11.20.2006

Branch 1907 of The Workmen’s Circle — the Jewish Currents branch, named to mark the year of birth of our long-time editor, Morris U. Schappes — now has 70 members. We'll be gathering on Friday, December 8th at 7 PM at The Workmen’s Circle for an evening of poetry, music, storytelling, coffee & cake, and getting acquainted. Folks who are not members but are interested in attending should contact me at lawrencebush@earthlink.net.

Branch 1907 is a nationwide branch, so much of our community-building has to happen through the mail. Below find some comments that I made in advance of Rosh Hashone/Yom Kippur: a secular Jewish perspective on the messianic concept in Judaism.


Happy new year to you and all the members of Branch 1907! If you’ll tolerate my being “rabbinical,” I’d like to share a few of the Jewish tradition’s most politically provocative traditions about Rosh Hashone. Think of it as “Rosh Hashone for Jewish Secularists” — yet I begin with the theology of Rosh Hashone, which has three central concepts:

• Malkhuyot — the kingship or sovereignty of God. As a secular Jew, I interpret this principle to be a reminder that no human king or mogul deserves power over life and death; and that wealth is, after all, a collective enterprise of the generations of humanity, using resources that none of us own (air, water, minerals, etc.) and based on centuries of knowledge and culture.

• Zikhronot — remembrance. I interpret this as an affirmation of Jewish peoplehood. Jews who are strangers to one other nevertheless share a long collective memory that creates a bond. It’s not the only bond I have, and it’s not a bond that always brings pleasure, but it’s a bond, like family bonds, that I find important to affirm. I also think of zikhronot as a more universalist concept: to remember those who are poor, who are drowning, who are sick, who are in need, who need my intervention . . .

• Shofarot — the blowing of the shofar, which is the Jewish symbol of mercy and redemption. It comes, you’ll remember, from the ram that Abraham finds caught in the thickets when he is about to make a human sacrifice of his son, Isaac. This biblical scene (“The Akedah”) is read in synagogue at Rosh Hashone, and in Jewish legend, the shofar becomes the way that human beings remind God to be merciful as well as just. It is a lesson that we need desperately to exercise in our own lives and in our political institutions.

From the fulfilment of these three concepts emerges . . . redemption! The Workmen’s Circle likes to call a sheynere un besere velt (a better and more beautiful world). Yet the Jewish tradition is also quite skeptical about redemption — as we all might be when we remember the history of our revolutions and our messianic movements.

The rabbis of the Talmud, whose own immediate ancestors lived under Roman rule and almost obliterated themselves in two uprisings against Roman rule (70 CE and 135 CE), were forced by hard experience to become skeptical of messianic schemes. When the great Rabbi Akiva declared the revolutionary hero Bar Kokhba to be the messiah, Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta responded, “Akiva, grass will be growing out of your cheeks and David’s son the Messiah will still not have come!” Elsewhere in the Talmud, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani declares: “Blasted be the bones of those who presume to calculate the time of redemption!” And Rav, more positively, suggests that “All the calculated dates of redemption have passed, and now the matter depends on repentance and good deeds.”

Still, they could not restrain themselves from imagining what life would be like “When Moshiakh Comes.” The most prevalent vision, given the conditions of near-obliteration and exile in which the Talmud was created, was of an end to foreign subjugation and the “ingathering of the exiles.” There were also dreams of prosperity: “a stalk of wheat will rise as high as a palm tree . . . a grain of wheat will be as large as the two kidneys of a big bull . . . a single grape will sit in the corner of a house and be used as if it were a large cask of wine . . . containing [no] less than thirty kegs . . . all the wild trees in the Land of Israel will bear edible fruit. . .” A party!

And who is Moshiakh? It’s fascinating that the Jewish tradition determines that Moshiakh will be a descendant of Ruth, the non-Jewish woman who joined herself to the Jewish people out of love for her mother-in-law. There is a universalist sentiment in this that runs hard against what we usually think of as the tribalism of Judaism.

And where is Moshiakh? Moshiakh, the Talmud says, is “sitting among the poor who are stricken with leprosy” at the gates of the city of Rome, and Moshiakh is ‘wrapping their bandages one by one.”

And when is Moshiakh coming? Here the Yiddish folk tradition takes over for me with a story about Jews who hear that Moshiakh is coming to Chelm that very morning. “Don’t worry!” says one of the Chelmites. “We overcame the Pharaoh, we overcame Haman — we will overcome Moshiakh, too!

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