September 26, 2023
Will the Messiah Get to York Avenue? (Yom Kippur 5784)
Will the Messiah Get to York Avenue?
Rabbi Ari S. Lorge, Yom Kippur 5784
On May 18, 2022, I left Central and began my walk home. When I got to Lex and 56th I stopped, stunned. There, on the back of every yellow pedestrian signal box, was a square poster of Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the long dead Chabad Rebbe. Below his picture read, “Messiah is Here!”, exclamation point. Underneath read, “Long Live the Lubavitcher Rebbe King Messiah forever!” (another exclamation point).
It caught me by surprise to see Jewish graffiti on that corner. As I headed northeast toward my apartment, there was the same square poster on every crosswalk. Third avenue…Second…First, “Messiah is here,” up and down all the avenues. Then I got to York Avenue and the signs suddenly stopped. I got upset. Not because the graffiti seemed a disrespectful way to spread their message. But because my real estate agent was right when I was apartment hunting. York Avenue must be too far east, if it is even too far east for the Messiah.
Most of us likely spend little time thinking about the Messiah. And yet, we are living through an uptick in messianic fervor that is creating a world deeply at odds with our community’s values. And we are being called to respond and to act.
People assume the Messiah is a Christian invention. But, like monotheism, mandel bread, and retiring to Miami, this idea originated with the Jews. Messianism is, most basically, the idea that the world will eventually enter a perfect future, an age of peace, ushered in by an agent of God: The Moshiah as we say in Hebrew, or in English, the Messiah.
Why should this idea matter so much? Because messianism engenders big, bold actions. You’ve heard the tagline, “what would you do for a klondike bar?” They’ve got nothing on what people would do to bring the Messiah! Chabad is a case in point.
They're messianic beliefs are as ardently held as they are atypical in the Jewish community. Chabad believes the Messiah already arrived – in their previous rebbe who died in 1994. The problem there is that, for Jews, the Messiah cannot die without first perfecting the world. And yet, they believe that he will have a second coming. When will he return? Only when all Jews observe Shabbat and the commandments like Chabadniks. And so they are willing to do things most Jews wouldn’t. They stand on street corners encouraging Jews to perform mitzvot. They descend on college campuses so they can influence young minds. They establish outposts far from Jewish centers. It is a movement of big bold actions motivated by their desire for the Messiah.
In Judaism there is not a singular messianic belief - rather there are many competing ones. That said, messianism generally falls into one of two broad categories: redemptive and apocalyptic.
In redemptive messianism the faithful work to usher in an era of peace on behalf of all humanity. All the nations will be included in the messianic age. One of the most famous and succinct texts that anchors this messianic vision comes from the prophet Micah.
“In the days to come…many nations shall say: Let us go up to …the House of God...And they shall beat their swords into plowshares…Nation shall not take up Sword against nation…But everyone shall sit Under their vine or fig tree…”
After years of such optimistic prophecies failing to come true, some Jews lost hope. Apocalyptic messianism was born in that despair. In order to explain our people’s persecution and oppression, new ideas arose. Yes, peace will come, but only after a period of violence and suffering, only after a great battle between the forces of goodness and evil.
While redemptive and apocalyptic messianism lead to the same end - the arrival of an age of peace - the process to get there is radically different. This leads to believers who act very differently.
Redemptive messianists believe our salvation is tied to all people. We perform acts of kindness, compassion, and justice for everyone, regardless of faith. Redemptive messianism creates a community that is ready to reach beyond its boundaries and see the good in others. Vitally, Jewish redemptive messianism doesn’t require people to be converted. Rather, there’s a conviction that with a feeling of purpose, comes participation, where people feel kindness and love, they will join in. Sounds very Central Synagogue doesn’t it?
Apocalyptic messianists believe their salvation is tied to combatting the outsider who corrupts society. They prepare for the great war that is either being fought now or in the future. All those who do not share their faith are adherents of evil. This mindset cannot compromise, cannot negotiate, and cannot empathize with those who think differently. There is only right and wrong. And the ends justify the means.
What does an apocalyptic messianist pray for? Picture the scene. We are in the Senate Chamber of the United States Capitol. Amid the marble pillars, the blue carpet and panels, a group of men is chanting “treason,” as they force their way in. These men wear revolutionary war flags. Others shirts emblazoned with Christian iconography. Others “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies and various Nazi symbols. It is January 6th, 2021. After looting and vandalizing the insurrectionists stand at the desk of the Vice President for an impromptu prayer service. What was their prayer? “Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being the inspiration needed to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs, that we will not allow — the American way, of the United States of America — to go down.” Lest we want to shrug off this language, we should remember that “globalists” and “communists” have long been dog whistles for Jews. This is the most extreme form of apocalyptic messianism in America. It is growing in numbers.
Apocalyptic messianism has been a part of American society since its founding, due to the fact that it is ingrained in forms of fundamentalist Christianity. Today these ideas are becoming mainstream. Some of the politicians, judges, clergy and community leaders who subscribe to these beliefs are adopting the name Christian Nationalists - though not all of them identify as Christian. They are increasingly wielding power to wage their war against the groups they view as the infidel preventing salvation. As a Jewish community we feel it most keenly in the recent chipping away at the separation of Church and state. Just in the last few years prayer is creeping back into public school spaces, taxes are allowed to fund religious schools, businesses were given the green light to discriminate against classes of citizens based on religious beliefs, and theological convictions determined what kind of autonomy a woman has over her body. Where they don’t wield political power, apocalyptic messianists are turning to violent speech and violent actions to achieve their ends.
While in America we are only recently seeing a public conversation about apocalyptic beliefs impacting our society, in Israel, this language is understood widely and openly discussed. Members of the current coalition, represented most prominently by Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and Maoz are ardent believers in apocalyptic messianism. It is taught in their yeshivas. Now it shapes their policies. Lest you think I am being hyperbolic, here is what the right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman has said about these politicians and their followers, “If we do not wake up in time, the State of Israel will turn into a state of religious law, and we will pay a very heavy price for this messianic phenomenon.” This comment isn’t a one off. He has voiced his concern regularly. And IDF reservists can be heard in demonstrations against the judicial reforms chanting, “Your messianism is not Judaism or Zionism.”
But these politicians openly speak about establishing a Jewish theocracy. They are starting small. They’ve banned chametz in a patient’s private room in public hospitals - no matter if they’re Christian or Muslim, or secular. They’ve worked to close public transportation on Shabbat in predominantly secular cities like Tel Aviv. And, among their followers we are seeing an increased use of violent speech and violent acts against those they see as the outsiders corrupting Israel.
There are unmistakable parallel paths in both our homelands. What can we do? Double down on our vision of messianic redemption both in America and in Israel.
“But rabbi,” you may be saying, “we’re Reform Jews. We don’t believe in the Messiah.” Think again. I interrupt this sermon for a short Central Synagogue messianic sing-along. Yes, whether you knew it or not, you have sung a ditty praying for the coming of the Messiah. I’ll limit myself to a handful.
אַדִּיר הוּא יִבְנֶה בֵּיתוֹ בְּקָרוֹב…
Adir hu yivneh beito bekarov.
We’re asking God to send the Messiah and rebuild the ancient Temple
מָעוֹז צוּר יְשׁוּעָתִי…
Ma'oz Tzur Yeshu'ati…
Again, we ask God to rebuild the Temple and reinstate sacrifices.
אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר מָלַךְ…
Adon Olam asher malach…
In the second verse we long for the messianic age at the end of time.
And don’t get me started on Aleinu. Just a mess of messianism.
Yes, Reform Jews have messianic beliefs. We do not believe that a supernatural figure will appear, and lions and lambs will lie down together. But, we do believe that God gave us the blueprint for a perfect world, and that our mission is to build it as best we can, then entrust the next generation with the charge. Whether or not you believe in God, or in a literal messianic era, our people received a vision of an ideal society. It is our mission as Jews to work to realize that vision for all people. This belief stands against a life of meaninglessness and narcissism. It breathes purpose into our lives.
As redemptive messianists living in a time of apocalyptic fervor, what can we do? First, we attune ourselves to apocalyptic tropes and ready our redemptive responses.
If someone asserts that there is only one true path…
We respond that Judaism professes there are many ways to approach God.
If someone suggests that conflict is inevitable...
We reply that Jewish law teaches that we use violence only out of terrible necessity and violent language, never at all.
If someone claims that the ends justify the means…
We assure them that if the means are unjust, the end they wish to bring about will be unjust.
If someone says that we cannot tolerate a certain group…
We remind them that Judaism’s vision for the perfect age includes all the nations - not just our people.
But more important than refuting tropes is to be ready to live out our counter-vision. As one scholar notes, these zealots’ “strength lies not in their numbers, but in their ideological fervor.” Our joy in acting for others must match their fear of others. And lest you think this is some kumbaya New-Age belief, remember that out of all scripture, the ancient rabbis chose a redemptive messianic text for the haftarah of Yom Kippur:
In the passage from the Book of Isaiah, God tells us that prayers and fasting will not bring salvation. Rather, God demands we leave the walls of our worship and:
“unlock fetters of wickedness,
let the oppressed go free;
share our bread with the hungry,
take the poor into our homes;
clothe the naked,
And not to ignore our fellow human beings.”
What happens then? Isaiah tells us the Messiah, “shall march before us and we will rebuild ancient ruins and restore the foundations laid long ago.”
Each year we read these words that demand we reject apocalypse in favor of redemptive responsibility. It is a sacred to-do list. If, each day, we make these acts the core of who we are, we will make far more friends than enemies. We will make our local communities more like Eden. We will build a Jewish Democratic State that is the pride of our people. We will infuse each day with purpose and meaning, and Judaism will feel an urgent and vital part of our life and the lives of our children. What’s more, our actions will be a testament against the apocalyptic voices seeking to tear our world apart. With force and strength our lives will declare such paths are not Jewish, not worthy of any religion, and certainly not what God asks of us.
The Talmud teaches that when we die, we find ourselves before the Seat of Judgement. Standing there, awaiting our fate, we are asked: “?צָפִיתָ לִישׁוּעָה - did you hope for messianic salvation?” That is how core this belief is to our people.
When we stand there, we need to be ready to say we didn’t only hope for the Messiah, we did our part to bring about the messianic time. And not just for ourselves; but for our neighbors, for the stranger, and yes, even for those who live on York Avenue.
 “But, if he does not succeed in these matters or is killed, we will know that he was not the one Torah has promised. He is (merely to be considered) like all the (other) exemplary and qualified kings of the House of David who have died. G-d set him up only to try the masses, as it says, ‘And some of the wise will 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).” Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars.
 Berger, David. 2008. The Rebbe the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.
 Fromm, Erich TotalBoox and TBX. 2013. You Shall Be As Gods. Open Road Media. http://www.totalboox.com/book/id-4038062607330192794.
 Micah 4:1-5
 Scholem, Gershom. 1971. The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken Books.
 Buber Martin and מרדכי מרטין בובר. 1963. Israel and the World : Essays in a Time of Crisis Second ed. New York: Shocken Books.
“A Messianic idea without the yearning for the redemption of all humanity and without the desire to take part in its realization, is no longer identical with the Messianic vision of the prophets of Israel.”
 Scholem, “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism.” The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality.
 Jan. 6: A timeline in prayers (religionnews.com)
A Reporter’s Footage from Inside the Capitol Siege | The New Yorker
The insurrectionists' Senate floor prayer highlights a curious Trumpian ecumenism (religionnews.com)
 Perry, Samuel L. and Andrew L. Whitehead. 2020. Taking America Back for God. Oxford University Press.
 Gorski Philip S Samuel L Perry and Jemar Tisby. 2022. The Flag and the Cross : White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy. New York NY: Oxford University Press.
 Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.
 Carson v. Makin.
 303 Creative LLC v. Ellenis.
 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
 Avigdor Liberman slams Peretz, Smotrich for 'messianic phenomenon' - The Jerusalem Post (jpost.com)
 Spiritual adviser to Smotrich backs theocracy: 'No problem having a halachic state' | The Times of Israel
Liberman: Smotrich worse than delusional hilltop boy for proposing biblical law (ynetnews.com)
 'Your Messianism Is Not Judaism:' Israelis Protest Coup Outside Extremist Rabbi's Yeshiva - Israel News - Haaretz.com
 Smotrich says Israel should follow Torah law, drawing ire of Liberman | The Times of Israel
Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right Knesset Member’s Plan to Turn Israel Into a Theocracy - Israel News - Haaretz.com
 Knesset passes ‘Hametz Law’ allowing hospitals to ban leavened products on Passover | The Times of Israel
 Activists again cuff themselves to Tel Aviv light rail to protest Shabbat stoppage | The Times of Israel
Liberman furious at Smotrich: 'Religious coercion' (israelnationalnews.com)
 “A Natural Act of Vengeance”: Settler Violence and Two Types of Jewish Fundamentalism — Sources Journal.
 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Repentance 3:5 and Kings and Wars, 8:11 based on Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin, 105a; and Commentary of the Meiri on Sanhedrin 47.
 “A Natural Act of Vengeance”: Settler Violence and Two Types of Jewish Fundamentalism — Sources Journal.
 Isaiah 56:6-7.
 Isaiah 56:8.
 Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a.