Many religious people of all religions look about and study history and convince themselves that the world and people cannot be improved except by the intervention of God and a miracle, by God creating a messianic age. While the idea of a messianic age is in the New Testament, it is not in the Hebrew Bible. Even the word “messiah” in the Hebrew Bible simply means “anointed.” Some kings and some priests were placed in their positions after being anointed with oil, a kind of coronation ceremony. Samuel anointed Saul as Israel’s first king. Soon thereafter, Samuel anointed David, who was not of Saul’s family to succeed him. Later kings from David’s family in Judea did not need to be anointed since their progenitor David was anointed. The anointing with oil was an ancient practice in many cultures. Jews adopted it from other people. We no longer know what the oil or its pouring symbolized for the ancient non-Israelites or for the Israelites who adopted it.
Maimonides (1138-1204), Judaism’s greatest thinker, was a realist who was convinced that God does not interfere with nature and perform miracles. Many Jews misread Maimonides and prefer to think that Maimonides held their somewhat mystical notions – feeling that such a wise man must think as they think. Some Jews and non-Jews, scholars and non-scholars contend that “the great eagle,” as he was called because he soared above all in intellect, wrote that the messianic era will be a natural era, one that does not alter the existing natural order or change humans in any way. It will be, wrote Maimonides, a period of peace. Those who hold this view, a view that I think is true, say that Maimonides was encouraging Jews to work to create this time of peace and not sit back and think that the era will evolve through prayer.
Other people read Maimonides’ book on philosophy, his “Guide of the Perplexed,” and insist that he is saying that the messianic age can only appear if and when God decrees that it should happen. These people suggest that we should encourage God to act by means of prayer. (The mystics say this should be done by “sympathetic magic,” but I will not discuss this technique here.)
Still others, such as Professor Amos Funkenstein in his short 86-page, 13-chapter book, “Maimonides: Nature, History and Messianic Beliefs,” have various intermediate views, ideas that mix the rational with non-rational. Professor Funkenstein describes a messianic era that goes beyond what Maimonides mentions and turns the era into a time of pious contemplation. “This,” he writes, “will be a period of abundance, one in which Torah scholars will be able to study Torah and will be supported by society as a whole, for the purpose of the messianic era is to permit maximal Torah study and true meditation.”
We might ask: Should non-Jews also spend the day studying Torah? And what benefit do non-Jewish Torah scholars get out of the messianic era? Aren’t they also humans?