What to Do Until the Messiah Comes: On Jewish Worldliness

by Stanley N. Rosenbaum

Dr. Rosenbaum is chairman of the religious department and director of Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the Christian Century December 8, 1982, p. 1251. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Some of us by doing good have done right well, and this has led to the charge that Jews are materialistic, or in any case “worldly.” The charge is meant as a reproach, but not only is the reality explainable with reference to our history, it is also defensible theologically.

In Walter M. Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, the symbolic Jewish character says, “I was told to wait, and I wait.” With admirable tenacity, Benjamin survives for centuries on the edges of a fast-flowing civilization, contributing little save his own Wandering Jewish presence, a lonely witness to the unredeemed state of the world. His Messiah does not come and he doubts now that he will. Either way, his is the perennial Jewish problem: what to do in the meantime.

What Jews seem to have done in the past, whenever chance allowed, was to heed Jeremiah’s advice to the Babylonian exiles to plant gardens, build houses and live in them; to seek after the good of those countries on whose shores we are cast. Some of us by doing good have done right well, and this has led to the charge that Jews are materialistic, or in any case “worldly.” The charge is meant as a reproach, but not only is the reality explainable with reference to our history, it is also defensible theologically.

First, it must be remembered that not all Jews, now or ever, believed in a Messiah. While modern Orthodox maintain that Messiah is implicit in Torah itself, scholars suggest that the idea, and the hope, grew as a function of Israel’s national powerlessness after the destruction of the First Temple. In the Middle Ages, Joseph Karo, compiler of the authoritative Shulchan Aruch, excluded Messiah from those beliefs required of Jews. No doubt his ruling came partly in response to the new, outdoor sport of disputation, the church-sponsored debates between Christian apologists, usually converts from Judaism, and local Jewish leaders. The latter were constrained to confute Christian claims concerning Jesus without refuting Christianity. If the rabbis lost, they were expected to convert; if they won, they could be exiled, tried for heresy or killed.

Then again, Karo may have been reacting to the exploits of David Reubeni, the latest in a long line of pseudo-messiahs. Jewish history shows no shortage of claimants; we know the names of 16 or 17, dating back at least to St. Paul’s time. But for Gamaliel’s mention of Theudas in Acts 5:36 we should have no record of the man and, indeed, it is probable that more messiahs have been lost to history than the number who are remembered. Johanan ben Zakkai, Hillel’s last pupil and a contemporary of Jesus, is quoted as saying, “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.”

Several of the false messiahs achieved notable success: David Alroy, Shabbetai Zvi, Jacob Frank. (Zvi’s followers persisted for about 150 years after his death and despite his forced conversion to Islam.) In most cases, the duped disciples were induced to sell or give away all their possessions in preparation for a magic flight to the Holy Land. This shows either that Jews are not as smart as the popular stereotype has it, or that we would gladly trade our mess of pottage for the chance to live at peace in our own land. But “once bit, twice shy,” the Jewish people have borne enough teethmarks in the past 2,000 years to have become a bit skeptical of those pseudo-messiahs -- religious or secular, Marxist or Moonie -- who arise with almost monotonous regularity. Utopian promises will always attract more Jews than they reasonably should, but most of us have learned caution. Yet it was neither caution nor skepticism that prompted Johanan ben Zakkai’s remark; rather, he was commenting on Judaism’s basic thrust, the way it moves in and through the world.

A friend in graduate school confided to me that his ambition was to become the next great Jewish theologian. My response was, “Terrific. Who was the first?”

For all the thinkers Judaism has produced, ours is a religion of deeds. A key to this ethic is provided by the words in Exodus 24:7, na’aseh venishmah, “We will do, and we will understand.” Of course, the phrase is taken out of context, and others could be found (e.g., Exod. 24:3) that point in the opposite direction. But Exodus 24:7 has captured a large part of the Jewish imagination. And what is it that we are to do? Mitzvoth.

The mitzvoth (commandments, good deeds) are 613 statements, both positive and negative, regulating human behavior in virtually all of its aspects except thought. Every act is included, from Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply,” to the prohibitions of murder and adultery. The Shema (Deut. 6:4) is the only Jewish creed. We are not commanded what to believe, only how to act.

Since many of the commandments are cryptic or ambiguous, much rabbinic ink is expended to clarify them. The Talmud is, in a sense, the business record of the House of Israel, extending over a period of about eight centuries, from 300 B.C.E. to 475 C.E. Much of it is concerned with the business of business or legal relationships, leading again to the charge that Jews are more concerned with mundane matters than they are with morality, more concerned with letter than spirit. The charge is baseless. Nor is St. Paul (II Cor. 3:6) telling us something we did not already know. To quote a famous Midrash,

Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given

     to Moses. . . .

David came and brought them down to eleven; as it

     is written:

   “Lord, who shall sojourn in Thy tabernacle: He

   that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteous-

   ness. . .” [Ps. 15:1-5].

Isaiah came and brought them down to six; as it is


   “He that walketh righteously and speaketh up-

   rightly   [33:15].

Micah came and brought them down to three; as it

     is written:

  “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good....

   Only to do justly, to love mercy and to walk

   humbly with thy God” [6:8].

Amos came and brought them down to one: as it is


   “For thus saith the Lord to the House of Israel,

   ‘Seek me and live’” [5:41 [Cited in Nahum

   Glatzer, The Judaic Tradition (Beacon, 1969)].


The Midrash offers an alternative ending, Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith,” a phrase that meant a lot to Luther. Whether or not one’s soul is redeemed by faith alone, we should all agree that the world we live in is at present not redeemed. Jews accept the impossible task of redeeming it. Are we worldly? Emphatically yes, but in the best sense of the word.

We Jews are as overrepresented in the economic communities of the West as we have been in messianist movements, a fact that has been gleefully exhibited by both Christians and Marxists as further proof of our materialism. Few of either persuasion probably know how the situation came about. Forbidden by the newly Christianized Roman Empire from owning land or practicing most professions, Jews were herded into moneylending by church and state, the former purposing to humiliate them, the latter to milk them. (Edward I said, “The Jews are my cows” before selling the entire Jewish community of England to his uncle, the earl of Cornwall.) To criticize those Jews who nonetheless attained a certain level of proficiency in business is a bit like forcing someone to eat nothing but Hostess Twinkies and then upbraiding him when his teeth fall out.

Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac), the great French commentator, interpreted the last phrase of the response to the Shema, “You shall serve the Lord . . . with all your strength,” as meaning with all your wealth. Works are necessary for salvation, but they are not sufficient. We Jews do not expect to gain admission to heaven by presenting the stubs of our checkbooks. As we annually remind ourselves on Yom Kippur, our deeds count for nothing (ki ‘ayn banu ma’asim). Nevertheless, we are commanded to do them.

Jewish support for both non-Jewish and Jewish charities is too well known to need retailing here. Nor are all our alms given in public through community fund drives, encouraging individuals to do more than they would if appealed to privately. Names of public benefactors are inscribed on their works, in order to excite emulation, not admiration. These memorials, according to Isaiah 56:5, are better than sons and daughters, at least to those who cannot have children.

I used to be embarrassed by the plethora of name plaques at my alma mater, Brandeis University. We had a saying that if the Messiah appeared there, he would bear a plaque proclaiming who had donated him. Then I went to Israel and saw a donor’s inscription still readable on one of the columns from the third century synagogue at Capernaum (Kfar Na-hum): “Herod, son of Mo [ni] mos and Justos his son, together with their children, erected this column.” Jesus extolled the widow’s mite, and it was indeed a magnificent gesture. But many mites are needed to build a synagogue and millions for a cancer research laboratory. The synagogue is a ruin, but it survives. I wonder what became of that Herod’s grandchildren.

A fair number of Jews have been orphans and widows. Most Jews have been desperately poor and some of the rich have had all their wealth confiscated by rapacious states of which they were not citizens, merely subjects -- e.g., Aaron of Lincoln and Mordecai Meisels of Prague. The Hitler government made itself a tidy little profit of about 12 billion marks when it expelled Germany’s Jews, and an additional $10 million was extorted from Western Jewish communities frantic to rescue these captives.

What is often lost in these discussions of Jewish riches, however, is the wealth of Jewish contributions in fields that seek to ameliorate the human condition: science, teaching, the arts, medicine, in the first 70 years of Nobel Prize competition, almost 25 per cent of the recipients in physiology and medicine were Jews. An equal number of Jews were honored in chemistry and physics.

Of course, most Jews don’t win Nobel Prizes. The majority wish to be left alone under their vine and fig tree with none to make them afraid. Some would prefer to forget that they are Jews. Christians must wonder why we Jews are so heedless of the state and destiny of our “souls.”

For one thing, biblical Judaism does not begin with the same notion of soul as the one most Christians have. It is true that even in pre-Israelite times there was an almost universal belief that the spirits of the dead continued to reside near their bones or in the earth beneath them. Sunday schoolers may recall the original Ma Bell, the medium through whom Saul called up the shade of Samuel. But nephesh, the word that is so often translated “soul,” means much less (see Ps. 27:12) and much more.

Two of its more prominent uses are found in Leviticus 17:11. The King James Version reads, “For the life of the flesh (nephesh hayah) is in the blood; ... for it is the blood that maketh atonement for the soul (nephesh).” A long history of Christian translation apparently understands nephesh as equivalent to the Greek psyche, the “soul” of soul-body dualism. It makes no sense, however, to suggest that the soul is in the blood, else we should have to follow the Jehovah’s Witnesses and deny transfusions; even nosebleeds would be a theological problem. The generally late and poetic neshamah comes closer to soul; but even here “person” is a better rendering.

Philological niceties are best left to philologians, however. Since Talmudic times Judaism has upheld the idea of individual salvation. St. Paul’s trial (Acts 23) pinpoints resurrection as the subject of ongoing dispute between Pharisees and Sadducees. How, then, do we Jews save our alleged souls?

Here, I think, Judaism and Christianity are remarkably close in outlook. For most Christians, salvation is an act of grace, which is a free gift of God. For Jews, too, salvation is an act of God’s hesed, a word that the KJV obscurely translates “lovingkindness,” but which really means an unconditional act of love, uncompelled and unmerited. The major difference between us is that Christian grace is obtained through the intermediacy of Jesus, while our gimlet-eyed Jewish business mentality moves us to eliminate the middleman and apply for mercy directly from the Great Wholesaler. The Mishnah (Babylonian Talmuh Sanhedrin 10.1) says, “All Israel have a place in the world to come.” But the rest of the chapter is spent in listing exceptions to the rule. The problem for us Jews is that we lack the certainty of having obtained the grace some Christians are so sure they have.

What is more remarkable is the Talmudic opinion that the “righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come” (Sanh. 56-60). Not only is salvation from the Jews, but, like Levy’s Rye Bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it. (So much for the claim that Judaism is exclusive.) All you have to be is righteous.

Gentile righteousness is, according to us, also a matter of deeds. Judaism holds that all humanity is obliged to keep the laws of God’s covenant with Noah. They are seven in number and consist of prohibitions against blasphemy, idolatry, murder, theft, sexual offenses and eating from a still living animal, plus the positive mitzvah of establishing justice. There’s the rub.

Obtaining justice from gentiles has always been a problem. Until 1791 Jews had unequal legal standing in Muslim and Christian countries and so had to rely on their wits, bribes or the enlightened self-interest of the governing majority. None of these was sufficient to prevent their expulsion from the Spanish community on three months’ notice in 1492. Things were so bad that even at the dawn of the Enlightenment, Rabbi Levi Isaac of Beditschev (1740-1809), a follower of the founder of Hasidism, prayed, “Master of the Universe! If you will not redeem the Jews, your chosen people, at least redeem the gentiles.”’

After 1830 things got progressively better for the Jews in western Europe, but redemption of the gentiles was still beyond the horizon. In 1894, in the very place that gave birth to fraternité, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was assumed by many to be a traitor because, as a Jew, he could hardly be a loyal Frenchman, n’est-ce pas? In the more barbarous places, such as Russia, the Blood Libel persisted into the 20th century. (This slander, probably deriving from a pagan misunderstanding of Christian communion, insists that Jews use Christian blood in religious services.) The Blood Libel accusation against Mendel Beilis was the czarist government’s last blow in a 30-year campaign to destroy the Jewish world known to so many only through Sholem Aleichem’s stories.

In Fiddler on the Roof a young Jew implores, “Rabbi, we’ve been waiting for the Messiah all our lives. Wouldn’t this be a good time for him to come?” The rabbi answers, “Certainly, my son. But we’ll have to wait for him someplace else . Meanwhile, let’s start packing.” Floods of Jews headed west for New York -- America, but others accepted another doleful necessity: if the Messiah would not re-create Israel, we would have to do it for ourselves.

After staining the margins of history for centuries, the blood of our brothers and sisters cried out for a place where Jews would not be subject to arbitrary expulsion. Political Zionism was more the bastard child of European nationalism than the legitimate offspring of Jewish religious aspiration. The Orthodox, whose longing for Zion kept the idea alive even when early Reform communities were declaring Germany (I) to be their fatherland, produced ultra-Orthodox splinters that reject the modern state of Israel as an imposter. Whatever one’s position on Israel as a theological necessity or a political reality, one must understand that the existence of the state is a ringing rejection of quietism. Without having to heed Gandhi’s 1936 suggestion that Germany’s Jews adopt an Indian-style civil resistance to the Nazis, Hitler’s Europe became a Jewish graveyard. It would have been a good time for the Messiah to come.

According to a Hasidic belief, the Messiah would come if every Jew in the world once observed the same Sabbath correctly. Conversely, the Hasids also hold that if a Sabbath comes on which no Jew observes, then the Messiah will have to come. If the world isn’t good enough yet, perhaps it isn’t bad enough either. Or we may believe with Franz Kafka, who wrote, “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”

The world of Canticle ends in nuclear holocaust. Benjamin, transformed now into the beggar Lazarus, makes his final appearance 50 pages before a small group of Catholics, of the world but no longer in it, make their escape by starship. Benjamin is not invited along, but I don’t think he would have accepted an invitation even if one had been forthcoming. There is a Talmudic Haggada (explanation) that posits the birth of the Messiah on the very day that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish job of redeeming the world remained.

It still does. Some of us were told to wait, and we are waiting. We will do, and then, perhaps, we will understand.