Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements

By Stephen Sharot | Go to book overview

4.

Normative Jewish
Millenarianism and the
First Jewish Millenarian
Movements in the Diaspora

A MILLENARIAN MOVEMENT may represent either a break from the normative religion or an attempt to realize normative beliefs. Among primitive peoples influenced by Christianity a millennial movement has often represented a radical departure from their traditional religion, which has contained nothing of millenarianism. Even if a religion contains ideas of a future, this-worldly, perfect age, these ideas may be defined as heretical. Early Christians believed that the second advent of Christ was imminent, but from the fifth century the new orthodoxy of the Christian church taught that the millennium had begun with the birth of Christ and was fully realized in the church, the mystical City of God. The church taught that salvation was not a collective phenomenon to be achieved in a future age but an individual experience achieved by the righteous after death in heaven. In 431, the Council of Ephesus denounced the belief in the coming of a millennium as a superstitious error. Thus, in the medieval period Christian millennial movements were heretical and heterodox, often in rebellion against the religious teachings and authority of the church. In this they contrasted with the Jewish believers in an imminent millennium, who presented their beliefs as a fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of the prevailing tradition in Judaism.

For the majority of Jews in the medieval and early-modern periods, it was an article of faith to hope constantly for the advent of the messiah. The twelfth principle of the best-known formulation of Jewish religious doctrines, Maimonides' "Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith," reads: "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he should tarry, nevertheless, I shall wait for his coming every day." The affirmation of this belief was a persistent theme in Jewish prayers: in a number of daily benedictions, in the prayers after meals, during the wedding ceremony, and on festivals and fast days. The Jews frequently reminded themselves that they were in galut (exile), and they expressed the imperfection of the unredeemed world by such customs as the incompletion of a synagogue building and the tearing of a new garment. Family and business letters, holiday wishes, and expressions of congratulations often

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