Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 14, 2020 / 19 Shevat 5780
Reminders: On February 19th at 7 pm, world-renowned historian, Benny Morris will be speaking at CNS. Professor Morris was one of the first of Israel’s “new historians” who gained access to previously classified documents. These told a much more nuanced version of how the state came to be in the early years of 1948 and on.
Summary: Today’s Oasis Songs explores some ideas I’ve been thinking about after watching the new Netflix series, The Messiah. Messianism is a central concept in Judaism, but many modern Jews probably don’t think much about the messiah. That’s too bad, because how we think about a messiah says a lot about who we are, what sort of world we hope our children and grandchildren will inherit, and how we feel about our lives. In other words, even though the idea of a messiah may seem esoteric or “out there,” it’s pretty relevant to our day to day lives.
We all know the phrase eye candy. It means something that is superficially pleasing, whether that is a movie, a sunset or a person. I like to call the television shows I watch while on the exercise bike “eye candy.” They are a treat which makes an otherwise repetitive task more enjoyable. The series I am currently watching is a Netflix original, entitled Messiah, and it came out in January of this year. (Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers.)
As a rabbi and a Jew, the premise of the show All three of the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) include a concept of the Messiah. The role and significance of the messianic figure may be different in each faith, yet it’s there. Seeing a show sincerely wrestle with this concept is therefore refreshing and compelling. One area which demonstrates the sincerity of effort is that we, the viewers, need to decide for ourselves if the central figure is a false messiah or the genuine article.
My suspicion is that large numbers of modern day Jews don’t spend much time thinking about the messiah. There are, of course, exceptions. A couple of weeks back, a former congregant left me a voice mail message, which began, “you will probably think I am crazy, but I know who the Messiah is.” The individual even told me who the claimant was, but I promptly forgot the name. Strange of me to forget something so important? Not really.
Jewish Takes on the Messiah
Jewish ambivalence to the messianic is quite old. About 1300 years ago, in a work called the “Avot d’Rabbi Natan (31b),” we find a famous quote:
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught: “If you have a sapling in
your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come,
stay and finish the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.”
Even by the year 700 of the Common Era, we Jews had already encountered many false messiahs. In fact, every century has had at least one Jewish candidate to the title, including the 20th century which had two (Moses Guibbory and Menachem Mendel Schneerson).
Hope and Despair: What the Messiah Says About Who We Are
Let’s leave the theological meaning of the messiah on the margins and focus instead on the psychological significance of the messianic concept, because that’s where we can find lessons for today.
At its center, the messianic speaks of human longing and our need to live with hope. In that way, we might consider the messianic to be not eye candy, but heart candy. Hope makes the heart feel good. And the opposite of hope is fear. Hope makes us feel expansive, open, joyous. Fear quickens our breathing and gives us heart palpitations. Fear may not feel good, but it does alert us to possible danger. Hatred, meanwhile, is one of the ways we act on our fears.
You can tell a lot about a period of time by whether people are more hopeful or fearful about their lives. Chapman University has been studying this for a number of years, and noted that Americans are growing more fearful. You can find their most recent study here.
Two Approaches: A Messiah You Can Believe In
That brings us back to messianism, and why messiah figures seem to rise up during periods of turmoil. The Jewish German social psychologist, Eric Fromm, once distinguished between two types of messianism. One he called vertical, or catastrophic messianism. In this view, the messiah only arrives after humans have really messed things up, outside of time if you will. This is sort of heart candy—it looks and feels good, but it doesn’t really require or demand anything of us. It allows us to accept the world as we find it as we wait for God to fix things.
Fromm called the other form of messianism prophetic or horizontal messianism. In this model, our human actions continually can improve life within history. We are presented with “alternatives”—of likely outcomes if we behave in a just or unjust manner. This prophetic messianism believes progress is possible, that we have the ability to make tomorrow better than today if only we choose wisely. Here’s the important feature of progress—it assumes that things get better, but slowly. It believes in incremental change, not revolutionary change. It also recognizes that we will have setbacks whenever we choose poorly.
Netflix’s Messiah is the vertical sort. It supposes things are bad and getting worse. It assumes that we can’t make things better on our own. As profound as the show is, it offers us a pessimistic view of humanity. Sadly, ours is the age of dystopian fiction, which imagines life will only get worse.
That’s worrisome. That’s not a way to live. It certainly is not a Jewish way to live. I’d like to think one of the important functions of Jewish communities has been to inoculate us against despair, and to provide a place where love and connection can prevail. Where we nurture those qualities through our values and our commitment to justice. Where we are reminded that hope is not just an emotion, but a lifestyle choice informed by our actions.
Shabbat Table Talk
- Do you consider yourself a hopeful person by nature?
- What actions, thinking or choices do you make that show this?
- How do you think about the Messiah? Fairy tale or possibility? Horizontal or vertical?
- Who do you know whose capacity to love surprises you because it’s there even despite the odds?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.