Are Jews Waiting For The Messiah?

Marc B. Shapiro writes:

In response to R. Bergman’s point, about the need to actively wait for the Messiah, R. Steinman replies that no one fulfills this, namely, no one is really waiting for the Messiah. My understanding of what he said is that no one is consciously focusing on, and anxiously awaiting, the Messiah’s arrival. They believe that the Messiah will come, but in the meantime they are learning Torah and doing mitzvot and when he comes, he comes, but until then Jews have plenty to do to keep themselves busy.

R. Bergman is surprised by R. Steinman’s comment and states that the Rambam says that if one does not wait for the Messiah he is a heretic, to which R. Steinman repeats his earlier point that no one does this. Upon being questioned again, R. Steinman replies that this is a “decree that the community cannot follow.” He adds that people say that the Chafetz Chaim “waited” for the Messiah. “Maybe yes, I don’t know. This is what they say, maybe yes.” R. Steinman then adds that the Chafetz Chaim was unique, but the Torah was not given just for such special people.[4]

R. Steinman’s statements are quite provocative, first, because he expresses uncertainty if the Chafetz Chaim can really be said to have actively waited for the Messiah, and second, because he makes it clear that the other great rabbis did not really wait for the Messiah. It would have been controversial enough if all he said was that he himself, or the people of this generation, do not really wait for the Messiah, but he applied this statement also to great ones of previous generations.

As the conversation continues, R. Bergman insists that waiting for the Messiah is one of the Thirteen Principles, and that in earlier times people indeed did wait for the Messiah. R. Steinman replies that in earlier days the Jews suffered greatly and that is why they had a focus on the Messiah…

R. Yechezkel Sofer… states that one is not a heretic if he is lacking an emotional connection to the coming of the Messiah. The problem is only if one develops an intellectual position that there is no reason to wait for the Messiah. R. Sofer adds, however, that from a hasidic perspective a higher level of “waiting” is required, which he acknowledges not everyone is capable of.

I think R. Steinman can be explained very simply, that despite what the Rambam says, it is difficult for virtually anyone to be emotionally invested in the coming of the Messiah, and thus have a sense of waiting for him, especially waiting constantly (every day) which is how the Principle is formulated in the siddur. R. Steinman was saying, what is the point of speaking about something which hardly anyone can fulfill? At the end of the day, it is enough to believe in the coming of the Messiah without adding anything else to this basic belief…

R. Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik defended R. Steinman…thinking about the Messiah is not something that needs to be at the top of our concerns. Using Scholem’s terminology, we can say that R. Soloveitchik’s approach is that of neutralization of the messianic impulse…

Whatever you may think of R. Soloveitchik’s words, I don’t know how to square them with what his grandfather, R. Isaac Zev Soloveitchik (the Brisker Rav), is quoted as saying, that not only must we await the Messiah every day, but we must do so the entire day and every instant…

A person says that he would prefer that the Messiah not come in the near future, but only in a few years as he will by then have completed study of the entire Talmud, and will be more prepared to greet the Messiah. Nevertheless, this person knows that God does not take into account his wishes, and he believes that the Messiah can come at any instant. R. Shulzinger says that this person has not violated Maimonides’ Principle. In other words, the Principle requires the belief that the Messiah will come, and can come at any instant. Yet it does not require you to actually desire the Messiah’s arrival. Thus, to give a different example than that offered by R. Shulzinger, if someone has a very good business in the Diaspora, it could be that while he believes in the coming of the Messiah, he does not actually want this to happen, because he thinks that after the Messiah’s arrival all Jews will have move to Israel, and he does not want to give up his thriving business. According to R. Shulzinger, these sentiments would not be in contradiction to Maimonides’ principle…

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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