Some messianic speculation

No, don’t worry, still putting the “secular” in “secular Jew in Indianapolis,” I promise. Also, I apologize for the reduction in blogging pace: I’ve been doing some alumni stuff with one of my graduate programs, it’s been at night, and I’m not in my twenties anymore–so it takes me two or three days to recover from those nighttime programs.

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts in the car, and as frequent readers know, I particularly like the New Books Network podcasts. There are always lots of history, religion, philosophy, etc., conversations with authors of interesting books that I’ll almost certainly never have time to read. The network recently published, on the New Books in Jewish Studies channel, an interview with Rabbi Elaine R. Glickman about her book, The Messiah and the Jews.

The beginning of the conversation struck me as really quite odd. Rabbi Glickman said that throughout all her schooling–she’s a graduate of HUC, so that’s five to six years of education beyond the bachelor’s degree level–she had really never encountered the Jewish concept of the messiah. That is, not the Christian concept or the concept as understood by messianic Jews (who, sorry, are Christian–trinitarianism is just not an accepted Jewish concept), but the messianic idea within Judaism, from the Davidic stories to Hasidism and onward.

I have to ask–how is that possible? What the heck were they teaching over at HUJ in the early and mid-1990s? I’m not sure how you get a graduate degree in Jewish studies without encountering, at least once, Gershom Scholem and/or Moshe Idel. Or how you study modern biblical criticism without also studying apocalypticism and the connection of the line of David to that concept.

I understand, of course, that the Reform movement was long antagonistic to traditional messianic concepts. But I have to say, I’m puzzled, unless Rabbi Glickman was simply overstating superficial coverage as no coverage.

Moving from that, after listening to the podcast I’m concerned with how Rabbi Glickman presented a reason for liberal Jews to believe in the messianic concept. I understand the desire to see a world that isn’t like this one–one that is better, where things get better, where there is what we would understand to be genuine justice and no suffering. And I appreciate Rabbi Glickman’s worry that many Jews could apprehend this concept as not requiring us to work for change in this world–though that would be a misunderstanding (usually from lack of knowledge, as Rabbi Glickman does note) of the import of traditional Jewish messianic ideas.

But wishing something were different does not necessitate a belief that there will be a time where all things are different. Or, put another way, if you believe in some form of messianism–whether merely in the idea that there will be some perfect age, or in the notion that the messiah will be a specific person whose appearance will radically alter reality and result in punishment–believe because you believe, not because the mere act of holding an idea is comforting.

I once listened to a Maurice Sendak interview with Terri Gross on “Fresh Air,” where he acknowledged that he was an atheist–he did not believe in a god or in an afterlife–but he wished he did, because he recognized that he wanted to and somehow believed that he might see his loved ones again. It’s a conflicting feeling for many, I’m sure.

But here is the conclusion I draw: I don’t have great insight into why it is we so desire an afterlife or a redeemer who will make the world perfect for us, beyond recognizing that one source of hope for the future can be a desire for relief from the suffering that is characteristic of the world in which we live. As a humanistic Jew it is more important to me that, whatever your belief, you act from love to heal at least some of the hurt. I don’t think there is more that can be asked.

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