It may cause dismay and serve as somewhat of a disappointment that, in the opinion of Maimonides, the messianic era will not be all that miraculous. This does not in any way lessen the magnitude of change that will embrace the world at that time. On the contrary, the Maimonidean theory provides a highly probable scenario in which the messianic era can easily follow the extraordinary changes that are already part of modern-day society.
Contemporary Jewish thinkers, such as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his book The Real Messiah, address how Maimonidean naturalism affords a view of the messianic era that is highly compatible with the technological and social revolutions that have transformed our world over the past two hundred years.
It is a foundation of Judaism that the messianic age can miraculously begin any day. When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked Elijah when the Messiah would come, he answered with the verse (Psalm 95:17), “Today-if you hearken to His voice” (Sanhedrin 98a). What follows is a hypothetical scenario, based on the above statements of Maimonides, in which the world can slip into a messianic age in a totally natural way, perhaps without even realizing it at first.
Kaplan’s vision is compelling. If one looks with an unprejudiced eye at the world today, he will see an age where almost all the Jewish prophecies regarding the prelude to the messianic age are coming to pass. Even the most doubtful skeptic cannot help wondering how this could be mere coincidence. The man with clear vision can truly see the hand of God at work.
The ultimate goal of the historic process is the perfection of society. Since everything was created by God, all must eventually be perfected. This is even true of man’s mundane world, which was created as an arena for our service toward God. Over the past two hundred years, an unprecedented acceleration in man’s achievements has occurred. A man of two thousand years ago would find the world of two hundred years ago different, but not unimaginatively so. But the man of two hundred years ago, if transported to today’s society, would find himself in a world beyond his wildest imagination.
We are witnessing a steady perfection of mankind’s civilization-a world where the dread plagues that decimated entire civilizations no longer exist (and while there is AIDS, it can still be prevented, albeit with a large measure of social restraint, if care is taken, unlike the terrible plagues of the past); where man communicates instantaneously with all parts of the world and flies in hours to the most distant lands; where man totally dominates his environment and is waited upon by a host of electrical servants. Where the world’s superpowers devote their resources not merely to overpowering weaker nations, but to foreign aid, giving away tens of billions of dollars per year to alleviate the suffering of populations the world over; where atoms are smashed, giving man energy and ability beyond his wildest dreams; where space travel is not an impossible dream but an everyday occurrence. Over the past two centuries man has conquered his world as never before.
This thought is expressed aptly by Rabbi Y. B. Soloveitchik in his “Lonely Man of Faith, ” where he portrays man’s control over nature as being one of the imperatives given to “majestic man.” He writes that one of the most striking elements and one of the central dilemmas of modernity is that majestic man has achieved unparalleled success in his attempts to explain and control nature. And while Soloveitchik uses the point to emphasize that man has shifted away from his other imperative, namely, the development of “a covenantal faith community,” it cannot be ignored that of all this startling progress must mean something for the world of the future. The past hundred years or so have brought about an increase in knowledge unsurpassed in all human history and the accomplishments have been truly amazing.
What does it all mean? Why is all this happening now? In all the thousands of years of human civilization, there were many great men of genius. Why could they not bring about the revolution of knowledge that we are now experiencing? Why did it have to wait until this century? And what is it all leading to? Is there a relationship between all of these things and the prophecies that tell of the arrival of the messianic era? The above coming together in such a short space of time could be mere coincidence. But in truth, it has all been foretold.
The present technological revolution has been predicted. Almost two thousand years ago, the Zohar (1:117a) predicted, “In the 600th year of the sixth millennium, the gates of wisdom on high and the wellsprings of lower wisdom will be opened. This will prepare the world to enter the seventh millennium, just as a man prepares himself toward sunset on Friday for the Sabbath. It is the same here. And a mnemonic for this is (Genesis 7:11), `In the 600th year … all the foundations of the great deep were split.’ “
Here we see a clear prediction that in the Jewish year 5600 (or 1840), the wellsprings of lower wisdom would be opened and there would be a sudden expansion of secular knowledge. Although the year 1840 did not yield any major scientific breakthrough, the date corresponds, with almost uncanny accuracy, the onset of our present scientific revolution.
The correlation between the technological breakthrough and the messianic era is very straightforward. In order that man devote himself totally toward his ultimate goal, other forms of work must be eliminated or, at the very least, curtailed. Technology provides a means for man to achieve mastery over creation with the utmost alacrity, thus enabling him to devote his time and energy to pursuing the knowledge of God and thus bringing perfection to himself and his world. Therefore, disease will have to be eliminated, as has been predicted by the prophet Isaiah: “The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as a hart and the tongue of the dumb shall sing” (Isaiah 35:5).
What Will Happen in the Messianic Era
Many such miracles are predicted, such as “grapes as large as hen’s eggs, and grains of wheat as big as a fist” (Ketubot l l lb). All this can be possible with a technology not far removed from that of today. Indeed, when Rabban Gamaliel spoke of these predicted miracles, he stated that they would not involve any change in the laws of nature; they are allusions to a highly advanced technology. Thus, so little labor will be needed to process agricultural products that clothing and loaves of bread will seem to grow on trees.
With the proliferation of the technological revolution, the curse of Adam will be largely eliminated (Genesis 3:19): “With the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread…. ” Thus Maimonides writes that people will speak of these developments as if they are happening miraculously on their own, but indeed are rational developments. Similarly, as we learn the secrets of life processes it will become possible to make trees bear fruit continually (Shabbat 30b, according to the interpretation of Maimonides on Sanhedrin 10:1).
The tradition may have even anticipated the tremendous destructive powers of our modern technology. Thus, we have the teaching of Rabbi Elazar that the messianic age will begin in a generation with the power to destroy itself (Song of Songs Rabbah 2:29).
The technological miracles of the pre-messianic age might also bring about an even more profound social revolution. The total abolishment of war might not seem to be such a miraculous occurrence. Quite possibly due to the fact that nations will know of the destructive power of modern-day armaments, they themselves will abolish all hostilities on an international scale, . just as the prophet Isaiah predicted (Isaiah 2:4): “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they practice war any more.” As stated earlier, Maimonides sees the prophecy of “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (Isaiah 11:6) as referring allegorically to the peace and harmony between nations. True to this tradition, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov states that man will realize the foolishness of war, just as he has already realized that of pagan idolatry (Sihot Maharan, Avodat Hashem, no. 99). Surely, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the complete disintegration of the Soviet Union-the arch nemesis of the Jews and the State of Israel-could not have been predicted even half a decade ago. That all this has occurred in such a short space of time indicates a supernatural undercurrent, guiding these developments in accordance with corresponding prophecies of old. One cannot forever remain blind to the hand of God in history, replacing it with social observations of the flaws of Communism and the like. China is also Communist, and has been almost as long as the Soviet Union. Yet, there is no indication that the regime will disintegrate or be overthrown by a freedom movement any time soon. Surely, no expert is willing to risk his credibility by allotting a time framework for the demise of Communism in China. The very recent occurrences inside the former Soviet Union and the influx of Russian Jews to Israel that are the direct result of Communism’s decline must be examined by each of us so that its higher messianic implications are not missed.
On an individual level, the changes in the messianic epoch will be even greater. When nations “beat their swords into plowshares,” the hundreds of billions of dollars used for war and defense can be diverted to the perfection of society. There will be a standard of social justice exemplified by the prophecy, “The Lord has sworn…. Surely I will no more give your corn to be food for your enemies, and strangers will not drink your wine for which they have not labored” (Isaiah 62:8). This is also the spirit of the prophecy, “To bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and untie those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1).
But the prophets have also foretold that these advances in the premessianic age will not be without cost. The rapid changes on both a technological and sociological level will result in a great social upheaval. The cataclysmic changes will result in considerable suffering, often referred to as the Hevlei Mashiah or Birthpangs of the Messiah. If the Messiah comes with miracles, these “birthpangs” may be avoided, but the great changes involved in his coming in the manner adopted by Maimonides may make these terrible travails inevitable.
Since in a period of such accelerated change parents and children will grow up in literally different worlds, traditions handed from father to son will be among the major casualties. The Talmud describes at length how there will be general dissatisfaction with the values of religion-in such a rapidly changing world, people will naturally be enamored with the new and dissatisfied with the old. Thus, the sages teach that neither parents nor the aged will be respected, the old will have to seek favors from the young, and a man’s household will become his enemies. Insolence will increase, people will no longer have respect, and none will offer reproof. Religious studies will be despised and used by nonbelievers to strengthen their cause, the government will become godless, academies will be places of indiscretion, and the religious will be denigrated.
In the generation when the Messiah comes, young men will insult the old, and old men will stand before the young [to give them honor]; daughters will rise up against their mothers, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. The people shall be dog-faced, and a son will not be abashed in his father’s presence. It has been taught, R. Nehemiah said: In the generation of the Messiah’s coming impudence will increase, esteem be perverted. [Sanhedrin 97a]
The Wisdom of the learned will degenerate; fearers of sin will be despised; and the truth will be lacking. Youths will put old men to shame. [Sotah 49b]
Judaism will suffer greatly because of these upheavals. There is a tradition that the Jews will split up into various groups, each laying claim to the truth, as the Talmud says, “Our truth shall be divided into flocks” (Sanhedrin 97a). This will make it exceedingly difficult, almost impossible, to discern true Judaism from the false. This is the meaning of the prophecy, “Truth will fail” (Isaiah 59:15).
Maimonides, in his Epistle to Yemen even predicted that many will leave the fold of Judaism completely, without maliciously intending to do harm to the Jewish people, and the nation shall suffer immensely as a result of their actions. This is how our sages interpret the prophecy, “The wicked shall do wickedly, and not understand” (Daniel 12:10)..
Of course, there will he some Jews who remain true to their traditions. They will realize that they are witnessing the death throes of a degenerate old order and will not be drawn into it. But they will suffer all the more for this, and be dubbed fools for not conforming to the liberal ways of the premessianic age. This is the meaning of the prophecy (Isaiah 59:15), “He who departs from evil will be considered a fool” (Sanhedrin 97a).
One of our important traditions regarding the advent of the Messiah is that it will mark the return of prophecy. In order to counter the terrible social upheaval described above, and the gap between the generations, the Messiah will be preceded by the prophet Elijah, as it is stated, “Behold I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the arrival of God’s great day” (Malachi 3:23). There is much dispute with regard to Elijah’s function. In a discourse on the subject, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson explains that the purpose of this perennial prophet’s materialization before the messianic era is twofold:
(1) To uplift and refine the Jewish people, thus preparing them for the messianic redemption-the need for this can be readily appreciated in light of the prophecies of social doom listed above.
(2) To eliminate wrongdoing and heal the rifts of the world through peace, as the prophet foretold that Elijah “shall bring back the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24).
The Rebbe explains that in the final analysis, Elijah’s endeavors to establish peace among the Jewish people are clearly interrelated with his heralding the arrival of the Messiah. For peace, unity, and brotherly love are the means of hastening the coming of redemption. The sages teach that the exile was caused by unwarranted hatred (Yoma 9b; Gittin 55b). Undoing the cause of the exile-hatred-will thus erase its effect-the exile itself.
This prophecy of the hearts of the fathers being returned through their children is a clear indication that our generation stands at the footsteps of the messianic era. Who has ever heard of children returning the hearts of their parents to their people and to their God? Clearly, every religion and way of life is propagated from generation to generation only through parents teaching their children of the tradition. But who has ever heard of a tradition going backward? How can it be that children will bring their parents back to Judaism? When a tradition is cut, it usually marks the end of the line. Yet, in our generation we are witnesses to the fact that it is happening. Parents who abandoned Judaism earlier in their lives are suddenly returning to it because of their children. Young inquisitive Jewish minds are embracing Judaism on their own and, after overcoming the usual initial hostility from their parents, they are conveying these eternal truths back to the previous generations, causing them to embrace them, too.
So what we are witnessing is a closing of the generation and a resolution to tremendous social upheaval that has taken place over the last few decades, coming about through the newfound commitment of the children. Society has gone full circle, and if it can continue its course, it will have paved the way for the coming of the Messiah.
Into a world prepared to receive him, the Messiah will then be born. He will be a mortal human being, born normally of human parents. Tradition states that he will be a direct descendent of King David and indeed, there are numerous Jewish families today that can claim such lineage. Some leaders have literally changed the course of history. Evil leaders, like the crazed German butcher Hitler, literally hypnotized entire nations, bringing them to do things that normally would be unthinkable in a civilized society. King Solomon assures in his Song of Songs that for every power that exists for evil, it must certainly exist for good.
Based on the Maimonidean creed, Kaplan envisions the Messiah as a learned, charismatic leader, greater than any other in man’s history. He imagines a social and political genius surpassing all others, who, by using the vast communication networks now at our disposal, could spread his message to the entire world and change the very fabric of our society.
Now imagine that he is a religious Jew, a tzaddik. It may have once seemed far-fetched for a tzaddik to assume a role in world leadership, but the world is becoming increasingly more accustomed to accepting leaders of all races, religions, and ethnic groups. Indeed today there are numerous religious leaders whose opinions are sought by political leaders on all issues. It is not at all far-fetched to picture a tzaddik in such a role.
One possible scenario could involve the Middle East situation. This is a problem that involves all the world powers. Now imagine a Jew, a tzaddik, solving this thorny problem by adapting eternal truths from the Torah to fit this modern-day dilemma. It is entirely conceivable that such a demonstration of statesmanship and political genius would place him in a position of world leadership. The major powers would have the greatest respect and listen to such an individual. Thus his leadership would transcend demographic politics and he would stand above all of the existing political frameworks. Jew and non Jew alike would look to this tzaddik for guidance in solving the world’s ills.
The Jewish people have always had a profound respect for those who assume roles of world leadership. After initial hostility to the concept of a messianic figure due to the amount of suffering caused to the Jews at the hands of false Messiahs, this tzaddik would emerge as a leader of unparalleled authority in all Jewish circles. He would make religion respectable by transforming the Jewish religious landscape. Through farreaching global programs, he would bridge the divide between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox and cause thousands to return to Jewish observance.
It is just possible that all Jewish leaders would agree to name him their leader and confer upon him the Mosaic ordination (see Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sanhedrin 4:11). The chain of this ordination was broken some sixteen hundred years ago and must be renewed before the Sanhedrin, the religious supreme court and legislature of the Jews, can be reestablished. If this tzaddik was so ordained by the entire community, he could then reestablish the Sanhedrin. This is a necessary condition for the rebuilding of the Temple: “And I will restore your judges as at first, and your counsellors as at the beginning; afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (Isaiah 1:26). Such a Sanhedrin would also be able to formally recognize the Messiah (Tosefta Sanhedrin 3:2; Mishneh Torah, Sanhedrin 4:1).
In his position of leadership, through direct negotiation, and perhaps with the concurrence of the world powers, this tzaddik would regain the Temple Mount for the Jewish people. With a Sanhedrin to iron out the many thorny halakhic questions, it might then be possible to rebuild the Holy Temple.
However, if this is accomplished, we will already have fulfilled the essential part of the messianic promise. It is very important to note that these accomplishments are a minimum for our acceptance of an individual as the Messiah. There have been numerous people who have claimed to be the Messiah, but the fact that they did not achieve these minimal goals proved them to be false.
As both an unparalleled genius and a tzaddik, the Messiah will see through the sham and hypocrisy of this world. Thus, the Isaiah foretold, “He will sense the fear of the Lord, and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, nor decide after the hearing of his ears” (Isaiah 11:3).
As the Messiah’s powers develop, so will his fame. The world will begin to recognize his profound wisdom and come to seek his advice. As a tzaddik, he will teach all mankind to live in peace and follow God’s teachings. Thus Isaiah foretold:
And it shall to pass in the end of days that the mountain of God’s house shall be set over all other mountains and lifted high above the hills, and all nations shall come streaming to it. And many people shall come and say: Come let us go to the house of the God of Jacob and He [the Messiah] will teach us His ways and we will walk in His paths. For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and God’s word from Jerusalem. And He [the Messiah] will judge between nations and decide between peoples. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they practice war any more. [Isaiah 2:2-4]
Although the Messiah will influence and teach all of mankind, his main mission will be to bring the Jews back to God. “For the children of Israel shall sit many days without king or prince…. Afterward shall the children of Israel return and seek the Lord their God and David their king … in the end of
days” (Josiah 3:5). Similarly, “And My servant David shall he king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd, and they shall also walk in My ordinances and observe My laws” (Ezekiel 37:24).
As society reaches toward perfection and the world becomes increasingly Godly, men, with their copious free time brought about by technological advance and lack of war, will begin to explore the transcendental more and more, “for all the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the ocean floor” (Isaiah 11:9). More and more people will achieve the mystical union of prophecy, as foretold: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour My Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Joel 3:1).
Although man will still have free will in the messianic age, he will have every inducement to do good and follow God’s teachings. It will be as if the power of evil were totally annihilated. And as man approaches this lofty level, he will also become worthy of a divine providence not limited by the laws of nature. What is now manifestly miraculous will ultimately become part of the nature of things. This, wedded to man’s newly gained powers to bring forth the best that untainted nature has to offer, will bring man to his ultimate destiny, which, according to Maimonides, is a disembodied existence in the World-to-Come. After reaching the highest perfection attainable by man, it will be time for all of mankind to leave their limiting physical existence,, and return to the sublimity of spiritual existence in the Garden of Eden.
Yet, notwithstanding the compelling and believable nature of Maimonides’ natural, nonmiraculous vision of the future, the Maimonidean view of the messianic age is hotly contested by a host of Maimonides’ contemporaries.