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Judaism and the Meaning of Life

Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003), one of the great Jewish thinkers of the latter half of the 20th century, is in some danger of being remembered too much in conjunction with a number: 614.  This is the number he famously ascribed to the commandment that the experience of the Holocaust had added, he maintained, to the original 613: "Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories. To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler's work for him."   This 1965 essay cogently reminds us of some of the other ramifications of Fackenheim’s understanding of the covenantal relationship between God and man. We republish the essay by permission of Commentary, where it first appeared.—The Editors.


Religions—which differ in much else—differ in substance according to their experience and understanding of the meeting between the Divine and the human: whether, when, and how it occurs, and what happens in and through it.  In Judaism, the fundamental and all-penetrating occurrence is a primordial mystery, and a miracle of miracles: the Divine, though dwelling on high and infinitely above man, yet bends down low so as to accept and confirm man in his finite humanity; and man, though met by Divine Infinity, yet may and must respond to this meeting in and through his finitude. 

Some scholars attribute to the God of early Jewish faith mythological finitude.  But this reflects blindness to the religious realities of Judaism—a blindness arising out of modern prejudice.  In the very beginnings of Jewish faith, God is experienced and conceived as the all-demanding God; and it is only a question of time until the one-important God becomes the one-existing God.  Hence even His earliest followers smash the idols: Judaism is anti-mythological from the start. 

Just as the God even of “primitive” Judaism is infinite, so the man even of “advanced” Judaism remains finite.  Man, though created in the Divine image, is still a creature; he is neither a fragment of Divinity nor potentially Divine.  Such notions—the product of modern humanism—remain unassimilable to the Jewish faith. 

As a consequence of the miracle of miracles which lies at the core of Judaism, Jewish life and thought are marked by a fundamental tension.  This tension might have been evaded in either of two ways.  It might have been held—as ancient Epicureanism and modern Deism, for example, do in fact hold—that the Divine and the human are after all incapable of meeting.  But this view is consistently rejected in Jewish tradition, which considers Epicureanism tantamount to atheism.  Or, on the other side, it might have been held that the meeting is a mystical conflux, in which the finite dissolves into the Infinite and man suffers the loss of his very humanity.  But this view, too, although a profound religious possibility and a serious challenge, is rejected in Jewish tradition.  Such thinkers as Maimonides, Isaac Luria, and the Baal Shem-Tov all stop short—on occasion, to be sure, only barely—of embracing mysticism.  And those who do not—such as Spinoza—pass beyond the bounds of Judaism.  The Infinity of the Divine, the finitude of the human, and the meeting between them: these all remain, then, wherever Judaism preserves its substance; and the mystery and tension of this meeting permeate all else. 

In the eyes of Judaism, whatever meaning life acquires derives from this encounter: the Divine accepts and confirms the human in the moment of meeting.  But the meaning conferred upon human life by the Divine-human encounter cannot be understood in terms of some finite human purpose, supposedly more ultimate than the meeting itself.  For what could be more ultimate than the Presence of God?  The Presence of God, then, as Martin Buber puts it, is an “inexpressible confirmation of meaning. . . .  The question of the meaning of life is no longer there.  But were it there, it would not have to be answered.” 


In Judaism, however, this “inexpressible confirmation of meaning” does, after all, assume expression; and this is because the Divine-human meeting assumes structure and content.  

First, it is a universal human experience that times of Divine Presence do not last forever.  But this experience does not everywhere have the same significance or even reality.  Conceivably mythological religions—for which the world is “full of gods” (Thales)—may find divinity even in the most worldly preoccupation with the most finite ends: this is not possible if the Divine is an Infinity and radically other than all things finite.  Mystical religions, for their part, may dismiss all such worldly preoccupations as mere appearance, and confine reality to the moment in which the human dissolves into the Divine: this is not possible if the moment of Divine-human encounter itself confirms man in his human finitude.  In Judaism, man is real at every moment of his finite existence—including those moments when he is divorced from the Divine.  The God of Judaism, while “near” at times, is—for whatever reason—“far” at other times.  But times of Divine farness must also have meaning; for the far God remains an existing God, and nearness remains an ever-live possibility.  These times of Divine farness, however, derive their meaning from times of Divine nearness.  The dialectic between Divine nearness and Divine farness is all-pervasive in Jewish experience; and it points to an eschatological future in which it is overcome. 

Secondly, the Divine-human meeting assumes structure and content in Judaism through the way man is accepted and confirmed as a consequence of this meeting.  In Judaism God accepts and confirms man by commanding him in his humanity; and the response called for is obedience to God—an obedience to be expressed in finite human form.  Here lies the ground for the Jewish rejection of the mystic surrender.  Man must remain human because in commanding him as human, God accepts him in his humanity and makes him responsible in His very presence.  In Judaism, Divine Grace is not superadded and subservient to Divine Commandment.  Divine Grace already is, primordially, in the commandment; and were it not so, the commandment would be radically incapable of human performance.  It is in the Divine Law itself that the Psalmist finds his delight, not only in a Divine action subsequent to observance of the Law; and if the Law saves him from perishing in his affliction, it is because Divine Love has handed it over to humans—not to angels—thereby making it in principle capable of human fulfillment. 

Because the Divine acceptance of the human is a commanding acceptance, the inexpressible meaning of the Divine-human encounter assumes four interrelated expressions of which two are immediately contained within the commandment itself.  First, there is a dimension of meaning in the very fact of being commanded as a human by the Divine: to be thus commanded is to be accepted as humanly responsible.  And before long the undifferentiated commanding Presence will give utterance to many specific commandments, which particularize Divine acceptance and human responsibility according to the exigencies of a finite human existence on earth. 

Secondly, if to be commanded by God is to be both obligated and enabled to obey, then meaning must be capable of human realization, and this meaning must be real even in the sight of Divinity.  The fear induced in the finite human by the Infinite Divine Presence may seem to destroy any such presumption.  Yet the acceptance of the human by the commanding Love makes possible, and indeed mandatory, human self-acceptance. 

A third aspect of meaning comes into view because the Divine commandment initiates a relation of mutuality between God and man.  The God of Judaism is no Deistic First Cause which, having caused the world, goes into perpetual retirement.  Neither is He a Law-giver who, having given laws, leaves man to respond in human solitariness.  Along with the commandment, handed over for human action, goes the promise of Divine action.  And because Divine action makes itself contingent upon human action, a relationship of mutuality is established.  God gives to man a covenant—that is, a contract; He binds Himself by its terms and becomes a partner. 

The meaning of the Divine-human encounter, however, has yet a fourth expression; and if this had not gradually emerged, the Jewish faith could hardly have survived through the centuries.  Because a pristine Divine Love accepted the human, a relation of mutuality between an Infinite Divinity and a finite humanity—something that would seem to be impossible—nevertheless became possible.  Yet that relation remains destructible at finite hands; indeed, were it simply mutual, it would be destroyed by man almost the moment it was established.  Even in earlier forms of Jewish faith God is long-suffering enough to put up with persistent human failures; and at length it becomes clear that the covenant can survive only if God’s patience is absolute.  The covenant, to be sure, remains mutual; and Divine action remains part of this mutuality, as a response to human deeds.  But Divine action also breaks through this limitation and maintains the covenant in unilateral love.  The human race after Noah, and Israel at least since the time of Jeremiah, still can—and do—rebel against their respective covenants with God.  But they can no longer destroy them.  Sin still causes God to punish Israel; but no conceivable sin on Israel’s part can cause Him to forsake her. Divine Love has made the covenant indestructible. 

In Judaism, covenantal existence becomes a continuous, uninterrupted way of life.  A Divine-human relation unstructured by commandment would alternate between times of inexpressible meaning and times of sheer waiting for such meaning.  A relationship so structured by commandment, yet failing to encompass both Divine nearness and farness, could not extend its scope over the whole of human life.  For if it were confined to times of Divine nearness, covenantal existence would be shattered into as many fragments as there are moments of Divine nearness, with empty spaces between them.  If, on the other hand, it were confined to Divine farness, it would degenerate, on the Divine side, into an external law sanctioned by an absent God and, on the human side, into legalistic exercises practiced in His absence.  But as understood and lived in Judaism, covenantal existence persists in times of Divine farness.  The commandment is still present, as is the Divine promise, however obscured for the moment.  The human power to perform the commandment, while impaired, is not destroyed; and he who cannot perform the commandment for the sake of God, as he is supposed to do, is bidden to perform it anyway—for performance which is not for His sake will lead to performance which is for His sake.  Times of Divine nearness, then, do not light up themselves alone.  Their meaning extends over all of life. 


So much for the general characteristics of the Divine-human relationship according to Judaism.  What humans partake of this relationship?  Individuals or communities?  And some individuals and communities only, or potentially the whole of the human race?  It will become evident that in Judaism these are not mutually exclusive alternatives, and indeed, that those modern conceptions which would make them so—“individualism” versus “collectivism,” and “particularism” versus “universalism”—are alien to the dynamic of the Jewish faith. 

Consider, first, “universalism” and “particularism.”  Because the God of the Divine-human encounter is Infinite, each meeting discloses Him—potentially at least—as the One of every meeting.  Because the man of this encounter is finite, and accepted in his finitude, each meeting singles him out—potentially at least—as a unique individual or a unique group.  Mythological deities may remain “particularistic”—i.e., confined to limits of time and space: the Jewish God who smashes the idols breaks through such limits.  The mystical conflux may dissolve the here-and-now into a “universalistic” eternity; the Jewish encounter with God accentuates the here-and-now in which it occurs.  If He did not from the start transcend the here-and-now of the encounter, the Jewish God would fragment himself (in Buber’s phrase) into “moment-gods” according to the moments of meeting; and if He did not in every encounter single out this individual, this people, in the here-and-now, He would accept not existing humans but only unreal abstractions.  The Biblical God is indeed the God of all the nations; but there is no word for the abstraction “mankind” in the Hebrew scriptures. 

To be singled out by the Divine is a crucial and persisting Jewish experience.  The first commandment given to the first Jew—that Abraham leave his country—is addressed to him only, it does not call for a universal migration of peoples.  The commandment to become a holy people unto God constitutes Israel as a unique people; it does not enunciate a universal principle.  The Talmud teaches that God has made each man unique and speaks to him in his uniqueness, and this teaching is powerfully reaffirmed in modern Hasidism. Even today, Jewish existence cannot be understood without reference to such singling out.  To be sure, some modern Jewish thinkers (Mordecai Kaplan, for example) have identified the “essence” of Judaism with universal moral and religious principles shared by all higher religions, but though they take great pains to connect this “universal” essence with the “particular” existence of the Jewish people, their efforts always end in failure. 

Just as the human remains singled out even in the most “advanced” Jewish experience, so God transcends, even in the most “primitive” Jewish experience, the here-and-now in which such acts of singling-out occur. The significance of the commandment addressed to Abraham is realized only in future generations.  The covenant between God and Israel has from the outset a scope which transcends Israel; in time it will encompass the whole of the human race. 

“Universalism” and “particularism,” then, are not only both present throughout Jewish religious experience; they are also internally united, and their union is manifest in history.  History is not history unless each of the events that makes it up is unique; and it remains fragmented into many histories unless these unique events nevertheless constitute one “universal” whole.  In Judaism, the events of history become one through the direction it assumes as a result of Divine incursions into it.  The Jewish God is from the start a God of history; eventually He will become the Lord of all history. 

A crucial dimension of meaning in Judaism is therefore historical.  The Hebrew prophets do not only proclaim a universally applicable Divine Will; it is their inescapable agony to be men of their own day. Jeremiah demands passive submission to the enemy, well aware that armed resistance has been the Divine Will at other times.  And when he is confronted by another would-be prophet offering the opposite counsel, he suffers—and the people suffer—because no resort to general principles can settle the issue between them.  This issue may indeed be settled by the future.  But by then it will be too late for an action which is needed now: so radically singled-out and singling-out can a prophetic message be, so wholly historical can a commandment be.  And yet, though a man of his time, the prophet is not for his time alone.  His moment is an epoch-making moment significant for all of history. 

In addition to becoming historical in this way, the Divine commandment also establishes the historical meaning of human action.  A Providence which in pursuit of its historical purpose reduced man to a will-less automaton would not be a Providence which governed history, but rather a blind Fate which destroyed it. The prophets do not predict an inescapable future.  Their predictions—such as they are—are contingent upon human action.  Human action, therefore, assumes a decisive historical meaning; and this action is no less epoch-making than the prophetic message which demands it. For it leaves an indelible mark on all future history. 

This would, however, be impossible if history were composed of human action only, albeit responding to Divine command.  Human action is finite: how can it give direction to history, or leave indelible marks upon it?  The answer is that it can do so only if it is not left to itself, only if it works in persistent mutuality with a Divine action which responds to it.  Thus, in Judaism, the relation of mutuality between the Divine and the human becomes manifest in history.  Such early Jewish documents as the Book of Judges can see an exact correlation between Israel’s obedience and national victories, and between Israel’s defiance and national defeats: the victories are given by God and the defeats are sent by Him.  And naïve though this view may seem, some degree of belief in such a correlation remains an element of all subsequent forms of the Jewish faith.  For a history dependent for meaning on human action alone would lead to despair, while Divine incursions into history that were devoid of all reference to human action would deprive human action of meaning. 

Later stages of Jewish faith, however, modify the naïve view of history reflected in the Book of Judges in three main respects.  We have already noted how in Judaism Divine action, mutually related to the human and contingent upon it, is gradually seen to have a unilateral aspect as well.  Such unilateral Divine action comes to be part of the Jewish understanding of history, and traces of it are already present in the Book of Judges itself: behind the Divine punishment which is a reaction to man’s sinfulness is a Love which seeks to produce repentance.  This Love, to be sure, was not conceived as wholly unilateral so long as it was considered possible that sufficiently grave sins on Israel’s part might cause God to abandon or destroy His covenant with her.  But at least from Jeremiah on, Jewish faith rules this possibility out.


In rabbinic literature, the inextricable connection between Divine-human mutuality and Divine unilateralness becomes the object of explicit theological reflection.  God is Judge, and God is Father; and unless He were both the world could not exist.  God is Judge: love without judgment would destroy the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, and hence all human responsibility.  God is Father: judgment without love would place on human responsibility a greater burden than it could bear. 

The Book of Judges harmonizes with ease a Divine power encompassing all history with a human freedom to rebel against it.  For its interest is confined to Israel, and it sees Divine power as responding to Israel’s deeds.  But later Biblical writings reflect the awareness that a Providence limited by human deeds would lose its providential character.  Biblical thought is not philosophical thought, and therefore it does not confront the problem posed by the conflict between Divine omnipotence and human freedom.  Neither, however, does it fall into the dilemma of having to choose between the two.  Nebukhadnezzar is the instrument of a Divine Providence which uses him to punish Israel.  Yet he remains a free and responsible agent, and hence is punished for his sins. 

The rabbis of the Talmud recognize the paradox involved here, but being no more philosophical than the Bible itself, they agree with the Bible in rejecting the dilemma.  Human action limits Divine power, which is why men “strengthen” it when they obey the Divine will and “weaken” it when they disobey.  But human action limits Divine power only “as it were”: finite man cannot literally either weaken or strengthen the Infinite God.  And yet human thought must remain content with such paradoxical symbolic statements.  It cannot rise to a literal truth which is free of paradox; it can only hold to the double truth that “everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is given.” 

The implication is that history is wholly in Divine hands even while man has a share in making it; that, whereas righteousness makes man a partner in the realization of the Divine plan, sin, for all its reality and power, is unable to disrupt or destroy it. 

There is still a third respect in which the fully developed Jewish understanding of history departs from the naive view of the Book of Judges.  In opposition to this view, Jeremiah complains that the way of the wicked prospers, and the Book of Job is wholly devoted to refuting the belief—persisting elsewhere, and in secular form even in modern times—that prosperity and good fortune are a proof of virtue, adversity and disaster a proof of vice.  Such complaints might have been belittled either by the admonition to worry about virtue only and not its reward, or by the restriction of meaning in history to a spiritual dimension, exclusive of all worldly fortune, good or ill.  But while Jewish thought does occasionally give voice to such an admonition, it rejects any suggestion that history is not, after all, in Divine hands; and as for the restriction of significant history to the domain of pure spirit, Judaism always and wholly repudiates it.  The complaint of Jeremiah and Job, then, cannot be evaded; and here, the Jewish quest for meaning in history runs into certain limitations. 

We have already come upon the outlines of two such limitations.  First, if Divine omnipotence co-exists with human freedom; if Divine power is manifest in what yet remains the criminal act of a Nebukhadnezzar (or, for that matter, the righteous act of an Abraham or Moses): then meaning in history, even if and when disclosed, is disclosed only within the confines of finite understanding.  And this falls radically short of the understanding of God.  Secondly, meaning is not everywhere disclosed in history.  Nebukhadnezzar is seen as serving a Divine purpose; but not every tyrant is a Nebukhadnezzar.  And while a prophet proclaims the will of God to one generation, most generations are lacking in prophets. 

In such times, however, men are not left alone with their own wisdom when engaged in historical action; nor are they forced to deny meaning to history where none is disclosed. For even when God is far, His commandment is still near; it is not merely on his own counsel that man falls back in fathoming the task of the present hour. And the events of the present, although disclosing no meaning, nevertheless possess meaning.  For history remains in God’s hands even when all is dark.


This distinction between meaning and disclosed meaning in history is crucial in Judaism and has been among the most vital factors in its survival.  Without it the Jews might have identified meaning in history with what history discloses, and celebrated naked success: but how could they have done so and yet resisted Babylonians and Romans in the name of their faith?  Or they might have abandoned history as a sphere of religious meaning: but how could they have done so and yet carried forward a religious existence inextricably bound up with history?  Finally, they might have distinguished between a sacred history in the keeping of God and a secular history outside the Divine concern: but how could they have done so and remained true to fundamental Jewish realities?  The pristine Divine-human meeting in Judaism accepts man in his totality; and the Divine commandment specifies itself socially, politically, and economically, as well as individually and spiritually.  A meaning at once manifest in history and yet indifferent to poverty, war, and tyranny is unthinkable to the Jewish mind. 

But the Jewish search for meaning in history is bounded by yet a third limitation, and this only gradually emerges.  Not only is the disclosure of meaning in history fragmentary; the meaning itself is fragmentary. Past and present point not only to a finite future but to one which is absolute and all-consummating as well. Not until an eschatological dimension, a messianic belief, comes into view is the Jewish understanding of meaning in history complete. 

A Jeremiah sure of history, and ignorant only of a portion of its contents, would not contend with God but merely seek Divine enlightenment; a Job sure of history would begin where in fact he ends: with the incommensurability of the Divine dispensation with all things human.  Both Jeremiah and Job, however, are forced to contend with God by the very nature of the primordial Jewish experience.  Divine Love has singled out man so as to make him humanly responsible; is it not bound, then, to the consequences of its own action—to a Divine Justice not wholly incommensurate with responsible human action?  Jews were thus forced to go beyond acceptance of an undisclosed meaning in history.  They had to question meaning in history itself, in the light of historical realities.  This questioning, to be sure, did not result in wholesale skepticism, or a despair of meaning in history.  But it did result in the belief that meaning has remained incomplete in past history, and must remain so in any future that does not differ qualitatively from the past. 

The question to be asked of Judaism, then, is not so much why the Messianic belief appeared on the scene as why it appeared so late.  Is the prosperity of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous so rare a phenomenon, or one so difficult to perceive? 

A partial answer may be that for early Biblical man the meaning of life, when that meaning remains incomplete, can find completion in the lives of others.  If Abraham dies satisfied, it is because of a Divine promise extending to his descendants.  If the Book of Judges perceives complete justice in history, it is at least to some extent because justice is due to the people only, not to the individual members of it.  Early Biblical man takes no offense at a God who punishes the children for the sins of the fathers: and here lies one reason why for him a finite future can consummate the meaning of past and present. 

But the God of Jeremiah and especially of Ezekiel will not tolerate the visitation of the sins of the fathers upon the children: for the God of Israel is God of each person as well.  Once this becomes the explicit Jewish faith—after long being implicit—the contention of Jeremiah and Job becomes inescapable. Individuals do suffer unjustly, and their suffering cannot acquire meaning through historical events after they have died.  Meaning in history, then, is fragmentary; and a merely historical future, no different in nature from the past, cannot complete it.  Thus an eschatological future comes into view.


We have already rejected the disjunction of “universalism” and “particularism” as alien to the dynamic and structure of the Jewish faith.  We must now do the same with the disjunction of “collectivism” and “individualism.”  Jewish faith ends by repudiating any reduction of the individual to his communal or historical role, but this repudiation is implicit from the beginning.  For the acceptance of man in the pristine Divine-human meeting would be incomplete if it did not encompass the individual in his own right as well as the community.  There is Jewish authenticity in the rabbinic legend which makes the Sinaitic revelation address each individual Israelite. 

Aspects of such “individualism” are present even where the emphasis is “collectivistic.”  In binding the community, the Mosaic code nevertheless recognizes the individual within the community, which is why its scope can also extend beyond the community, to strangers and slaves.  This motif becomes still more radical in post-Biblical thought. In the view of the rabbis, the Divine spirit rests on all individuals according to their actions, whether they be Gentiles or Israelites, men or women, slaves or handmaidens; and the righteous among the Gentiles are priests of God. 

The consequence of such “individualism” is that historical change can hold no total sway over the commandments.  Orthodox belief, of course, considers the Mosaic Law to be exempt from historical change in any case, but all Jewish belief takes this view concerning those laws which state what is morally due to individuals: the wrongness of theft or murder does not depend on historical circumstances.  The distinction between the historical and trans-historical commandments becomes fully explicit—and inescapable even for Orthodox belief—in the prophets.  Jeremiah proclaims submission to the enemy as the task of the hour when armed resistance has been the task of another hour.  But it is unimaginable that he should adopt a similar position regarding what is owed to widows and orphans. 

“Individualism” is as much present in Divine promise and its fulfillment as it is in the commandment.  It is the individual who in the Psalms comes upon Divine salvation—both that which rewards human faithfulness and that which is the sheer gift of a gratuitous Love.  Nor does this reflect an “individualistic” piety unrelated to, let alone at odds with, the “collectivistic.”  Not a few Psalms were written in and for public worship, and they retain an essential place in public Jewish worship today.  Indeed, the Jewish liturgy is so structured as to unite its communal and individual aspects into an organic whole.  The God addressed as God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the whole community is also addressed as his God by each individual member.  And the Jewish calendar which includes Pass-over, celebrating the origin of the community of Israel, also includes the Day of Atonement, on which the individual stands before God in radical solitariness—in the midst of the congregation. 

But just as history comes at length to point to an eschatological dimension, so does the life of the individual.  Early Biblical man may immediately rejoice in a commandment wholly fulfilled or in a salvation suddenly made manifest.  In due course Jewish faith comes to accept that the saving moment does not vanquish evil permanently, nor absolutely even while the moment lasts; and that no man is free of sin.  To be sure, there is forgiveness wherever there is repentance, and a man ought to repent a day before his death. Yet repentance itself remains fragmentary, and even the most righteous of men—such as Abraham and Moses—do not die sinless.  The Pharisaic insistence on life after death is in the Jewish spirit; and there is poetic if not literal truth in the rabbinic view that this belief is present in the Bible itself. 


Since prophetic times Jewish faith has looked to a Messianic future.  The goals of this future are no longer limited—to a united people, a promised land, a central Sanctuary.  They are, rather, all-encompassing: all nations flow to Jerusalem; the Kingdom of God is forever established; and it extends over the whole earth. 

This is a hope for history.  And it arises from a decisive historical experience: the land was given as promised to Abraham, and the central Sanctuary established, but the covenant still has at best only a precarious existence.  Time and again Israel has returned to God only to forsake Him once more.  And in the end the wearisome cycle is broken by catastrophe and exile. 

It was doubtless the original Jewish belief that the Divine commandment is capable of total human performance, and that the Jewish commitment to the covenant, once made, might have been kept with total fidelity.  Under the impact of historical experience, however, the prophets were led to qualify this belief, and Judaism acquired a new dimension through the qualification.  Israel has broken the covenant; so long as she can, she will always break it sometimes.  Man will always sin so long as he is able: for sin, though not original, is nevertheless universal.  The covenant, then, remains threatened, and from without as well as from within.  For the nations not only tempt Israel to idolatry but also endanger her very survival.  History, in short, seems to have lost the direction it once had; and it cannot re-acquire direction from a future which does not differ qualitatively from present and past. 

In the teeth of these perceptions, the prophets nevertheless reaffirm the ancient faith in the direction of history.  Revelation has initiated meaning in history: it points to a Redemption which will complete that meaning.  The revealed commandment demands human performance; a Messianic Redemption will place the commandment in man’s inward parts.  Man has been able to obey the Divine Will ever since the Divine commandment accepted him in his humanity; in the Messianic future he will be neither willing nor able to disobey it.  For all Nature will have been cured of its anti-Divine potential: the wolf will lie down with the lamb.  And since Redemption will extend to all nations, all history will be embraced in total consummation: the Kingdom of God on earth will be complete. 

For such a future, incommensurate as it is with human historical action, men must wait, radically uncertain of the time of its arrival.  Throughout Jewish history, there seemed to be moments of human righteousness ripe for Redemption in the sight of Divine Justice, and long periods of human suffering ripe for it in the sight of Divine Compassion.  But even popular legend came to picture the Messiah as bound in fetters—anxious to come and yet held back by a God who alone knows the secret of the right time.  And the rabbis prohibited all attempts to calculate the end. 

And yet men must work for the Messianic end even as they wait for it.  A Messianic future simply incommensurate with all historical human action would retroactively destroy the historical meaning which it was intended to consummate; yet if Jewish faith has come to expect this future at all, it is precisely because meaning, however fragmentary, is nevertheless actual in pre-Messianic history.  Hence men must, here and now, “prepare the world for the Kingdom of God”; and it is to this goal that Jewish obedience to the commandments is in due course directed.  And so aware does Jewish faith become of the weight of its Messianic obligation as to imagine that a single day of wholehearted obedience would cause the Messiah’s immediate arrival. 

But the incommensurability of human action with its Messianic goal remains.  When, for one thing, is the individual or community capable of even a single day’s total faithfulness?  How, for another, would the righteousness of some cause all sinners (tyrannical rulers, for example) to repent?  The Messianic future, then, is at once connected with human action in pre-Messianic history and yet incommensurate with it.  The Messiah will arrive when the world has become good enough to make his coming possible; or evil enough to make it necessary.  Men must act as though all depended on them; and wait and pray as though all depended on God. 

Because the Messianic end is tied to present history, the prophetic expectation can even now imagine it; because it remains incommensurate with all pre-Messianic history, the prophetic imagination cannot make it literally intelligible.  Thus, the Messianic peace is no unearthly mystery but one in which men beat their swords into plowshares.  And the hunger stilled is not of the soul alone, but of the body as well.  Yet such a peace and prosperity transcend all literal comprehension.  What transfiguration will make the wolf lie down with the lamb—or men incapable of oppressing one another?  Jewish thought moves between a “left-wing” view which sees the Messianic world as rid of tyrants but otherwise unchanged, and a “right-wing” view which sees an apocalyptic transfiguration.  But the mainstream of Jewish thought flows between these extremes.


The messianic future, while the earliest, is not the only eschatological expectation in Judaism.  Beside and beyond it emerges the hope for a “world-to-come”—a hope which, although post-Biblical in origin, was always implicit in the Jewish belief that God gives meaning to individual lives wholly and in their own right.  Whereas the Messianic future redeems an incomplete history, the world-to-come redeems the incomplete individual lives which exist in history. 

Classical Jewish thought never achieves clarity as to the relation between these two expectations, but all attempts to assimilate one to the other are consistently rejected.  Despite the absence of the belief in life after death from the Hebrew Bible, Orthodox post-Biblical theology quite deliberately embraces it.  For the Divine commandment has accepted the individual and therefore any Redemption would remain incomplete—as the Messianic end by itself does—if it did not give completion to the individual. But no more can the Messianic goal of a redeemed future be identified with an Eternity beyond all time.  A primordial Divine commanding Love has endowed history with meaning, in that it calls for meaningful human action.  The great Divine-human drama of history thus initiated cannot be retroactively destroyed by an end which makes this world merely a place in which to prepare for another, and in itself meaningless.  Redemption must consummate both the history in which men work and wait, and the lives of the individuals who work and wait in it. 

The two aspects of the eschatological expectation, then, must remain mutually irreducible, even despite the conscious recognition that Eternity must surely supersede all future history.  This can be so because the world-to-come remains radically unintelligible.  The rabbinic sources confine themselves to saying that it will redeem the whole man whom the Divine commandment has accepted from the beginning—not an immortal soul only, but a resurrected psychosomatic totality.  They are well aware that this is past all understanding, and they view silence on the subject as a necessity imposed by the silence of the Bible itself.  “Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘Every prophet prophesied only for the days of the Messiah; but as for the world-to-come, no eye has seen what God has prepared for those who wait for Him.’”

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Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham