The Rationalist Approach to Messianism

frank gamble

Some of the most important questions of what will take place in the messianic era-how long will the messianic epoch last, will people live forever, will there be a radical transformation in nature, will the Messiah die, what will life be like-are a subject of dispute between two of the greatest medieval Jewish scholars: Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Mai­mon) and Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman).

To begin, Maimonides devotes much attention to the subject of the Messiah throughout his writings. This encompasses lengthy discussions on the subject in his commentary on the Mishnah, notably in his Introduction to Helek, epistles to various Jewish communities around the world, and especially his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Kings and Wars). In each of these places he always demonstrates the importance of the belief in the Messiah to those who underestimate its value in Judaism. He writes:

Anyone who does not believe in him, or does not await his coming, denies not only the statements of the other prophets, but also those of the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher, for the Torah attests to his coming, stating, “And God will bring back your captivity.” There is also a reference to the Messiah in the passage concerning Bilaam (Numbers 24:17-18), who prophe­sies about the two anointed kings: the first anointed king, David, who saved Israel from her oppressors, and the final anointed king who will arise from among his descendants and save Israel at the end of days … as the passage states: “I see it, but not now.” “I see it, but not now”-This refers to David; “I perceive it, but not in the near future”-This refers to the Messiah. “A star shall go forth from Jacob”-This refers to David; `and a staff shall arise in Israel”-This refers to the Messiah. “He shall crush all of Moab’s princes”-This refers to David (as it is written [II Samuel 8:2], “He smote Moab and measured them with a line”); “he shall dominate all of Seth’s descendants” ­This refers to the Messiah (about whom it is written, “He will rule from sea to sea” [Zechariah 9:10]).

The centrality of the Messiah in Judaism according to Maimonides is so strong that he even says, “The final goal is the attaining of the World-to-Come, and it is to it that all our effort must be directed.”

 

Nevertheless, Maimonides understands the dangers inherent in being overzealous. He warns how careful one must be before accepting a certain individual as the Messiah. In his Epistle to Yemen he rebukes a scholar for mistakenly accepting a man who was not great in learning as the Messiah:

But I am astonished that you, a scholar who has carefully studied the doctrine of the rabbis, are inclined to repose faith in him. Do you not know, my brother, that the Messiah is a very eminent prophet, more illustrious than all the prophets after Moses! Now if we dare not put trust in a man’s pretensions to prophecy if he does not excel in wisdom, how much less must we take seriously the claims of an ignoramus that he is the Messiah?

Likewise, Maimonides warns of the danger of mistakenly accepting a given event as ushering the messianic redemption when in fact it has not yet arrived. “Remember that even the date of the termination of the Egyptian exile was not precisely known and gave rise to differences of opinion.” Although God fixed its duration in Scripture as being four hundred years there were disputes as to when the four hundred years began and when it ended. One group had miscalculated it by thirty years.

A hand of Israelites left Egypt because they believed that their exile had ended. The Egyptians slew and destroyed them, and the subjugation of the Israelites who remained was consequently aggravated…. Now if such uncertainty prevailed in regard to the date of emancipation from the Egyptian bondage, the term of which was fixed, it is much more so with respect to the date of the final redemption, the prolonged and protracted duration of which appalled and dismayed our inspired seers. [Epistle to Yemen]

Thus, Maimonides fears that the Jews of the subsequent generations could be led to make the same mistake as their predecessors. It is partly due to this reason that Maimonides devotes so much energy to clarifying the messianic ideal. He understands that due to its sublimity and difficulty, the idea of the Messiah has become meaningless to a great many contem­poraries. He feels a need to clarify a concept, which, he says, has fallen into chaos and disarray.

 

In Introduction to Helek Maimonides writes:

I have thought fit to speak here concerning many principles belonging to fundamental articles of faith which are of very great importance. Know that the theologians are divided in opinion as to the good which man reaps from the performance of these precepts which God enjoined upon us by the hand of Moses our teacher; and that they also differ among themselves with regard to the evil which will overtake us if we transgress them. Their differences on these questions are very great and in proportion to the differences between their respective intel­lects. As a consequence, people’s opinions have fallen into such great confusion that you can scarcely in any way find anyone possessing clear and certain ideas on this subject: neither can you alight upon any portion of it which has been transmitted to any person without abundant error.

Maimonides then begins to explain all of the different errors that people make concerning the messianic era, errors based on literal interpretations of biblical and rabbinic texts. One class of people holds that “the hoped-for good will be the Garden of Eden, a place where people eat and drink without toil or faintness.” They imagine “houses of costly stones … couches of silk and rivers flowing with wine and perfumed oil.” Another class “firmly believes and imagines that the hoped-for good will be the days of the Messiah.” They think that when that time comes, all men will be kings forever. Their bodily frames will be mighty and they will inhabit the whole earth unto eternity. According to their imagination, that Messiah will live as long as the Creator, and at that epoch the earth will bring forth garments ready woven and bread ready baked, and many other impossible things like these. “A fourth class consists of those who believe that the good which we shall reap from obedience to the law will consist in the repose of the body and attainment in the world of all worldly wishes, as for example, the fertility of lands, abundant wealth, abundance of children, long life, bodily health and security, enjoying the sway of a king, and prevailing over the oppressor.”

 

The common feature of all these views is their focusing on material gratification as the ultimate goal of religious obser­vance. The popular notion of messianism was but one instance of this preoccupation with gratifying one’s need for power, wealth, or sensual pleasure. It was a collective fantasy born of repression and deprivation. Maimonides goes to great lengths to combat this literalism in the minds of the majority of the community. Maimonides, for no ulterior motive, wished to return the focus of the Jewish world to regard the worship of God as the ultimate goal of Judaism. Thus he emphasized throughout his writings about the Messiah that the fundamental order of the natural world would not change or be compro­mised after his advent.

 

Both prophetic and talmudic references to the messianic era indicated a world that would return to the kind of existence the Jews enjoyed while wandering through the desert after their redemption from Egypt. This was an existence in which no physical effort needed to be exerted for physical sustenance. Clothing grew on backs, the “well of Miriam” followed the Jews in the desert, bread (mannah) rained from heaven, and shelter in the form of protective clouds followed the Jews wherever they went. The interaction of the Jews with the material world was virtually nonexistent. The same funda­mental changes would take place if the statements of the Prophets and the Talmud regarding the epoch of the Messiah would come true.

 

But Maimonides rejected these prophetic pronouncements as merely allegorical and disputed this notion vigorously. Ac­cording to Maimonides, the ultimate purpose of the Torah, ignored by all the aforementioned views, is the World ­to-Come, i.e., the immortality of the soul.

 

To understand the Maimonidean notion of the messianic era requires an examination of who the Messiah would be.

 

In Laws of Kings and Wars Maimonides lists the qualifica­tions for the messiahship.

If a king shall arise from the House of David who delves deeply in the study of the Torah and observes its mitzvot like David, his ancestor; if he, by his personal excellence within the realm of Torah, will compel all of Israel to walk in the way of the Torah, and reinforce the breaches in its observance among the entire Jewish people; and if he will fight the wars of God, thus removing all obstacles to Torah observance in the world at large, we may, with assurance, consider him the Messiah. If he suc­ceeds in the above … builds the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) on its site, and gathers in the dispersed remnant of Israel, he is definitely the Messiah. At this stage, when it becomes possible to observe the Torah and its mitzvot in their totality, the era of the Messiah will have actually begun. [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:4]

Note that Maimonides goes to great lengths to emphasize the natural very human side of the Messiah. In another instance he further expands upon the nonmiraculous qualifications for the messiahship. Maimonides was well aware of the average public opinion of who the Messiah would be, which was ridden with supernatural powers. To an extent, this may have been influ­enced by the Christian culture in which the Jews were sub­merged. But more important, it added a dimension of roman­ticism and glory to the messianic figure. Thus Maimonides writes:

One should not entertain the notion that the messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena within the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true. A proof can be brought from the fact that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages of the Mishnah, was one of the supporters of King Ben Kozeba, and would describe him as the messianic king…. The sages did not ask him for any signs or wonders. [Introduction to Helek]

He reemphasizes the point again in Laws of Kings and Wars:

Do not think that the king Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. It is not so. Rabbi Akiva was a great sage, a teacher of the Mishnah, yet he was also the armor-bearer of Ben Kozeba. He affirmed that the latter was the king Messiah; he and all the wise men of his generation shared this belief until Ben Kozeba was slain in [his] iniquity, when it became known that he was not the Messiah. Yet the rabbis had not asked him for a sign or token. The general principle is: this Law of ours with its statutes and ordinances [is not subject to change]. It is forever and all eternity; it is not to be added to or to be taken away from. [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:3]

According to Maimonides, the Messiah will restore the mon­archy, build the Temple, and gather in the Jewish people, thus creating an environment in which the Jewish people will be able to observe the Torah and its mitzvot in a perfect manner. Furthermore, he will remove any obstacles to this end in the world at large. As a consequence, the Jewish people will “be free [to involve themselves] in Torah and its wisdom [without any pressures or disturbances]. At that time there will be neither famine nor war … [and] the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know God” (Laws of Kings and Wars 12:4-5).

 

Thus we see throughout the Maimonidean messianic vision how the natural order of the world prevails: the Jewish people and the world at large will be elevated to a perfect state of knowledge and practice. This is the purpose of the Messiah’s coming.

 

In order to convince his readers that knowledge and love of God for their own sakes constituted the ultimate purpose of the commandments as well as the messianic era, Maimonides offers a new perspective on the material benefits promised in the Torah and rabbinic literature:

As regards the promises and threats alluded to in the Torah, their interpretation is that which I shall now tell you. It says to you, “If you obey these precepts, I will help you to a further obedience of them and perfection in the performance of them. And I shall remove all hindrances from you….” For it is impossible for man to do the service of God when sick or hungry or thirsty or in trouble and this is why the Torah promises the removal of all these disabilities and gives man also the promise of health and quietude until such a time as he shall have attained perfection of knowledge and be worthy of the life of the World-to-Come. The final aim of the Torah is not that the earth should be fertile, that people should live long, and that bodies should be healthy. It simply helps us to the performance of its precepts by holding out the promise of all these things. [Intro­duction to Helek]

Throughout his messianic writings, Maimonides strives to accomplish two things. First and foremost, he seeks to alter the Jewish world’s attitude toward their faith by making the knowledge and love of God the ultimate goal. He tries to make clam baba, the spiritual World-to-Come, the highest good in the hierarchy of rewards that Judaism promises its adherents and to make all other goods subservient to it. To this extent, Maimonides goes to the incredible extreme of subordinating even the messianic age to Olam Haba, domain of the souls. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that even so, one should not underestimate the instrumental value of messianisim, since it offers conditions that free man of mundane worries and dis­tractions so that he can devote himself to the single-minded pursuit of knowledge of God.

 

In the days of the World-to-Come, knowledge, wisdom and truth will increase, as it is said, “For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:9), and it is said, “They will no more teach everyone his brother and everyone his neighbor” (Jeremiah 31:34), and further, “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). [Laws of Repentance]

 

He further writes concerning this point:

The days of the Messiah are not ardently longed for on account of the plentiful vegetation, and the riches which they will bring in their train, nor in order that we may ride on horses, nor that we may drink to the accompaniment of various kinds of musical instruments, as is thought by those people who are confused in their ideas on such things. No! the prophets and saints wished and ardently desired [the days of the Messiah] because it implies the coming together of the virtuous, with choice deeds of goodness and knowledge, and the justice of the king, the greatness of his wisdom and his nearness to his Creator, as it is said: “The Lord said unto me, thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee.” . . . And because it implies obedience to all the laws of Moses, without interference or disquietude or constraint…. as it is promised in the words, “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor and every man his brother saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know me from the least of them unto the greatest of them.” “And I will take away the stony heart from your flesh.” And there are many more similar verses on like themes. [Introduc­tion to Helek]

Second, he strives to neutralize what might be mistaken as religious fantasy. He seems to try to counteract the people’s exaggerated expectations fostered by biblical and midrashic literature and naturalize the concept of messianism by inter­preting it in terms of regular patterns of nature. Wherever possible, he seems to try to make the content of messianic beliefs consistent with the order of nature by allegorizing prophetic and rabbinic statements that in their literal sense place messianism beyond the natural order.

 

Maimonides wrote that the Messiah himself will be mortal and that the longevity that people will enjoy in the messianic era will be a perfectly natural consequence of the conditions that will then prevail. In perhaps his most astounding pro­nouncement concerning the messianic age, Maimonides wrote:

But the Messiah will die but people will live for 1,000 years. The Messiah will die, and his son and son’s son will reign in his stead. God has clearly declared his death in the words, “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth.” His kingdom will endure a very long time and the lives of men will he long also, because longevity is a consequence of the removal of sorrows and cares. Let not the fact of the duration of his kingdom for thousands of years seem strange to you, for the sages have said that when a number of good things come together, it is not an easy thing for them to separate again. [Introduction to Helek]

Maimonides explains how the length of days that people will enjoy during the messianic era need not imply a miraculous change in the natural order. When human society is free of violence, when people are not burdened psychologically by anxieties resulting from scarcity and the struggle for survival, and when people become conscious of their true human pur­pose, i.e., to know God, “then that society will be stable and ordered and its members will enjoy satisfying and lengthy lives.”

 

Even amid his attempts to naturalize the messianic era, Maimonides nevertheless does not altogether allegorize the powers traditionally ascribed to the messianic figure:

His [the Messiah’s] name will be great and fill the earth to its uttermost bounds. It will be a greater name than that of King Solomon and mightier. The nations will make peace with him and lands will obey him by reason of his great rectitude and the wonders that will come to light by his means. Any one that rises up against him God will destroy and make him fall into his hand. [Introduction to Helek]

And again in Laws of Repentance Maimonides adds:

Because the king who will arise from the seed of David will possess more wisdom than Solomon and will be a great prophet, approaching Moses, our teacher, he will teach the whole of the Jewish people and instruct them in the way of God; and all nations will come to hear him, as it is said, And at the end of days it shall come to pass that the Mount of the Lord’s house shall be established as the top of the mountains [Micah 4:1; Isaiah 2:2]. [Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 9:8-10]

But even amid this seeming concession to a more miraculous aspect of the Messiah’s influence over the nations of the earth, Maimonides immediately adds:

So far as existing things are concerned, there will be no difference whatever between now and then, except that Israel will possess the kingdom. And this is the sense of the rabbis’ statement: “There is no difference between this world and the days of the Messiah except the subjugation of the kingdoms alone.” In his days there will be both the strong and the weak in their relations to others. But verily in those days the gaining of their livelihood will be so easy to men that they will do the lightest possible labor and reap great benefit. It is this that is meant by the remark of the rabbis, “The land of Israel will one day produce cakes ready baked, and garments of fine silk.” For when one finds a thing easily and without labor, people are in the habit of saying, “So and so found bread ready baked, and a meal ready cooked.” [Introduction to Helek]

In numerous other pronouncements concerning the messi­anic era, Maimonides repeatedly allegorizes the messianic prophecies and reinterprets them as depicting a natural state of affairs. Thus he sets out the following principles in regard to the era of redemption:

One should not entertain the notion that in the era of the Messiah any element of the natural order will be nullified, or that there will be innovations in the work of creation. Rather, the world will continue according to its pattern. Though Isaiah states, “The wolf will dwell with the lamb …,” these words are an allegory and a riddle, meaning that Israel will dwell securely together with the wicked haters of Israel who are likened to wolves and leopards . . . In this era, all nations will return to the true faith and no longer rob or destroy…. Similarly, other prophecies of this nature concerning the Mes­siah are analogies. In the era of the messianic king, everyone will realize what was implied by these analogies and allusions. Our sages taught (Berakbot 34b): There will be no difference be­tween the current age and the epoch of the Messiah save for our emancipation from subjugation to the gentile kingdoms. [Laws of Kings and Wars 12:1-2]

The only miraculous power, aside from the subjugation of his enemies, which Maimonides ascribes to the Messiah, is that, by virtue of possessing ruah hakodesh, the Holy Spirit, he will be able to determine who among the descendants of the tribe of Levi are priests and who are ordinary Levites. Then the Temple can be rebuilt and the sacrificial service reinstituted.

The king Messiah will arise and restore the kingdom of David to its former state and original sovereignty. He will rebuild the sanctuary and gather the dispersed of Israel. All the ancient laws will be reinstituted in his days; sacrifices will again be offered; the sabbatical and jubilee years will again be observed in accor­dance with the commandments set forth in the Torah. [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:1]

Primarily, however, Maimonides sees the messianic king’s functions as being both temporal and spiritual. He must provide social and political stability and security, but also establish the sovereignty of the Torah over his entire kingdom. Because he is an instrument for extending the rule of the Torah, he may not use his power for the sake of personal aggrandizement.

The king Messiah will receive one-thirteenth of all the prov­inces to be conquered by Israel. This is the share that will be assigned to him and his descendants forever. [Laws of Kings and Wars 4:8]

Essentially, then, Maimonides sees the messianic king not as a messenger announcing a new revelation or radical change in the natural order, nor as a harbringer of an end to history. Rather, the Messiah seems simply to be the ideal embodiment of the halakhic conception of the king, who will fulfill the essen­tial purpose of all kings by reestablishing a national kingdom governed by the Law of Moses. Maimonides’ description of the Messiah thus parallels his conception of messianism as the means of an ideal fulfillment and implementation of the Torah. He therefore emphasizes that the Torah will in no way he abrogated during the messianic age, but indeed will be restored in its entirety.

 

Thus Maimonides allows for the possibility that new Jewish kings or governments may arise in the land of Israel before the coming of the Messiah himself. The Messiah is thus not pictured as a prophetic figure performing spectacular miracles, but rather as one among a series of kings who will follow him and perhaps also precede him. What distinguishes the messianic king from all other kings, however, is his success in restoring Jewish national life in all its aspects and the dissemination of the knowledge of God throughout the world through teaching and the abolishment of idolatry.

 

In equating the Messiah with other Jewish kings, Maimonides even enters into a discussion of the possibility of his failure:

But if he does not meet with full success, or is slain, it is obvious that he is not the Messiah promised in the Torah. He is to be regarded like all the other whole-hearted and worthy kings of the House of David who died and whom the Holy One, blessed be He, raised up to test the multitude, as it is written: “And some of them that are wise shall stumble, to refine among them, and to purify, and to make white, even to the time of the end; for it is yet for the time appointed” (Daniel 11:35). [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:4]

Messianism, then, is simply the fulfillment of the biblical promise that the Jewish people will be given the historical opportunity to observe the entire Torah. This promise, as interpreted by Maimonides, does not presuppose an end to history as we know it. Maimonides claims that this somewhat less romantic view of the messianic epoch has always been the Jewish view of that time:

The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Rather, their aspiration was that [the Jewish people] be free [to involve themselves] in Torah and its wisdom, without anyone to oppress or disturb them, and thus be found worthy of life in the World-to-Come. [Laws of Kings and Wars 12:4]

Whenever material well-being is promised or hoped for in Judaism, it is not regarded as an end in itself, but rather as a means for furthering knowledge and love of God. Messianic times are ideal and desirable because the conditions that will prevail will be conducive to becoming worthy for life in the World-to-Come. It is realism and not materialism that accounts for Judaism’s concern for material well-being. Human beings cannot devote themselves to the pursuit of knowledge or disinterested worship of God when they are overburdened with physical and psychological concerns. This understanding also accounts for some of the better-known promises of the messianic era, such as the stability and peace of the world at large.

In that era, there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. Blessings will be abundant, comforts within the reach of all. The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord. Hence Israelites nations will be very wise, they will know the things that are now concealed and will attain an understanding of their Creator to the utmost capacity of the human kind. [Laws of Kings and Wars 12:5]

This change in the stability and material perfection of the world will benefit the non-Jewish nations as well. If they observe the Noachide laws, the fundamental principles incum­bent upon all human beings according to halakhah, and subju­gate themselves to God’s authority, they too will share in this world of the future. They must keep the Bible’s universal code of universal ethics and morality, known as the Seven Noachide Laws, which entail prohibitions on idolatry, blasphemy, mur­der, sexual immorality, kidnapping, sadistic treatment of ani­mals, and a postitive commandment to set up courts of law and uphold justice. But there is a very important precondition to these laws insofar as they necessitate an acceptance of Sinaitic revelation as the exclusive source for validating obedience to the Noachide laws.

A heathen who accepts the seven commandments and who serves them scrupulously is a “righteous heathen,” and will have a portion in the World-to-Come, provided that he accepts them and performs them because the Holy One, blessed he He, commanded them in the Law and made known through Moses our teacher, that the observance thereof had been enjoined upon the descendants of Noah even before the Law was given. But if his observance thereof is based upon a reasoned conclu­sion he is not deemed a resident alien, or one of the pious of the gentiles, but one of their wise men. [Laws of Kings and Wars 8:11]

In fact, the teaching and dissemination of these Noachide commandments comprised, in the opinion of Maimonides, one of the integral components of the messianic ideal. The Noa­chide commandments, which among other things prohibit idolatry and enjoin certain fundamental norms of social justice, comprised what Maimonides believed to be the essential con­ditions necessary for a universal monotheistic world order. The obligation to enforce them was unconditional and thus could not be confined to the geographical borders of Israel and its surroundings. In the times of the Messiah the laws would spread throughout the world to be adopted by all nations.

 

What is possibly one of the most interesting facets con­cerning the non-Jewish role in the messianic era is the role that the major non-Jewish religions play in educating the heathen world about the Messiah before his arrival. After making it clear that his interpretation of the emergence of the two religions is based more on speculation than on knowledge, since the limitations of human understanding preclude the possibility of acquiring knowledge of God’s ways in history, Maimonides explains how he saw in Christianity and Islam a connection between the restoration of Israel’s sovereignty and the uni­versal triumph of monotheism. Since the two religions have exposed vast numbers of people to the biblical world of concepts and ideas, they have created a plausible framework for Judaism’s reemergence in history as the dominant mono­theistic religion.

Even of Jesus of Nazareth, who imagined that he was the Messiah, but was put to death by the court, Daniel had prophe­sied, as it is written: And the children of the violent among thy people shall lift themselves up to establish the vision; but they shall stumble [Daniel 11:14]. For has there ever been a greater stumbling than this? All the prophets affirmed that the Messiah would redeem Israel, save them, gather their dispersed, and confirm the commandments. But he caused Israel to be de­stroyed by the sword, their remnants to be dispersed and humiliated. He was instrumental in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God.

But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of the Creator; for our ways are not His ways, neither are our thoughts His thoughts. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite [Muhammad] who came after him, only served to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written: For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent [Zephaniah 3:9]. Thus the messianic hope, the Torah, and the command­ments have become familiar topics-topics of conversation [among the inhabitants] of the far isles and many peoples, uncircumcised of heart and flesh. They are discussing these matters and the commandments of the Torah. Some say: “Those commandments were true, but have lost their validity and are no longer binding.” Others declare that they had an esoteric meaning and were not intended to be taken literally, that the Messiah has already come and revealed their occult significance. But when the true King Messiah will appear and succeed, be exalted and lifted up, they will forthwith recant and realize that they have inherited naught but lies from their fathers, that their prophets and forbears led them astray. [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:4; this passage was deleted from most of the editions pub­lished since the Venice edition of 1574]

What emerges from this discussion of the Maimonidean view of messianism is this: The age of the Messiah is not the final and loftiest stage in the historical process. Rather, it is a precursor to what is the final and loftiest stage in the creative process­when all bodies will die and we will live an ethereal existence in the World-to-Come. Note that according to Maimonides, the World-to-Come does not refer to the messianic era. Rather, it refers to the heavenly realm and the Garden of Eden. Maimo­nides is of the opinion that ultimately the spiritual transcends the physical and it is toward this spiritual existence that we are all headed and that constitutes the final reward. Only in a spiritual guise, uninhibited by the body, can the soul finally attain a knowledge of God:

In the World-to-Come, our souls will attain the secrets of the Creator just as or even more than the stars and the celestial spheres achieve those secrets. Similarly, the rabbis of blessed memory said: “In the World-to-Come, there will be neither eating nor drinking. All there will be is that the righteous will sit with their crowns upon their heads, and they will delight in the Glory of the Divine Presence.” [Introduction to Helek]

In the World-to-Come, there is no physical body or any material substance. There are only bodiless souls of the righ­teous like the ministering angels. Since there are no material substances in that world, there is neither eating nor drinking nor anything required by the bodies of the human beings on earth. None of the conditions occur there that are incidental to physical bodies in this world, such as sitting, standing, sleeping, seeing, grief, merriment, and their like…. When the Sages mentioned that “the righteous sit,” it is only an allegorical expression that means that the souls of the righteous exist there without labor or effort. Similarly, the sages’ expression of “their crowns on their heads” means that the knowledge they have acquired is with them. [Laws of Repentance 8:8]

Thus, Maimonides sees all corporeal references pertaining the World-to-Come as mere allegory. The World-to-Come is a world of souls, and it is this spiritual domain that constitutes the final good that God offers.

 

Notwithstanding the rationalism of the Maimonidean ap­proach to the subject of the Messiah, and notwithstanding the fact that in his view the messianic age is not the culmination of the historical process, the seriousness with which Maimonides deals with the subject of the Messiah is beyond question. Aside from his earlier quoted statements of the heresy of those who deny the coming of the Messiah, he devoted significant portions of his epistles to Jewish communities around the world, encouraging the suffering masses of Israel never to lose hope in his arrival. Notwithstanding the advances of the Gen­tile nations amid the lowliness of Israel and notwithstanding how improbable, indeed impossible, the advent of the Messiah would ever seem, one could rest assured beyond the shadow of a doubt that God would keep His promise and send the Messiah.

This is how matters stand regarding the era of the Messiah, may he speedily come. For while the Gentiles believe that our nation will never constitute an independent state, nor will it ever rise above its present condition, and all the astrologers, diviners, and augurs concur in this opinion, God will prove their views and beliefs false, and will order the advent of the Messiah. [Epistle to Yemen]

Anyone who does not believe in him, or does not await his coming, denies not only the statements of the other prophets, but also those of the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher, for the Torah attests to his coming, stating, “And God will bring back your captivity.” There is also a reference to the Messiah in the passage concerning Bilaam (Numbers 24:17-18), who prophe­sies about the two anointed kings: the first anointed king, David, who saved Israel from her oppressors, and the final anointed king who will arise from among his descendants and save Israel at the end of days … as the passage states: “I see it, but not now.” “I see it, but not now”-This refers to David; “I perceive it, but not in the near future”-This refers to the Messiah. “A star shall go forth from Jacob”-This refers to David; `and a staff shall arise in Israel”-This refers to the Messiah. “He shall crush all of Moab’s princes”-This refers to David (as it is written [II Samuel 8:2], “He smote Moab and measured them with a line”); “he shall dominate all of Seth’s descendants” ­This refers to the Messiah (about whom it is written, “He will rule from sea to sea” [Zechariah 9:10]).

 

But I am astonished that you, a scholar who has carefully studied the doctrine of the rabbis, are inclined to repose faith in him. Do you not know, my brother, that the Messiah is a very eminent prophet, more illustrious than all the prophets after Moses! Now if we dare not put trust in a man’s pretensions to prophecy if he does not excel in wisdom, how much less must we take seriously the claims of an ignoramus that he is the Messiah?

A hand of Israelites left Egypt because they believed that their exile had ended. The Egyptians slew and destroyed them, and the subjugation of the Israelites who remained was consequently aggravated…. Now if such uncertainty prevailed in regard to the date of emancipation from the Egyptian bondage, the term of which was fixed, it is much more so with respect to the date of the final redemption, the prolonged and protracted duration of which appalled and dismayed our inspired seers. [Epistle to Yemen]

 

I have thought fit to speak here concerning many principles belonging to fundamental articles of faith which are of very great importance. Know that the theologians are divided in opinion as to the good which man reaps from the performance of these precepts which God enjoined upon us by the hand of Moses our teacher; and that they also differ among themselves with regard to the evil which will overtake us if we transgress them. Their differences on these questions are very great and in proportion to the differences between their respective intel­lects. As a consequence, people’s opinions have fallen into such great confusion that you can scarcely in any way find anyone possessing clear and certain ideas on this subject: neither can you alight upon any portion of it which has been transmitted to any person without abundant error.

 

 

 

 

 

If a king shall arise from the House of David who delves deeply in the study of the Torah and observes its mitzvot like David, his ancestor; if he, by his personal excellence within the realm of Torah, will compel all of Israel to walk in the way of the Torah, and reinforce the breaches in its observance among the entire Jewish people; and if he will fight the wars of God, thus removing all obstacles to Torah observance in the world at large, we may, with assurance, consider him the Messiah. If he suc­ceeds in the above … builds the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) on its site, and gathers in the dispersed remnant of Israel, he is definitely the Messiah. At this stage, when it becomes possible to observe the Torah and its mitzvot in their totality, the era of the Messiah will have actually begun. [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:4]

One should not entertain the notion that the messianic king must work miracles and wonders, bring about new phenomena within the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true. A proof can be brought from the fact that Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages of the Mishnah, was one of the supporters of King Ben Kozeba, and would describe him as the messianic king…. The sages did not ask him for any signs or wonders. [Introduction to Helek]

Do not think that the king Messiah will have to perform signs and wonders, bring anything new into being, revive the dead, or do similar things. It is not so. Rabbi Akiva was a great sage, a teacher of the Mishnah, yet he was also the armor-bearer of Ben Kozeba. He affirmed that the latter was the king Messiah; he and all the wise men of his generation shared this belief until Ben Kozeba was slain in [his] iniquity, when it became known that he was not the Messiah. Yet the rabbis had not asked him for a sign or token. The general principle is: this Law of ours with its statutes and ordinances [is not subject to change]. It is forever and all eternity; it is not to be added to or to be taken away from. [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:3]

 

 

As regards the promises and threats alluded to in the Torah, their interpretation is that which I shall now tell you. It says to you, “If you obey these precepts, I will help you to a further obedience of them and perfection in the performance of them. And I shall remove all hindrances from you….” For it is impossible for man to do the service of God when sick or hungry or thirsty or in trouble and this is why the Torah promises the removal of all these disabilities and gives man also the promise of health and quietude until such a time as he shall have attained perfection of knowledge and be worthy of the life of the World-to-Come. The final aim of the Torah is not that the earth should be fertile, that people should live long, and that bodies should be healthy. It simply helps us to the performance of its precepts by holding out the promise of all these things. [Intro­duction to Helek]

 

 

The days of the Messiah are not ardently longed for on account of the plentiful vegetation, and the riches which they will bring in their train, nor in order that we may ride on horses, nor that we may drink to the accompaniment of various kinds of musical instruments, as is thought by those people who are confused in their ideas on such things. No! the prophets and saints wished and ardently desired [the days of the Messiah] because it implies the coming together of the virtuous, with choice deeds of goodness and knowledge, and the justice of the king, the greatness of his wisdom and his nearness to his Creator, as it is said: “The Lord said unto me, thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee.” . . . And because it implies obedience to all the laws of Moses, without interference or disquietude or constraint…. as it is promised in the words, “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor and every man his brother saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know me from the least of them unto the greatest of them.” “And I will take away the stony heart from your flesh.” And there are many more similar verses on like themes. [Introduc­tion to Helek]

 

But the Messiah will die but people will live for 1,000 years. The Messiah will die, and his son and son’s son will reign in his stead. God has clearly declared his death in the words, “He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth.” His kingdom will endure a very long time and the lives of men will he long also, because longevity is a consequence of the removal of sorrows and cares. Let not the fact of the duration of his kingdom for thousands of years seem strange to you, for the sages have said that when a number of good things come together, it is not an easy thing for them to separate again. [Introduction to Helek]

 

His [the Messiah’s] name will be great and fill the earth to its uttermost bounds. It will be a greater name than that of King Solomon and mightier. The nations will make peace with him and lands will obey him by reason of his great rectitude and the wonders that will come to light by his means. Any one that rises up against him God will destroy and make him fall into his hand. [Introduction to Helek]

Because the king who will arise from the seed of David will possess more wisdom than Solomon and will be a great prophet, approaching Moses, our teacher, he will teach the whole of the Jewish people and instruct them in the way of God; and all nations will come to hear him, as it is said, And at the end of days it shall come to pass that the Mount of the Lord’s house shall be established as the top of the mountains [Micah 4:1; Isaiah 2:2]. [Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 9:8-10]

So far as existing things are concerned, there will be no difference whatever between now and then, except that Israel will possess the kingdom. And this is the sense of the rabbis’ statement: “There is no difference between this world and the days of the Messiah except the subjugation of the kingdoms alone.” In his days there will be both the strong and the weak in their relations to others. But verily in those days the gaining of their livelihood will be so easy to men that they will do the lightest possible labor and reap great benefit. It is this that is meant by the remark of the rabbis, “The land of Israel will one day produce cakes ready baked, and garments of fine silk.” For when one finds a thing easily and without labor, people are in the habit of saying, “So and so found bread ready baked, and a meal ready cooked.” [Introduction to Helek]

One should not entertain the notion that in the era of the Messiah any element of the natural order will be nullified, or that there will be innovations in the work of creation. Rather, the world will continue according to its pattern. Though Isaiah states, “The wolf will dwell with the lamb …,” these words are an allegory and a riddle, meaning that Israel will dwell securely together with the wicked haters of Israel who are likened to wolves and leopards . . . In this era, all nations will return to the true faith and no longer rob or destroy…. Similarly, other prophecies of this nature concerning the Mes­siah are analogies. In the era of the messianic king, everyone will realize what was implied by these analogies and allusions. Our sages taught (Berakbot 34b): There will be no difference be­tween the current age and the epoch of the Messiah save for our emancipation from subjugation to the gentile kingdoms. [Laws of Kings and Wars 12:1-2]

The king Messiah will arise and restore the kingdom of David to its former state and original sovereignty. He will rebuild the sanctuary and gather the dispersed of Israel. All the ancient laws will be reinstituted in his days; sacrifices will again be offered; the sabbatical and jubilee years will again be observed in accor­dance with the commandments set forth in the Torah. [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:1]

The king Messiah will receive one-thirteenth of all the prov­inces to be conquered by Israel. This is the share that will be assigned to him and his descendants forever. [Laws of Kings and Wars 4:8]

 

 

But if he does not meet with full success, or is slain, it is obvious that he is not the Messiah promised in the Torah. He is to be regarded like all the other whole-hearted and worthy kings of the House of David who died and whom the Holy One, blessed be He, raised up to test the multitude, as it is written: “And some of them that are wise shall stumble, to refine among them, and to purify, and to make white, even to the time of the end; for it is yet for the time appointed” (Daniel 11:35). [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:4]

The sages and prophets did not long for the days of the Messiah that Israel might exercise dominion over the world, or rule over the heathens, or be exalted by the nations, or that it might eat and drink and rejoice. Rather, their aspiration was that [the Jewish people] be free [to involve themselves] in Torah and its wisdom, without anyone to oppress or disturb them, and thus be found worthy of life in the World-to-Come. [Laws of Kings and Wars 12:4]

In that era, there will be neither famine nor war, neither jealousy nor strife. Blessings will be abundant, comforts within the reach of all. The one preoccupation of the whole world will be to know the Lord. Hence Israelites nations will be very wise, they will know the things that are now concealed and will attain an understanding of their Creator to the utmost capacity of the human kind. [Laws of Kings and Wars 12:5]

A heathen who accepts the seven commandments and who serves them scrupulously is a “righteous heathen,” and will have a portion in the World-to-Come, provided that he accepts them and performs them because the Holy One, blessed he He, commanded them in the Law and made known through Moses our teacher, that the observance thereof had been enjoined upon the descendants of Noah even before the Law was given. But if his observance thereof is based upon a reasoned conclu­sion he is not deemed a resident alien, or one of the pious of the gentiles, but one of their wise men. [Laws of Kings and Wars 8:11]

 

Even of Jesus of Nazareth, who imagined that he was the Messiah, but was put to death by the court, Daniel had prophe­sied, as it is written: And the children of the violent among thy people shall lift themselves up to establish the vision; but they shall stumble [Daniel 11:14]. For has there ever been a greater stumbling than this? All the prophets affirmed that the Messiah would redeem Israel, save them, gather their dispersed, and confirm the commandments. But he caused Israel to be de­stroyed by the sword, their remnants to be dispersed and humiliated. He was instrumental in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God.

But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of the Creator; for our ways are not His ways, neither are our thoughts His thoughts. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite [Muhammad] who came after him, only served to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written: For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent [Zephaniah 3:9]. Thus the messianic hope, the Torah, and the command­ments have become familiar topics-topics of conversation [among the inhabitants] of the far isles and many peoples, uncircumcised of heart and flesh. They are discussing these matters and the commandments of the Torah. Some say: “Those commandments were true, but have lost their validity and are no longer binding.” Others declare that they had an esoteric meaning and were not intended to be taken literally, that the Messiah has already come and revealed their occult significance. But when the true King Messiah will appear and succeed, be exalted and lifted up, they will forthwith recant and realize that they have inherited naught but lies from their fathers, that their prophets and forbears led them astray. [Laws of Kings and Wars 11:4; this passage was deleted from most of the editions pub­lished since the Venice edition of 1574]

In the World-to-Come, our souls will attain the secrets of the Creator just as or even more than the stars and the celestial spheres achieve those secrets. Similarly, the rabbis of blessed memory said: “In the World-to-Come, there will be neither eating nor drinking. All there will be is that the righteous will sit with their crowns upon their heads, and they will delight in the Glory of the Divine Presence.” [Introduction to Helek]

In the World-to-Come, there is no physical body or any material substance. There are only bodiless souls of the righ­teous like the ministering angels. Since there are no material substances in that world, there is neither eating nor drinking nor anything required by the bodies of the human beings on earth. None of the conditions occur there that are incidental to physical bodies in this world, such as sitting, standing, sleeping, seeing, grief, merriment, and their like…. When the Sages mentioned that “the righteous sit,” it is only an allegorical expression that means that the souls of the righteous exist there without labor or effort. Similarly, the sages’ expression of “their crowns on their heads” means that the knowledge they have acquired is with them. [Laws of Repentance 8:8]

 

This is how matters stand regarding the era of the Messiah, may he speedily come. For while the Gentiles believe that our nation will never constitute an independent state, nor will it ever rise above its present condition, and all the astrologers, diviners, and augurs concur in this opinion, God will prove their views and beliefs false, and will order the advent of the Messiah. [Epistle to Yemen]

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