Mashiah in Judaism and Christianity: First Base vs. Home Plate
Imagine a handsome teenager traveling home for a well-deserved vacation. After rushing through the airport, being hassled by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) about his tefillin, and making it to the gate just in time, he finally settles into his seat. Looking forward to a few quiet hours after a hectic finals week, he pulls out a pocket-sized Humash. Instead of learning, though, he is soon treated to some inquisitive questioning by his seatmate. “What is that book you have?” she asks. “What language is it written in?”
The answer, of course, is the Torah; however, to assist her understanding, he responds, “the Old Testament.” She soon confirms her affiliation as a Christian and she professes a limited knowledge of Judaism. Thus begins a conversation about some elementary aspects of Judaism and the experience of having a dual-curriculum in high school. Soon, this seemingly mild dialogue about two of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Christianity, evolves into a more intense discussion. “What are Judaism’s beliefs regarding the Messiah?” she queries. “Who is he? And what will happen when he finally does come?” are some additional questions she poses as the conversation progresses.
As some readers of Kol Hamevaser may have guessed by now, that young man was I, and the questions posed by this inquisitive Christian are some of the questions that this article intends to address. With my high school a two-hour flight from home, I had occasion to fly regularly, and numerous other comparable conversations occurred as well, all with varying characteristics. Sometimes they began because of a question about my kippah; other times because of my Humash. Some were cursory in nature; others more in-depth. Sometimes the people were genuinely curious; other times they carried a thinly veiled agenda to relieve me of my beliefs. However, one item has always been consistent.. With each exchange, I have become gradually less surprised by the questions.
After I was originally exposed to this topic, I turned to rabbis and teachers for guidance, as well as conducted some independent research, all of which had a threefold beneficial effect. First, I found myself equipped with more knowledge and facts with which to answer pertinent questions. Second, I developed a greater confidence that even if I did not know the answer to a particular question, it was likely that one of my mentors did. Therefore, I concluded that my present ignorance was no reason to falter in the face of questioning. When said from a place of strength, “I do not know,” can be just as strong a reply as the accurate answer itself. Third, I began to cultivate the trust that even if there is no apparent answer to a given question, that does not necessitate a wavering in one’s own faith, and certainly does not necessitate an acceptance of the other’s answer. As I once heard Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein say, “Orthodox Judaism is not about finding the answers to every question. Rather, it is about developing shoulders broad enough to bear those questions.”
While the first time I was engaged in such a conversation I found myself taken aback and quite shocked, that feeling has steadily been diminished. However, similar scenarios await many students at Yeshiva University. In the spirit of the Talmudic dictum, “Know what to respond,”[i] it behooves us to acquire a basic understanding of at least some of the differences that distinguish our beliefs from Christian beliefs.[ii]
A central characteristic of the Jewish Messiah and the Messianic era is the ingathering of the Jewish exiles to the Land of Israel. First expressed in the Tanakh itself,[iii] this element is of such significance that the Amoraic scholar Shmuel classified it as being the sole difference between the world’s current state and the Messianic era.[iv] In contrast, Christian theology does not envision the ideal Messianic state as involving the unification of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel. At best, Christianity concurs that this will occur, but only to be halted at the time of Jesus’ resurrection.
Though Shmuel’s statement appears to be quite limiting, he was simply asserting a position that, generally speaking, there will be no changes in the laws of nature when the Messiah comes However, he did not mean to exclude the possibility of other changes in the Messianic era. In fact, Shmuel is preceded by the Prophet Ezekiel who prophesies that the coming of Messiah will result in the renewal of Jewish sovereignty and the Davidic dynasty in the Land of Israel.[v] Given that a king cannot exist without a nation, the restoration of the kingship is of course intimately intertwined with the return of the Jewish nation to Israel. Both are affirmed by Maimonides in his authoritative Mishneh Torah.[vi]Christianity, simply put, sees Jesus as the Messiah and their savior,[vii] and consequently does not believe in the enduring reign of the Davidic dynasty, or, for that matter, any other Jewish representative.
The beliefs of Jewish reunification and renewal of Jewish sovereignty in Israel function as the prelude to another major feature of the Messianic era, namely, the building of the Third Temple. With this, all the laws relevant to the Temple era will be restored, such as those regarding sacrificial offerings,[viii] the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the bringing of the first fruits. Additionally, the Messiah will verify the ancestry of each Jew, thereby reestablishing the Priestly families, who will then serve in the third Temple[ix]. Consequently, laws related to the priesthood—tithes and tzara’at, for example—will be effectively reinstated.
Christianity conceives of a “New Jerusalem” as well; however, it is quite different from Judaism’s conception. Among the many differences between Christian beliefs and Judaism’s regarding this issue, one is particularly worthy of mention. According to Christianity, Jerusalem’s future contains no Temple; rather, its temple is “the Lord…and the lamb, [x]” a statement whose presumed meaning is that due to God’s vast presence, a temple is no longer necessary. Aside from the reference to Jesus’ presence—“the lamb”—such a belief has no place in Jewish theology. Though this topic is worthy of an independent article, we will briefly note that although the Shekhinah (G-d’s presence) is found everywhere, the Torah enables Jews to apprehend G-d’s holiness in “concentrated spaces,” so to speak, such as Jerusalem, then, in a further concentration, in the Temple, and ultimately in the utmost concentration, the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh ha-Kadoshim. This is the essence of the verse, “And they shall make me a Sanctuary, and I shall dwell amongst them.”[xi] The accentuation of God’s holiness in the First and Second Temples is found today—albeit in reduced intensity—in the synagogue, and will be found once again in full with the building of the Third Temple.
The aforementioned precepts of Jewish reunification, Jewish sovereignty in Israel, and the building of the Third Temple together serve as the foundation for the fourth, and perhaps chief, component of the Messianic era: the reinstitution of the Torah as the arbiter of Jewish law on a national level[xii]. This will be enabled by the reinstitution of the Sanhedrin—an action only the Messiah can take—who would henceforth head the Jewish court system. Christians, however, have a different perception of the Torah’s relevance. Just as the Christians viewed themselves as relieved of the Torah laws after Jesus’ original appearance, they certainly do not anticipate being bound to those laws after his “second coming.[xiii]”
After taking the important step of highlighting what Judaism does believe, it is equally important to outline what Judaism does not believe. While Christianity believes in Jesus as the redeemer, Judaism—in brief and simple terms—never accepted this. An underlying reason for this rejection is that Jesus’ existence did not lead to the manifestation of the aforementioned four Messianic objectives. As a matter of fact, not a single one was realized. This reality underscores another fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity regarding the Messiah. Judaism believes that if an alleged Messiah does not guide the Jewish nation to the realization of the four goals of Jewish reunification, Jewish sovereignty, the third Temple, and Torah law, he is not the Messiah[xiv]. Additionally, Christianity sees Jesus as the Messiah even in the aftermath of his death, and believes that he will have a “second coming”. Judaism, in contrast, believes the Messiah will help achieve these goals prior to his death, and if his death precedes this achievement, he is, once again, not the Messiah[xv]. Judaism does not believe in “second comings.”
A further crucial distinction lies in how the role of the Messiah is defined. A common perception is that the status of the Messiah in Christianity and Judaism is analogous. Meaning, Jesus is to Christianity what Mashiah ben David is to Judaism. As the late Professor Frank Talmage noted, this is mistaken.. Jesus has been elevated to the role of the divine in Christian belief. He is on equal footing with God—his word is God’s word. Thus, Jesus is to Christianity what the Torah—God’s spoken word to the Jewish people—is to Judaism. This is a function Judaism does not see in the Messiah. The Messiah will have no divine status and consequently no capacity to modify the Torah’s directives as we know them. Rather, as stated previously, his role is to bring about the fulfillment of the four objectives as God’s human messenger.
Another key difference lies in how Jesus is meant to relate to the individual Christian. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus has the ability to effectuate forgiveness and salvation for any individual who professes belief in his function as Messiah and savior. This is a power Judaism does not invest in the Messiah, and in fact, the notion is entirely foreign to the Jewish religion. Even G-d Himself does not grant forgiveness simply on the basis that a Jew believes in Him. Without active repentance by the sinner—and in the event of interpersonal offenses, appeasement of one’s friend in addition—forgiveness is not granted.[xvi]
With the above theological and philosophical concepts in mind, one notices a divergence on the practical level between Judaism and Christianity as to the Messiah’s ultimate purpose. Broadly speaking, Christianity sees its Messiah—Jesus—nearly as an end unto itself, a walk-off homerun. The very notion, or promise, of his existence is of supreme consequence. For example, with his revelation there apparently will no longer remain a need for the Temple, since all that one would hope to achieve through Temple services can simply be done by acknowledging Jesus’ position. Accordingly, the ideas of the individual serving God through his actions, as well as the need for a communal approach to God, lose significance. Ostensibly, even if one isolates himself and does nothing all day aside from taking a minute to profess his belief in Jesus, he has served God in an optimal fashion. The meaning of introspection, self-improvement, and behavioral change are also devalued, for no amount of growth in those areas can surpass the salvation one attains with belief in Jesus. On the national level, too, the existence of Jesus is an end unto itself. There is no concept of an ideal national society or national institutions; only a collective belief in Jesus, a belief which Christians believe will ultimately become the possession of every human.
Judaism’s belief system could hardly paint a starker contrast. As Rabbi Menachem Leibtag points out, Jews, with the coming of Messiah, will find themselves only at first base.[xvii] The Messiah will establish the groundwork necessary to build the ideal Jewish society, but it will remain up to human endeavor to complete and sustain that building. As described above, the arrival of the Messiah will enable the rebuilding of the Temple and the reinstitution of Jewish sovereignty and Jewish law. Beyond these steps, though, he will restore respect to the poor, judging them with righteousness[xviii].
For practicing religious Jews, whose primary service of G-d is through action, it is the concrete results the Messiah will bring that are most important, practically speaking. Unlike Christians, our service of G-d in the Messianic era will continue to be primarily through actions, the mitzvot. The superiority of the Messianic era lies not in the glory of the Messiah himself, but in his enabling the Jewish nation to establish a society grounded in Torah ideals and his enabling individual Jews to fulfill all the mitzvot, especially those dependent on living in the Land of Israel and on the Temple’s existence. With this blueprint, the Jewish nation will finally have all the tools it needs to be “a light unto the nations,”[xix] and to at last carry out the ideal “way of G-d,” one of “doing charity and justice.”[xx] This aspect of the redemption is left in the hands of every Jew—as well as the Jewish collective—to execute. They will bring the ultimate fulfillment of a redeemed world.[xxi]
Chaim Goldberg is currently a sophomore in YC.
[i] Avot 2:14
[ii] “Christian beliefs” in this article refers to classical Catholic doctrine.
[iii] Isaiah 11:12, Ezekiel 37:21
[iv] Sanhedrin 91b
[v] Ezekiel 37:22, 24
[vi] Laws of Kings 11:1
[ix] Ibid 12:3
[xi] Exodus 25:8
[xii] Isaiah 2:3, Maimonides—Laws of Kings 11:1
[xiv] Maimonides 12:4
[xvi] Yoma 85b
[xvii] Personal Communication
[xviii] Isaiah 11:4
[xix] Isaiah 49:6
[xx] Genesis 18:19
[xxi] All information about Christian eschatology was culled from the official Catholic encyclopedia found at www.catholic.org/encyclopedia and an article, “Christian Eschatology,” on www.princeton.edu.