Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope. (Walter Benjamin, Schriften I)


Traditionally, the weeks after the ninth of Av, which is the traditional dark day of Jewish history commemorating the destruction of the temple, are considered weeks of hope, the weeks of being comforted. We frequently speak of hope. Hope seems one of the more lofty spiritual aspirations of mankind, but we must continue to redefine the question of hope toward what end?

Schiller seems to have summed it up for the Romantic era as:

Im Herzen kuendet es laut sich an:/Zu was Besserm sind wir geboren!”

“The heart proclaims it loudly within/We were born for better things!”

What these better things might be is not outlined, yearning alone was enough of a goal in the Romantic era. Hope always seems about something that will take place in a distant future, for future generations. Imber’s Hebrew poem, “The Hope”, now adapted for use as the Israeli national anthem, opens with a similar line: “As long as within the heart/A Jewish soul yearns…our Hope is not lost”. This hope is defined as (in the current official version) “To be a free nation in our land/ The land of Zion-Jerusalem”. While perhaps at the time this may have served to define “The Hope”, there are few who would currently feel that these two lines were a sufficient end goal of hope. Hope seems no less necessary now than it did in the past. So what is it that we hope for? Must hope always be something aimed at a distant unattainable fantasy future? Is it possible that we can define hope in such a way that it reflects a process which can be actualized in the present, in the here and now? Hope for now?

In the Jewish tradition, the classic locus of hope is the Messianic hope. Is the Jewish hope for a Messiah a simple hope for a utopia in some mythological future? Is the hope that a Messiah will appear and transform the world into a happy place? I will attempt to demonstrate that a tradition exists, extending through the Hassidic masters on to Kafka and Benjamin, which places messianic-like responsibility upon contemporary generations, and views hope as a possibility for the present.

Isaiah 61:10 is one of the hopeful biblical passages to refer to a utopian future:

Sos asis b’Adon-oi, tagel nafshi b’Elohai- I will exult in the Lord; my spirit will rejoice in my God, for he has dressed me in the garb of redemption, in the cloak of justice (tzedaka) have I been draped…”

This verse begins with a repeated term, Sos asis, literally ‘Exult I will exult’ followed by a similar verb, tagel, rejoice. Repeated terms in the text almost always prompt a Midrashic exegesis, and here the Pesikta Rabbati offers a series of related readings, which deal with the hopes for the future-

1. sos- in the days of the Messiah, asis- in the fall of the Evil empires, tagel in the war of Gog and Magog. So far, this reading is what we’d expect in terms of an eschatological biblical texts, with an emphasis on political redemption.

2.sos- saving all from the judgement of Gehinom (what we now call hell or purgatory) asis- when the evil inclination is uprooted from our hearts, rejoice-when sins are forgiven. One might characterize this as an “internal” spiritual redemption, as opposed to a political one.

3. sos- when the ‘Angel of Death’ is terminated. asis- in the messianic era, rejoice- in the World to Come, which is endless. Perhaps this is meant to add an “external” spiritual redemption.

The Pesikta then continues expounding the verse, explaining the two garments specified in the verse- the first refers to that of salvation from oppression, and the second being that of Justice and charity. In short, we can see a coupling of the yearning for political change with that of spiritual transformation, ultimately uniting the two into a call for societal justice and charity.

But what kind of justice do we require in the Jewish Messiah situation? This was a question that Walter Benjamin dealt with in his Theses. In Agamben’s reading of Benjamin, he states-

The Messiah is…the figure through which religion confronts the problem of the Law, decisively reckoning with it.

Will the perfected time of the Messiah be a ‘state of exception’, as the contemporary followers of Carl Schmitt might state, a state of being outside or beyond the law at the point of its fulfillment? Scholem, as well, felt that the mystics had an antinomian orientation whereby the utopian moment would reflect the dissolution of the law. Let us review then, a set of readings of a Biblical verse with a duplicated term, which appears in one of the critical summary passages of Jewish law, in Deuteronomy 16:20-

Tsedek Tsedek Tirdof… Justice, Justice shall you seek …

Why is the word ‘justice’ repeated?

To several early Hasidic thinkers, such as the Avodat Yisrael, the repetition of the phrase signifies a “higher law” and a “lower law”; there is the “lower law”, that is, human law, which is meant to approximate, as much as is possible, the absolute, “higher” ideal divine law. A variant of this theme is seen in the writings of the Hozeh of Lublin, who explains that proper application of law “below” prevents the need for divine application of the “supernal” law (in other words, a willing autonomous adoption of societal justice would prevent the need for a heteronymous forcing of the law from above).

On the other hand, there are more normative, this worldly readings in the early Hasidic masters, for example, according to the Kol Simcha (R. Simha Bunim of Pershischa), the repetition of the phrase is to warn against using law to subvert the law. The phrase is repeated in order to warn against the worst kind of ‘legalistic’ thinking, whereby, if one is clever enough, one can use all kinds of legal trickery to vindicate the worst kinds of crime, as we saw in the news recently (tzedek tzedek tirdof, Florida!)

The Sefat Emet, a later Hassidic thinker, attempts to synthesize these views as one can see reading through his yearly grappling with the text (It is a wonderful exercise to work through the Sefat Emet, as he deliberates yearly over the same sets of texts and Midrashim which leads him to some very creative and different readings from year to year). The Sefat Emet initially cites the reading of the Kol Simcha quoted above, but rephrases him into a phrase worth citing given our current situation-

…(the duplication of the word Justice is to imply) that our pursuit of justice must proceed in justice.

Not every means is justified even for a valid outcome. He globalizes the concern of the Kol Simcha, which was more specific in terms of subverting law via law. Over the course of several years, the Sefat Emet leans toward a spiritualized reading, differing from the early masters in his explication of the ‘upper law’ and ‘lower law’, he locates the upper law as that aspect of the divine within the heart of every individual. The phrase is repeated to encourage one to seek deeply for the truth and justice within every heart. There is a truth above, and a truth below, within the heart of every human being, a truth without exception, not something “outside” of ourselves, not some kind of Dasein that stands outside of the Other, but truth and justice exist here and now, if we only look for it honestly.

Returning to the Pesikta quoted earlier, the Pri Zaddik, a contemporary of the Sefat Emet, returns to the eschatological literature for his reading of the sos asis verse. He states that duplication of the verb for exult to what is traditionally seen as a duality in the messianic moment, “Messiah son of Joseph” versus “Messiah son of David”. Some background: From the earliest days of Jewish eschatology, the Messianic era was understood to be ushered in by two processes- one, brought about by Messiah son of Joseph, who was to fight the evil empires, and be victorious, but at the cost of his life. At that point, the Messiah, son of David would symbolize the utopian Messianic era, however that is understood.

Scholem understood Messiah son of Joseph as solely bringing about the end of history, without any sort of redemption. However, based on our sources, we may posit an alternative view. Kafka, in his musings about Messiah, wrote “The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary, he will only come after his arrival, he will not come on the last day, but on the very last day”. Agamben suggests that Kafka may be understood if one considers the messianic event as being effected by a “bi-unitary figure”-

“one of which is consumed in the consummation of history and the other of which happens, so to speak, only the day after his arrival”.

As posited by the Pri Zaddik as well, this would suggest that all the dichotomies we have encountered represent two aspects of redemption, one in which the social sphere is transformed by a Messiah symbolized as mortal, and one spiritual which happens later. This reading is consistent with the Lurianic understanding of redemption, in which the coming of the Messiah is a sign, an epiphenomenon of mankind’s having achieved a level of world-transformation, rather than a actual cause of this transformation.

Perhaps we can equate Messiah son of Joseph with progressive social action for the betterment of all of humanity. In fact, the R. Zadok himself reads the verse as stating that the first sos signifies the fall of the political evil, asis as the eradication of evil from the whole world, and tagel, referring to a Sabbath like existence of spiritual perfection without evil, akin to a universal Sabbath.

We can go a step further in this direction by introducing Walter Benjamin’s view of social action not only working towards the future, but redeeming the past as well. Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, argues that the approach to history must be one of rescue, where the injustice perpetuated on the victims of history can be identified, learned from, and thus prevented in the present and future, thus serving as a kind of redemption of the past. The victims “have a retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers”. His approach to history

…wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger… the Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins…

In other words, the goal of history is to rescue and redeem the hopes and dreams of those who were trampled by the victorious, those ruling classes who are also those who generally get to write the “standard” histories. By remembering and commemorating them, we are “endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.”

Redemption, as we are now defining it, is then constructed of hope – hope for a justly lived present, as a result of the transformation and perfection of our inner and outer worlds. This level of transformation would act to redeem the hopes and aspirations even of those who suffered in the past. This is what is meant by the word “Tikkun.”

With this in mind, we can end with a reading of another duplicated verb, this one read on the first Sabbath after the Tisha B’av fast. The verse reads:

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ, עַמִּי Nahamu, nahamu ami Comfort ye, comfort ye my people

יֹאמַר, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם Yomar Elohechem Saith your Lord. (sorry, I’m a tenor so I hear this verse in Handel’s translation)

The classical question is again, why is the verse duplicated, and additionally, why is the future tense (yomar, will say) used, and why the name Elokim, commonly associated with the divine aspect of judgement? The Or Penei Moshe cites a Talmudic teaching where one who gives charity to the poor is sixfold blessed, but one who comforts him receives an elevenfold blessing. So here, the Or Penei Moshe explains, one who takes upon oneself to end suffering and poverty as well as comforting them (as he explains, the phrase “my people” refers to those suffering, as the verse states, “God is close to those with broken hearts”), then even the divine attribute of judgment will speak on behalf of that individual.

Once again, we can see that the deepest eschatological and messianic dreams of the traditional sources revolve around the rectification of the social order, the abolishment of poverty and injustice. The Kedushat Levi points out another repetition relevant to this day- the Ten Commandments are read in the synagogue on the holiday of Shavuout, which commemorates the original giving of the Torah at Sinai, and that text is repeated on this first Sabbath after Tisha B’Av, in which the sheer force of our hope for an end to injustice and suffering in a new age should create a moment in which it seems as if the Torah was being given again, anew, in a new world of peace!


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