An Historical Perspective Of Moshiach
The belief in an ultimate redeemer is as old as Judaism itself, a faith beautifully enunciated by our Prophets, up to the very last one, Malachi. This faith, coupled with the power of prophecy, is so unique and so characteristically Jewish, that the nations of the world have tried since time immemorial to wrest it away from us and make it their own. Christianity claims that their founder was the last prophet and redeemer. The Moslems claim that Mohammed was the last prophet and redeemer. Many other lesser-known sects have tried as well, all without success. For we know better. The process of redemption, or Messianism, is a long process, spanning the millennia, and only Jews have the true promise and the vantage point of thousands of years of history.
From time to time, over the years, expectations of the redeemer have grown and intensified. One such time is now. You can hardly open a paper without reading about the rumors and claims of a Moshiach coming or not coming. The debate and discussion is on, worldwide. Quite a phenomenon, after so many thousands of years, when the idea of redemption was first brought to the world by Judaism! In fact, this in itself is almost miraculous. It certainly coincides with what the Rambam legislated in his great Code about the Messianic times. There we read:
"The world is already filled with talk of the Moshiach, and of the Torah and of the mitzvot, and these things have even spread to the far off islands and among uncircumcised peoples; they all discuss and debate these issues" (Chapter 11 of the Laws of Kingship).
Mind you, this section, along with other passages on Messianism, was cut out from the Rambam by the ferocious censorship of the Church, due to its highly compromising nature for Christianity. Luckily, however, there was no censorship in the Moslem world, and the uncensored Rambam can therefore be found in editions printed in the Moslem Ottoman Empire. The above quotation is taken from the 1509 Constantinople edition in my possession.
While every Jew expects the Moshiach momentarily, every day, there have been situations in our history when such expectations reached the boiling point. One such episode revolved around David Reubeni, who appeared in Europe with all the pomp of an Oriental potentate in 1524. He claimed to come from the Arabian peninsula, where the ten lost tribes were still reported to exist, and that he came from the tribe of Reuben. He, of course, electrified the oppressed Jews of Europe, especially as his appearance came shortly after the tragedy of the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Christians, too, were smitten by his appeal. He appeared before Pope Clement VII and promised him a Jewish army which could capture Jerusalem, if only the Pope would support the enterprise. The Pope was sufficiently impressed to give Reubeni a letter of introduction to King Manoel II of Portugal.
Once in Portugal, the appearance of this pseudo-Messiah made a profound impression on the Marranos, Jews forced into conversion. One of these "new Christians" was a 25-year-old man named Diego Pires, a secretary to the King. Unafraid of the Inquisition, he was so enthused by Reubeni's appearance that he converted to Judaism and took on the name Shlomo Molcho. He had himself circumcised and fled to Turkey in order to study Judaism undisturbed by the Church, and visited Venice, Salonika and Safed to study Torah with the greatest of his generation, including Rabbi Joseph Karo.
In 1531 he rejoined his master, David Reubeni, who by now had appeared before the German ruler, King Charles V, the victor of Rome. Shlomo Molcho, delirious in his Messianic zeal, produced a white flag, embroidered with verses from the Tanach, and wore a white cloak. But their luck ran out. The German Emperor was afraid of Reubeni's militant plans, coupled with his messianic vision of the reestablishment of a Jewish State around Jerusalem. Charles V dispatched Shlomo Molcho to the Inquisition in Ancona, Italy, where he was condemned to die at the stake because he refused to reconvert to Christianity. According to eyewitnesses he died in the flames, crying out Shema Yisrael—a true martyr, at 32 years old.
There is, however, a long and almost supernatural history attached to Molcho's cloak and flag, guarded by generation after generation as the relics of a martyr. They eventually reached Prague, where they were kept in the famous Altneuschul, and later were housed in the nearby Jewish Museum.
I remember seeing them as a young boy in 1937, after just having read the book David Reubeni by Max Brod. I must confess that I was deeply moved by the sight. Miraculously, the Nazis did not touch them during the years of their occupation of Prague. I saw them again after the War, in 1947 and in 1962, each time equally moved. These relics have now made their way to the destination Shlomo Molcho had in mind for them—Jerusalem—where they are about to be displayed.
The origins and end of David Reubeni are shrouded in deep mystery, but this episode brought the awareness of Jews everywhere nearer to a Messianic expectation. Although the Moshiach did not materialize in the year 1540, calculated by some to be the year in which the Messiah would arrive, the Jews continued to wait for him.
I have previously written in this column about Shabatai Tzvi (Algemeiner Journal, January 17, 1992). His appearance as a declared Moshiach around 1666 again electrified Jews all over Europe, and, although he proved a false Messiah, his appearance, as damaging as it was, certainly brought the redemption nearer: The scattered, impotent and isolated Jewish communities of Europe were forged together for the first time in one international enterprise—with the goal of leaving the galut and migrating back to the Land of Israel!
Although Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was not a Jew, he had tremendous interest in Jews, Judaism, and—something which is not generally known—the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland!
First, Napoleon was the liberator of Jews wherever his armies went. After the peace treaty was signed at Charasco in northern Italy in 1797, he opened up all the ghettoes of the Italian Jews in the Piedmonte area and was practically worshipped by them as their saviour.
When he landed in Palestine in 1799, he made Jerusalem his headquarters, and issued a remarkable declaration to the Jews of the world:
General Headquarters, Jerusalem
Napoleon clearly saw himself as the redeemer of the Jewish people. No wonder that Jews in places as far away as Russia saw in him the forerunner of the Moshiach.
In Paris he called together a sanhedrin of Jews from many European countries in an effort to bring about cultural and political emancipation. In 1807, the participants in the sanhedrin issued a prayer for Napoleon's victory of which I have a copy.
When Napoleon's armies penetrated deep into Russia, many, although not all Jews, most notably Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Shulchan Aruch Harav and the Tanya, prayed for his victory, which, in 1812 the year immortalized by Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" turned into defeat before the bitter Russian winter (which also vanquished Hitler's armies in 1941).
By 1815, the dreams of Napoleon and his Jewish admirers were in ruins. Napoleon ended his days on the island of St. Helena, and the Jews were herded back into the ghettos of northern Italy. But it took only a few more decades before their emancipation came about officially. Napoleon's plans were thus fulfilled.
The effect of Napoleon on the Messianic process of the Jews was enormous and of decisive proportions in my opinion: Napoleon's visit to the Middle East, Egypt and Palestine, brought back vast treasures of ancient Oriental art. Egyptian obelisks were now being seen in Paris, Rome and London. The museums—especially the Louvre and the British Museum—were filled with Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian relics from antiquity. The study of Holy Land archaeology commenced as teams of scholars descended on Palestine without interruption.
Attention to the Orient was also seen in music and fashions. Operas on Oriental themes, by Mozart and others, abounded. All this anticipated the next great Messianic expectation:
Some Kabbalists had calculated that 1840 would be the year that Moshiach would come. As I wrote in a past article ("Zionism before Zionism," Algemeiner, March 15, 1991), this expectation led to the great aliyot (migrations) to the Land of Israel by the Chasidim, starting around 1775, and by the disciples of the Vilna Gaon around 1809.
This expectation was also widely spoken of in Christian lands—in England, Russia, and elsewhere. These Christians started their own migrations to Palestine, as attested to by the various Church properties they still own in Israel today. All this had political consequences: When the High Church of England, or Anglican Church, sent their first Bishop to Jerusalem in 1840Äthe renegade Jew, Shlomo Michoel Alexander—in the misguided hope that the Jews would be ready victims for proselytization by missionaries, it also opened the eyes of the British Government, which then made plans to wrest the Middle East from the Turks.
Don Isaac Abarbanel, no doubt the most aristocratic and scholarly personality in our history, used his deep erudition in statecraft and politics, gained at the courts of Spain and Portugal, in his voluminous commentaries on all books of the Tanach. In his commentary on the Book of Daniel, with its Messianic prophecies, Abarbanel enumerates 10 political events which must precede the coming of the Moshiach and which had not happened in his own days (he died in 1508). Among them he foresaw that the armies of the Christians and of the Moslems would have to engage in battles before the gates of Jerusalem. Since Abarbanel's death this has in fact happened: first, when Napoleon captured Jerusalem in 1799, and then again, when General Allenby captured Jerusalem from the Moslem Turks in 1917.
In either case, the Messianic expectation of 1840 was not in vain:
The year 1840 was a turning point in the history of the Jewish Land. A new government had just taken over in Turkey which was more benign than the previous rulers. Also, Sir Moses Montefiore started his series of visits which not only brought financial support for the yishuv, but also brought about some semblance of peace between the warring factions of the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities. Without these developments, there could never have been a Zionist colonization of Eretz Yisrael when the first Biluim came, more than 100 years after the first Chasidic aliyah.
It is not generally known that the Koran holds out a most reassuring promise for the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral Land. In Sura XVII, Verse 104, Mohammed has this to say to the Jews:
"We said to the Children of Israel: Dwell ye in the Land, and when the time of the promise of the latter days comes, we shall bring you together again out of the various peoples."
Here, too, a faith is expressed in a Messianic period in which the Children of Israel will be brought back out of the various peoples where they now dwell, to return to the Land that was originally given unto them.
We can only blame ourselves for not making this fantastic profession of "Zionist" faith by Mohammed better known in our dealings with Moslem Arabs. We should remind them that Mohammed was extremely close to the Jews in the beginning of his campaigns, and could in fact only capture Mecca and Medina with Jewish help. For a while he hoped his Jewish friends would join Islam, even allowing, for a short time, prayers to be said facing Jerusalem, in the Jewish fashion, al-though Jerusalem, then a Christian city, held no sanctity for Mohammed himself. When he realized there was no hope that the Jews would join Islam, he stopped the practice and ordered all prayers to be said in the direction ("qibla") of Mecca, as it has remained ever since.
Mohammed later turned quite hostile to Jews and Christians alike, but it may be argued that this change was only because his fledgling religion felt threatened by the older religions of Judaism and Christianity. Mohammed feared his new religion might be gobbled up by the senior religions in the area, and therefore had to issue stern warnings against fraternizing with Christians and Jews.
The situation today is, of course, radically different: Islam is firmly established in a large part of the world and is in no way in danger of seeing its followers converted to either the Christian or Jewish religions. With this realization, Moslems should be convinced that in today's situation, Mohammed would have reverted to his original friendship with Jews. Certainly, he would have wanted the promise of the Jews' return to their promised Land, as stated in the Koran, fulfilled.
Much blood may have been spilled in vain over so many years because of lack of communication.
Another Moslem, who, in the modern era, understood that times have changed and the hand of brotherly neighborliness should be held out to the Jewish returnees to their Land, was King Feisal, the initial ruler over Syria after World War I. His famous letter to Judge Felix Frankfurter, written during the peace negotiations in Versailles, in 1919, reads as follows:
Dear Dr. Frankfurter,
This letter is without doubt at least partly inspired by the Koran passage promising Jews the return to their Land. Why doesn't Israel's Government bring such information to the attention of President Assad of Syria and to the State Department? It would certainly facilitate the peace negotiations.
On the Jewish side, the Talmud abounds with symptoms heralding the Messianic era. I plan to elaborate on them on another occasion. They are mainly found in Tractate Sotah 49b, Tractate Sanhedrin 96b, and onward. One passage is of special significance for our discussion:
The Talmud says that the Moshiach is one of three things which come to us "be’hessech ha'daat." This term is usually translated as "when we pay no attention." The Lubavitcher Rebbe, just two years ago, told me in an animated discussion regarding the coming of the Moshiach, that one of his teachers told him a different translation: The term "hessech ha'daat" is related to the word "masiach," which means to converse, to speak. Therefore, the Talmud teaches that Moshiach will come when the maximum number of people speak about him and discuss him. And that is certainly what we see before our own eyes in these days, largely through the Rebbe's own actions. And this fulfills the Rambam's words.
Our sweep of history has shown a tremendous tendency by Providence, throughout recent centuries, to direct and guide the Jewish masses in the direction of Eretz Yisrael. With all the apparent failures of Messianic expectations in the past, they have nevertheless served positive aims: They have not only prepared our minds for a Messianic period, but have also paved the political ground for such a development and have produced the recreation of a Jewish State. In this connection it is important to note the statement of the Rashbam on last week's portion: "After you have settled in Eretz Yisrael, G-d's kingdom will become known in all the realms" (Exodus 15:18). Thus, the Messianic ties depend on the Jews coming to live in Eretz Yisrael.
We must continue to watch with patience, goodwill and faith the further developments. We can learn our lessons from such verses as: "And the man was full of wonder about her, quietly watching to know whether G-d would lead his way to success or not" (Genesis 24:21), or "For the man will not rest until he has fulfilled his resolve" (Ruth 3: 18).
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