Sunday, April 11, 2010
Are Messianic Movements Doomed to Failure?
The apocalyptic understanding of the Messiah would seem to guarantee that all messianic movements would, by definition, fail. If the point of a Messiah is to overturn the natural order of things and bring about the kingdom of God, any Messiah who comes and leaves the natural order of things intact is, by definition, a failed Messiah, if not a false Messiah. This argument is articulated by Harris Lenowitz in his book, The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights. Lenowitz argues that messianic movements are by definition doomed because they cannot fulfill the supernatural claims upon which they are built:
Despite the variety of details in the messiah's lives and circumstances, one concludes, after reading all the accounts of them in succession, that they possess at least one feature in common: the messiah's failure to achieve his stated promises; from the beginning of every account, disaster is present and only awaiting its turn to appear. … No messiah succeeds in leading his followers and the world to a harmonious existence – not on the political level, where independence and autonomy inside or outside Israel is not regained by the Jews; and certainly not on the cosmic plain, where disease, violence, and death endure as principal features of the human universe. No messiah is able to soften these perdurable actualities. The messiahs, during their lives, and the followers, after their leader's death, must push the successful fulfillment of their programs forward into the future in order to maintain themselves as microsocieties in the present, but their efforts merely inflect the unavoidable death of the messiah and the eventual collapse of his movement, leaving rationalizations on the ruins of the unattainable hopes they have raised.
This view of Messianism has come under heavy fire. For example, Marc Saperstein, in his review of Jewish Messiahs, commented that:
Using the tools of the anthropologist, he [Lenowitz] presents the messianic movement as a Sisyphean ritual, in which all the protagonists know from the outset how the drama will end. … History, for the participants if not always for the historians, is very different from Greek tragedy. The analysis of behavior, knowledge, and motivation from the perspective of what occurs at a later date is (to use Michael Bernstein's felicitous term) illegitimate "backshadowing." It is hard to imagine that the protagonists of a messianic movement genuinely believe that they are following a script with a tragic ending. For them there is an alternative script in which the ending is luminous.
I propose here that this is another example where political messianism becomes useful. As long as messianism is tied to the supernatural then, yes, the success or failure of the movement can be judged solely on the basis of whether the natural order in both politics and the physical order have been overthrown. This, of course means, that every messianic movement in history, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, has failed. Thus messianism becomes a study in failure. The study of Islamic Mahdism, in this sense, is useful in that it give us a model of successful messianic movements that were apocalyptic. These movements simply shed their apocalyptic elements as they gained political power. If this process could work within Islam then in theory at least it could have worked for Judaism. Ultimately while messianic movements may be born out of Apocalypticism, they are not bound by them. They can transcend their apocalyptic origins and enter the political realm.
This allows us to look back at Jewish messianism as something other than a set up for failure. We may know the end of the story, that things will end in failure, but as long as there could have been a rationally plausible for any messianic movement to succeed then, as historians, we are required to put our knowledge of the end to one side and see the movement as those living in the moment would have seen it, with the possibility of success. Could Abu Isa and David Alroy have successfully led revolts and gained at least semi-autonomous Jewish States in northern Persia? Could David Reubeni, with the help of Shlomo Molcho, have continued the pretense of negotiating on behalf of a Jewish kingdom in the East long enough for Reubeni to have established himself as ruler of the Jews, making himself a force that no European power, not even Charles V, could simply ignore? Might the Ottoman Sultan have chosen to appoint Sabbatai Sevi as king of the Jews in a subject kingdom of Palestine, setting off a mass emigration of Western European Jews, bringing their technical skills to the new Sabbatian State? Would Jacob Frank have been able to carve at his niche in the political chaos of Poland and the religious chaos of the Jewish community to form his own power base? In many respects, barring more than a decade in prison, Frank actually did this and must therefore be viewed as a success.