Seeskin, Kenneth. Jewish Messianic Thought in an Age of Despair

By Schwartz, Dov | The Review of Metaphysics, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Seeskin, Kenneth. Jewish Messianic Thought in an Age of Despair


Schwartz, Dov, The Review of Metaphysics


SEESKIN, Kenneth. Jewish Messianic Thought in an Age of Despair. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 222 pp. Cloth, $90.00-- Kenneth Seeskin's book is an important and brilliant phenomenological analysis of the messianic idea in Jewish thought. This conclusion is based, first of all, on what the book is not: it was neither written as a historical enquiry, nor was it meant to break new ground in intellectual history. The first chapter, for instance, which focuses mainly on the bible and the Rabbinic literature, does not contribute new knowledge to scholars in these fields. The second chapter on Maimonides offers no insights not known to Maimonides scholars. In the following chapters, Judaism is represented mainly by Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas. At times the book gives greater weight to the ethical and historical thought of Kant and Hegelian dialectical history than to Jewish thinkers. The reader therefore cannot but assume that Seeskin seeks the essential dimension of Jewish messianism. According to the phenomenology of religion, the various theologies are an expression of the essence of religion; thus Maimonidean rationalism and Kabbalah, for instance, are merely different expressions of the same essence of Judaism. Seeskin attempts to examine the standing and validity of the messianic idea in Judaism, chiefly in light of the events of the twentieth century.

A problematic aspect of the book, in my opinion, lies in the manner of selecting these conceptions. To take a minor, but representative, example: the author writes that, according to Gershom Scholem, the internalism of Hasidism is a response to Sabbateanism. He did not mention that a series of scholars, notably Isaiah Tishby and Moshe Idel, differed from Scholem and spoke of externalistic messianic dimensions within Hasidism. Seeskin himself acknowledges the existence of two central approaches in Jewish thought. On the one hand, there is the apocalyptic and mythical approach, which is concerned with a fantastic messianic world that replaces the existing world. On the other hand, there is the naturalistic, that is, internalistic and rational, which is oriented to worldly and personal redemption. Seeskin's phenomenological analysis is not based on sources that tend toward apocalyptic and mythical messianism, and indirectly, it is depreciative of them. But the presence of the apocalyptic and mythical sources is no less, and even more, powerful than the naturalistic and internalistic ones. Even if Seeskin, following Jacob Neusner, is correct when he states that the Mishnaic and Talmudic sources did not afford significant place to messianism, the apocalyptic literature that was composed in that same period and that was based on the same Mishnaic and Talmudic figures gave pride of place to messianism without question. …

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