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Israel’s Two Messiahs

The Jewish state is currently gripped by a dangerous apocalyptic vision. To save it, we need to return to a more natural and democratic vision of redemption.

Nadav Berman Shifman
April 28, 2020
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Ask anyone these days and they’ll tell you we’re living in abnormal times. But for Jewish Israelis, celebrating their nation’s 72nd Independence Day this week, “normal” has never been an easy concept to understand. Was the state’s creation a normal, natural event? Or was it miraculous, or, as the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel put it, “the beginning of the growth of our redemption”?

This seemingly theoretical and metaphysical question has serious real-world consequences, as different interpretations of reality lead people to different worldviews and behaviors. If you want to understand one of the core conflicts shaping modern-day Israel, you should focus on the tension between a normal, or this-world, messianism—with a small “m”—and apocalyptic Messianism. Each has its ardent advocates, and each points Israel in a very different direction.

To understand this debate better, it helps to say a few words about political theology. As defined by the influential (and controversial) German jurist Carl Schmitt, political theology is the discipline that examines the reflection of religious ideas within the seemingly neutral province of secular politics. Contrary to the purist definition of modernity as disenchanted and therefore totally secular, Schmitt well understood that religious traditions do not disappear from this world just because some people ask them to kindly do so.

Schmitt opened his 1922 book, Political Theology, by stating that the “sovereign is he who decides on the exception” and suspends the existing laws. This definition of sovereignty is distinctively authoritarian, unlike democracy, which requires a covenant or a contract between the governing and the governed. It’s also deeply theological, a secularized take on the religious perception of God as radically transcendent, “fully other,” and therefore unaccountable to human moral concerns. The sovereign according to Schmitt, observes Vivian Liska, “is the one who proclaims the state of exception,” and “turns the radical reversal of this state into messianic redemption.”

The state of exception is a pretty good way to describe one facet of life in Israel. A nation constantly at war with its neighbors, Israel is technically still governed by the legal condition known as “State of Emergency” (matzav ha-herrum in Hebrew, and henceforth SoE), which was declared by the Provisional State Council on May 19, 1948. The SoE gives the government the power to do things like stop the publication of a newspaper or detain individuals without trial for prolonged periods of time. Despite an ongoing public critique across the Israeli political spectrum concerning the SoE, and a demand for legal normalization, it prevails. In the current situation of COVID-19, the SoE was utilized by the government to protect public health. The risks to Israeli democracy and civil rights are nevertheless profound, and seem to exceed comparable liberal democracies. In the case of combating COVID-19, the SoE is probably a useful platform; but the challenge of restoring the ordinary and normal in Israel remains.

In political theological terms, the ramifications are tremendous: Israel is constantly under the shadow of the “state of exception.” It puts Israel in the throes of a particularly apocalyptic brand of Messianism, whose logic is suspending orderly laws until some time in the future when all of its earthly concerns miraculously disappear. This state of being has seemingly little to do with normative-oriented Judaism. As Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides have argued, Jewish law is interested in the typical and the ordinary, rather than the exceptional. The talmudic sages, for example, are much more interested in precisely how we ought to carry our utensils on Shabbat, say, than in the coming of the Messiah. Living in a nation in which ordinary, daily laws can be suspended at once due to some state of exception decided by an almighty sovereign, then, makes for a state of constantly being on the verge of the apocalypse, and seems remote from halachic Judaism to its branches.

Thankfully, there’s another way. It’s worth remembering that, in the Hebrew Bible, the Messiah is initially an earthly leader who was appointed by pouring olive oil on his head, more of a civil servant than a harbinger of doom and glory. As understood by Maimonides and his followers, based on the cosmology of the Hebrew Bible, God imparts order and purpose to the cosmos. He acts in a rationally intelligible manner, and thereby nourishes a political theological model in which orderliness, lawfulness, and regularity are the expressions of divine care, grace, and love. Maimonides’ view of the messianic age accords with those values: The natural and harmonious world will run its normal course. With one exception—all humans, and not only outstanding individuals, will know God, which is the deep meaning of Torah in Maimonides’ perspective.

This sort of “normal messianism” serves as a necessary counterbalance to its apocalyptic sibling. From the perspective of “normal messianism,” or Alan Mittleman’s understanding of “democratic hope”, an essential religious and humane value can be given to the concrete, to the earthly and the timely, even to the institutional; to what we have and enjoy in this world and wish to thank someone for. The Israeli initiative Ten Days of Thanks is a good example for this intuition.

In this light, the phrase, “The beginning of the growth of our redemption,” is a moderate and hesitant reading of Zionist messianism. In this reading, Jews are all sovereign and responsible to shape the future of Jewish peoplehood and the Zionist project, based on a deep commitment to humanity and to what Rabbi David Hartman considered as the “Sinai Covenant” (as opposed to the satanic “god of Auschwitz”). Unlike Schmitt’s authoritarian view, to conclude, “normal messianism” invites a democratic vision of collective responsibility.

Inviting people to believe that redemption can come about as the outcome of our shared and civic-minded efforts, in endless small acts of grace and kindness rather than in one stormy outburst, is a tricky proposition. Normal life, the rule of law, basic human decency—these are not as thrilling as the apocalypse. But we’ve enough abnormalities going on, so maybe it’s time for us all to give normal messianism a chance.

Nadav Berman Shifman is a scholar of Jewish thought. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University, and adjunct lecturer at the JTS.