Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
At this time of year, I love to watch TV shows about the Bible, and a recent program sparked some questions. The Old Testament contains many prophesies that God will send a Messiah. Christians believe the Messiah has already come, while those of the Jewish faith are still waiting. For Jews, what will reveal the Messiah's arrival? And do you think the Messiah will be accepted as such?
-- D., via email
I'm glad your question is about how we'll recognize the Messiah in the future, not why the Jewish people didn't recognize Christ as the Messiah in the past. If a new Messiah appeared on Earth, it would indeed be a challenge for the Jewish people to recognize him (or her).
Rabbinic writings over the centuries did develop a list of criteria for messiahship, which includes gathering into Israel all the Jews living in the diaspora, fighting a decisive and victorious battle against the forces of evil, resurrecting the dead, and ending all violence in the natural world (the lion will lie down with the lamb, Isaiah 11:6.) It's hard to believe that if somebody did all that, that he or she would still be doubted.
However, the capacity for cynicism and disbelief runs deep, so I'm forced to admit that some people would never recognize the new (or the returned) Messiah, no matter how many miracles he or she performed.
There's an old Jewish commentary (midrash) on the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea.The question that prompted the commentary was: Why did the people who had just seen the greatest miracle ever performed rebel against Moses so soon after crossing the sea? The answer given: Some people didn't see the miracle because they didn't look up, so all they saw was mud. I think there are mud walkers in every age.
These are the people who want proof, and then when they see a sign or a proof, they deny it or want another proof. They take from faith the decision to believe and turn faith into just another empirical or scientific claim. Reason can bolster faith, but it cannot replace faith.
Just as not every Jew saw the miracle at the Red Sea, so not everyone, even in Jesus' inner circle, recognized the full dimensions of the miracle at the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
I give to beggars. I give to all of them, even the ones I suspect are conning me. I do this and encourage all my students to do this because there's also a Jewish legend that when the Messiah comes, he will appear on Earth as a leper at the gates of Rome, and will only announce himself when someone passing by stops and offers to change his bandages.
I don't pass many lepers in my daily travels, but I believe the Messiah will appear as a beggar and only announce himself when someone pauses and shares their material blessings with him. My children asked me once why I gave money to a beggar and I told them, "He might have been the Messiah and I didn't want to be the one who kept him from saving the world." They never asked me again.
There's another Jewish legend that says when the Messiah comes, he'll be riding a white donkey over the hills to the north of the city of Safed in Galilee. He'll be led by the prophet Elijah. May that happen, and when it happens, may we see it not with our mud-stained eyes, but with our pure and believing souls.