Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

In his brilliant analysis of the relation of Israel to messianic hope, “Israel and the Messiah” [January], Jacob Katz comes down on the side of those who employ the “messianic vocabulary.” He asserts that without the “messianic myth,” the “national consciousiness” will be impoverished. He concludes that Jewish “national sentiment” will not permit the separation “of Zionism from messianism.”

The employment of messianic myths for the enrichment of the national consciousness was characteristic of the extremist nationalists of modern Europe. This resort to mythology was in nearly all cases associated with the promotion of anti-Semitism. Consider the Aryan myth, Wagner’s cycle of myths, Rosenberg’s “Myth of the 20th Century,” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Volkish mythology of the “German Christians.” To Christians, messianism means Armageddon and the Second Coming. To Muslims of various kinds, the Mahdi and jihad.

Is it not the task of intellectuals to educate and refine popular sentiment instead of yielding to it? Is it not time to stress the spiritual-moral dimensions of the messianic hope?

I do not question the aptness of the phrase, reshit geulatenu, the beginning of our redemption. Israel is indeed a beginning, as was the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the advance of Enlightment. A tree has many roots. The prayer for Israel is by no means a repudiation of the liberal world views of Moses Mendelssohn, Gabriel Riesser, and Leopold Zunz, who welcomed the progress of emancipation as the approaching steps of the messiah. In terms of messianism, we are always at the beginning.

Of the three dimensions of messianism—national, universal, spiritual—the emergence of Israel represents progress along at least two dimensions. At crucial moments, Zionism was advanced by the awakened conscience of mankind: the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate of the League of Nations, the vote of the United Nations Assembly in 1947.

The goals of universal peace and brotherhood are as remote as ever. The messiah is not yet here.

Furthermore, while messianism is the noblest gem of the Jewish faith, pseudo-messianism is its dark and dangerous underside, giving rise to an irrational mentality, to an apocalyptic mood, and to outbursts of zealotry.

The alternative to the messianic/ pseudo-messianic polarity is the rational context of reality and history. “Concealed acts concern the Lord our God . . .” (Deuteronomy 29, 28). As we glory in the achievements of Israel, we must not confuse them with the universal outreach of the messianic hope—“lest we forget, lest we forget.”

[Rabbi] Jacob B. Agus
Beth El Congregation
Baltimore, Maryland



Jacob Katz writes:

If Rabbi Agus believes that messianism, despite its deep historical roots in the Jewish past, has been contaminated through having been adopted by anti-Semitic national movements in Europe, he ought to join openly with those who think they should and could blot out its traces in Jewish consciousness. But if he concedes the legitimacy of certain variants of messianism, as he obviously does, then he should judge each on its intrinsic merits and refrain from insinuating an essential association between any variant he happens to dislike and Nazism. Nor is it fair to call one’s own messianism “the noblest gem of the Jewish faith” while dubbing other people’s conception “pseudo-messianism.” The issue is too serious to be dealt with by such playing with words.

The core of the problem is perhaps inadvertently revealed by Rabbi Agus’s statement that the designation of the state of Israel as “the beginning of our redemption” does not repudiate the liberal world views of Moses Mendelssohn, Gabriel Riesser, and Leopold Zunz “who welcomed the progress of emancipation as the approaching steps of the messiah.” Rabbi Agus passes over the fact that these exponents of the liberal view deleted from the traditional concept of messianism what used to be considered its primary and most concrete feature, namely, the physical return to Zion and the reestablishment of Jewish political independence. Zionism, by contrast, though not necessarily denying other universal and spiritual aspects of messianism, chose to concentrate on this redemptive endeavor. It is an indisputable historical fact that in the struggle for its national and political objectives, Zionism was decidedly nourished by its identification with the traditional messianic vision.

To stress this historical truth was the ultimate purpose of my essay. My topical concern, however, was to point to the burden which this connection between Zionism and messianism has bequeathed to the state of Israel. I share the apprehensions of many that the identification with messianism—as in the activity of Gush Emunim—may interfere with the national and moral conduct of the community unless it is countered by responsible and realistic political guidance. But one must also beware the attempt to meet this danger by denying the historical connection of Zionism with messianism. Since it is based on untruth, such an attempt is certainly doomed to failure.

This warning applies all the more to Rabbi Agus’s effort to re-propose the diluted version of messianism which was the target of the Zionist ideological struggle from the very beginning. This may be a rewarding theme for sermons, but in the context of Israeli reality it is an exercise in futility.

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