Modern Jewish Messianism

Jewish messianism has been repeatedly reinterpreted in the modern era.

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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.

They point to the events of the last several decades‑–the recapture of Jerusalem in 1967; the ingathering of the immigrants from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Syria, and Yemen, the Gulf War; and the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe‑‑-as signs. They believe that if the great majority of Jews repent and return to observance, the Messiah will arrive immediately. Their task, as they see it, is to stand ready for the arrival of the Messiah.

The late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneerson, said that this “generation is the last generation of Exile and the first generation of Redemption (Me-Golah le-Geulah, p.101).” Many of his followers believed that he was the Messiah. They point out that he fit the description of the human redeemer whose good works have brought many Jews back to Judaism. If it turns out that the messianic age is not upon us, they will [likely] attribute that not to him but to the lack of readiness of this generation.

The Lubavitchers seized on his hints and innuendoes about their rabbi’s role as the Messiah, but in the meantime they poured their energy into the observance of the mitzvot.

Zionist Messianism

They have a very different outlook from the extreme religious messianists in Israel, who are preparing to establish the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in anticipation of the Messiah’s imminent arrival. Among the latter are weavers, smiths, and other artisans who have even crafted the vestments, utensils, and paraphernalia necessary to conduct the priestly sacrifices in the rebuilt Temple.

The messianic idea, as opposed to a literal belief in the Messiah, fueled many of the modern Jewish political movements. Zionism, which gained force among the unemancipated Jews of Eastern Europe after 1881, was based on several powerful forces–some modern, some traditional.

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Dr. David S. Ariel

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.