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.