Jewish Messianism

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No discussion of the rabbinic Messiah can ignore the figure of Shimon Bar Kokhba, the leader of the Judean revolt against Rome from the 132-135 CE. According to several rabbinic sources, Rabbi Akiba, the greatest sage of the time, proclaimed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah.

A second Messiah figure, Messiah ben Joseph, also emerged in rabbinic literature. With the introduction of Messiah ben Joseph, the messianic task was split in two. Messiah ben Joseph will be a military figure who will lead the Jewish people in an apocalyptic battle against Gog and Magog. He will die in this battle, but soon after, true redemption will be ushered in by Messiah ben David.

As for the specifics of the messianic age, as with most theological issues, rabbinic literature has no uniform theory or theology. Generally speaking, the messianic era will be proceeded by Jewish suffering, the "birth pangs" of the Messiah. Afterwards, the exiled Jewish community will return to Israel, the Davidic monarchy will be restored, and all of humanity will recognize the true God. Whether there will be supernatural occurrences is a matter of debate.

For the most part, it was believed that the coming of the Messiah depended on the meritorious activity of the Jews, though according to one rabbinic source, if God felt the time had come for redemption, then God would impose a ruler so wicked that Israel would repent, thus becoming righteous enough to merit salvation.

afterlifeIn medieval times, Maimonides canonized belief in the Messiah as one of his Thirteen Principles of Faith. He was vigorous in his assertion that the messianic age would not be a miraculous time; the Messiah would be a political ruler who would die and be succeeded by his sons.

Messianism was intricately linked with medieval mysticism as well. Isaac Luria's theology focused on tikkun olam, the healing of the world, which, when completed, would bring the Messiah. According to Gershom Scholem, the spread of Lurianic kabbalah paved the way for the most tragic messianic movement in Jewish history: the 17th-century movement of Shabbatai Zevi.

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