Adapted with permission from The Messiah and the Jews: Three Thousand Years of Tradition, Belief and Hope, published by Jewish Lights.
In 1848, the Jews of Germany were emancipated – that is, they were granted citizenship for the first time in the two thousand years they had lived in Europe. Emancipation presented Jews with the opportunity to participate in secular society – and the challenge of maintaining a meaningful Jewish identity while doing so. Many Jews met this challenge by adopting the recent innovation of Reform Judaism, which applied the era’s values of rationality, optimism, and universality to religious life. Among the changes Reform Judaism embraced was a radical redefinition of the Messiah and the Messianic Age.
Traditional Jewish views on the Messiah could not, Reformers believed, withstand the changes of Emancipation. Reform Jews prized an intellectual outlook on Judaism and valued religious tenets that could be upheld even in a rational, secular milieu. They did not, therefore, embrace traditional messianism – rooted in complicated Scriptural allusions and folklore, filled with images of apocalyptic battles, a superhuman deliverer, and even a physical resurrection of the dead. And with its emphasis on Jewish triumph over the enemies of Israel, messianism also sharply contradicted Emancipation tenets of equality and universalism. Finally, traditional Jewish messianism expressed a yearning to return to Zion, to rebuild the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and to restore rule over Israel to the descendants of King David. Such hopes undermined the Jews’ new status as loyal citizens of Germany.
Perhaps the most powerful reason to jettison traditional messianic belief, the Reformers argued, was that it was simply not needed anymore. Human beings – guided not by a Messiah but by their own intellect – had already begun the work of redemption. Reformers believed that the principles of Emancipation would inspire every nation and bring liberation to the entire world. Spreading from Germany and taking especially strong hold in the United States, Reform Judaism abolished the concept of a divinely-sent Messiah and promised instead that humanity would accomplish its own redemption.
But when Nazism arose in Germany – supposedly the most enlightened of nations – and the Holocaust followed soon after, Reform Judaism was no longer convinced that humans could achieve their own salvation.
Seventy years later, as Jewish theologians continue to wrestle with questions of faith arising from the Holocaust, Reform Judaism has not yet clearly defined a messianic concept that responds to the evils of the 20th century. The Reform prayerbook Mishkan T’filah, for example, affirms that liberal Jews “hope to behold the perfection of our world, guided by a sacred Covenant drawn from human and divine meeting,” while Reform Judaism’s most recent Statement of Principles holds that “we continue to have faith that, in spite of the unspeakable evils committed against our people and the sufferings endured by others, the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail.” These consoling and inspiring words, however, do not explain how a “sacred Covenant drawn from human and divine meeting” will reach those who deny the reality of God, or how – as humanity continues to perpetrate slaughter and war – one can truly be certain that “the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail.”
Not only the declarations of Reform Judaism but the actions of Reform Jews reflect uncertainty. Many seem to have redefined the messianic enterprise in their participation in community service, and maintenance of the belief that every person can contribute to tikkun olam, the repair of the world. These labors, according to some, portend messianic rewards: “The actual work of redeeming the world is turned to us in history, and is done by all of us, day by day,” writes modern theologian Arthur Green. “Rather than messiah redeeming us, we redeem messiah.” But Reform Jews still struggle to explain how relatively isolated acts of goodness can overcome the tyranny and hatred plaguing the world.
As Reform Judaism continues to evolve in order to respond to the practical and philosophical demands of modernity, its messianic concept, too, may expand to offer a new vision and hope of redemption.