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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Reform Reflections: Fakers and Pretenders

by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

When a Jew tells you that the Messiah will soon arrive, run for cover.

There is a messianic element in Judaism that is hinted at in the prophets and further developed by the rabbis. But it is not a central strand of Jewish practice, and popular messianic beliefs flow largely from the world of sentiment and folklore. Recognizing the dangers of messianic tendencies, rabbis of all persuasions and in all eras have tried to control apocalyptic and redemptionist themes.

Yet from time to time, especially during periods of upheaval, danger, or uncertainty, messianic enthusiasm has burst through rabbinic constraints, leaving despair, economic dislocation, and disbelief in its wake.

Today, as in days past, those who find romance in the language of the messianic future are embarking on a perilous path. The Jewish enterprise is devoted to the observance of Torah and fulfilling God’s will; messianic claims, on the other hand, are inevitably used to justify ethical lapses, to promote organizational and personal interests, and to glorify military victories or explain military defeats. Modern-day messianic practitioners – including the religious settlement leaders and the messianic elements of Chabad – have been no exception to this pattern. The result is to undermine rather than advance devotion to Torah.
Proper perspective was provided more than 800 years ago by Maimonides, who understood that messianism belongs at the peripheries of Jewish concern. He wrote in the Mishneh Torah (Kings 12:2):

“Neither the sequence of these events (predicting the Messiah’s coming) nor their minute details are of basic importance in religion. One should never deal with legendary topics…One should not consider them essential, since they do not lead to love and reverence for God.”

If we are guided by Maimonides’ realities, we need not banish the Messiah from our religious world. Belief in the eventual coming of the Messiah is fundamental to our theology and surely we should conduct ourselves in a way that will make the Messiah’s arrival more likely.

But this should be understood: the Messiah will come when God determines that the time is right, and once God makes that determination, we will know. In the meantime, all those who attribute messianic qualities to themselves or to others or who express certainty about the imminence of the Messiah’s coming are fakers and pretenders. All those who claim knowledge of God’s will in these matters claim what they cannot possibly know and are guilty of monumental theological arrogance. Now and always, messianists are dangerous to Judaism and bring Torah into disrepute. We associate with them at our peril.

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