Messiah Mania: A Short History of Four Jews and Their Legacies

March, 05 2012

Simon Bar Kokhba
Shabbtai Tzvi
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

No one can verify the exact number, but to date, Judaism has rejected at least 24 Jews claiming to be the Messiah. The religion’s deep skepticism is reflected in the advice of the first-century sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai, who said that if you are planting a tree and someone tells you that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree and then go to greet him. But this hasn’t stopped the following larger-than-life men from inspiring thousands, even millions, of followers, and from deeply influencing Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Western civilization.

(4 BCE – 33 CE)
During Jesus’ lifetime, there were numerous Jewish revolts against the oppressive rule of Rome. Persecution was so intense and life so difficult that some Jews believed the end of time had already arrived and expected God “to directly enter history with or without a messianic figure,” says Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Into this setting entered a multitude of messiah claimants—including Jesus, who the New Testament says was born in Bethlehem to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit of God. It was said that Jesus had many of the qualities that Jews expected in a messiah: He was a descendant of King David who performed miracles, such as walking on water and multiplying fish and loaves of bread to feed thousands of followers. He used parables to teach such Jewish values as “love of God and neighbor.”

During his lifetime, Jesus attracted a modest and primarily Jewish following. But soon after his crucifixion, Jewish followers of Jesus—one of the most influential being Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus—began to preach to non-Jews. According to the New Testament, Paul received a vision to spread Jesus’ teachings to Gentiles as well as Jews, but Jews were probably less interested. They already knew a merciful God who was ready to welcome the repentant sinner and were comfortable with Jewish traditions of salvation and charity; Jesus’ teachings “offered something they already had,” says Levine.

Jesus’ followers multiplied, but they remained a small, persecuted group until the deathbed baptism of Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The establishment of Christianity as an independent religion was not instantaneous, according to Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies at Yale University. For example, still in the fourth century, John Chrysostom, an Archbishop of Antioch and Constantinople, admonished his congregation: “You must stop going to synagogue…[and stop] thinking that the synagogue is…holier…than our churches.” For many years, adds Levine, “one could be recognized as both a Jew and a follower of Jesus,” but this changed as the two religions retreated into their own theological corners. “The more the church stressed salvation—who gets into heaven and how—the more the synagogue stressed sanctification, how to live on earth,” says Levine. “The more the church stressed the authority of one man, Jesus, the more the synagogue stressed the voice of the community. [Christian]…scriptures that predicted his conception, life, death, and resurrection were met with Jewish counter-readings of the Tanakh.”

Antagonism between the two religions grew as Christians gained political power. After Constantine, all Roman emperors, except Julian the Apostate, were Christians, and over the next 100 years, their laws transformed Christianity into the dominant religion. The political Christianization of the Roman Empire led not only to the spreading of Jesus’ teachings, but to the demonization of Judaism that would inspire later horrors such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that the Judeo-Christian tradition emerged and reconciliation between the two religions began.

Simon bar Kokhba
(Unknown-135 CE)
When the Roman Emperor Hadrian renamed Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina” and forbade Jews from entering the city in 131 CE, it looked as if it was time for the Messiah to intervene. Many Jews thought he had arrived in the form of Simon bar Kosiba, who, during 132-135 CE, was the leader of the last great Jewish rebellion against the Romans. Little is known about his life, but according to one widely accepted legend, Rabbi Akiva, the great Jewish authority of the late first and early second century, endorsed Bar Kosiba as the Messiah and bestowed on him a new name: Bar Kokhba, son of a star. Kokhba (star in Aramaic) alludes to a verse in Numbers that says, “A star will come out of Jacob,” which is considered a reference to the Messiah.

At first, Bar Kokhba lived up to the title. For three years, he and his guerilla army chalked up numerous victories, including probably the conquest of Jerusalem, according to Richard G. Marks, Washington and Lee University history professor and author of The Image of Bar Kokhba in Traditional Judaism. However, when Roman reinforcements under a new general hunted down the small units of rebels, one at a time, the Jews defeated them with devastating consequences.

Cassius Dio, the first- and second-century Roman historian, reported that 580,000 men were slain and 985 villages destroyed. The Jews remaining in Judea were forced to stop performing ritual circumcisions and studying Torah. Beginning with negative comments in the Talmud and rabbinic literature, Bar Kokhba’s legacy, says Marks, became “a warning not to seek national power by one’s own political and military efforts, and a plea to wait for God to initiate redemptive action.”

In the Middle Ages, views of Bar Kokhba softened. Maimonides, for example, wrote that “messianic authenticity” would come not from miracles, but from “political success,” an example of which was Bar Kokhba’s military victories. Jewish mystics saw the rebel leader as an “unfinished” messiah, according to Marks. In the 20th century, Bar Kokhba would inspire a range of Zionist leaders, from Ze’ev Jabotinsky to Menachem Begin, who, as Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin writes, “demonstrated that Jews could fight to win spiritual and political independence.” Others continue to consider Bar Kokhba’s unsuccessful fight for self-determination as proof not to take undue, unrealistic risks in warfare. Israel should “refrain from a provocation for which the adversary may have only one response, nuclear war,” says Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former Israeli chief of military intelligence, in his 1982 The Bar Kokhba Syndrome: Risk and Realism in International Relations. There’s not only nothing messianic about Bar Kokhba, says Harkabi; he was a “disaster.”

Shabbtai Tzvi 
Messianic thinking swirled around Europe and the Middle East in the first half of the 17th century, spurred in part by calculations based on the Zohar that predicted the Messiah’s arrival in 1648 and the horrific Cossack massacres of thousands of Jews that same year. So when Shabbtai Tzvi, a handsome, charismatic student of ascetic Lurianic Kabbalism from Smyrna, Turkey, claimed the title, many were ready to believe.

Picking up disciples (including a wealthy Egyptian, Raphael Joseph Halabi, and Sarah, a former prostitute convinced that she would marry the Messiah) as well as enemies who kept banishing him, Shabbtai wandered from Smyrna to Salonica, Alexandria, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Egypt and finally Gaza, where he met Nathan Benjamin Levi. Declaring himself the risen Elijah in 1665, the newly named Nathan of Gaza declared Shabbtai the Messiah. Spreading the news throughout the Middle East and Europe, Nathan generated unbelievable enthusiasm; Jews of Western Europe sold their homes and businesses, and chartered boats waited for a signal from Shabbtai to set sail to Israel. Antinomianism, the release from obedience to religious law, became the basis for new Sabbatean customs. One of the most startling was the annulment of fast days such as Tisha B’Av, which commemorated the temple’s destruction; instead, Sabbateans called for a festive meal to welcome the time of redemption.

Shabbtai’s growing popularity drew the wrath of the Ottoman Sultan Mohammed IV, who saw him as a political threat. Faced with the choice between death and conversion to Islam, Shabbtai opted for conversion, to the shock of his followers. For most, this conversion exposed Shabbtai as a false messiah. However, some saw Shabbtai’s conversion as a punishment for those failing to recognize “the true God that Shabbtai had discovered,” says Marc D. Baer, assistant professor of history, University of California-Irvine. Others, viewing his conversion through the extension of Kabbalah, found it to be understandable, even necessary, because the Messiah needed to descend into darkness to gather shattered sparks of divine light to bring order to the cosmos.

After Shabbtai’s death in 1676, some “normative Jewish rabbis” in Europe continued to practice Sabbatism in secret, according to Baer. A number of followers claimed to be Shabbtai’s soul re-emerged, the most notorious being Jacob Frank (1726-1791). He too converted to Islam in 1757, but then to Catholicism two years later in Germany, where it is said that thousands followed him. In the Ottoman Empire, Sabbateans became Muslims. In Turkey, they became known as Donme (converts) although they called themselves Ma’aminim (believers). They were accepted as neither Jews nor Muslims and like conversos living under Spanish control, they led double lives.

Repercussions from Shabbtai’s actions affected every part of Judaism. Scholars argue that his challenge to rabbinic authority inspired the rise of secularism and later reform movements and link him to the growth of Hasidism in the 18th century. They even name him as a catalyst for the formation of Orthodox Judaism.

Shabbtai’s actions did not just affect Jews but Christians as well as Muslims in the Ottoman Empire and Europe, so much so that Sabbatism is the first “transregional Jewish cultural phenomenon,” writes David Ruderman in Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History. This is because Shabbtai “had come to save the world not only by overturning all rabbinic authority, but in reconfiguring Judaism…to reintegrate [it] with Christianity and Islam.”

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
In the early 18th century, Rabbi Shneir Zalman from the Russian town Lyubavichi founded what became the Lubavitch Hasidic movement.

Also known as Chabad—an acronym for Hokhmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding) and Da’at (knowledge)—the group fled the Nazis and settled in Brooklyn, New York under their sixth rebbe, Yosef Yitschak Schneerson.

Rebbe Yosef Yitschak—perhaps because of the horrors of World War II—was persuaded that the Messiah’s arrival was imminent, and through his Hasidim, spread the message of “repentance immediately, redemption immediately,” according to Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman in their 2010 book, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Rebbe Yosef Yitschak did not designate a successor among his relatives, and his death in 1950 led to a power struggle that resulted in his son-in-law Menachem Mendel Schneerson being appointed in his place.

Talk of the new rebbe being the Messiah commenced almost immediately: he was the seventh rebbe (seven being a propitious mystical number), the spiritual incarnation of his predecessor and childless, so had no direct descendants to follow him. Propelled by his belief that bringing Jews back to Judaism would hasten the coming of the Messiah, the charismatic rebbe developed a network of emissaries around the world to run schools and children’s camps, help Jews in foreign countries and run “mitzvah wagons” to enable secular Jews to lay tefillin and light Shabbat candles.

Heilman says that the rebbe began to consider himself the “ultimate Ruler” of world events, claiming, for example, responsibility for the fall of the Soviet Union, and that he had advised Moshe Dayan to invade Syria after the Yom Kippur War, basing his advice on Kabbalistic texts. The fact that world leaders came to see him (he never left New York) was seen as additional proof.

Given such respect, if not always adulation, support for him grew during the 1980s and 1990s, with disciples such as Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe being among the first to proclaim the seventh rebbe as the Messiah in 1984. Schneerson never publicly agreed, but as many have pointed out, he never denied it, or succeeded in dampening the growing fervor, particularly after his disabling stroke in 1992, when he lost his ability to speak.

He died two years later, and some followers claim he really didn’t die but is waiting to reappear, while others do not expect him to return. Whether he is the Messiah or not, his legacy can be found in Chabad houses on most college campuses and Chabad outposts in nearly every country.

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