Messiah, Facts, & Hope: A Jew’s conversation with Shia Muslims.
The following article was written by Rabbi Zalman Kastel after he attended an interfaith event about the Promised Saviour which was held shortly after the birthday of Imam Mahdi (a) at the Nabi Akram Islamic Centre in Sydney. It was originally posted on his blog Social Issues and Torah:
There is a difference between the presentation of ‘facts’ and the truth.
Standing behind the Messiah’s cream and green birthday cake at a Shia Muslim Mosque in Sydney, University student, Ali Safdari, questioned the prospects for a redeemer being able to pull humanity out of the ‘unjust mess’ it is in. He cited several facts to support this bleak assessment, all of them true. He put a challenge to a range of speakers from different faith perspectives to explain the “promised redeemer” in this context.
One speaker, Shaykh Hamid Waqa, a Shia Muslim Sheikh with an American accent, a Christian father and Jewish mother who studied in Iran, explored the range of perspectives within Shia Islam toward the Madhi-Messiah. Some were content to do nothing more than pray for the redeemer. Others on the very fringe believed they could force the hand of God by increasing injustice in the world thereby hastening the Madhi’s arrival. A third group believed that increasing justice will hasten his coming. He also talked about the importance of being ready for the Mahdi and the risk of people simply not being prepared to follow the redeemer when he appeared.
The range of views about the Messiah or Moshiach in Judaism is interesting to consider alongside those of Shia Muslims. I was raised within the Chabad movement which has put a huge emphasis on hastening the coming of the Messiah and preparing for it, actively and urgently (1). Despite our tradition teaching that the Messiah might come in a generation that is completely guilty, I have never heard anyone suggest this was a good way to hurry things along. On the other hand, many Jews are certainly more comfortable with a passive stance toward the Messiah.
At my brother’s wedding on the Sunday prior to the interfaith panel, I chatted with my father’s cousin. He made the argument that the Torah’s complete silence on the Moshiach and afterlife, both of which are not mentioned at all in the Torah itself, is tied to Judaism’s focus on justice in this world and our life on earth. We are not content to allow injustice to fester because we hope for a better world in the afterlife or when the redeemer comes. It is our task to make things right, here and now.
The Talmud relates: When Rav Zeira happened upon scholars who were engaged [in calculating the date of Moshiach's arrival], he told them, “I beg you! Do not postpone it … for it has been taught, ‘Three things come when the mind is occupied otherwise: Moshiach …(2)” Being too focused on Moshiach, according to this teaching is not appropriate.
For me the Messiah is not just about the future but about living with hope right now that the world as it is at present is not final. That a world in which the strong does not harm the weak, represented by the image of the “lion lying with the lamb” (3) is possible. I suggested that although there is some value in young people “maintaining the rage” and being dissatisfied with the world as it is, it is important to see the half of the cup that is full. The relative freedom we enjoy to express whatever views we hold and follow our religious beliefs and the realization, at least in part, of Martin Luther King Jnr’s of dream with the US having a black president that was unimaginable only a half century ago.
Hope can be difficult. One of the great insights from the East is not to be too attached to one’s hopes and as a result one is seldom very disappointed. Yet, Judaism demands hope. The Spies Moses sent to report on the Promised Land to the freed slaves in the desert sinned with one dispiriting word, the word “but” (4). Although they brought back lots of accurate information, they also included one hope destroying word. “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant” (5). They also sequenced their “facts” in such a way that the positive part was first and out of the way so that the ‘bottom line’ appeared to be the hopelessness of the situation (6).
I concluded my talk at the Mosque with the following reflection: “The emphasis on the Moshiach motivated a lot of activism. I can confidently say that if not for the Jewish belief in the Moshiach, I would not be standing here today. I would not have gone out of my comfort zone in New York with my family to move to Australia. I certainly would not have founded an organization called Together For Humanity that brings together Muslims, Christians and Jews to teach young people about respect for differences. It is only because we were raised to hasten the coming of the Messiah. It is because I had learned to refuse to accept a flawed world that I was driven to meet all of you. For this I am very grateful”.
(1) The Talmud (Shabbat 31a), states that one of the four questions a soul is asked when facing the Heavenly Court is: “Did you yearn for the Salvation?” The Talmud states: When they bring a person for judgment, they will ask: “Did you deal faithfully in business? Did you set aside fixed times for Torah? Did you try to have children? Did you anticipate the redemption?”
(2) Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a
(3) Isaiah 11:6
(4) Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, in Akedat Yitzchak, cited in Lebovitz, N., New Studies in Bamidbar, Abarbanel goes further in his analysis of the Hebrew word, “Efes” אפס that can be translated as “but”, but can also be translated as “nothing” and indicating lack or cancelation such as “is there no more, a man?” in Samuel II 9:3, or “there is no more money” in Genesis 47:15. The spies are therefore saying that everything good they said about the land “is as it if as never been, it is all nothing and emptiness because the nation is strong”
(5) Numbers 13: 27-28
(6) Abarbanel, he points out that the sequence was the opposite of their terms of reference given to them by Moses, in which the first two questions were about the people of the land and only then did he ask two questions about the produce of the land (numbers 13:18-20), but in the answer these are reversed for effect.