The Once And Future Past
Tue, 01/24/2012
DAVID WANDER. Elijah’s Chair, 1996, oil and gold leaf on wood.
DAVID WANDER. Elijah’s Chair, 1996, oil and gold leaf on wood.

Jews have classically fantasized about the future in two different ways: First, for the saintly righteous, our rich mythical literature describes a “world to come” and its purgatorial corollaries. This is the fantasy of deferred gratification; life may be terrible here — especially for those woebegone righteous people! — but something great awaits on the other side. In the words of one rabbinic teaching, this whole world is but a prozdor, a hallway, through which we are passing en route to the majestic banquet hall on the other side. In their most playful teachings, the rabbis even describe the main course at this eternal feast — the flesh of the mysterious Leviathan, mentioned in several cryptic biblical texts but otherwise unknown in the natural world.

Such musings about the fortunes (fishy or otherwise) awaiting us as the reward for a life well lived abound in the tradition, as they do in virtually every faith tradition. And not surprisingly, they are accompanied by frequent attempts to clarify exactly who qualifies for such fortunes. In the ninth chapter of tractate Sanhedrin, the rabbis offer the beautiful teaching that “all of Israel have a share in the coming world,” only to then qualify it throughout the rest of the chapter — somewhat humorously, I think — with the many, many exceptions.

Now, it is not that the classical rabbis were nihilistic about human responsibility in this world; for every text that speaks about the better stuff that lies on the other side, there is another that reminds us not to work on behalf of unknown rewards but rather to do in the now what is required of us. The good life still requires a commitment to this world, even if the future will bring a goodness that we do not know. I think the classical rabbis were actually quite fearful that a belief in the coming world would not only create ill-conceived motivations for good behavior, but also in some ways disincentivize that good behavior for those who were a little more skeptical of the promised rewards. Nevertheless, the human instinct to imagine what lies beyond proved quite powerful.

The second fantasy, in some ways equally fantastical, is the belief in the messianic age, the time that is definitely not the present — and definitely better — but not entirely clear in what ways it has become different. When Isaiah imagines the lion and lamb living in domestic bliss, something has changed in the order of what we know, but it is not quite the same as a giant feast on the flesh of a mythic creature. Maimonides famously renders the messianic vision of a changed and redeemed world into the most prosaic: there is no difference between these times and the messianic age save for Israel’s subordination to the nations of the world. There is no change in the natural order, neither farcical aquatic ceremonies nor arrivals on white donkeys; we just have achieved our political objectives that correlate with our ethical mandate for the world, and thus are free to live out the idealized Judaism that our tradition imagines.

In this way, Maimonides shows us that at its foundation, messianism is nothing more than the wishful hope that tomorrow could just be better than today; and the circumstances that are meant to create the messianic conditions, at their best, are actualized ideas for how we as change-agents might endeavor to bring that betterment about. What makes the Jewish messianic tradition most interesting, as reflected in biblical language, is that it describes this fantastical future as “returning” to a time and to conditions that were never actually experienced, to conditions that never existed. “Returning,” in Jewish tradition, becomes a mechanism to claim an imagined past that is repurposed as a mythic future. After all: was David such a good king that he deserves the endless attention he gets in our liturgy as the symbol of Jewish political autonomy? Did the Jewish people ever actually get it right? The Torah conveniently ends its first five books on the precipice of entry to the land of Israel, likely because that is its high point: the lived experience, as chronicled in the books of Judges and Kings, never achieved at the level of the aspiration. To claim that we are “returning” to a superior moment is an exercise in instructive and inspirational myth — and not a real desire to go back in time.

In both kinds of Jewish future fantasy the same tension is present: Does imagining a superior future entail a rejection of the present, a sense that everything here and now is broken and paling in comparison to the fantasy? Or is it truly an impetus to better behavior in the present, a mechanism of reorienting ourselves to what we are supposed to be doing rather than the wretchedness with which we occupy our time?

Obviously, ethics lie with the latter, even as we conventionally associate messianism and afterlife as the provenance of the wretched and hopeless, the residue of people with bad lives, borne of conditions of oppression and driven by all-too-fantastical imaginations. We moderns look on this thinking as sometimes quaint and sometimes scary; we associate messianism with apocalypticism, because we see a slippery slope between imagining a better future in a time of darkness with activity that makes for radical overhaul, and with the belief in a dramatic overturning of known realities as the only mechanism to get us out of these Dark Times.

But I think it need not necessarily be so, and I wonder whether now is a necessary messianic moment for Jews across the theological spectrum. Several years ago I met with an optimistic left-wing Israeli activist and political operative who was also passionate about issues relating to religious pluralism in Israel, even as most of his attention was dedicated to the peace process. He fantasized aloud to me that it was just a matter of time before the conflict with the Palestinians was resolved, at which point the political differences that divided the right-wing and left-wing secular majority would essentially disappear; and at that time, the now united secular mainstream could very easily dispatch with the ultra-Orthodox tensions. In the present reality, the political differences between secular Israelis were enabling the ultra-Orthodox to hold the system hostage and ensure their views retained political authority; in this secular messianic age, such constraints would be lifted, and Israelis would be “free” to imagine the realities of a civil society for which they hoped.

I mention this story not merely because it is now amusing/depressing to look upon such moments in the relatively recent past and see such unbounded optimism about a conflict that now seems about as intractable as that between livestock and the animals that would devour them. I am struck by it because it falls into the most recognizable folly of messianism, which ironically overlaps with the deepest skepticism of the messianic instinct: at its most ideal, this kind of fantasizing exonerates the fantasizer from actually doing anything in the present to bring about the realities for which they hope. If and when X, Y and then Z happens — we will all live free in happiness and joy! Much like the prosaic skepticism about messianism — which leaves us basically stuck in the muck of the present, only pushing forward to abstract “betterment” as far as we can go — this kind of messianism is just too messy. It lacks a clear enough vision of the future that would by definition impel action in the present to lead there. Would that this activist had worked for both outcomes at the same time! Perhaps one success might have been achieved.

And let’s be clear here: this plea for a belief in the possibility of the future, and this demand for activism towards making that future possible, is not the same as the fundamentalism that is convinced by its absolute yet idiosyncratic belief that the future has to look a specific way, and that does anything within its power — violent or otherwise — to bring it about. Ironically, the fundamentalism most often associated with messianism is actually deeply anti-messianic: the more imminent the imagined future, the less mythically important it becomes! Real messianism hovers in the balance, in the place between the knowledge that the present is not perfect and that the future is just beyond reach. It demands activism, not certainty. 

So let this be a push for the most mundane messianism imaginable. Goodness knows we in Jewish life need to keep up the fantastic imagination for ourselves, the Jewish people, our institutions and the world; a world without messianism is a world without ethical imagination. But let’s make it a tangible messianism, one that aligns a belief in the future with a belief in the mechanisms in the present that make the future possible. Moshiach Now! (And it might be you.)

Yehuda Kurtzer is the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and author of the forthcoming “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past” (Brandeis University Press).