As a scientist and an observant Jew, I think a lot about the Messiah. The broad concept of a Jewish messiah has been around for thousands of years, so that you can even think of technological advances as a move toward a messianic age. The Jewish texts mention phenomena during the messianic age that are beyond miraculous—such as corn the size of your head. But we can now think of an example like that—which may have seemed unbelievable at the time—as having resulted from science, technology and elaborate genetic engineering. If someone had told me 30 years ago that we’d be able to ask a phone where the nearest Thai restaurant is, I wouldn’t have believed it. But this is a movement toward the miraculous and a true representation of progress. The Jewish concept of a messianic age doesn’t preclude these miraculous things from happening because of technology. The concept of a messiah is a general underlying and unifying notion that we are partners in making the world better, in moving the world forward. The Messiah is progress, participation, suiting up and showing up for life.
Mayim Bialik is a neuroscientist, she is the author of Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis:
Messiah today means the same thing that it has always meant, except that we are now a step closer to his arrival. We are living in the days of eekvesei d’mashiach—when the footsteps of Messiah become audible. However, we have to know how to recognize that sound, and sadly, in our assimilated, immoral, tumultuous world, we can no longer discern the sound of footsteps. We are the generation described by the Prophet Amos: “Hinei yamim ba’im—And days shall come upon you, sayeth the Lord, and I shall send a hunger into the land…. not a hunger for bread nor a thirst for water, but a hunger for the Word of G-d…”
Everything described in the Torah and in the Prophets regarding the period prior to the coming of Messiah has unfolded and continues to unfold before our very eyes. Events are happening with such rapidity that even those among us who can discern what others have difficulty identifying cannot comprehend, such as the rebirth of the State of Israel after almost 2,000 years, the ingathering of the Jewish people from the four corners of the world, and the present threat from Iran. It is written in the midrashic text of the Yalkut Shemoni that in the days before mashiach comes, the King of Persia (Iran) will develop a weapon that will “terrorize the world”…and we see it unfolding before our very eyes.
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis is founder of Hineni, a Jewish outreach organization, columnist for The Jewish Press and author of four books.
It’s important to add “to whom” to the question because the Messiah means different things to different people… For Lubavitchers, it is both mystical and simplistically utopian, when the relationship between God and the believer is so direct that there’s no separation between human desire and what God wants. There’s another view, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe’s view, that the messianic age can be hastened and will come as a reward for certain good behavior. And so he created a cadre of people to go to every corner of the world to get people to do Jewish acts in public: put on tefillin, light Shabbat candles, light the menorah. The cosmic significance in these acts is that they will hasten the Messiah…
Samuel Heilman is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College in New York and author of 11 books
Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui:
I believe that the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson, is the mashiach, though I realize that there is a controversy about this within Chabad. The Talmud says that if the mashiach is alive, it will be Rabbi Yehuda, but if he’s chosen among the dead, it will be someone like the prophet Daniel. This shows us that the mashiach can come from the dead and in fact, there are many different classic sources that talk about the mashiach as rising from the dead. It’s not that extraordinary: one of the 13 principles of faith is belief in the resurrection of the dead. I just feel, hope and pray that it happens soon. Even within Chabad, there are a lot of people who have doubts, and when the rebbe died, I also had many questions. The rebbe’s death shook up a lot of people, and not everyone was able to resolve their questions and move on with greater faith.
Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui heads the Chabad-Lubavitch house of North Palm Beach, Florida.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach:
Messianism is the belief in the linear progress of history. Whereas the eastern religions believed in a more cyclical universe, where things are created and destroyed constantly, the western monotheistic system at its heart believes in historical progress. Societies advance. You may have setbacks, dark ages, for example, but by and large things get better and better. Why do we spend billions of dollars looking for a cure for cancer? Because we believe there is a cure. That’s not a rational belief—why should there be a cure when it has eluded us for all this time? Or take Marxism, which at heart is a belief in messianism, because it’s a vision of utopia. All utopian ideas are messianic, even if they’re atheistic.
We need one person who will coalesce all of these disparate efforts of humanity into one powerful stream. Imagine the Messiah as a person of great wisdom, great learning, saintly authority, who could convince the world that war solves nothing. Once peace and harmony are established, the biggest beneficiaries are the Jews, because we’ve been the objects of so much violence throughout history. Once we don’t have to use all of our energy defending ourselves, we can concentrate on tending to the other messianic promises, rebuilding the temple, building a national polity based on our spiritual character rather than on our business acumen or our military might. You need one person to do it, and that’s who the Messiah is supposed to be.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of many books. He is also running for Congress in New Jersey’s 9th district.