A major theme in the Hebrew Bible is God’s promise to give the People of Israel their land, and thus the geographic region variously known as Canaan, Israel, and Palestine became dubbed “the Promised Land.” But does this promise apply to our present time? This may be the biggest theological question in modern-day Judaism.
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The particular facts of Jewish history, that the Jewish people were dispossessed from their land in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and then allowed to regain it several generations later (beginning the so-called Second Temple Period, 538 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), only solidified the belief among Jews that while God may temporarily take the land away from them, he will surely keep his promise, and give it back.
For this reason, after the Romans crushed the Jewish Revolt and destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E., it was only natural for the Jews of the time to assume that God would once again intercede on their behalf and give them control of their land once more. They waited and waited and nothing happened, until a group of fanatical Jews rebelled against the mighty Roman Empire in 132 C.E.
Initial success in the early stages of the Bar Kochba Revolt led the greatest rabbi of that generation, Rabbi Akiva, to decree that the rebellion leader Simon Bar Kosiba (Bar Kochba's real name) was the messiah, specifically – the Jewish leader who was prophesied to regain the Jews' control of their land.
But God did not intercede on the Jews' side, and the might of the Roman Empire came down on the Jewish population, completely crushing the resistance by 135 C.E. The disaster for the Jews was dreadful: thousands were killed, and most of those who did survive scattered far and wide. The leadership of the Jewish people immigrated to Babylonia and began to rebuild what the revolt had shattered, and the Land of Israel was nearly completely depopulated of Jews.
The messianic prophecy
In Babylon, these rabbis, the Amoraim of the Talmud, reinterpreted Jewish history. Yes, the Land of Israel was promised to the Jews, and yes, God will one day, in his own time, return the Jews to their land and give them control of it, but this will only happen in the future when the messiah arrives. And as a safeguard against future calamities like those brought about by Bar Kokhba, the rabbis came up with the doctrine of the three oaths, which appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Ketubot 110b-111a).
Based on an extremely creative interpretation of the erotic love poem that is the Song of Songs, the rabbis decided that when Jews went into exile, three oaths were made between the peoples of the Earth and God: The Jews promised not to “storm the wall” (interpreted as, not immigrate to the Land of Israel) and not to “rebel against the nations.” The third oath was made by the nations (non-Jews), promising God they would not “oppress Israel too much.”
The doctrine of the three oaths became dogma among Jews everywhere during the Middle Ages. Their interpretation was another matter.
Everyone agreed that Jews must wait patiently "for God" before returning to their land and rebuilding the kingdom of God, but what exactly we were waiting for was in dispute.
On one side was Rabbi Nachmanides (1194-1270) who said we were waiting for a complete break in history: there would be no question that the Messianic Age had come, since all sorts of miracles would take place.
Maimonides (1135-1204) on the other hand predicted that no miracles would take place and that the Messianic Age would be brought about by the actions of men.
The question remained theoretical and was only infrequently discussed, since no-one seriously thought about bringing about the Messianic Age themselves. Despite Maimonides' opinion, Jews put their faith in God and waited for what they felt certain would happen at the time appointed by God.
A major change in Jewish theology took place in the 16th century, when Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) came up with his own version of Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah. He believed that Jews could bring about the advent of the Messiah, not by taking action in the real world but by performing spiritual actions, such as praying, which would accrue in some way, and when enough of these actions were performed, the Messiah would come. Luria even prophesied that the Jews of the time were almost ready.
His doctrine was taken up by many Jews around the world, eventually leading, in the 17th century, to disaster. Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1676), an apparently mentally ill Jew from Izmir, Turkey, declared that he was the long-awaited messiah and actually convinced a great deal of the Jewish world. However, when he converted to Islam under pain of death in 1666, nearly everyone realized that he wasn’t the Messiah, and the movement fizzled out.
Following this painful saga, Orthodox Judaism became weary of declaring the imminent coming of the Messianic Age, and took to not thinking about it.
But then came Zionism in the late 19th century.
Zionism was a secular movement and religious Jews steered away from it, for the most part. Or, if anything, they opposed it vehemently, since it contravened the doctrine of the three oaths. But the movement was gaining momentum and a small minority of religious Jews could not help but get caught up in the excitement.
This small segment of Orthodox Jews is what became to be known as Orthodox Judaism (as opposed to secular, conservative, reform, and ultra-Orthodox Judaism).
The movement’s leader in Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), was certain that the Messianic Age was upon us. Had the gentiles not given Jews permission to return to their land with the Balfour Declaration (1926)? Were Jews not once again toiling the land and speaking Hebrew, as it was in the age of the prophets? He even went as far as to suggest that Theodor Herzl was the messiah ben Joseph, the precursor to the real messiah, according to Jewish eschatology. But the mainstream Orthodox Jews wouldn’t have it and rather, took the notion as an affront.
These secular Zionists were barely Jewish and could not, they reasoned, be part of God’s divine plan. What the Zionists were doing was worse than heresy and their actions would delay the coming of the Messiah by flouting the three oaths.
Extremist Orthodox leadership even colluded with Arab nations in hopes of thwarting the Zionists, until 1936, when the Arab Revolt broke out and pushed them begrudgingly back to the side of the Zionists.
The Holocaust (1939-1945), which many religious Jews interpreted as divine punishment for the Zionists’ scorn for the three oaths, killed most of the Orthodox Jews who opposed Zionism. What remained of Orthodox Jewry after the war was located mainly in three places: the United States and British Mandate Palestine, and the Arab world.
When the mandate ended and the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the Jews of the Arab world immigrated to the nascent nation and what was three centers became just two.
How the reestablishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel that year was interpreted created a major fault line that runs through these two Jewish communities to this very day.
In Israel, those who believe that the founding of the State of Israel is the harbinger of the messianic age are called the National Orthodox (or, sometimes, the "national religious"). They argue that God gave us the land. A representative of this way of thinking is the Habayit Hayehudi party, led by the American-Israeli politician Naftali Bennett.
The ultra-Orthodox community believes that the State of Israel is not a part of the Messianic Age, but don’t generally oppose it. There is a small subsection of extremist ultra-Orthodox that does actively oppose the State of Israel, for instance the Neturei Karta sect.
In the United States, the small minority of Jews who are Orthodox are also split along similar lines. The Modern Orthodox, like the Israeli National Orthodox, believe that the founding of the State of Israel is the beginning of the messianic Age.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that the State of Israel is either not theologically significant, or on the margins, that it is causing the messianic age to tarry. One such strongly anti-Zionist camp is called Satmar.
It is this small segment of the Jewish people, the Modern Orthodox (about 3 percent of U.S. Jews) and the National Orthodox (about 10 percent of Israeli Jews) who believe that it is God’s will that the Land of Israel be Jewish now.
These two small groups are not uniform themselves when it comes to the questions of how close the messianic age is to fulfilment, or to what extent are Jews supposed to actively bring it about. Only the most extremist of them believe that the time is now and that the task of bringing this about is theirs.
But while these are extremely few, they are extremely potent politically: they are those at the forefront of the settlement movement, and the opposition to a peace settlement with the Palestinians.