My advisor asked me to write him a prospectus summarizing what my dissertation is about. This project has been taking up my writing time these past few years and I have been meaning to write about it on my blog. So here is what I sent him:
This dissertation seeks to elucidate the origins of Jewish messianism as it evolved out of the biblical and Second Temple era apocalyptic traditions and came into the inheritance of the rabbis. Following in the footsteps of Gershom Scholem and Norman Cohn, I divide messianism into the conflicting restorative political and spiritual apocalyptic versions. Most importantly, I see messianism as a means by which those on the margins of a religious community can attack and even conquer the establishment. To further develop an understanding of these conflicts at the heart of messianism, I place this discourse within the context of a particular theory, I propose, of how religions relate to community. This involves three models, military, missionary and esoteric. The military model relies on community and ritual to create a socially constructed reality in which the religion is so obviously true it never needs defending. The community is backed by a formal bureaucracy and sometimes even a state. Its rituals are backed by texts and traditions. Opposing the military model are the two anti-community models, esoteric and missionary. They rely on doctrine instead of ritual. The missionary model outright rejects the community and seeks to create a new religion by seeking even outside converts. It arms its followers with an all-encompassing faith that is strengthened by persecution and even martyrdom. The esoteric model remains more closely tied to the community and either seeks to take it over from within or form its own competing sect. The teachings of its charismatic leader counter the community’s texts and traditions. The esoteric model also uses doctrine to undermine ritual, and by extension the community, by means of antinomianism, the ritualized violation of the law. This allows the esoteric model to either give new, if subversive, meanings to already existing practices or to create new ones. Messianism is important to understanding how these models function because it provides the chief means by which a military model religion can bring its opposition into the fold. Messianism is a tool used by the anti-community models to take over a community, but it is also the means by which the community can absorb their opposition and render them relatively harmless.
The struggle between the different models follows a cyclical narrative. You have a religious establishment sitting at the top of a military model community. Their focus is on the use of ritual as a means to create a social ideology. This makes the religion quite shallow and parochial, but also the sort of religion that can attract a mass following. This establishment will be under attack by various kinds of intellectual elites, who form the anti-community models. These intellectuals oppose the establishment because it fails to live up to their set of universalizing doctrines. Followers of the esoteric model will maintain themselves, at least outwardly, as members of the community and either attempt to subtly influence it as part of a symbiotic relationship, or reject the community by forming a secret sect. The missionary model will openly break with the community and attempt to form a new community of believers, either by taking over the existing community as reformers or by converting non-members.
Those believers who make up the anti-community models are usually simply the disenchanted and marginalized members of the religious establishment. Thus, they benefit from the success of the community. Success gives this opposition both material support and, by encouraging all the worst habits of military model thinking, intellectual ammunition. The big moment for the opposition, though, comes when the community undergoes a major setback, such as the defeat of an established religion’s state, causing the community’s masses to question whether or not they are on the right side of history and to seek alternatives. Either openly or secretly, our intellectual opposition, having existed on the margins all this time, but never truly distant from power, comes to the rescue with a reformist agenda. They become the new establishment and may even be able to carry out certain surface reforms. In the end, though, the former anti-community model reformers will be taken over by the same community and transformed into just another version of the establishment they claimed to oppose. Their doctrines will turn into rituals without any larger meaning. Even when doctrines are outwardly maintained they will be nothing more than a ritualized catechism.
The messianic doctrine encapsulates that moment in the cycle when the anti-community opposition achieves its takeover and is, in turn, conquered. During the time of the military model community’s success, its members have no need to develop a messianic doctrine, because, as far as they are concerned, they are already living in a “messianic” age in which history moves as it is supposed to with them on top. The anti-community opposition, existing on the margins, by contrast, develops a form of spiritual messianism. It explains both why the world is in such a fallen state that all the “wrong” people are in power and why it does not matter, considering that God offers them a far greater salvation than mere earthly power. When the moment of disaster strikes the community, the masses will turn to these same marginalized anti-community intellectuals. This spiritual messianic doctrine of a fallen people keeping their faith and being redeemed in the end sounds like the perfect ideology to explain the community’s weakened position and offers hope that, if they just persevere in their belief in themselves and the community, they will be redeemed. The community accepts messianism and its anti-community advocates despite the fact that this messianism really means the hope for the community’s destruction. By extension the community is agreeing to hand over control not to pious defenders of the community, but people that seek to replace it with a different one of their own design. The last joke, though, is on the anti-community opposition. Their doctrine of spiritual messianism, which was meant to deny the relevance of the military model’s politics, is transformed into a spiritualized version of the old military model hope for political power. This leaves messianism trapped by paradoxes, defending military model politics and supporting its anti-community denial of the relevance of politics. Ultimately, messianism allows for the marriage of two different and contradictory religious visions. These visions are brought together by the language of messianism, which means opposite things to each party. This allows both sides to speak past each other and never have to confront the essential conflict.
Over the main body of the dissertation, I explain how this narrative of the conflict between models and the cycle of community takeovers has played out in ancient Israel, the Second Temple period and with rabbinic Judaism. Ancient Israel saw a priestly and monarchial establishment in conflict with the prophets, who attacked the ritual based sacrificial cult and monarchial authority in the name of a monotheistic theology. The prophets turned the establishment’s concern with enemy invaders against them by transposing it into a populist polemic against the wealthy. What tied these nationalist and populist positions together was the prophetic belief in a supreme deity with a universalizing ethic that condemned the Israelite elite both for their lust for foreign gods and their greed for extorted wealth. The prophets won due to Israel’s political defeats, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple. This led to the rise of the Deuteronomist theology and the birth of Judaism. The Deuteronomists combined prophetic monotheism with a ritual based covenant that promised both a spiritual redemption and a political return from exile. The prophetic tradition was captured by a Judaism that agreed to believe in one God in exchange for that belief being manifested in a set of rituals that would allow Jews to survive their lack of a political state as well as allow Jews to regain precisely the sort of political state and temple that the prophets had originally denounced.
The Deuteronomist compromise created a Jewish religion that, during the Second Temple period, was capable of surviving despite the fact that most Jews lived in the diaspora and, even in Israel, were relatively weak politically. Second Temple era Judaism combined a more limited state and temple with a monotheist theology that allowed it to intellectually go on the offensive and compete with Hellenism for not only the souls of Jews, but for the entire Mediterranean world. The possession of an ideology opened Judaism up to anti-community thinking. This made establishment Judaism particularly vulnerable to sectarian groups like the Dead Sea Sect and early Christianity. These groups simply took the belief based attack on ritual and community developed by the prophets to the next level, openly challenging the covenantal status of the vast majority of Jews. One of the main manifestations of this attack on community was a radical apocalyptic vision that saw not just a new order to the world, but the complete overthrow of nature and politics. This implicitly also rendered Jewish community and ritual irrelevant. What meaning could they have in a world where such concepts ceased to exist?
The destruction of the Second Temple left Judaism in need of another reformist movement. Such a movement would offer Judaism an ideology that would allow them to survive the complete end of Jewish sovereignty in Israel and the loss of the Temple. This time, the rabbis, who likely emerged from an esoteric model sect, came to the rescue by offering the emerging body of oral and written traditions that eventually came to form the Talmud as a mobile community to which Jews could attach themselves. The Talmudic corpus offered an intellectual framework, but little in the way of hard doctrine. Similarly, it kept the ritual and sense of community so important to the military model, while avoiding actual politics. This kept Judaism as a military model ritual keeping community, while giving it a transcendental vision beyond ethnic chauvinism that allowed Judaism to survive the lack of a political state. This compromise did not grant rabbinic Judaism the Deuteronomist’s sense of world mission nor the polemical firepower to attempt to pursue the mass conversion of gentiles. What this compromise did do was give rabbinic Judaism both the internal stability to avoid breaking apart into sectarianism and a sense of identity to be able to withstand the outside pressure of Christianity and Islam, competing monotheistic religions that were, in many respects, far more dangerous than anything the Hellenistic world produced. The rabbinic attempt to maintain Judaism as a religion of ritual and community without the need for a formal political system explains a peculiarity of rabbinic messianism. The rabbis maintained the doctrine in theory, but avoided putting it into practice. They inherited the radical apocalypticism of Second Temple era sectarianism, but avoided the anti-community implications of this apocalypticism by pushing it off forever into the future and the realm of theory. While kept out of the realm of daily life, apocalypticism served to keep political messianism in check. If the Jews were to regain their state and temple in an eschatological age then there was no reason for any Jew to attempt to rebuild a physical state and temple through political means in the present. As esoteric model intellectuals, the rabbis may have developed a symbiotic relationship with the Jewish community, but, in the end, they still needed to reject both state and temple along with their competing forms of leadership. Like any esoteric model group, the rabbis saw what the military model might consider exile to be the messianic age as it allowed the rabbis the freedom to mold Judaism in its own image without the internal competition of kings or priests. In order to avoid ever having to either face up to these inconvenient elements within Judaism or openly attempt to get rid of them, the rabbis simply pushed messianism into the realm of the forever imminent but never to be arrived at future.