Saturday, May 01, 1999

Storming Heaven - The Perils of Jewish Messianism (The Rise and Fall of Shabbetai Zvi)

Storming Heaven - The Perils of Jewish Messianism
by Arthur Hertzberg
Reform Judaism Magazine - May, 1999

The Messiah will come and the world will be redeemed. This vision of a glorious "end of days" is the most inspiring -- and the most dangerous -- of all Jewish doctrines.

Jews have been able to keep going because we refuse to believe that our destiny is an endless repetition of defeats and disasters, a human treadmill from which we can never exit. Central to Jewish belief is the conviction that Jews will be around to experience the miracles and wonders of the coming of the Messiah. It is this hope that has given us the courage to continue. But Jewish messianism also has a destructive side, a mutant strain, that arises in times of upheaval. It strikes whenever apocalyptic Jewish movements have acted to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The result, almost always, has been fierce factionalism and violence. We are in the throes of a resurgent false messianism today, and it is undermining the chance for peace in Israel and shattering Jewish solidarity throughout the diaspora. If not checked, this latest outbreak of messianic madness will take a terrible toll on the Jewish people.

The rise of militant messianism among the Jews has followed an uncanny pattern: about sixty years after each great Jewish calamity, a messianic movement arises. In 132 CE, some sixty years after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the Jews in Palestine revolted and Rabbi Akiva declared the rebel commander Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah. This sixty-year interval between catastrophe and the appearance of messianic fervor was evident again after all professing Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. In the middle of the next century, the messianic pretender David Reuveni traveled through Europe claiming to be an emissary of the ten lost tribes of Israel. His contemporary, the kabbalist Isaac Luria, proposed that the way to bring the Messiah and force the end of days was to storm heaven through prayer and various mystical acts.

Today, sixty years after the Nazis occupied Poland, preparing the ground for a disaster to be compared only with the destruction of the First and Second Temples, we are again witnessing a militant messianic reaction. This latest resurgence began in June 1967, when Jews feared that Israel would be wiped out by its Arab enemies in a second Holocaust. When Israel emerged triumphant -- winning a victory without parallel since the walls of Jericho fell to Joshua -- some Jews interpreted this "miracle" as a sign that we are living in the days of the Messiah.

Earliest Messianic Stirrings
The earliest evidence of Jewish belief in messianic redemption can be traced in the Bible to the tumultuous period following the death of King Solomon and the subsequent destruction of the two successor kingdoms -- Israel in the north (722 BCE) and Judea in the south (586 BCE). While Judea was still independent, the Prophet Isaiah had seen the ecstatic vision of a "descendant of the house of Jesse" (Isaiah 11:1), an heir of the Jewish royal line, who would lead his people, and the world, toward a time of peace "when the lion would lie down with the lamb."

This longing intensified after the Babylonians razed the First Temple in Jerusalem and drove the Jews into exile. As Jerusalem was about to fall, the Prophet Jeremiah calmed the Jews, promising them that God would restore them to their land and glory. "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel; they will yet buy houses and vineyards and fields in this land" (Jeremiah 32,15). Thus did the promise of miraculous redemption take root in the Jewish imagination.

These prophetic visions made no mention of a superhuman messiah. It was approximately four centuries later (in the Book of Enoch, an apocalyptic work of the Second Temple period) that the personification of this idea crystallized: he would be a king, a descendant of David, who would bring the "end of days." Despair and its corollary, messianic hope, were at the center of the fervor that gave rise to several messianic cult figures referred to in the Dead Sea Scrolls, among them the "Righteous King," the "Righteous Priest," and the "Teacher of Righteousness." This messianism reached its climax after the middle of the first century CE, when messiah-intoxicated Zealots launched an apocalyptic rebellion against imperial Rome. Certain that God would not let Jerusalem fall, they tried to bring about the final redemption by forcing the hand of God. But the Messiah did not come. Jerusalem fell, and the Second Temple was destroyed.

The last major messianic figure in ancient Israel was the military commander Bar Kokhba ("son of a star"), who led a final war against Rome in 132 CE. At first Bar Kokhba's forces prevailed. For three years he presided over an independent Jewish government in Israel, but in 135 CE his forces were crushed. The Romans slaughtered a half million Jews, destroyed many Judean towns, and forbade the teaching of Judaism. Rabbis who defied the decree were tortured and executed, among them Rabbi Akiva, the foremost scholar of his age, who had pronounced Bar Kokhba to be the Messiah. In the end, the fall of Bar Kokhba was both a religious and a military debacle, and it marked the end of any serious Jewish armed struggle for almost two thousand years.

The rabbis of succeeding generations turned to study and matters of the spirit to preserve the Jewish way of life. They insisted that the Messiah would come only when God decided to send him. Any act that would hasten that event, or even speculation about the date, was forbidden. This quietism was enjoined in the Talmud by Rabbi Zera, who forbade Jews from attempting to regain the Holy Land by ascending "in a wall" -- that is, in military formation -- to reconquer the land (Ketubot 111a). In the meantime, Jews were expected to put their faith in God by living in strict obedience to the commandments. Hopefully, Jewish piety and atonement would move Heaven to shorten the time of exile, which was viewed by the rabbis as punishment for Jewish factionalism in the Second Temple period. This view is reinforced in the Mussaf (the additional service that is added to the traditional liturgy on all the major festivals), in which the worshiper is assured that the redemption will come when God judges that our suffering and our repentance have expiated our wrongdoing.

Kabbalistic Messianism
With force of arms no longer an option, Jewish messianism in times of loss and sorrow took a mystical course. In the crushing aftermath of the expulsion from Spain, then the world's greatest Jewish diaspora community, Isaac Luria (1534®¢1572) redefined kabbalah, which until that time had been a means by which the individual Jew could strive to closeness with God. Luria endowed kabbalah with apocalyptic powers. The followers of Luria would "storm heaven," with their prayers and "ascents" toward God, to push the Creator to "bring the end."

The new kabbalah became an instrument to bring about national redemption of the Jews and tikkun olam, the repair of the world as a whole. According to Luria, when God created the world, some of the sparks of divine light became trapped by klippot -- shells or husks of matter -- which encased them and hid their light. It therefore became the task of humans to break open the husks and release the hidden sparks. Having accomplished this tikkun, the Jews would be redeemed from their exile and take the lead in "redeeming the world."

The Rise and Fall of Shabbetai Zvi
Luria's apocalyptic kabbalah did not bring the Messiah, but it succeeded in creating a climate of messianic expectation that would engulf much of the Jewish world less than a century later, when a kabbalist from Smyrna (Ismir) in the Ottoman Empire declared himself the Messiah. His career as "the anointed one" began when his prophet, Nathan of Gaza, broadcast a letter announcing that "our Messiah is come to life in the city of Ismir and his name is Shabbetai Zvi. Soon he will show forth his Kingdom to all and will take the royal crown from the Sultan and place it on his own head."

The two men had met in 1665 while Shabbetai was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Suffering from alternating bouts of ecstatic delusions and debilitating depressions, Shabbetai Zvi sought out a fellow kabbalist, Nathan of Gaza, a reputed healer. But instead of bringing peace to Shabbetai Zvi's troubled soul, Nathan convinced the man from Smyrna that he truly was the long-awaited redeemer of Israel. Declaring himself to be the "anointed of the God of Jacob," the redeemer of Israel, Shabbetai Zvi proclaimed June 18, 1666 as the date of the redemption, and promised that, on that date, he would end the long, bitter exile of the Jews by leading them back to the Promised Land. His solution followed the classic Jewish script of redemption: the Messiah (played by Shabbetai Zvi) would restore the Jews to God's favor, and they would be returned to Zion. At least half of the Jews of Europe and the Near East, from bankers and merchants to scholars and beggars, packed their bags and prepared for their imminent ascent to the Promised Land.

When June 18, 1666 arrived, the would-be messiah was locked in a Turkish prison and charged with treason. The sultan offered him a choice: death or conversion to Islam. Shabbetai Zvi chose to convert and took the name Aziz Mehmed Effendi. He was given the honorary title "Keeper of the Palace Gates" and granted a royal pension. Nathan of Gaza defended Shabbetai Zvi's decision, explaining that his master had descended through the "forty-nine gates of impurity" in order to recover the holy sparks trapped in the klippot, which were now concentrated in Islam. Only the Messiah Shabbetai Zvi, argued Nathan, could perform the formidable task of repairing the world and effect universal redemption. The belief that Shabbetai Zvi was the Messiah lasted underground among professing Jews, including eminent rabbis, for at least another century. But the miracles did not come. Life for the Jews remained unchanged, and so the dream shattered.

A hundred years after the death of Shabbetai Zvi, a new messianic pretender, Jacob Frank, appeared in Poland. He proclaimed that the "end of days" would be realized in a world in which the commandments of the Bible were no longer operative. This was not a new idea; in the Talmud, Rabbi Joseph declared that the commandments would be void at the time of the redemption (Niddah 61b). But Jacob Frank went further, making abolition of the "law" into a preamble to the redemption. He and his followers went so far as to engage in orgies and incest in order to begin the Messianic era, a time in which all that was forbidden would supposedly be permitted. Condemned by the leading rabbis of his day, Frank sought refuge in Catholicism. As in the case of the Shabbateans (the followers of Shabbetai Zvi), some of Frank's disciples continued to believe that he would reappear as the Messiah, but, of course, he did not. Once again, false messianism took its toll in lost hopes and despair.

The Rebbe as Messiah
Hasidism, the next major development in Jewish messianism, emerged from the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov (Elijah ben Shlomo) in the eighteenth century. One of his early disciples, Shneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher rebbe, wrote in the Tanya (the only systematic work of early Hasidic thought) that Jewish acts of piety would remove the husks that keep the divine sparks imprisoned and thereby deliver the Messiah. It is within each individual's power to bring the redemption closer, he asserted, by the godliness of his or her life. To bring the Messiah, therefore, Jews must be made to observe more of the commandments willingly and with joyful hearts.

Shneur Zalman democratized the apocalyptic kabbalah of Isaac Luria by giving every Jew a necessary role to play in the messianic drama. The Messiah will not be hastened by the kabbalistic exercises and meditations of the few who are capable of such ascents toward the Infinite, the rebbe said; on the contrary, he will come when all Jews, from the most ignorant and alienated to the most learned and pious, observe God's commandments (Tanya, chapter 37). Today, the Lubavitcher Hasidim travel the world to induce Jewish individuals to partake in a ritual or promise to adopt one more religious practice as part of their daily lives. Often these emissaries step out of "Mitzvah Mobiles," vehicles with signs announcing that their occupants "want the Moshiach (Messiah) now."

Shneur Zalman had prophesied that the "Sabbath of the world" would come in the seventh millennium according to the traditional Hebrew calendar (he lived in the middle of the sixth). No wonder that his seventh-generation descendant, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who lived and died as the seventh millennium was approaching, was so intoxicated with the expectation that the Messiah was poised to appear. Schneerson, who died in 1994, had hoped that his generation could be made worthy of the coming of the Messiah, and his Hasidim keep asking: Is there a more worthy candidate for Messiah than our sainted rebbe? Many continue to believe that Schneerson, who selected no heir, will rise from the dead as the Redeemer of Israel. Until that day arrives, they will continue to scour the world for Jews who have strayed from their religion, asking men to don tefillin and women to light Shabbos candles. For the Lubavitcher Hasidim, this is the shortest path to messianic deliverance.

Kook Prepares for the Messiah
The major arena of militant messianism today is Israel, where, since 1967, an explosive convergence of the militant and mystical strains of messianism has forced Israeli political leaders to wear bullet-proof vests. To understand the development of this latest chapter in destructive messianism, we need to understand its origins in pre-state Palestine.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who served as the first chief rabbi of Palestine from 1921 to 1933, saw the Zionist enterprise as a sign that the Messiah was ready to come. For Kook, even the atheist kibbutzniks, by virtue of their resettling the biblical land of Israel, were unwitting instruments in the long-awaited denouement about to unfold. So certain was he that the end of days was at hand, the chief rabbi established a school in Jerusalem to train priests and other officials for service in the rebuilt Third Temple. The gentle Abraham Isaac Kook did not live to witness the end of days, but his messianism was passed down to his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda. Unlike his father, however, the militant Zvi Yehuda had no use for secularist ideologies or democratic principles. Israel's capture of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria in six days convinced Zvi Yehuda that he had witnessed the miracle signaling the advent of the Messiah. To insure that not an inch of the Holy Land be returned to Arab rule, he inspired the establishment of the settlers movement, Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful), whose adherents believe that any Israeli government official who makes a move toward compromise on the territories is transgressing a divine commandment; in their view, the Messiah's coming requires Jewish possession of all biblical lands promised to our ancestors. Eighteen years later, in 1995, this very theology was invoked by Yigal Amir and his defenders as religious justification for the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Clear and Present Danger
To act out this messianic wish today in the occupied West Bank is to court unending war. But the messianic zealots of Gush Emunim are not concerned about Israeli-Arab relations. If the Messiah is coming soon, why negotiate? Why give up an inch of the Holy Land? These armed prophets and their ultranationalist supporters are staking the Jewish future on the same bet wagered by the Zealots who rose up against Rome -- that God would save them from the consequences of their messianic excesses. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now. The famous historian of the kabbalah and of Jewish messianism, Gershom Scholem, was right when he warned against calling the State of Israel "the first root of our redemption." The Jewish nation, he insisted, was created as a human solution to the problems of Jewish statelessness. To make of it an instrument of the messianic drama is the greatest of heresies. The foremost threat to the Jewish people today comes from those elements of the Jewish people who are convinced that the manifest destiny of Israel is bound up in the terrible vision of the battles of Gog and Magog -- a vision of the "end of days" in which Israel is laid waste and the Jewish people is largely destroyed. Contemplating this terrifying scenario, the talmudic sage Rabbi Ulla said: "If this is the precondition for the coming of the Messiah, I will refuse to greet him when he comes" (Sanhedrin 98b).

We dare not provoke unending war with the Arabs in the nuclear age. It is a disastrous delusion to presume that the Messiah will arrive before the bill for such actions will come due. We must prevent these new Shabbateans from sacrificing other people to their vision of a perfect world.

When will the true Messiah come? In Sanhedrin 97b it is written that any Jew who claims to have figured out the time of the "end of days" will be punished with a short life. Perhaps the most Jewish answer to this question was given by the twentieth-century Israeli scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who said: the Messiah who appears and announces himself is always a false Messiah. We do not know what guise the Messiah may take, and we cannot force him to arrive to suit our will or needs. As humans we have it within our control to effect only one contribution in helping to redeem the world: to work for more justice and more decency so that we humans will survive our capacity for self-destruction.

Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg is Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University and the author of nine books, including The Zionist Idea.

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