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Messianism Through the Ages: Academic Conference on Roles of Messianic Thought in Jewish History

On Sunday, April 4th, the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program hosted an academic conference entitled "Messianian Through the Ages" in Furst Hall. The program was the product of an effort spearheaded by several students currently enrolled in the Honors Program with the intention of bringing together a variety of scholars to discuss the topic of how Messianism has been manifested and understood throughout a wide spectrum of Jewish history, from the Second Temple era up until its modern day applications.

Debra Kaplan, Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva College, was the faculty mentor for the program, helping the students to organize the conference. She noted that the conference was the product of months of hard work and effort by Honors students Jake Friedman, Chesky Kopel, Shaul Seidler-Feller and Shlomo Zuckier. "The student organizers produced a fantastic and thought-provoking event," she said, "and I am really pleased to see how much their hard work paid off."

The event began with a few introductory remarks from Professor Gabriel Cwilich, who discussed the overall function and purpose of the Honors Program, and praised the Program's efforts to further advance the overall academic environment in Yeshiva. He also gave thanks to President Joel for his continuous support, and then called upon him to offer some introductory remarks.

President Joel then discussed a certain rare book stored in a library in Illinois and noted that its value stems not from the book itself but from the notes in the margin that Mark Twain had penned. Extending that analogy, he suggested that our role here as students is analogous to the notes in the margin, and that our responsibility and importance stems from our ability to insert our own notes into the margins of the great works that we study and tradition that we are a part of. He then expressed a hope that one day our own work would become the platform for the margin-notes of future students. With that, he stepped down and the academic portion of the conference officially began.

Professor David Berger, Dean of the Bernard Revel Graduate School, was the first speaker. In his lecture entitled "Prophecy, Doctrine, Calculation, and Action: The Theory and Practice of Jewish Messianism from Antiquity to the Present," he gave a broad overview of Jewish Messianism throughout the wide spectrum of Jewish History, tracing it from Bar Kokhba, the first Jewish messianic figure (with the possible exception of Jesus), and followed various messianic figures and ideas throughout history, ending with a particularly fascinating consideration of the messianic ideas inherent within both religious Zionism and Lubabitch Hasidism, including their continuities and breaks from past traditions and models.

Following a brief coffee break, the first panel, chaired by YC's Professor of Jewish History Joseph Angel and entitled "Messianic Moments in Jewish History," featured Professor and Vice Provost Lawrence Schiffman, Professor Daniel Lasker from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Professor Ronnie Perelis, Professor of  Jewish History in both Revel and YC. Schiffman discussed messianism during the era of Second Temple Judaism, followed by Lasker, who outlined its manifestations throughout Medieval Jewish-Christian debates. Perelis closed the session with an exploration of both Jewish and Christian attempts to interpret New World discoveries through a messianic lens.

After another coffee-break, YC's Professor of Jewish Philosophy Jonathan Dauber led the second session, entitled "Messianic Expectation in Jewish Thought." The session began with a discussion by Brandeis' Reuven Kimmelman on the "Redemptive Non-Messianic Liturgy" of the Amidah. This was followed by an exploration by Professor Elliot R. Wolfson from New York University about messianic temporality in the writings and thinking of Menachem Mendel Scheerson and Emanuel Levinas, wherein he memorably noted the surprising similarities between these two ostensibly opposite thinkers and comically mused that "messianic expectations can lead to strange bed-fellows." Benjamin Ish-Shalom closed out the session by giving a lecture on the various models of messianic idea in modern Jewish thought.

Throughout the conference, a recurring theme was the many ways that Jews, living in different places and times, strove to adapt messianism to their own specific context and to interpret it according to the events being witnessed within the world around them.

In that vein, then, YU's conference on the topic can be seen as our own attempt to integrate messianism into our own modern – and oftentimes overwhelmingly rationalist – gestalt. And perhaps, in addition to the different analyses of history that the different scholars engaged in, we too, as students and participants in the conference, are engaging in the next stage of messianic activity, one where we study it on our terms, within the comfortable walls of our own university and the unique nexus that it occupies. By doing so, we may be effectively constituting the next step of the long history of "Jews and Messianism throughout the Ages," and defining our roles within it, just our ancestors have done for centuries before us.