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Messianic Politics

In our intimate moments of prayer, when we seriously confront our limitations, we are tempted to promise to immediately become better.
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches in

Originally published in Hitting Reset: A Fresh Start for 5778 from the UJA Federation of New York

I am skeptical of radical resets. In our intimate moments of prayer, when we seriously confront our limitations, we are tempted to promise to immediately become better. Our silent Jewish New Years’ resolutions reflect our awareness that we have gaps between who we want to be and who we actually are, and this is painful. The promise of a reset — whether a button or a commitment — imagines that these gaps are closed quickly, that our cognitive dissonance of who we are is resolved painlessly, that the next time around we will be exactly who we want to be.

This is true not just for individuals, but for societies as well. Judaism’s best “reset” text is Leviticus 25, which lays forth a compelling vision for the Jubilee year: once every 50 years, Israelite society was meant to blow a shofar, cry freedom for all those entrapped in debt slavery and financial bondage, and radically reset the society to its original equitable egalitarianism. It is breathtaking! The land of Israel meant to signal a covenant between the people and God, and it was thus unthinkable that the land could create economic realities in which people would mistreat one another. The land had to be a mechanism to reflect the best of Jewish values as manifested in the actions of the people vis-à-vis God and vis-à-vis one another. The 50-year marker — the societal equivalent of our annual High Holiday penitential process — constituted the boundarypoint beyond which conditional realities would translate into inevitabilities. Social justice, wedded to collective responsibility, compels us to end inequality and change our ways with a simple, plaintive blow of the shofar.

And yet, this is the very reason why, as our tradition indicates, the Jubilee was discontinued and possibly never actually happened as intended. And it is the same reason why the promises we make for ourselves are often just that, and why the more extreme demands we make on ourselves in this High Holiday season are likely to be revisited next High Holiday season as well. The Jubilee is our best example — the template, really — of what we might call “messianic politics.” Messianic politics — for a state, a society, even for an individual — look for external stimuli and radical action to make precisely the change that we know in our hearts requires the slow, iterative, sacrificing, and painful processes that enable us to bridge even incremental divides. Jewish tradition often prayed for the messianic age, and produced telling nuggets of wisdom in the interim, like this one from Avot d’Rabbi Nathan: “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught: ‘If you have a sapling in your hand and someone tells you the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah.’” It is one thing to want the world to change overnight; in practice, be skeptical that it can. And in the meantime, the real work of change requires actual work and takes years — and luck, and rain — to bear fruit.

This year, there is a lot I want to see change in the world. I am mindful of what I want to see change quickly here in America, in Israel, in Jewish communal life, and in my own soul. I am tempted to find the reset button or a genie with infinite wishes. But in the meantime, I am taking on this challenge differently by saying to myself: Think big! And also, plant seeds.

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