystical tradition, starting with a passage from the Heikhalot literature, and moving on to Messianism in the Zohar and in Lurianic Qabbalah. We will conclude by considering two major messianic figures whose messianic roles were seen by their followers as fundamentally mystical and spiritual – Shabbetai Zevi and the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I will argue, however, that these spiritualized views of Messianism are careful not to exclude totally the historical-political dimension. Historical events do come into them, though largely as “noises off-stage”. They de-emphasize the historical-political, but in so doing imply that that view is so normative that it cannot be totally excluded from the picture.


4. “Neutralizations” of Messianism, Summary and Conclusions (19 April)

Handout: Taxonomy of Jewish Messianisms

The final lecture will begin by considering examples of what I will call, borrowing a term from Scholem, though using it in a somewhat different way, “neutralizations” of Messianism. These are cases where Messianism is conspicuously downplayed, and evacuated of much of its traditional content. We will look at three possible examples of this phenomenon. The first is the doctrine of the Messiah in classic Tannaitic and Amoraic Rabbinic sources – or rather the striking absence of overt reference to the Messianic Idea in these texts. The second is the doctrine of the Messiah in the writings of Maimonides, where it stands in acute tension with his basic philosophy. The third is the modern Reformed view of Messianism. In all three of these cases I will argue that, though, for a variety of reasons, they reflect strong reservations about the Messianic Idea as traditionally conceived, they do not involve a total rejection of Messianism – rather they envisage the Kingdom of Heaven as being brought in by other means. And in all three cases the neutralization is, to some degree, itself neutralized, and ways found to accommodate and affirm more traditional views. So they do not contradict my claim for the centrality of Messianism in Judaism: rather they can be construed as simply (non-standard) forms of the Messianic Idea.

Having explored through an analysis of significant texts and figures three key expressions of Jewish Messianism I will present a summary grid which tries to capture the Messianic tradition as a whole in terms of its basic structure and motifs. I will conclude by offering some tentative observations, as a historian of Judaism, on the implications of my analysis for the future of Jewish theology, and for Jewish-Christian relations. 


Community Sherman Lecture (in association with the Zionist Central Council and the Jewish Representative Council): Messianism and Zionism (15 April)

This talk will be a “taster” for my Sherman Lectures, “The Messianic Idea in Judaism Revisited”, to be delivered at the Centre for Jewish Studies of the University of Manchester, 16th-19th April. In it I will explore one aspect of the larger topic, namely the relationship between Messianism and Zionism. Both Messianism and Zionism have a long history within Judaism. I will trace the development of both ideas and explore how, over the centuries, they have converged and diverged. We will spend most of our time on the modern period, from the rise of modern political Zionism in the late 19th century onwards, and examine a variety of  views which see Messianism and Zionism as irreconcilable, as compatible, and as more or less identical. We will conclude by considering the implications of using messianic language in political discourse in Israel.


The complete series of four lectures is also available via a YouTube playlist.