Modern Jewish Messianism

Jewish messianism has been repeatedly reinterpreted in the modern era.


Reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from
What Do Jews Believe?

In the decades before the Holocaust, the belief in the Messiah was the subject of considerable debate within the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.

Many young Jews rejected the Orthodoxy of their parents and turned to the great Jewish secular movements of Zionism, socialism, and Bundism [a Jewish labor movement founded in Eastern Europe in the 19th century]. They viewed their parents’ faith in the eventual coming of the Messiah as a dangerous passivity in the face of imminent danger to the Jewish people. They took their fate into their own hands and created new forms of secular Jewish messianic activity. Their concern for changing the world by rejecting their religious background shows how deeply they were immersed in the Jewish search for redemption.

Hasidism, the 18th‑century spiritual movement, also concerned itself with new approaches to redemption. After the [false messianic] Sabbatean debacle of the previous century, Hasidism abandoned active forms of messianism for a system of redemption within the individual. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, taught that one need not look outside one’s own soul for redemption: “All our prayers for redemption are essentially bound to be prayers for the redemption of the individual.

He urged that we turn inward and seek redemption through seeking transcendence in all our actions and transactions. As Martin Buber, a leading interpreter of Hasidism said, “There is no definite magic action that is effective for redemption; only the hallowing of all actions without distinction possesses redemptive power. Only out of the redemption of the everyday does the Day of Redemption grow.”

Chabad Messianism

Even though it appeared that the idea of a Messiah had run its course, traditional Jewish messianism endures. The Chabad‑Lubavitch Hasidim, one of the largest of the remaining hasidic sects, believes that the messianic age is imminent.

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Dr. David S. Ariel is head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously president of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (formerly the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies). He is author of Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life and The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.

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