Redemption and the Power of Man

By Meir Soloveichik

Judaism and Christianity differ on man's moral capacity.

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A venerable Jewish anecdote describes a man hired by his shtetl to sit at the outskirts of town and alert his brethren should he see the messiah coming. When asked why he had accepted such a monotonous form of employment, the watchman would invariably reply: “The pay’s not so good, but it’s a lifetime job.” Indeed, waiting for the redeemer of Israel is considered a lifetime job for the Jews. According to the Talmud, Jews are obligated not only to believe in the messiah, but to yearn for his arrival. Thus the list of credos recited daily by many traditional Jews concludes: “I believe with perfect faith in the advent of the messiah, and though he may tarry, I will await his arrival every day.”
This expectation of a tarrying messiah has always been uniquely Jewish. The Protestant theologian Harvey Cox, who is married to a Jew, marveled at this theological point in a book he wrote describing his experience of the Jewish rituals. In a chapter devoted to his reflections on the Passover seder, Cox describes the tradition of opening the door for Elijah, who, according to the prophet Malachi, will precede the messiah to herald the coming redemption. “If no one is there,” Cox notes, “none of the dinner guests seem too upset. From a Jewish perspective, the wait has already been a long one. There are smiles and jokes, maybe in part because the adults have already consumed the seder’s requisite four cups of wine. But the light touch cannot fully obscure my recognition that here we come to a great divide.”1 For Jews and Christians famously disagree as to the identity of the messiah. Christians argue that Israel’s messianic expectations were realized with the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth; moreover, Christian doctrine asserts that Jesus was divine, God incarnate, and the second person of the divine Trinity. Jews not only argue that the messiah has not yet appeared, but also disagree vehemently with the concept of incarnation. Jewish tradition has always insisted that the messiah will be a human, rather than divine, redeemer, who will restore the Davidic dynasty and defend Israel from its enemies.
All too many Christians and Jews, however, assume that this is the only essential difference between Jewish and Christian eschatology. Cox reflects that “as a child in Sunday school, I was taught that the main difference—sometimes it was put as the only difference—between Jews and Christians was that ‘they believe the messiah is yet to come.’ I do not recall that this was ever said in a deprecating way. It was just a difference… but nothing more than that.”2 Not surprisingly, many texts focus only on this theological distinction in describing the disagreement between Judaism and Christianity. For example, the catechism of the Catholic Church, in its one discussion of post-biblical Judaism, reads as follows: “And when one considers the future, God’s People of the Old Covenant and the new People of God tend toward similar goals: Expectation of the coming (or the return) of the messiah. But one awaits the return of the messiah who died and rose from the dead and is recognized as Lord and Son of God; the other awaits the coming of a messiah, whose features remain hidden till the end of time; and the latter waiting is accompanied by the drama of not knowing or of misunderstanding Christ Jesus.”3 Similarly, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book Pious and Secular America,notes that Jews and Christians disagree as to whether the messiah has already arrived, and adds that the issue is only one “of emphasis, but there is no radical contrast.”4 
It is true that the question of the messiah’s arrival is one that will divide Jews and Christians until the end of days. Yet there is a more profound divide in the way Jews and Christians conceive the idea of the messiah. This distinction relates not to whether he has already come, but rather to what part humanity plays in bringing about the messianic redemption, a distinction that reveals very different approaches to the moral capacities of mankind. For Christians, redemption is essentially an act of divine grace, the salvation of a humanity that is incapable of saving itself. For Jews, however, the reverse is true: Redemption depends entirely on the repentance of man, who is responsible for his own fate. As such, the difference in the respective religions’ approach to the messiah is, in truth, a difference in the understanding of man’s own moral capacity, and of the nature of good and evil itself.

Meir Soloveichik is a Contributing Editor of Azure, and scholar in residence at the Jewish Center in New York.

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