The truth about Messiahs
There are many books about the messiah. Some claim that we can expect a miraculous appearance of the messiah. Some, such as Patai’s and Rabow’s books tell about the dozens of false messiahs that appeared in the past and continue to appear today. Still others, such as Maimonides’s books tell the truth.
Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), who understood Judaism better than anyone, explains in his “Code of Jewish Laws, Laws of Kings 11:3,” that the messiah is not a miraculous figure: “Do not think that the messianic king must perform miracles and wonders, bring new things into being, revive the dead, or perform similar feats as foolish people believe.” He continues in 12:1, “Do not think that in the messianic age, things will be different, or the laws of nature will change. Rather, the world will continue in familiar ways.” According to Maimonides, if one wants to use the term, one should think of the messianic age as a natural period of time when Jews will be able, because of human circumstances, to be able to rule themselves; but there will be no other change in nature.
Maimonides recognized that there is nothing in the Hebrew Bible about a messiah, a man or supernatural being that will appear, save people, and miraculously create a better world where people will no longer suffer in any way. God never promised this event.
Thus if people listen to Maimonides, they will not cry out or even pray for the messiah in times of trouble. Sensible people would realize that their future lies in their own hands, not in some miracle or outsider. And they would not wait for difficult times before they act.
Yet, most people are not as understanding as Maimonides. “The Messiah Texts” by Raphael Patai tells about documents that express what people believed about the messiah; in other words, imaginative legends based on pathetic false hopes about the messiah. It is one of quite a few books that tells many of these legend, and it comments upon the legends in thirty chapters. The book includes a prayer for the coming of the messiah that was placed in the siddur, the prayer book which contains a compendium of sometimes conflicting ideas, those that are rational and those that are mystical, so that Jews can read the many ideas that the ancients had. Patai’s book also contains the view of Maimonides that Patai, a scholar, explains; the views of other thinkers; a messianic dispute between a Jewish scholar and a cardinal who later became a pope, and much more.
Jerry Rabow wrote a book in which he tells, as his book’s title states, about “50 Jewish Messiahs.” For example, some sixty years after the destruction of the Temple, in 132 CE, when Jews were suffering because of the horrid six-decade-persecutions by the Romans, many Jews, including the famous Rabbi Akiva, saw no hope other than to rebel against the Romans. Rabbi Akiva assured the people that their military leader, Bar Kokhva, was the long awaited messiah who would deliver them. Rabow tells about the failure of this “messiah” and the tens of thousands of people who died relying on Akiva’s false dream.
He also tells of some four dozen other messiahs that followed because despairing people did not learn from this first experience. The stories are real history of tragic and pathetic periods when people relied on the supernatural instead of reality.
Beside Bar Kokhva, the most famous messiah was Shabbtai Zevi who persuaded millions, including many rabbis, to believe in him, sell their property for cheap prices, and be ready to leave with him to live in peace in Israel. Shabbtai Zevi failed and was forced to convert to Islam in 1666, but many of his followers were convinced that it was a fake conversion and he would fulfill his promise. When he died, many thought he would return from the grave.
Today, many Chabad Chassidim are similarly convinced that Chabad’s last rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) is the messiah and, although dead, will return and bring them salvation.
Rabow’s stories are important because they recall tragic events of Jewish history that should prompt people, as Maimonides tried to do, to assume their human responsibilities to improve themselves and society and thereby produce a better world.