The Messianic Society: A Jewish Utopia

In Jewish sources, the ideal Jewish society will be situated in Israel and ushered in by catastrophic events.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted with permission of The Gale Group from Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Twayne Publishers.

In the strict meaning of the term--"no place"--the concept of utopia has no application in Judaism.

 

The characteristic feature of the customary utopia is its remoteness in time and space. It will be inaccessible or perhaps exist in no recognizable area of the world. It may even be located on the moon. It is also frequently set at some future date, or is perhaps a purely intellectual construction.

Ideal Society in an Ideal Land

In this sense no Jewish utopian schemes seem to exist. Even those that come closest to it‑-the Zionist utopias discussed below‑-are unambiguously located in the land of Israel. If, however, utopia is taken to signify the impulse toward some sort of ideal society, then of course it does have its Jewish counterpart, if not precise equivalent, in the concept of the messianic age.

What belongs to the utopian genre in the gentile world belongs to the messianic in the Jewish. There is certainly no identity [between them], but a considerable overlap.

It is this that helps to account for the Jewish contribution, in the form of a secularized messianism, to radical and liberal movements of varied outlook. But the dominant strain within the Jewish context is to emphasize the indispensability of the physical, territorial dimension, although there are occasional tendencies in later kabbalism and Hasidism to spiritualize the messianic ideal and even to spiritualize the land. The ideal society can exist only within the land of Israel (although this, of course, may well be variously defined) and would itself have universal applicability.

Ambiguous Perfection, Catastrophic Initiation

A second distinctive characteristic of the Jewish utopia is the absence of precise description. It seems that the utopian future is to be visualized in terms of a society that embodies a broad framework of values, with their precise implementation in the mechanism of daily life being left an open question.

A third feature is the catastrophic nature of the redemption that eschews evolution in favor of upheaval. Thus the prototype of the salvation process is the first Exodus (Jeremiah 16:14‑15). The values to be realized in this indeterminate way are, however, comprehensive in that the Jewish state will be theocratic and subject to the direct rule of the divine. In the terrestrial era it is the priests who bless Israel; in the future era, "God himself will bless Israel" (Psalms 29:11).

Humanity Will Flourish

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Lionel Kochan

Lionel Kochan (1922-2005) was Littman Lecturer in Jewish Politics at Oxford University and Sherman Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. His books include Jews, Idols, and Messiahs and Beyond the Graven Image.