New Exhibit: Gershom Scholem and Messianism in Jewish Thought
Gerhard (Gershom) Scholem (1897-1982) was the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism. Martin Buber once remarked about him, “all of us have students, schools, but only Gershom Scholem has created a whole academic discipline!” His contribution lay in five distinct yet connected areas: the research and analysis of kabbalistic literature spanning from late antiquity to the twentieth century; the phenomenology of mystical religion; Jewish historiography; Zionism, and the spiritual and political condition of contemporary Judaism and Jewish civilization. He published over 40 volumes and close to 700 articles almost all of which are listed in the Scholem Bibliography published in 1977. He trained at least three generations of scholars of Kabbala many of whom still teach in Israel and the Diaspora.
The MESSIAH משיח Idea in Jewish Thought
MESSIAH, an anglicization of the Latin Messias, which is borrowed from the Greek Messiaj, an adaptation of the Aramaic meshiha (Aram. aHyQm), a translation of the Hebrew (ha-melekh) ha-mashi'ah (Heb. HyQFh [KlFh]), "the Anointed [King]"; a charismatically endowed descendant of David who the Jews of the Roman period believed would be raised up by God to break the yoke of the heathen and to reign over a restored kingdom of Israel to which all the Jews of the Exile would return. This is a strictly postbiblical concept. Even Haggai and Zechariah, who expected the Davidic kingdom to be renewed with a specific individual, Zerubbabel, at its head, thought of him only as a feature of the new age, not as the author or even agent of its establishment. One can, therefore, only speak of the biblical pre-history of messianism. It may be summarized as follows:
Stage I. At the height of David's power there appears the doctrine that the Lord had chosen David and his descendants to reign over Israel to the end of time (II Sam. 7; 23:1–3, 5) and had also given him dominion over alien peoples (II Sam. 22:44–51=Ps. 18:44–51; Ps. 2). David is here, as Saul was before him (I Sam. 24:6; 26:9; II Sam. 1:14, 16), and as he expects descendants of his to be after him, the Lord's anointed in the sense that he was anointed as a sign of consecration to the Lord not, of course, in the sense of "the Messiah" described at the beginning of this article. Because anointing is an act of consecration, Deutero-Isaiah speaks of Cyrus as the Lord's "anointed" in the purely derived sense of a non-Israelite-king chosen by the Lord for a great destiny and a great mission (Isa. 45:1). Thus "Stage I" of the prehistory of messianism is the doctrine that David's present position of power will endure throughout his lifetime and be inherited by an endless chain of succeeding links in his dynasty.
Stage II began with the collapse of David's empire after the death of Solomon. There arose the doctrine, or hope, that the House of David would again reign over Israel as well as Judah and again exercise dominion over neighboring nations.
Stage III. Isaiah's shifting of the emphasis from the perpetuity of the dynasty to the qualities of the future king: the foundation of his throne will be justice, he will be distinguished by his zeal for justice, and, finally, he will be charismatically endowed for sensing the rights and wrongs of a case and for executing justice. The "Immanuel prophecy" in Isaiah is completely irrelevant, so far as one can see and the echoes of ancient Canaanite-Ugaritic mythology that have been "discovered" there are as dubious as those in the figure of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7. Without "stage III" in its biblical prehistory, the development of the postbiblical idea of "the Messiah" would not have been possible.
[Harold Louis Ginsberg] (EJ)