Faith Lectures: The Messianic Idea Today (6)
This is a transcript of the conversation recorded in June 2001 as part of the ‘Faith Lectures’ series.
Lecture 6 of 6.
Chairman (Howard Jackson):
Good evening Chief Rabbi, Ladies and Gentlemen and thank you all for coming. This evening’s topic is “The Messianic idea today”. After the talk, the Chief Rabbi has agreed to take questions and there is also a box at the back of the theatre for written questions. So it gives me great pleasure to present the Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks.
Friends, thank you very much and thank you for being such a wonderful audience over this past year. I am only sorry that you had nothing to eat. We are going to put that right this evening. Is that correct? So there is food! Didn’t “Alice in Wonderland” say, “What is the use of a book… without pictures”? What on earth is the use of a Jewish event without food?! So, I hope that will be put right. I am sorry we didn’t have time for more discussion but we will this evening. We’ll really stay on and talk things through. And whatever we do in the future, we’ll try and put those things right.
However, let me just try and sum up very quickly what I’ve been trying to do. Have you ever been to one of those conferences, those Jewish occasions where everyone – but everyone! – gets up to speak. You know those occasions? I remember this conference where about the 39th speaker got up to speak and somebody at the back of the hall said, “What on earth is he getting up to speak for? Surely everything has already been said?” And the fellow next to him said, “Yes, everything has already been said – but not everyone has yet said it!”
What I was trying to do in these six lectures is to say that, as far as Judaism is concerned, as far as I understand it, not everything has yet been said. I have tried to say something new because I care passionately about the principle of the Gemara: Ayn bet hamidrash bli chidush. There is no occasion when Jews sit down to discuss the Torah when we should not come up with something new, even something radically new.
There was a wonderful man called Reb Tzaddik Hacohen of Lublin, one of the great unknown thinkers of the 19th century who once wrote: “In the beginning God wrote a book and He called it the universe. Then He wrote a commentary to the book and he called it the Torah. And,” said Reb Tzaddik Hacohen of Lublin, “since we say in our davening and since, after all, we know this to be true, that hamechadesh betuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit (God makes the world new every single day), therefore there must be something new in Torah every single day.”
I find it incredibly moving that the greatest of all Jewish commentators, Rashi, who lived in the 11th century, said to his grandson – who is known as Rashbam and you’ll see in the Mikraot Gedolot (the great multi-commentary editions of the Torah) that there is a commentary there by Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam. At the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev, he says that he discussed matters very much with his grandfather and this is what Rashi said to Rashbam, to his grandson, in his old age. That ilu haya lo penai – if he had the time – haya tzarich lichtov pirushim acherim – he felt the need, he didn’t have the time but he felt the imperative to write new commentaries to the Torah. And this is his phrase, lefi hapshatot hamitchadshim bechol yom. According to the new insights that he had every single day. This is Rashi, at the end of his life, having written the greatest of all commentaries to the Torah, to the end of his life did not give up trying to say something new.
For those who understand these things and are able to work them out, it also seems from the manuscripts we have extant of Maimonides’ great halachic code The Mishneh Torah, that Maimonides – the other great rabbi of the middle ages – was revising and correcting that manuscript to the very end of his life.
And that really is what bothers me about Jewish life today. Today we have more Jews at university than every before in our history. We have more Jews in yeshivas and seminaries than every before in our history. And yet, for the last 40 years, there has been almost no significant new Jewish thought – since the great essays in the 1960s of Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik of blessed memory. So, one of the things I have been trying to do is to push the envelope, to show how Torah can still surprise us. Not with its antiquity but with its power to speak to us here now.
The other thing is that you know I’ve been trying to do, in this very fragmentary and incomplete way, is to outline a new paradigm for understanding Torah. It has, for those who have been able to make the connections, what I’ve been saying has got a little to do with the views of Yehuda Halevy in the middle ages, and in modern Jewish thought, in 20th century Jewish thought, with Martin Buber and Emanuel Levinas.
But I have tried to push things a little further than they have, to show us how little we have understood the singularity, the distinctive voice of Judaism. And the reason, as I’ve said all along, that we haven’t fully listened to it or been able to hear it is because all the way through, partly through Christianity and partly through the particular nature of Jewish life in the middle ages, Judaism has always been translated into categories that cannot translate it. The categories of cognitive thought that we derive from the Greeks. Those were the categories which Yehuda Halevy, Maimonides and the other great Jewish philosophers of the middle ages had to deal with, because they were living in a world in which, through Averroes, Islam had rediscovered the works of Plato and Aristotle.
It came to Judaism from Islam. From Judaism it went on to Christianity in the form of Aquinas. And we have that whole era in which Jews developed, and Christians and Muslims as well, a subject called theology which was supposed to be a kind of religious equivalent of philosophy. And the result of all those debates, of translating the heritage of religion into Greek categories, produced the great debates – between reason and revelation, between knowledge and faith, between science and religion – which were great but, in the end, I think we’ve moved way beyond that and my claim has been that religion does not just give different answers to those given by philosophy and science. It is not even that religion asks different questions from philosophy and science. It is that Judaism speaks a different language. It thinks differently. It relates to the world differently.
My claim is that this is not just odd but that it is actually interesting. The reason is that because whereas philosophy on the model of Plato, and on the model of Descartes in the modern world, has proved unsurpassed in giving us the tools to understand the natural world, the world of science. Judaism remains unsurpassed in giving us the tools to understand the human world, the world of persons, of relationships, of communities, of social institutions. The world of human choice and freedom and responsibility. The world of history and culture and communication.
Therefore, if we can find our way back to those truths, we will discover something of consequence – not only for us but, I dare to say, to western civilisation as a whole.
Now look, let me remind you of just a few of the differences I charted between the language of philosophy and the language of Judaism. Just to quickly sum it up. I have said that:
* Philosophy is about impersonal truth. Judaism is about personal truth.
* Philosophy is about detached observation. Judaism is about engaged participation.
* Philosophy is about a single ideal picture of the world. Judaism is about the irreducible multiplicity of perspectives.
* Philosophy searches for truths that are universal. Judaism articulates truths that are particular.
* Philosophy is about the discovery of harmony. Judaism is about cognitive dissonance.
* Philosophy is about the truths that we see. Judaism is about the truths that we hear.
* Philosophy is about truths thought. Judaism is about truths lived.
* Philosophy sees knowledge as cognition. Judaism sees knowledge as relationship.
* It follows that if philosophy is about the conquest of ignorance, Judaism is about the redemption of solitude.
You know, one could go on and on about those differences but it seems to me that those are just a few – and probably enough – to show you that there really is something fundamentally different about the way Judaism relates to the world and the way Plato and Descartes and their followers did, and that it is too little understood and far too little studied.
Now, you will remember that I tried to set out the map in front of us at the first lecture by saying that philosophy was what I called the product of the logical imagination; Judaism, the product of what I called the dialogical imagination and the chronological imagination.
Well, in the previous four lectures I tried to say a little about the first of those terms – the ‘dialogical imagination’. In my second lecture I spoke about the great dialogues between Abraham and God, Moses, Jeremiah, Job – on the matter of justice. It’s what I called in that lecture and what I call in my last book, “the palace in flames”. In lecture three, I spoke about creation. In lecture five, about the chosen people. And in both cases I spoke about God creating what I called “space for otherness” – the “dignity of difference” – between whom there is dialogue. And in the fourth lecture, when I spoke about revelation, I spoke about the greatest of dialogues, the one we call Torah – that dialogue between revelation, which is the work of God, and interpretation, which is the work of us.
So, tonight when I have to talk about redemption and the Messianic age, I want to talk about the other great dimension of Judaism, the chronological dimension. In other words, that radical and still unique Jewish concept of time.
You know that Jews have different concepts of time? You know Jewish time? Or chassidic time? – which I call ‘double Jewish time’?! And of course this varies from community to community. You know there are German Jews – sometimes called ‘yekkers’ – who are tremendously punctual. I don’t know – you will have to de-code this – I hope you can understand what it means: A ‘yekker’ is somebody who, after the end of Succos and Simchas Torah, says to his wife the next day, “I’m going to be home late from shul tonight: we’re saying mashiv haruach umorid hagoshem”.
And on the other hand you have chassidim who spend their entire time waiting for the Mashiach. Somebody once asked me: “What do you get when you cross a yekker with a chabadnik?” And the answer is: “A Mashiach who arrives on time.”
Anyway, let us in this lecture give you just a very brief history of time. I want to distinguish two ideas. The first is a very ancient concept of time and this concept of time, which is not particularly Jewish, arises from the simple observation that primitive human beings made at the very beginning of their existence – indeed animals respond to it as well and plants also – namely, the slow progression whereby even our biorhythms are adjusted to the sequence of dawn, sunrise, day, evening, night. There is another sequence which hunter-gatherers know, the sequence of the seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter.
And, of course, we also know the whole concept of being able to mark the progression of the seasons very accurately arose when human beings stopped being hunter-gatherers and began to become cultivators of the land – the Agricultural Revolution which began, as you know, in those fertile alluvial river valleys, the Nile Delta on the one hand but, more importantly, the valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates which was, of course, the birthplace of civilisation.
Now you know that that particular flat area of Mesopotamia was subject to periodical flooding and that is why, from virtually every ancient literature we have, there are stories about floods. There is the Enuma Elish. In fact, there are lots of them. All the ancient literatures have flood stories. Now at some stage some genius discovered that the sun actually rises on the horizon at a marginally different point every day during the course of the year and that there is a direct correlation between the sun appearing at a certain angle and the likelihood of floods. This was an extremely useful discovery. I don’t know whether they had intellectual copyright in those days. However, that was the beginning of the close observation of the sun and planetary movements at which, as you know, the Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians developed an extremely high proficiency. And that is when the calendar was born.
Now all of those observations, all of those rhythms, add up to a concept of time that is still with us which, in fact, was the symbolism of those two wonderful monuments to heaven knows what called the Millennium Dome and the London Eye. And the symbolism of those two great millennial moments was what we call ‘cyclical time’. Cyclical time is time like you see on a watch or a clock. It travels around, whether it is the shadow of a sundial or it is the progression of the seasons, and the nature of that time is that it always returns to where it started and a new cycle begins. That is cyclical time: time as eternal recurrence.
That was time for the ancients in the world of myth; time for the ancient Greeks. Who was the thinker of modern times who spoke of time as eternal recurrence? That was Nietzsche who was sort of consciously moving back to the Greeks. And that cyclical time, which of course is time that can be quantified with great precision, is cyclical time. I’m sure you’ve all read Dava Sobel’s book. Anyone hasn’t read “Longitude”? You’re waiting for the movie – okay. But you know the thesis of Dava Sobel’s book, that the search for a way of mapping exactly the position of a ship on the ocean was essentially the search for an extremely accurate clock.
Now the important thing about cyclical time is that it has a philosophy to it. Namely, that beneath all these changes that we see in nature and even in the human life cycle from birth to youth to maturity to decline and death and the new birth – all of those record changes beneath which there is an underlying order. Things actually don’t change. The cast of characters changes but cyclical time is time that endlessly repeats itself. And that is the philosophy behind the world of myth. It is the philosophy behind the world of philosophy. And it is the philosophy behind the world of science. Myth, science, are both different ways of discovering an unchanging order beneath the apparent chaos.
Forgive me – I am a little jet-lagged from all my travels, but just before I went on one of my travels recently I was privileged to propose the toast to the fellow, Dr Arthur Peacock from Oxford who won this year’s Templeton Prize. He is one of these people who tries to show that science proves that God exists, and he does this through this wonderful discovery – as you know, I think I spoke about it in my second lecture – that against the whole stream of entropy which is increasing chaos, somehow or other life emerges in ever more complex self-organising complexity. So he proves from the emergence of order out of chaos that God exists. I always say that that is the exact opposite of Jewish life.
However, cyclical time is about the order beneath chaos. And it is, therefore, a statement about what is timeless beneath the apparent progression of time. Cyclical time is time as it exists in nature, in the natural world, and that is why it is the time that speaks to the world of myth – which is the world that sees God in nature and it is why it is the time of the world of science which studies the regularities and the structures of nature.
Now, does Judaism have an idea of cyclical time? Can anyone think of a book that is a kind of poem to cyclical time. Kohelet [Ecclesiastes]. Exactly. Kohelet is really all around the theme of ma shehaya hu sheyiheyeh – that which was is that which will be – ma shena’aseh hu sheye’aseh – that which was done is that which will be done – ayn kol chadash tachat hashemesh – there is nothing new under the sun.
More than that, of course: cyclical time – I would go so far as to say – is the time that belongs to what Rav Soleveitchik called the ish hahalachah – to the halachic mind. The whole halachic process tends to work in the concept of cyclical time, as they used to say in the 60s – when was the first moon shot? Or the first space rocket? You know, they used to say: Can you imagine the first Jewish astronaut? He goes up there in the rocket, comes down and they all ask him what it was like. And he says, ‘Terrible. It was nothing but shachris, mincha, ma’ariv; shachris, mincha, ma’ariv. That is cyclical time. The time of halachah. It is the time of the world of prayer in the days of the Temple; today in the days of the shul. We mark, in our prayers, the phases of the day, the phases of the lunar month, the phases of the solar year – Pesach, Shavuos and Succos.
That is cyclical time, a world of eternal recurrences and that is the world that never changes and, to a certain extent, halachah, Jewish law, certainly as it relates to bein adam leMakom – to our relationship to God – Jewish law, in that sense, does not change. To ask a question of whether something is kosher or treif is, I think, more or less guaranteed to be fairly similar whether you ask the question in 2001, 1001 or 3001. I think so. Although the person who taught me for smichah always used to say, ‘Whatever it is, eat it today because tomorrow it will be treif‘! That is cyclical time. And in that we claim no originality. We borrowed that from other time. That is cyclical time.
However, in Judaism there was born another concept of time altogether that really was, and I think still remains, revolutionary. It has been written about a certain amount so I am not saying anything completely original here. There is a lovely little book about it, or a little bit of a book about it, by Yosef Chaim Yerushalmi called “Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory” and a Catholic historian called Thomas Cahill wrote a book about it in 1998 which became a bestseller in the States. I think it has only just been published in Britain – if it has been published. It is called “The Gifts of the Jews”. Have any of you seen that book? Yes? I think it has just come out here. At any rate, it will tell you how important Cahill – who isn’t Jewish – thought this discovery was, because “The Gifts of the Jews” is subtitled – here it is – Baruch Hashem – we’ll make him an honorary Jew! – this is a pretty immodest claim but it is subtitled “How a Tribe of Desert Nomads changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels“.
Anyway, this particular time I am going to call – because most people call it that and I am going to do so by way of shorthand – this time is called ‘linear time’. And the Torah has a marvellous way of fixing the moment when linear time begins. When God says to Abraham, Lech lecha me’artzecha mimoledetecha mibeis avicha el ha’aretz asher erecka – Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house and go to the land which I will show you, that is the birth of a concept of time as a journey. Time as a way of travelling towards a destination. Time as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and an end. That is a revolutionary concept of time born in Judaism and a very important one indeed.
I once said, long ago in a fit of homilectical enthusiasm, that when it came to apikorsim we had three of the best in the modern world namely: Spinoza, Marx and Freud. Marx said that human beings are determined by the play of economic forces, by class differences, by who owns land. Therefore God said to Abraham: Lech lecha me’artzecha – Leave the land. Spinoza said that human beings are determined by the circumstances of their birth, by what today we would call genetic instincts and therefore God said to Abraham: Leave moledetecha – the place of your birth. Freud said that human beings are determined by our early childhood experiences and therefore God said to Abraham: Leave your father’s house.
That, I think, is actually at least a little fragment of the truth because God was telling Abraham to leave behind all the things that determine our future. That seem to suggest that we have no choice in what we become, that are deterministic. And He is saying to Abraham: Leave that world and embark on a journey of radical freedom.
And that is what time is. Time, as linear time, is not time in which we say ma shehaya hu sheyiheyeh – what happened is what will happen. This is time in which tomorrow can be radically unlike today. Today has to be radically unlike yesterday. In which, unlike the time on a clock, each day is unique because each day is a particular stage in the journey; a particular chapter in the story. And that concept of time generates a whole set of concepts that literally could not have been imaginable otherwise. Concepts like new, like adventure, like surprise, like originality, creativity. Like revolution. Concepts like the key word of the modern age. I mean, from the 17th century onwards, what was the key word of enlightenment? Progress. Exactly.
And another word which I think is much, much more profound, which is for me the key word of Judaism and not by accident did it give its name to the national anthem of the reborn State of Israel, Hatikvah: the concept of hope which I think is far more subtle and powerful than the concept of progress. In fact, all the key words of Judaism – emunah: faith; bitachon: trust; even the concept of brit, of covenant itself – are essentially linked to the idea of linear time.
Let me give you a very small example of how contemporary historians measure the impact of linear time. There is a wonderful book – I don’t know if you’ve seen it; it came out a couple of years ago – by the Harvard economic historian David Landes. David Landes published a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations“. A fascinating book about why some nations become rich; why some stay poor. And he said in this book – he asked a good kashe [question] – He asked the following: We know that in the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th centuries the Chinese had made many, many inventions long before the West – printing, gunpowder, paper, porcelain, even spinning machines – and yet China did not have an industrial revolution. Europe did. Why was it, asked Landes, that China so advanced in these many technical ways and never had an industrial revolution. And one of his answers – it is only one of them – is that the West had what China did not have, namely a concept of linear time.
His argument, in other words, is that before you can have a revolution you have to be able to think revolution. Or you have to be able to think “revolution – good” instead of “revolution – disaster”. And that, in other words, in order to be able to make progress you have to have a word that means progress. At any rate that is Landes, and certainly Thomas Cahill – who as I say isn’t Jewish. He’s very ecstatic in terms of his evaluation of the significance of linear time, and here are his words – I think they end the book.
“The Jews gave us the outside and the inside, our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. (We ought to make him Jewish, don’t you think?!) We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words are the gifts of the Jews.”
Now, the question is: Why? What was it about Judaism that allowed Jews to come up with or to hear or to respond to this radically new concept of time according to which the future does not endlessly recapitulate the past? And the answer, I think, is simple. Here it is. Until Judaism, God had been seen in nature. With Judaism, for the first time, God is seen as above, or beyond, nature. If God is above nature, then God is not bound by nature. In other words, God is free. In other words, what is interesting about God and important about Him, is His choice, His will, His creativity. God chooses – asher bochar bonu micol ho’amim etc. etc. – God wills. Veyomer elokim yehi – God said, “Let there be”. God creates. Bereishit barah. Those are the key things about Judaism and you cannot find them in the universe of myth because choice, creativity and will are aspects of a Being that is somehow above nature, not determined by natural laws.
It therefore follows that if human beings are betzelem elokim – they share the image and the nature of God – then we too, for the first time, were able to see ourselves as beings with the capacity to choose, to will and to create. And that remains the single most striking – and I think most controversial, even to this day – of Judaism’s assertions. It is denied by Adam who, when God blames him for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge says, “Don’t blame me! It’s my wife. It’s your fault. You introduced me to her!” Etc. etc. Cain, when God says to him, Lepetach chatat rovetz – sin is crouching at the door – ve’elecha teshukato – and it desires to have you – ve’ato timsho bo – but you can master it. When he says to Cain: You are free. And Cain rejects that as well.
And that proposition has been rejected by determinists of all kinds, ancient and modern, be they astrological, sociological, Marxist, Spinozist, Skinnerian, genetic, psychological, neuro-physiological, socio-biological or any other kind of determinist you care to mention. They are all alive and well and all of them – no, at least some of them actually were beautifully lampooned to music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim in that wonderful song from ‘West Side Story‘, “Gee, Officer Krupke”. You know that song? – ‘It wasn’t my fault.’ ‘You’re suffering from a social disease.’ – You know the kind of thing!
Anyway, every attempt to reduce human behaviour to science or to pseudo-science is a failure to understand the nature of human freedom, of human agency, of human responsibility. A failure to understand that what makes us human is that we have will, we have choice, we have creativity. Every single attempt – socio-biological, genetic etc., and they are published by the hundred every single year – represents the failure to distinguish between a cause and an intention. Between phenomena whose causes lie in the past: those are scientific phenomena – and human behaviour, which is oriented towards the future. A future which only exists because I can imagine it and because I can imagine it I can choose to bring it about. That is in principle not subject to scientific causal analysis. And that is the root of human freedom. Because human beings are free – therefore we are not condemned to eternal recurrence. We can act differently today from the way we did yesterday – in small ways individually, in very big ways collectively. Because we can change ourselves, we can change the world.
And in that capacity, to change the world, cyclical time is transcended by linear time which says that because I can change, the world can change, and therefore I can move from where I am now to where I would like to be ultimately. That is where linear time is born. That is where hope is born and that is the incredible concept, the Jewish drama of redemption.
Now, I just want to give you a ‘for instance’ of the difference that makes, and here it is. If I were to ask you: What is the greatest contribution of the Greeks to literature? What genre? – what would you say. Tragedy? Yes. Exactly. That is the unsurpassed achievement of Sophocles, Aeschylus and the rest. Tragedy. Now tragedy belongs to cyclical time. It takes a very specific view of the world, which is that the world is fated more or less to remain the same. That is called moyra. That is called fate. And every belief that we have that we can somehow resist fate is what the Greeks called hubris and is punished by nemesis. All our dreams of changing the world are destined to be shipwrecked on the hard rocks of reality.
What is the Hebrew word for tragedy? There isn’t one, actually. Gevalt! You know how many words are missing from the Hebrew language? I’m sorry – again, I’m a little bit jet-lagged. I’ve just come back from doing a big public dialogue with the Israeli writer Amos Oz and that was under the Chair of Judaism and Civility. And the fascinating thing is that when they came to translate that to Hebrew – [laughter] – they discovered there is no Jewish word for civility. There actually isn’t! They were in trouble! They came up with two alternatives: one was derech eretz; one was ezrachut. One means respect; one means citizenship. But there is no Jewish word for ‘civility’. But I should have known that.
Anyway, what is the Hebrew word for tragedy? Exactly! Tragedia! They couldn’t find a word for it. There is no Jewish word for tragedy because Judaism is the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of hope. And I find this extraordinary, that despite the many tragedies of Jewish history, there is no word. There are words for catastrophe. There’s a word like asson. There’s a word like churban. We have even borrowed a word from sacrificial stuff and use the word shoah. But not one of those words means what the Greek tragedy is about, namely bad things that happen because of the innate structure of reality which is fundamentally blind and deaf to human hopes and aspirations. There cannot be a Jewish tragedy. You can’t write it. It doesn’t translate.
And, incidentally, of course, that explains the difference between a prophet and – what would be the Greek equivalent of a prophet? An oracle. Yes. What is the difference between a prophet and an oracle? Listen to this. If an oracle predicts that something is going to happen and it doesn’t happen – that is a failure. If a prophet tells you something is going to happen and it doesn’t happen – that is a success. And that is what Jonah didn’t understand. You understand one of the great phenomena that’s hit me in the last ten years which I’m sure has struck you: that converting non-Jews is easy. The hard thing is converting the Jews!
I once pointed out that this goes all the way back. Jonah is the one prophet sent to non-Jews. How many words does he say to the inhabitants of Nineveh? Five. Od arba’im yom veNineveh ne’efachat – In 40 days’ time Nineveh will be destroyed. Five words, he says! And they all do teshuvah immediately. They repent. The people repent. The animals repent. God forgives them. You think of any Jewish prophet who said a thousand, a million words – and anyone every listened to him? Forget it! That’s the easy thing.
However, as you remember, Jonah tells them that in 40 days Nineveh will be destroyed. They all repent. God forgives them. And Jonah says: “You see! I told you! I knew You’d tell them something’s going to happen and it isn’t going to happen! You made me look like a shlemiel! ” And God says, “You don’t understand. You know, you are a prophet and not an oracle. You are there to warn, not to predict.”
In other words, there can be in Judaism no concept of an oracle because there is no concept of a time that is pre-ordained, that must happen, that is going to happen, whatever we try and do – because linear time is not cyclical time. Linear time is time that can change and because of that it can never be certainly foreseen and the prophet warns: he doesn’t predict.
In other words, at the heart of linear time is:
1. Human free will – because we can change ourselves, we can change the world.
2. The very structure of reality. Reality is not blind. It is not indifferent to us. It is that at the very heart of it there is a Presence, a Being, a Thou – Who cares, Who wants us to be here, Who assures us that our aspirations are not destined to fail.
3. And because of those critical tragedy-destroying concepts that we speak of ten days in the year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the concepts of teshuvah and kapparah. I say I am sorry about the past and I am forgiven for the past. And teshuvah and kapparah between them help to ensure that no past determines our future. If we are sorry for the past and we are forgiven for the past, we have a new slate and we can begin again. No world in which teshuvah and kapparah exists has room for the concept of fate or tragedy.
So, as a result, the most striking thing Judaism ever taught the world was a concept of time which gave rise to the possibility of hope – and thereby gave the West an alternative to Greek culture, namely to tragedy. An alternative to tragedy as the meta-narrative of the human condition. And you will understand that what makes linear time different from cyclical time is that linear time is about history, whereas cyclical time is about nature. Cyclical time, I said, belongs to ish hahalachah, to the halachic mind. Linear time belongs to the ish nevuah, to the prophetic mind. And it signals that there can be real change in the course of human affairs, not superficial change but deep substantive and structural change.
And that, of course, constitutes the third great belief of Judaism: creation, revelation. This is the belief in redemption.
Now the difference between linear time and cyclical time – and let me just say it in slightly different words – is the difference ultimately between seeing the truth as a system and seeing the truth as a story. It is the difference between the platonic concept of philosophy as revealing timeless truth – and Torah, which is not a book in its prophetic aspect of timeless truth. It is a book about the realisation of truth through time.
Now what is the Jewish story? And I think the best way of saying this – and correct me if I’m wrong –
If there is anyone here that can read music you will forgive me for my sheer philistinism because I can’t read music but I do hum a lot. There is a remarkable piece of music that Beethoven wrote at the end of his life. He originally wrote it as the last movement of a quartet, the Opus 130. Eventually, because he went on a bit like I do, they forced him to publish it as a work on its own – the Opus 133. It’s called The Grosse Fugue. Do you know it? Wonderful piece of music in which, if I’m not mistaken, at the very beginning of this piece of music Beethoven begins by just very boldly setting out the basic musical themes of which the work is going to be constructed, like a builder laying out materials. And then come this huge variations theme, fugues, all the rest of it until it reaches its ultimate resolution.
In other words, the Torah does what Beethoven does in The Gross Fugue. It tells us the end of the story at the very beginning. And that is the way that we know what our destination is and that is where we know whether we’re on the right track or not.
Let me give you a very simple example. Judaism begins, at the very beginning of the bible, with a statement of monogamy. One man, one woman, and the following verse: al keyn yazov ish et aviv ve’et imo vedavak be’ishto vehayu levaser echad. Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and they will become one flesh. That is a clear statement in the second chapter of Bereishit of monogamy.
When did monogamy become normative in Jewish life? 10th century. Yes. Rabbenu Gershon. That is, in biblical chronology, 4,000 years. There it is, as an ideal set forth at the very beginning of the Torah. But as a reality it takes 4,000 years.
Let’s take an even stronger example, the meta-narrative of Judaism. The essential narrative of the book of Shemot [Exodus] is about the liberation of slaves. It is about the creation of a society of free human beings. That is, if you like, one of the central concepts of the Jewish Messianic vision. How long did it take the western world with its Judeo-Christian ethic eventually to abolish slavery? 19th century, right? And not without an American Civil War.
Take the following: another example. You know how on Shavuos we read of the Giving of the Torah? and it contained in the 19th chapter of the book of Shemot the following phrase where God instructs Moses, Ko tomar levet Yaakov vetagid lifnei Yisrael – Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and to the children of Israel? And the question is: What is the significance of the difference between ‘bet Yaakov’ and ‘Bnei Yisrael’? And you will be familiar with the rabbinic interpretation which is: Beit Yaakov – aylu hanashim. Exactly. These are the women.
In other words, the Sages, 2000 years ago, believed that women were given …
[Some words missing when tape turned over.]
… , who got it right? Well, you know, as between Ishmael and Isaac being the carriers of the Covenant, Sarah got it right, Abraham got it wrong. God says to Abraham, kol asher tomar lecha Sarah shma bekolah – Whatever Sarah says to her, just listen to her.
Rivka. Who gets it right between Esau and Jacob, Rebecca or Isaac? The answer is that Rebecca gets it right, Isaac gets it wrong. Rebecca – vataylaych lidrosh et Hashem. Rebecca went to ask God. Isaac didn’t.
So, when the rabbis said 2,000 years ago that women received te Torah first, they were not making up something. They were extrapolating something that they sensed as one of the themes of the Torah. How long did it take for women to be given the same educational opportunities as men? 20th century. However, I want you to understand something, because the people who gave women those opportunities, who gave the blessing to those opportunities – of course the pioneer herself was Sarah Schniror who founded the school movement known as Beis Yaakov. Exactly. – But the people who gave her the blessing were not, you know, trendy, kippa sruga guys. They were the Gerer Rebbe and the Chofetz Chaim. And in more recent times, in my own lifetime, the people who went out furthest insisting that women be given the same education as men were the Lubavitch Rebbe (of blessed memory) and Rav Yosef Soleveitchik (of blessed memory) – the two greatest Jewish leaders certainly of my time.
So you understand that when we are on this journey, it takes a long time but we never have any doubt as to where we should be going because those ideals were already set out in the beginning and we know where we should be going to. However, we know that the Jewish journey, the journey to redemption which we see as the human journey, is a journey that is painfully slow. It is full of digressions, setbacks and wrong-turnings. And the eternal metaphor for that is the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness that should have taken a few weeks and instead took forty years – and essentially, and this is the crucial fact – took more than one generation. Redemption is the work of many generations.
However, the outcome is never in doubt. Moses knew that the Israelites would eventually get to the Land even though he didn’t live to see it. You remember that extraordinary moment at the end of Masechet Makot which – whenever I stand on Har Tzofim by the new Hebrew University campus I just feel a shiver down my spine – at the end of Makot where Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues are standing on Har Tzofim, on Mount Scopus, looking down at the ruined Holy of Holies and a fox walking across and they are all crying and he is saying, “No, here I am absolutely convinced that since there were prophecies of destruction and prophecies of rebuilding, and since the prophecy of destruction has come true, therefore I know that one the prophecy of Zechariah will come true, that Jerusalem will be full of old men and women sitting at peace and the streets filled with the sound of children playing.”
And I think to myself, Ribbono shel Olam, it took 1900 years – and yet he never doubted. And Jews, our ancestors, never doubted. And we have the privilege of actually being able to see it come true. So now you understand an absolutely central feature of Judaism, which I’ve never really seen people explain adequately, which is that Judaism is a religion of parents and children, of continuity, of a covenant across the generations. The person who said it best was the English writer Edmund Burke in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”.
“Society is a contract,” – you know I prefer the word ‘covenant’ – “between the living, the dead and those not yet born.”
That was Burke’s way of paraphrasing the great words of Moses at the end of his life, Lo itchem levadchem enochi korayt et habrit hazot – I am making this covenant not with you alone – ki et-asher yeshno po imanu omayd hayom – but with those who are with us today – va’et asher aynenno po imanu hayom – and those who are not with us today.
The essential feature of Jewish life, the first command to Adam and Eve: Have children. The first statement, the only statement, in the whole of Torah as to why God chose Abraham, ki yedativ lema’an asher yetzaveh et banav ve’et bayto acharav veshomru derech Hashem – so that he will instruct his children and the household after him that they will keep the way of the Lord. Abraham was chosen in order to be a parent. Moses keeps telling you: Be parents. Veshinantom levonecho – education is the conversation between the generations. We now understand why. Because Jewish redemption, because Jewish time, is a story and it is a story that takes many generations and therefore, essential to it, is a covenant extended through time in which we hand on our ideals to our children and they to theirs and that is why to be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of generations.
And that is why Judaism is essentially a religion of history, a religion of linear time.
Now the closing chapter of that story is of course yamot hameshiach – the Messianic Age. And, of course, what the Messianic Age is and what I am supposed to tell you tonight – I frankly give up on completely because it is one of the most hotly-debated topics in Judaism and you don’t want to know my views about it.
The essential questions: Will the Messianic Age be natural or will it be supernatural? Will it be immediate or will it be gradual? Who’s going to bring it about? Is it going to be God? Is it going to be us? Is it going to be a bit of a combination between the two? Will the Messianic Age be a moment in history or will it be what Francis Fukiyama calls “The End of History” ? Is it going to be something that only affects us? Is it going to be something that’s going to change the world? Is the Messianic Age about a person or about an era? What is it?
You know that there have been many conceptions and every conceivable permutation and combination of those and many others that you never thought of, and the Messianic Age ranges from simple ideas like the view of the amora Shmuel who said: Ayn ben olam hazeh leyamot hameshiach ela shi’ibud malchiot bilvad. The only difference between now and the Messianic Age is that in the Messianic Age Israel will no longer be under the sway of other nations. In other words, for Shmuel the Messianic Age came in 1948 with pronouncement of Israeli independence – to the dazzling visions of Isaiah, of an age in which the wolf will lie down with the lamb, when nation will not lift up sword against nation, and that fantastic vision with which Maimonides closes his Code, Umala ha’aretz daya et hashem kemayim leyam mechasim – Of a world which is as flooded with the knowledge of God as the waters are covered by the sea.
Just take a simple question. What is the relationship of the current State of Israel to the Messianic Age? On this, you cannot simplify it more than six different views and here they are.
1. The view of Rav Kook, father and soon, which is the official view of the Israeli Rabbinate which is that the State of Israel is Messianic. What is the key phrase in the Israeli prayer for the State of Israel? Rayshit smichat ge’ulataynu – the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. View one: the State of Israel is atchalta dege’ula – the beginning of the Messianic Age.
2. The view of Rav Reines, the founder of Mizrachi, which is that the State of Israel has no Messianic significance and no religious significance. It is only pikuach nefesh – a way of rescuing endangered Jews.
3. Neturei Karta. The State of Israel is not Messianic and it is not non-Messianic. It is anti-Messianic. It is an attempt to achieve by human beings what actually can be achieved only by God alone and therefore we’re against it.
4. The view of many secular Zionists, all of whom thought Theodore Herzl was Mashiach, which is that secular Zionism and the State of Israel is the secularisation of the Messianic idea, so that you have a socialist Utopia, a communist Utopia, a cultural Utopia, an anarchic Utopia, a Tolstoyan Utopia of A. D. Gordon – all of which were swirling about in the early kibbutz movement.
5. The view of Brennan, Berdichevsky and everyone else you can think of whose name begins with a ‘B’ who thought Zionism was the abandonment of the Messianic idea – schon genug with Mashiach – Let’s just be normal.
6. And, finally – the extremely boring but nonetheless not bad view of Chief Rabbis of Great Britain – the late Sir Israel Brodie, the late Lord Jakobovits and myself – all of whom have mandated forms of prayer for the State of Israel which do not contain the phrase rayshit smichat ge’ulataynu – which see Israel as religiously significant but about which we are not yet ready to say that it is of Messianic significance.
Those are the six views, and of course there are many more – like the friend of mine in Jerusalem who calls his plumber Mashiach! He says, ‘I await him daily. He never shows up.’!
However, what you can say without shadow of doubt is, in answer to the questions ‘Has Moshiach come?’, the Jewish answer is ‘Not yet’. However, in that very ‘not yet’ are two monumental assertions. And this is what I want to say.
1. When we say ‘not yet’, we are saying no to any premature consolation, any willingness to settle for less than our vision of an ideal world. How can we say with Christian that the Messiah has come in a world still riven by violence, conflict, terrorism, inequality and injustice? How could we say, with that other great Jewish Messianic vision, Marxist Communism, that the world is saved by the mere withering of the state. I mean, for heaven’s sake! One is okay, one’s a nightmare. But we have been prepared always to say, ‘Not yet. We will not settle for premature consolations.’
2. The other thing is that when we say ‘not yet’ but will we still say, im kol zeh echakeh lo bechol yom sheyavo – af al pi ken – we still await him daily – is the refusal to accept the second alternative which is the world we inhabit today which is the world of Postmodernism in which there are no ultimate meanings. Postmodernism is the rejection of the redemption narrative. “Postmodernism”, says Jean-Paul Lyotard, means the distrust of meta-narratives.” “Postmodernism,” says George Steiner in his latest book “Grammars of Creation“, “is the eclipse of the Messianic.” And we say: No. We do not say the ultimate meaning is the world we live in today where meanings are essentially private, whether they be therapeutic, Buddhist, New Age or any other alternative. We say that the meanings of our world are not private: they are shared. They are something we call the common good.
And that means that we absolutely reject both those who think that salvation has come or is within reach and those who say there is no such thing. What is at stake in this Messianic narrative? I will tell you. What is at stake in the prophetic consciousness, the ish nevua, the linear imagination, the Jewish meta-narrative of redemption, I have here to differ to a man who put it so much better than I could – the non-Jewish writer Paul Johnson. This is what Paul Johnson says in the beginning of his book on Jewish history – and it is so true and so beautiful and here it is.
“No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”
That is what is at stake. I believe the Jewish vision is the noblest, most profound, most subtle attempt ever to give human life the dignity of a purpose – and heaven forbid that we should be so deaf to the music of our tradition, so apathetic in the face of the challenge of redemption, that the Jewish voice in the conversation of mankind simply fades away as it has been doing for these past 30 to 40 years.
Let me be very blunt. Two things went wrong. One thing went wrong with the world and another thing went wrong with us. What went wrong with the world is that some time in the 17th century all the way through to the mid-20th century a Jewish concept of linear time was secularised and simplified into the excessively simple concept of progress. Now progress is not the Jewish idea of linear time. I said that linear time in Judaism is time as a journey which has setbacks and digressions. It’s time as a narrative in which sometimes you can wander very far from the central point. Progress is different. It’s simple, linear, naive, secular and progress meant for the Enlightenment that simple substitute of science and reason for God and faith. And all you needed to do was that and we would guarantee increasing progress.
Or, as it became a little more complex, in Hegel and Marx it would be dialectical, but still we would reach salvation inevitably. They made an assumption, which as by now you know, is absolutely alien to Judaism – the assumption of historical inevitability. That is not on because human beings have free will and therefore there is no inevitability in history. As a result, the concept of progress was bound at some stage to crash as soon as it became clear that science posed as many problems as it solved, that it gave us the means to destroy the very existence of life on earth. When it became clear that reason did not, as every Enlightenment protagonist thought it would, abolish human prejudice – instead of which it unleashed a tidal wave across Europe of anti-Semitism the like of which the world has never seen and the result is that that illusion called progress has now been followed by that disillusion called Postmodernism.
And that was the result of having a much too simple faith and then replacing it by a much too facile faithlessness. And that is what went wrong in Western culture.
What went wrong in the Jewish world – and heaven knows how we could have avoided it – is that Judaism is still limping after a century and a half of the most vicious assault on our very being. And I did not foresee that I would have to say this when I began these lectures a few months ago, but that vicious assault remains today in the Middle East and in far too many international forums of the world. I have no intention of talking about that but the end result is that somehow we have been unable to have the peace of mind and the self-confidence to ask the questions we should have been asking about the purpose of the State of Israel, about the purpose of Jewish life in the Diaspora, and about the way things have changed and are demanding changes of us. And I have said that new thought has not been forthcoming for the last 30 or 40 years and that is what I have tried to do in these lectures.
Friends, I wish I could say more about Mashiach but what can I do? But let me just say this: I love Judaism. I love its courage. I love its boldness. I love its humanity. I love its refusal to bow down to the idols of the age, including the politically correct idols of our age. I love the Jewish vision of redemption: its extraordinary, unique and still hardly understood ideals – of covenantal politics, of a free society in which my liberty respects yours; of the dignity of the human person; of the sanctity of human life. I love the Jewish passion for education and the life of the mind. I love its burning sense of justice which leads us to argue with God Himself, the way Moses and Abraham and Job argued with God. I love the way Judaism beautifies and consecrates those simple institutions like marriage and the family, like shul and community, like the Beit Midrash and our lifelong dialogue with our predecessors and with God. Because those institutions sustain a living ‘we’, a living ‘us’ that mediates between the lonely ‘I’ and the lonely ‘thou’.
Above all, I love the way Judaism mediates between universalism and particularism: in which it asks us to be true to ourselves and, at the same time, to be a blessing to others. I love that unique message – which I have got to tell you, just two days ago I shared with the students of the National Union of Students, the blacks, the Sikhs, the Hindus and all the rest, and they find it empowering as well – that incredible message which has been a kind of leitmotif of these lectures, of space for otherness and, above all, the dignity of difference. And for heaven’s sake, we need that in a world of globalisation that is flattening out and failing to respect the differences of cultures.
And what I am really praying to you – who have been so fantastic in coming and putting up with me – is that now that we have statehood and sovereignty in Israel, now that we have freedom and equality in the Diaspora – things that 30, 40, 50 generations of our ancestors hoped for and prayed for – please let us talk about who we are and why and let us not take things for granted. Which is really what I tried to do in my latest book and I have tried to move forward still in these lectures.
Our task – to repeat – is to be true to ourselves and to be a blessing to others; to bring forward the Messianic Age, the narrative of redemption, to do so by the example of our lives and, through our lives, to reduce that dissonance which I spoke of – about the palace in flames – that dissonance … [?] which Judaism is borne between the world that is and the world that we know and God has told us ought to be.
We bring Mashiach – we bring redemption – one day at a time, one act at a time, one life at a time – respecting the faiths of others because we are confident in our own; inviting others to join with us in building a world worthy of being a home for the Divine Presence. I have to tell you that although that is a lofty goal, there is not one of us here in this room, there is not one member of the Jewish world today, that does not have an important and unique task in that process. And so often I have been moved, in the last ten years travelling around the Jewish world, by the generosity of x or the kindness of y or the courage of z in contributing to the justice and decency and humanity of our world. And we are part of a people that we can be proud. That is what is bringing the Messianic moment closer, one day at a time.
Somehow Judaism asked great things of us and, in asking those things of us, helped to make us great. And therefore I thank you once again for being a wonderful audience. I hope these lectures have given you some sense of the challenge ahead of us – exciting and enthralling as I see it is – namely, the capacity of our ancient faith still once in a while to surprise us with the wisdom we have only just begun to explore.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much, Chief Rabbi. The Chief Rabbi has agreed to take a few questions so please feel free to raise your hand if you have a question. But I would ask if you could wait until we get the microphone over to you, and please state your name.
Firstly, congratulations on delivering some very inspiring speeches. I would just like to ask: you talked about historical inevitability and obviously the beauty of human nature being that we have free will and we don’t necessarily have to prescribe to future events etc. Is, therefore, the Messianic Age the massive exception to that rule or is there a chance that, due to the free will of Jews and all men and women, there is a chance we won’t achieve that as well because of the inevitability?
Can I answer that question, which is a very good question, just by restating the problem and then giving the answer which I gave and which I found in the writings of Rav Soleveitchik. It’s a very, very beautiful answer. If there is no such thing as historical inevitability, how is it inevitable that there will be a Messianic Age? And that question can be asked very powerfully of one thinker in particular, Moses Maimonides. Because Moses Maimonides subscribed to three beliefs:
- That there will be a Messiah. He lists that as the 12th of his 13 Principles of Faith.
- He holds that human beings have free will and that is a foundational principle of the Torah without which all the Torah will be null and void. He states that in Chapters 5 and 6 of Hilchot Teshuvah.
- He holds that the Messianic Age will come only as a result of teshuvah uma’asim tovim – of repentance and good deeds on the part of the Jewish people.
And, therefore, if you put those three propositions together, they don’t add up because it could be that the Jewish people will never be worthy of the Messiah and it won’t come. And that is a fundamental question to be asked about Maimonides’ belief. And here is what Rav Soleveitchik said: Twelve of the Thirteen Principles of Faith represent our faith in God. The 13th, the Messianic Age, represents God’s faith in us. Are you with me? [Reply: “Yes.”] Now, that is a very, very beautiful proposition and the more I meditate on it, the more I see that it is true and very empowering. God has faith in us. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’re wrong about this. It is the great wager of Jewish life throughout the ages, but I believe it was that conviction that we have that God has faith in us to make the world better that empowers me to believe that indeed there will be a Messianic Age – even though it is purely contingent. Are you with me? [Reply: “Yes.”]
And everything that has happened in the modern age has convinced me that we have made significant progress. Whether you look at the abolition of slavery or the slow and the surely halting movement towards equality for women or towards the concept of human rights – 1949, the United Nations declaration, etc. – all of these things moved us that much closer. So I hope that poetic answer, if not convincing is at least inspiring. At least it inspired me.
Chief Rabbi, the question is: If Adam and Eve had not made their mistake in the Garden of Eden and there would not have been the expulsion and the exile and everything that followed in history, would there still have been a need for time to be linear? And if the answer is no, that there wouldn’t have been a need for it, doesn’t it follow then that linear time is just an illusion, or just an ephemeral temporary state?
Well, obviously, you know, if we’d been perfect to begin with we wouldn’t have needed linear time because we wouldn’t have needed history. Ok? However, what I didn’t do in this lecture and I should have done is given you the shape of the Jewish narrative. And I’ll just give this to you very quickly. Are you familiar with the concept of chiasmus? Anyone come across that phrase? Chiasmus is a literary structure which goes like this: A, B, C, C, B, A. Yes? Are you with me? Let me give you a perfect example and, in fact, this is an example in which content mirrors form. I don’t know if you can sort of visualise these words, but listen to them carefully. They are the sixth verse of the ninth chapter of Bereishis, the key sentence of the Noahide covenant. Shofech dam adam be’adam damo yeshafech. Can you hear that? A, B, C, C, B, A.
In other words, there is a kind of mirror image between the first half of the sentence and the second half of the sentence and modern studies of the literary construction of the Torah have shown chiasmus to be an absolutely fundamental compositional principle of Torah narrative. Now, because of that, it actually means that linear time traces this vast semi-circle – or actually more than that, its endpoint is actually the beginning point but it is very big. Yes? And that is why you will see the visions of the Messianic Age in the later Hebrew prophets mirror the beginning of time.
So, for instance, when Isaiah talks about the wolf lying down with the lamb, he is talking about a second Eden. When he is talking about the knowledge of God covering the earth as the waters cover the sea, he is talking about a benign flood – which is the counterpart of the non-benign flood. When Zephaniah talks about “I will restore to the people a pure language,” he’s talking about the time before Babel. Are you with me?
And, therefore, what makes the Jewish narrative certain of its ultimate destination and confident that we’ll get there is this conviction that we were there before. We’ve been there before; therefore we can be there again.
However, what that shows you is that the key narrative devices of Jewish history are sin – which creates exile, which creates return in the double sense of physical and spiritual. And that is the trajectory traced by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eve. They sin, they suffer exile. It’s the story of Jewish history as a whole, etc. etc.
So you are absolutely right: if Adam and Eve had never sinned, life would have been extremely boring – but, given the fact that they did, it is that narrative that gives shape to the overall narrative. And just to give you one little example, if I may. Do you remember what stopped Adam and Eve getting back into paradise? [Inaudible responses from audience.] An angel? Sorry, can we have that more precisely? Two cherubim who guarded the way to aytz hachayim, the tree of life. Right? Now, do cherubim come back somewhere in the rest of Chumash? The answer is: Yes. Because they cover the kapores which is above the aron, the Ark, which contains the Torah which is aytz chayim he, lemachazikim ba. It is the tree of life.
In other words, although Adam and Eve have been exiled from the Garden and there are the cherubim keeping them out, the building of the Tabernacle and the Ark with the Covenant is a way of getting us back to the Tree of Life and it is the cherubim now who are guarding the Tree of Life so that we can get back to it. There are always exiles and returns. They are not exactly parallel but they are variations on a theme and that is the thing that I didn’t give you – but you are absolutely right. If Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, it would never have happened.
But if I may quote to you a very, very heretical remark – my only excuse for saying so is that it appears in a classic biblical text, namely the Midrash Tanchuma – but here it is. Adam said to God, “Ribbono shel Olam, you blame me for eating from the Tree and the result is that I can’t live for ever. However, Ribbono shel Olam, 2,000 years before you created the world, you wrote the Torah and what does it say in the Torah? Zot haTorah adam ki yamut be’ohel – This is the Torah when a man dies in the tent. You knew there was going to be mortality, so don’t blame me for creating it!” Work out that. I don’t know. It’s a complex thing. But at any rate, you’re right – but that’s the way life is.
Chief Rabbi, do you believe personally that with the advent of the Messianic era the restoration of the sacrificial cult and the restoration of the third Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim? Because that is part and parcel of the Messianic concept as well.
[Chuckling] Oh, Jeremy, I am going to give you the Maimonidean answer, which is: We don’t know how any of these things will be until they are.
[Inaudible comment from questioner, at which audience laughs.]
Jeremy, ask yourself the following question: We have been for 2,000 years without a temple and without sacrifices. And yet the Sages said some very, very beautiful things. They said three things:
1. Now that we have no sacrifices, that the prayers come and substitute for those sacrifices. Tefillot keneged temidim tiknu.
2. They said that now we have no sacrifices, let our learning about those sacrifices substitute for those sacrifices – and we do that every morning in ayzeh hu mekomo and in the various passages and in all our kriat haTorah.
3. They said the most beautiful thing of all. They said that now that we have no altar to atone for us, let our table atone for us. Let us always make sure that we have guests, that we open our houses to the stranger and the needy and the hungry. And that is what they said in terms of tzedakah as well substituting for sacrifices.
Those things have served us very well for 2,000 years and I am prepared to wait for the Messianic generation to answer the question you raised.
Chief Rabbi, you’ve said that one of the few things which will be inevitable is the yamot haMoshiach. Is it your understanding that this will come definitely at the end of the sixth millennium or earlier if we deserve it, or are you not convinced that it will come for sure by the end of the sixth millennium?
Well, I hold like Maimonides who says: Kolu kol hakaytzim ve’ayn hadavar toleh ela betshuvu uma’asim tovim bilvad. That is Maimonides’ ruling in Chapter 7 of Hilchot Teshuvah. It’s a very powerful ruling. All the fixed times for the coming of the Messiah have come and gone and now it purely depends on us. You will surely know the chaos that was created at various times in Jewish history by attempting to calculate the time of the end. And I honestly believe, and here I am going to put my cards clearly on the table, that there was something very holy in the Zionist movement. There was something that moved secular Zionists, let alone religious Zionists, that I can only call Ruach Elokim, the spirit of God somehow moving a people. And I’ll tell you why. You see, we have a view and it is held in very, very religious circles that redemption will only come through the Almighty, not through us. We may have to prove ourselves worthy for it but it will come through Him and not through us and that was why they were so negative, or at best neutral, to the Zionist enterprise of rebuilding a Jewish home and a Jewish state.
I am sure you know that we have very impressive testimony from the days of the Second Temple period and immediately thereafter from Josephus who tells us that there were three groups in Jewish life: the Pharisees, the Saducees and the Essenes. The Essenes held that everything depends on God. The Saducees held that everything depends on us. And the Pharisees held that there is a partnership between us and God and that was the normative Jewish view.
Over the years, and particularly with the disastrous rebellion against Rome in the year 66 which culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple and the even more, far more, disastrous Bar Kochba rebellion of 132 to 135 which was the holocaust of pre-Holocaust times. The Roman historian Dio says in that suppression, at the time of the Emperor Hadrian, 570,000 Jews died; 970 Jewish cities were obliterated; Jerusalem was ploughed flat and rebuilt as a Roman city called Ilea Capitaleno. And the sheer shock of the Bar Kochba rebellion meant that Judaism attempted to suppress Messianic activism. Because you remember that Rabbi Akiva, no less, believed that Bar Kochba was the Mashiach and they suppressed it. And therefore, they said, whatever you do, don’t do anything to bring Mashiach. And we inherited for 1800 years a kind of Messianic passivism and it was the great early Zionists – two of whom were religious, as you know: Rav Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and Rav Yehuda Alkali, and I am very proud that my late great-grandfather, Reb Arieh Leib Frumkin was one of them – who actually believed, they went back to the sources and they realised that even if ultimate redemption depends on God, hatechalte dege’ulah – the beginning of redemption – depends on us. And therefore I really believe that those Jews who moved to save Jews from anti-Semitism and the pogroms and the Shoah, who moved to build up a Jewish home in Israel, empowered to do so by the Balfour Declaration and by the 1947 United Nations declaration, are among the heroes of our time and whether or not they were religious, they were doing God’s work.
I believe, therefore, now we have to work, an inch at a time, without attempting to set a date for it, to make this world ever closer to redemption and surely to goodness there’s an awful lot of work to do. So I don’t believe there is any fixed date. I believe it’s disastrous to think of those fixed dates. And the one you mention is only one of, you know, hundreds – literally hundreds! – of calculations. Even Maimonides, who said you shouldn’t calculate, does actually in one of his writings produce a calculation. And I therefore say, No, there is no fixed time. But there is very seriously a standing challenge to us and to our time.
Chief Rabbi, we are used to a lot of tales of personal redemption on a day-to-day basis, certainly rabbinic sermons thrive on it as does the media, and we are used to seeing redemption in the cinema ranging from “The Shawshank Redemption” to “E.T.” . Even national redemption, which is currently going on from the State of Israel to the current yeshiva renaissance that is going on, and indeed global kiruv markets, which is their game, and other learning across the board – I just wonder, in some ways wouldn’t it be rather a shame if the Mashiach did come because it might actually end the narrative too quickly? And perhaps what does work is the concept of hope, of the Hatikvah and leaving us in this kind of slightly postmodern not-so-sure state but at least being part of the narrative where we’re waiting for an answer, we’ve got something to hope for.
This, Marcus, it’s a lovely thought. But can you imagine what happens if the Mashiach comes? Right? It comes – this evening – wants a little sandwich – Who are you? – I’m Mashiach – You’re Mashiach? Tell me, what are you? A chabadnik? – Oy! You’re a misnagdnik, the chabadniks won’t believe in you. You’re sephardi, the ashkenazim won’t like it. You’re an ashkenazi, the sephardim won’t want it. How on earth is Mashiach going to come?! You know what I mean?
I always used to say, and it was very mischievous of me, when I was first a Rabbi in a United Synagogue, I said: “Can you imagine if Mashiach arrives, and by some chance arrives at the doors of our synagogue one day. The fellow at the desk will ask him, ‘Tell me, who are you?’ and he will say, ‘I’m Mashiach.’ And he will then say, ‘Tell me, are you a member here?'”
So, Marcus, halevai – halevai. Mashiach should come bimheyru beyomaynu – but in the meantime, I think you and I will agree to wait patiently.
Okay. We have time for one last question.
Chief Rabbi, you spoke of linear time and later on mentioned that God has faith in us. Shouldn’t the religious authorities have more faith in themselves and instead of looking backwards to Rambam and Rashi etc. look a bit forward? As a couple of examples, we look backward and say that at one stage we couldn’t tell the difference from chicken and meat so we don’t have milk after meat – even though I’ve never yet found a chicken that does give milk. We look back to when women were never allowed out of the kitchen or tent, so we say they can’t be a witness. If we had more faith in ourselves and could look forward to change those rules, wouldn’t that get the Mashiach nearer?
Hmmm! No, it’s a good point. It’s a good point. I don’t think people ever did think chicken gave milk. I’ve got to tell you that I don’t think that’s the reason they forbade chicken and milk together.
I want to tell you that it has been specifically the most religious world that has given rise in the past 50 years to three of the most revolutionary new institutions in Jewish life that never existed before.
1. Hesder yeshivot.
2. Ba’al teshuva yesivot. You know – isn’t it incredible? In all the 4,000 years of Jewish history, there was never anything like the movement that the late Lubavitch Rebbe (of blessed memory) started and which has now become a phenomenon of many groups in the Jewish world of reaching out to other Jews. There was never evangelical Judaism of any kind. This is absolutely new.
3. The seminaries for advanced Jewish study for women never existed before. They … [some words missing when tape changed] … . We are seeing now the development, as you know, in Jewish courts, in rabbinical courts in Israel, of the institution called the to’ennet, the woman advocate in the Jewish court of law who is helping women to present their case on many things. We have just, as part of the London Beth Din, given our support to a programme in Australia where they have asked for our guidance, and so on. And we are trying to do what we can, as you know, here to address the many still outstanding questions of women and Judaism. But, you know, bear in mind that just two weeks ago the London Beth Din permitted, for the first time, women to hold honorary office in the United Synagogues – to much criticism. But they did it because it was permitted and because they are forward-looking.
I am very proud of the fact that almost as soon as I became Chief Rabbi women asked me if women could be members of the United Synagogue Council. They had asked that question in 1928 of Chief Rabbi Hertz and he said no. They asked it in 1951 of Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, and he said no. They asked it in 1977 of Lord Jakobovits, and he said. And they asked it to us – and we said yes. And today, you know – absolutely equal share in the United Synagogue honorary office.
So I believe that the orthodox world is capable of looking forward. I believe looking constantly back is not a Jewish thing. We are a future-oriented religion. The only religion that believes our Golden Age is not in the past but in the future. And we live with the past; we do not live in the past. So I hope the thing is a little more cheerful than you’ve painted it out to be. But I can’t say very much about chickens because I’m a vegetarian and I stay milchik all the time. Thank you.
I’m afraid we’ve run out of time, so let me round up by thanking the CST for their continued support and the Office of the Chief Rabbi and all the organisers of this lecture series for their tireless efforts.
Written transcripts of all six lectures in this series can be viewed at the Chief Rabbi’s website. And if you’d like to purchase one of the Chief Rabbi’s books, there is a selection in the foyer.
Please could we ask you to fill out an evaluation form to let us know your views and place them in the box at the book. For those who wish to daven, Ma’ariv will take place at 9.30 by the stage down here. Please stay for refreshments at the back of the theatre and an opportunity to meet the Chief Rabbi and, finally, thank you very much indeed, Chief Rabbi, for your exciting, inspiring and entertaining talk to us this evening. We are extremely grateful to the Chief Rabbi for giving of his time to prepare and deliver original lectures to us over the past year. We have thoroughly enjoyed the series and have also been inspired to further our Jewish education. Thank you.