The Messianic Society: A Jewish Utopia

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

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Located in Zion, having its capital in a restored Jerusalem, and ruled by the scions of the ideal house of David, the state will be the incorporation of righteousness. Men themselves will possess only good inclinations (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a). They will be infused with the spirit of the Lord and the spirit of learning, in contrast to the ignorance and partiality of the present.

In social terms, the messianic era will be one of abundance and fertility (Joel 4:18), marked also by health, human longevity, and the absence of disease.

Man will enjoy the fruit of his own labor: "They shall not plant and another eat" (Isaiah 65:22). "In that day‑-declares the Lord of Hosts‑-you will be inviting each other to the shade of vines and fig trees" (Zechariah 3:10). Toward this desirable state of affairs, Israel will lead the way, through its cleaving to the Torah. Indeed, the messianic‑utopian age can be regarded as the fulfillment of the very aim of the Torah. "All the prophets only prophesied for the days of the Messiah" (BT Sanhedrin 99a).

Indeed, the last days will be incomparably richer than the first, so as to represent a different and altogether unprecedentedly higher order of reality in that "the land shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).

But this is not relevant to Israel alone, for the restored and rebuilt holy land will serve as a focus, model, and source of inspiration for the improved life of mankind in general, so that all nations shall share in the blessings of peace, the rule of righteousness, and the overthrow of the wicked and perverted.

"Rabban Shimeon ben Gamliel said: in the [messianic] future all the nations and all the kingdoms will be gathered in the midst of Jerusalem. For it is said [Jeremiah 3:17] 'all the nations will be collected thither for the name of God'; elsewhere [Gen. 1:9] it is said, 'Let the waters under the heavens be collected'; as 'collection' in the latter verse means that all the waters of creation should be collected in one place, so 'collection' in the former verse means that all the nations and kingdoms will be assembled in one place, Jerusalem" (Avot d'Rabbi Natan, ch. 35).

Redemption in History

In the same way as the utopian state has a place, it also has a time--historical time. It does not seem that there is unanimous expectation of an entirely new order of reality.

[According to some, including Maimonides, the] Messiah, being mortal, will die, and so, too, will his sons (Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10). The messianic era leaves history as open‑ended as ever. The historical and the utopian lie along the same continuum. This sobriety is a particular characteristic of Maimonidean thinking, which is careful to caution against the illusion that the world in the days of the Messiah will depart from its accustomed course "or that there will be a change in the order of creation" (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 12:1).

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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.