The Two Faces of Messianism
August 29, 2013
(Adapted by the Author from “Du-Partsufin shel ha-meshihiyut,” which first appeared in Bezalel Naor, Avirin [Jerusalem, 5740/1980], pp. 16-24) Copyright © 2013 by Bezalel Naor
In Messiah Son of Joseph is revealed the characteristic of Israel’s nationalism per se. However the ultimate goal is not the isolation of nationalism, but rather the longing to unite all the inhabitants of the world into a single family, that all may call upon the name of the Lord. And despite the fact that this too requires a special center, nonetheless the intention is not the center, but rather its effect upon the great collective. Now when the world must transition from the concept of nationalism to universalism, there must be a sort of destruction of the things that were rooted in narrow nationalism, which carries with it the drawbacks of excessive self-love. Therefore in the future, Messiah Son of Joseph will be killed, and a true and enduring kingdom will be [that of] Messiah Son of David.
(Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Orot Yisrael [Jerusalem, 5702/1942], 6:6)
In this brief pensée, our great teacher Rav Kook (1865-1935) has provided the key to at once, penetrate the arcane mysteries of the Rabbinic tradition (with its oblique references to two Messiahs, “Messiah Son of Joseph” and “Messiah Son of David”), and unlock the secrets of the human heart. Every individual human and every nation on this planet of ours must somehow come to terms with the sometimes seemingly insurmountable conflict between the ideals of nationalism and universalism, peoplehood and humanity. We are at once citizens of our respective nations and of Planet Earth (Gaia). The conflict is not a particularly Jewish conflict; it affects everyone on the globe (although historically, the conflict may have been intensified in the nation of Israel—even before the advent of Zionism).
By decoding “Messiah Son of Joseph” as nationalism (though unstated, the reference may be to Jewish nationalism or even Zionism) and “Messiah Son of David” as universalism, Rav Kook envisioned a humanity transitioning from a tribal or ethnocentric consciousness to a global or planetary consciousness. The present writer on the other hand, is disinclined to view mankind’s historical process as a unilateral progression from the confines of nationalism to the expanses of universalism, and proposes an alternate model, whereby there is at work a dialectic between the two poles of nation and planet.
The genesis of our essay is itself instructive in this regard. It came as a reverie to a young man traipsing about Switzerland, en route from West to East; from Berkeley, California, to Jerusalem, Israel. The geography is pregnant with symbolism. In Berkeley, the writer was exposed to a broad, global perspective. Yet he was travelling to Jerusalem to seek out a teacher of the Kabbalah, an esoteric discipline restricted to Jews, and then to only the most pious among them. The thought uppermost in this seeker’s mind was: Would it be possible to find a teacher who could show the way to integrate the most expansive spiritual realizations with the treasures of the ancient tradition?
On his second day in Jerusalem, the writer found himself sitting face to face with an octogenarian rabbi by the name of Tsevi Yehudah Hakohen Kook (1891-1982), only son of the famed Chief Rabbi. Thinking to impress the elderly gentleman with a good opening line, the writer blurted out: “How much ahavat yisrael (love of the Jewish People) your father had!”
Rabbi Tsevi Yehudah’s response was a spontaneous outburst of hearty laughter. When he regained his composure, the ancient sage revealed what in that statement had precipitated the sudden mirth:
“Ahavat Yisrael? Love of Israel? My father loved the entire world!”
Rabbi Tsevi Yehudah then proceeded to retrace the great chain of being. “Afilu tsome’ah!” (“Even the vegetable kingdom!”)
And then reaching down to rap on the stone floor for emphasis, he added, “Afilu domem!” (“Even the mineral kingdom!”)
In the writings of Rav Kook, the present essayist—as many other seekers (Jews and non-Jews)—discovers a master, who torn as his soul may have been (by his own admission), brings to the esoteric discipline of Kabbalah the clever wisdom of the adult and the simple faith of the child, and attempts to bring the “big picture” and the “little picture” into sync, as he zooms in and out of a Cosmos longing to be redeemed from Chaos; a World of Tikkun overlaid upon a World of Tohu (Chaos) inhabited by primordial kings in search of—hitkalelut (integration).
Finally, a word about the style. The author traces the ongoing oscillation of Judaism between the tribal and the universal, utilizing raw materials of Bible, Midrash, Talmud, Medieval Philosophy, Kabbalah and Hasidism. The essay is written in a lyric style not readily comprehensible to those seeking political analysis. In this respect, the author’s role model was Rav Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook.
The history of the human race may be compared to a giant field through which the mighty winds of unification and atomization blow back and forth. Nations come together, confederate, aspire to commonality and cooperation, and once again there is raised the demand of nationalism or tribalism, and the member nations return “each man to his camp and to his flag” (Numbers 1:52). So it has been throughout time. These two opposite Zeitgeister are forever circulating in the unconscious and sometimes conscious thinking of those who shape the dominant ideas of any given historical period.
Messiah Son of Joseph is the atomizer, the separatist; Messiah Son of David is the unifier. Messiah Son of Joseph carries within his head a vision drawn along coordinates of national boundaries and bloodlines; Messiah Son of David envisions a reality that is supra-nationalist and planetary.
In the Book of Genesis we learn that Joseph, Viceroy of Egypt, would divine events by gazing into his goblet (Genesis 44:5). The Hebrew word for goblet is gavi‘a [גביע]. Broken down into its component letters, gimmel, bet-yod, ‘ayin ,[ג-בי-ע] the word signifies the Three Patriarchs, Twelve Tribes and Seventy Souls that traditionally culminated in the formation of the Israelite nation. This is what we might expect of the clairvoyance of Joseph (prototype of Messiah Son of Joseph). Within the statecraft of Joseph runs the desire to preserve national identities and narratives.
Joseph views a national entity (in this case, his own people of Israel) through the lens of biology. Israel descends from three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), develops into twelve tribes (Reuben, Simon, Levi, Judah, etc.), and at a later, critical stage of its evolution, evolves into “seventy souls” (Deuteronomy 10:22). It is not mere happenstance that Joseph seats Egyptians and Hebrews separately at his dinner table (Genesis 43:32), or that later he arranges that his brethren come to reside in a separate province of Goshen, apart from mainstream Egyptian life (Genesis 46:34). Joseph was identified as a “Hebrew man” (Genesis 39:14). According to the Midrash, it was in this merit that Joseph was later buried in the Land of the Hebrews. (On the other hand, Moses who was identified as an “Egyptian man” [Exodus 2:19], did not merit interment in the Land. As the Midrash expressed it so succinctly, “He who admitted to his land, was buried in his land; he who did not admit to his land, is not buried in his land” [Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:8]. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.)
Vastly different is the statecraft of David and his successor Solomon. Joseph speaks seventy languages; Solomon marries seventy languages. David, but even more so Solomon, is thinking in terms of global expansion, world conquest (dirty words, I know, but those are the facts), but ultimately—world union.
The comprehensive vision of unity has traditionally been the domain of the individual, of the gifted few. The atomistic, divided view of reality, on the other hand, seems to fall quite naturally into the public domain. David’s expansionist worldview prompts him to conquer Syria. The Sifré (a third-century halakhic commentary to the Book of Deuteronomy) censures David’s conquest: “You did not lay claim to the immediate vicinity of your palace [in Jerusalem], yet you go and conquer Aram-Naharayim and Aram-Tsobah?” The contentious conquest of Syria, a relic of Davidic ambition, would forever be subjected in the halakhic annals of the Talmud to the dubious distinction of a “kibbush yahid,” “a one-man conquest,” unsanctioned by proper “parliamentary” procedure (Nahmanides, Deuteronomy 11:24). The collective Jewish People had its eyes trained on Jerusalem; it was that rare individual David (forerunner of Messiah Son of David) whose vision expanded to enfold an entire world. The “one-man conquest” forever remains a mystery.
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
The most basic utterance of Jewish faith, the Shema‘, the first thing that we are taught as children, and the last thing that we recite before dying, reads: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” As a declaration of divine unity, the sentence is strangely disjointed. Rashi, native of medieval Troyes (France), most beloved of Bible commentators, attempted to smooth over the disruption in thought: “The Lord Who is today our God [i.e., the God of Israel], will one day be one Lord over all the nations.” “The Lord our God” is the call of Messiah Son of Joseph. “The Lord is one” is the call of Messiah Son of David.
If we should be even more exacting, the word “one” itself is given to two opposite interpretations: “One,” in the sense of uniqueness, to the exclusion of all others; as opposed to “one” in the sense of unity, comprehending and including all. (For this latter understanding of the Semitic word ehad/wahad, the reader is referred to the vast Sufic literature concerning the practice of tawhid, and to the equally voluminous Hasidic literature concerning the meditative discipline of yihud. In both tawhid and yihud the adept arrives at the realization: All is God. As that great teacher of Habad Hasidism, Rabbi Eizik of Homel, unabashedly ejaculated in the Yiddish vernacular: “Altz iz Gott!”)
From an historic perspective, the Messianisms of Joseph and David interact and reciprocate, and the relations between them as well as their concatenations tend to be extremely complex. Nonetheless, we shall attempt to point out a few directions that these interactions have taken over the centuries.
“Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” (Exodus 13:19)
If ever there was a man deserving of the title “cosmic visionary,” it was Moses. Could it be otherwise? Is it conceivable that the prophet unequalled in having spoken to the Lord “face to face,” was not privy to some sense of the eternal destiny of the globe? The God of Moses, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (“I am that I am,” or “I shall be that I shall be,” as it is variously translated into English) is not a local, regional deity, but rather the Lord of Necessary Existence (as Maimonides explained so well in his Guide of the Perplexed I, 63), an existence at once simple and abstract. And yet, paradox of paradoxes, this prophet of cosmic proportions, a “Davidic” Messiah if ever there was one, is sent to perform a mission purely “Josephic” in character, namely that of national liberation. He is dispatched to Egypt to take the oppressed Hebrew nation out of the House of Bondage. “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him” (Exodus 13:19). In Hebrew, the word for “bones,” “‘atsmot,” slightly revocalized becomes “‘atsmut” or essence. Moses took the essence of Joseph with him. “There was in Jeshurun a king when the heads of the people were gathered, the tribes of Israel together” (Deuteronomy 33:5). According to some commentators, the “King” of Jeshurun refers to Moses. Moses acted in the capacity of a monarch over Israel.
But at the end of Moses’ career, there is revealed retroactively who this Moses truly is. Moses is relieved of his duties as national liberator. The actual entry into the Promised Land will not be accomplished by Moses. Rather, the national deliverance is entrusted to Moses’ successor Joshua, appropriately enough an Ephraimite, descended from Joseph. It is Joshua, not Moses, who will complete the mission, the “mitsvah,” of depositing the bones of Joseph in their final resting place in Shechem.
Rather than meriting burial in Israel, Moses’ mysterious crypt is situated rather nebulously “opposite Beit Pe‘or,” a site tied to the idolatrous cult of Pe‘or. At day’s end, we find Moses working to uplift cosmic sparks dispersed in the depths of depravity, rather than being entombed in sacred soil.
One may almost palpably feel Moses’ final frustration, his anxiety, his discomfiture. More than most of us, he is torn between the godly and the all too human. “‘The man of God.’ Said Rabbi Abin: From the waist down, man; from the waist up, God” (Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:4). The prophet who looks through a “clear speculum” is godly; the national liberator is human. Moses must descend from the Mountain of God illuminated in eternal light, to the camp of the Hebrews, in order to set in motion events that will birth a nation of Israel. However, as the curtain closes on his career, Moses is informed from on high that he will not be granted the privilege of completing this national mission; he will not enter into the Land. A prophet of Moses’ caliber must be ready to abandon his “humanity” and revert to his “divinity,” expressed symbolically in death by the kiss of God—in the very middle of the act.
Messiah Son of Joseph Is Killed
Throughout its history, the Jewish People is forced to battle enemies. Joshua battles Amalek; Saul, Agag and his people; Mordecai and Esther, Haman; and at the End of Days, Messiah Son of Joseph contends with Armilus the Wicked. “The House of Jacob shall be a fire, and the House of Joseph a flame; and the House of Esau straw; and they shall burn them and consume them” (Obadiah 1:18).
It is the job of Messianism Type Joseph to protect the Israelite character from inimical forces and currents. This mission is entrusted to the Children of Rachel. In Kabbalah, Rachel symbolizes “the Manifest World” (‘Alma de-Itgalya)—the world of division and differentiation—and the sefirah (attribute) of Malkhut (Kingship). At the opposite pole, Messiah Son of David descends from Rachel’s sister Leah, who in turn, symbolizes “the Hidden World” (‘Alma de-Itkasya), a world of unity associated with the sefirah (attribute) of Binah (Understanding). Before the arrival of Messiah Son of David, there precedes him Messiah Son of Joseph, which is to say in so many words, before there will commence in earnest a cosmic unification, there will precede an arousal of particularist nationalism. The Talmud (Sukkah 52a) describes the death of Messiah Son of Joseph. Yet the greatest kabbalist of all time, Rabbi Isaac Luria prescribed a prayer (to be recited during the silent devotion, the Shemoneh ‘Esreh or ‘Amidah) asking that Messiah Son of Joseph be spared death on the battlefield at the hand of Armilus the Wicked. (Some say that Armilus is a thinly veiled reference to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome.) As Maimonides judiciously wrote concerning the Days of Messiah, ours is not to know “the order of these events, nor their specifics,” but this much we do know: The discussion in the Talmud and in the Lurianic writings revolves around the following question. What will be the nature of the transition from the particularist to the universalist; from the nationalist to the global? Must the epoch of Messiah Son of Joseph die a violent death in order to pave the way for the epoch of Messiah Son of David? Or is it possible (as was the fervent prayer of Rabbi Isaac Luria) that there may develop a peaceful coexistence of Joseph and Judah, Saul (the Benjaminite, descendant of Rachel) and David (the Judahite, descendant of Leah); that in the imagery of the Talmud, there result a seamless, uninterrupted transition from “redemption” to “prayer” (semikhat ge’ulah li-tefillah)? To put it into our contemporary jargon, must there be violent revolution, or can the “birthpangs of Messiah” take the form of peaceful evolution?
Judah and Joseph
“Judah approached him [Joseph] and said, ‘Please, my master (bi adoni)!’” (Or translated differently, “Mine the mastery [bi adoni]!”) (Genesis 44:18)
What is the nature of the struggle, the conflict that erupted between Judah and Joseph? Joseph is an acculturated Hebrew who works for the cause of the nationalist dream; Judah conversely is a “heimishe yid” (Yiddish, a homey Jew), whose progeny will take up global concerns. The hermeneutic method of Joseph is from the universal to the particular; the method of Judah, from the particular to the universal. The line of Judah is a series of endogamous, even incestuous relations: Lot and his daughters, Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. It would be hard to find a more inbred family. Yet from these unions emerges King David who aspires to redeem the world at large in all its breadth and externality. The turning point from endogamy to exogamy was the intermarriage of Boaz and Ruth the Moabitess. (Rabbinic tradition made Ruth’s adventure the very paradigm of halakhic conversion to Judaism.) In Kabbalah, their union bespeaks the marrying of “redemption” (Boaz the Redeemer) to “prayer” (Ruth, grandmother of David, “who satiated [rivah] the Holy One, blessed be He, with songs and praises”). Boaz represents ancestral land claims, while Ruth, a landless alien, symbolizes the universal.
The tribes of Judah and Joseph would evolve into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Joseph (consisting of ten tribes) in the North and the Kingdom of Judah (consisting of two tribes) in the South. Which of the two kingdoms was more universalist in scope; which more particularist or nationalist? Reading the Bible, it becomes apparent that the Northern Kingdom was more prone to adopting surrounding idolatries. Yet this steady seduction to the worship of Ba’al and Asherah does not seem to have bestowed a more cosmopolitan outlook. The Kingdom of Judah on the other hand, centered on Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, may actually have been less parochial in outlook.
“Take the Tree of Joseph and the Tree of Judah, and they shall be as one in your hand” (Ezekiel 37).
Mordecai: A Benjaminite Judean
Before we analyze his personality, we must develop somewhat the historical and political backdrop from which Mordecai emerges.
The Scroll of Esther is dominated by King Ahashverosh. This near-mythic king heads a list of several “cosmocrats” (to employ the Greek loanword “kosmokrator” imported by the Rabbis of the Midrash): Alexander the Great, Napoleon, et al. The “shadow side” of cosmocracy (Haman, Hitler) usually spells trouble for the Jews. What about the “bright side” of this phenomenon? How does Judaism fare under an Alexander, or a Napoleon, for that matter?
To this day, devout Jewish men bear the name “Alexander” (bestowed upon them at the time of their circumcision). That itself is indication of a fondness for this historic figure. The Talmud (Yoma 69a) tells a charming tale of a meeting in Erets Israel between Alexander the Macedonian and the leader of the Jews, the High Priest Simon the Just. Alexander was astonished to behold the visage of the saintly man. It was that very face that would appear to Alexander in dream on the eve of a major victory. Thus positively predisposed, Alexander granted Simon his request that the Temple in Jerusalem be spared destruction.
Moving on to Napoleon and the Jews, there are many different versions of this complex relationship. Tomes have been written concerning this intriguing chapter in history. Was Napoleon bent on the extirpation of Judaism and the forceful absorption of the Jews into European civilization? Was he sympathetic to the Jews’ return to their land? As romantically told by Martin Buber in the historic novel For the Sake of Heaven (entitled in Hebrew, Gog u-Magog), the great Hasidic masters of Russia and Poland were divided in their opinions of Bonaparte. While some Rebbes viewed him as a gentile Messiah, a modern-day Cyrus (in this connection the protagonist is Rabbi Mendel of Rymanow), others looked upon him as Satan incarnate. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi was shown a dream whereby Napoleon’s victory would bring economic prosperity to the Jews while spelling spiritual destruction. Contrariwise, Tsar Alexander’s victory would bring economic ruin to the Jews, yet their faith would survive intact. Rabbi Shneur Zalman opted for the latter and was forced to flee to the interior of Russia, always one step ahead of the Grande Armée.
The Messiah and the cosmocrat share much in common. How did Alexander and Napoleon hope to juggle the opposed currents of union and diversity, empire and nationalism? In the Scroll of Esther, Ahashverosh, “who rules from India to Ethiopia one hundred and twenty-seven states,” encourages each man to “speak the language of his people” (Esther 1:22). If language is an indication, then Alexander and Napoleon lie at the opposite end of the spectrum from Ahashverosh, the one imposing Hellenization, the other Gallicization upon the subjects of their respective realms. Assimilation to the dominant culture was the price of admission to these latter two cosmocracies. Napoleon’s bold new synthesis, while tearing down the walls of the ghetto, tended to homogenize ethnic Jews into Frenchmen of the Mosaic faith.
Back to Mordecai. When confronted with the dark side of the Persian Empire, with “Haman,” Mordecai functions as a Josephic Messiah (though technically not descended from Joseph, but rather from Benjamin, Rachel’s younger son), throwing all the forces at his disposal—both physical and spiritual—into the fray against Haman the Agagite. As for the bright side of the Empire, Mordecai serves as viceroy to the King. According to rabbinic tradition, Mordecai of the Megillah is one and the same as Mordecai Bilshan (Mordecai the Linguist) of Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7, whereby it was deduced that he was a gifted linguist.
Mordecai is in the final analysis a hybrid: a Benjaminite Judean. As a Benjaminite, he falls into the tradition of Messiah Son of Joseph; as “Mordechai ha-Yehudi” (“Mordecai the Judean”) he longs for a world of unity. Drawing on the interchangeability of the letters he and het, the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 5:2) is able to interpret Yehudi [יהודי] (Judean) as Yihudi [יחודי](Unifier).
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes” (Genesis 49:10)
Many have wondered at this mysterious ancient prophecy. (In English literature, a riddle equally enigmatic would be Shakespeare’s “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”) May we offer the humble suggestion that the verse alludes to the ongoing competition between Joseph and Judah, later embodied in the establishment of the Northern Kingdom by Jeroboam I upon the death of King Solomon? The establishment of the kingdom of Jeroboam (an Ephraimite, thus a descendant of Joseph) put an end to the hegemony of Judahite rule. Furthermore, that kingdom of Jeroboam was prophesied by Ahiyah the Shilonite. Thus, it was precisely at the time of the arrival of the Shilonite (from Shiloh) that the royal scepter departed from Judah, which is to say, that the undivided rule of the Davidic dynasty ceased.
The excesses of King Solomon, an early experiment with the model of cosmocracy, demanded that the pendulum swing in the opposite direction. Israel would once again toil in the vineyard of nationalism, except this time the “nationalism within nationalism” of a divided kingdom. The tribal consciousness of King Jeroboam I was subject to extreme pride. There are those who view the two golden calves of Jeroboam, the one erected in Dan, the other in Bethel, as symbolic of Menasseh and Ephraim, Joseph’s two sons. (Earlier, the Golden Calf in the Desert was linked in rabbinic tradition to Joseph himself.) There would seem to be a dialectic at work here. As far as the genius of Messiah Son of David advances in the direction of unification and synthesis, so must the talent of Messiah Son of Joseph achieve in the opposite direction of breakdown and fragmentation.
A quaint agadah or legend of the Talmud bears out this point:
The Holy One, blessed be He, grabbed Jeroboam by his garment and said to him: “Repent, and I and you and [David] the son of Jesse will stroll together in the Garden of Eden.”
Jeroboam asked Him: “Who shall lead?”
“The son of Jesse will lead.”
“If so, I am not interested.”
True to character to the bitter end, even to the point of sounding ludicrous, Jeroboam will not be enticed by the promise of a utopian confederation with David at its helm. Jeroboam had been divinely appointed to be the instrument of dismantling David’s kingdom. He is forever nitpicking at the details of the proposed structure. “Who shall lead?”
The winds of unification and fragmentation blow to and fro. At times, all the valiant efforts and campaigns of Messiah Son of Joseph are but a preparation for an advanced, elevated consciousness that will flourish in the Days of Messiah Son of David. “Therefore it be said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord—love (vahev) in the end” (Numbers 21:14). And the opposite scenario exists as well. There are times in history when the work of unification, the superb governmental architecture of David and Solomon paves the way for the fault-finding and fissuring of Jeroboam. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him an assembly of peoples.” And, “Who shall lead?”
“He [Jacob] had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens, and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it (bo).” (Genesis 28:12)
According to the Midrash, the angels of the Land of Israel were ascending and the angels of Beyond the Land were descending. It is possible that the final word of the verse “bo” refers not to Jacob’s ladder but to Jacob himself. The angels were ascending and descending within him (bo)! Within each of us there are these ascending and descending angels (the Greek word angelos, as the original Hebrew word mal’akh, conveys the sense of “messenger”), angels of the Land and angels of Beyond the Land. Each spiritual process is unique. There are those, such as Herzl and Joseph, Viceroy of Egypt, whose focus shifts from the cosmopolitan to the ancestral; and there are those, such as Rav Kook and the Biblical Judah, whose progression is from ghetto to globe. And then there are the hybrids among us who, as Mordechai ha-Yehudi, attempt to fuse nationalism and cosmocracy.
About the Author
orot.com Biography: Rabbi Bezalel Naor is the author of several works in both English and Hebrew that span the spectrum of Judaic studies: Biblical exegesis, Talmudic analysis, Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, Hasidism, and his trademark—Kookian thought. Besides author, Rabbi Naor is a noted speaker and teacher, capable of making even the most esoteric subject come alive. Audiences thrill not only to his Torah, but also his adventuresome Jewish travelogues of remote and exotic regions. Rabbi Naor studied in yeshivot and universities both in the United States and Israel, and at various times headed institutes of higher Jewish learning in both countries.