What is the impact of our good actions? While diverse philosophical, religious, political, and economic theories present many answers, as an inheritor of rabbinic tradition, I am particularly interested in how the Talmud addresses this question. Today, much of our culture believes that our good works help us progress toward a better world. Do the rabbis of the Talmud agree?
Perek Helek, the last chapter of Sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud, presents a fascinating answer to my concern through an exploration of how the world will be redeemed. The first twelve dapim of the perek are essentially a compilation of rabbinic materials grappling with the eschaton. As this work came together, it became a treatise of sorts on rabbinic eschatology. Here we find an extended discussion of the messiah as a core piece of this exploration of the end of days. Like most of the Talmud, the messianic section this perek is more a collection of traditions rather than a cohesive argument, but with close reading we can pick up on certain trends. We will first explore the Talmud’s treatment of the opinion that our good work has transformative potential and how that opinion is distilled in modern Judaism. Then, we will turn to three other options presented by the perek, each of which suggest an alternate understanding of the impact of our good works. A careful reading of the perek shows that the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud largely did not believe that our actions could enact radical world transformation. Modern Jewish thought does not need to align with rabbinic ideology, but I question our unceasing optimism in our power to foster permanent change. While rabbinic eschatology as presented in the perek suggests that our good works only have temporary impact, we need not despair: each action that we perform is inherently valuable in and of itself as a momentary flash of redemption.
As mentioned, the perek’s messianic discussion is mostly composed of tannaitic and early amoraic material loosely bound together by overarching editing. Somewhere midway through this compilation, Rav makes the case that not only can we improve the world through our good actions, but also that our moral improvement is the key to the messiah’s arrival. He states, “All of the appointed times have passed, and the matter [the eschaton] only depends on repentance and good deeds.” While according to some rabbinic opinions the messiah will come at an appointed time, Rav argues that those appointed times are irrelevant―not only do teshuvah and good deeds impact the messiah’s arrival; they are the only factors that will impact his arrival. The Gemara goes on to connect Rav’s opinion to the tannaitic statement of Rabbi Eliezer, who simply states: “If the Jewish people repent they are redeemed, and if not they are not redeemed.” According to Rav and Rabbi Eliezer, our cumulative good actions and repentance are the catalyst that will bring the messiah. Not only are my good actions valuable in the immediate good they provide, but they also have the power to create the radical change of world redemption.
This belief in our agency to bring the messiah through good works has permeated many parts of modern Jewish culture. These modern movements optimistically believe that not only can my good actions hasten revolutionary change, but that this progress toward a better world will surely unfold at some point in our future. These approaches are not quite as radical as that of Rav: while Rav argues that repentance is the only determining factor for the messiah’s arrival, modern messianism believes that we have the power to influence the messiah’s arrival, but God also has a role to play. This type of messianism appears perhaps most explicitly in popular Chabad theology. On the Chabad website, under a section called “Questions & Answers about Moshiach and the Redemption,” the subheading reads: “Who is Moshiach and how will we know when he’s coming? Is the world really getting better?” These questions assume both that the messiah is coming and that the “world getting better” will influence his arrival. Our good works can help to bring the messiah.
This type of eschatology extends beyond Chabad theology to more quotidian facets of Jewish life. In the dessert section of the popular kosher cookbook Peas, Love & Carrots, the author, Danielle Renov, writes:
[Our role in this world] is to work on ourselves internally, quietly, little by little. Accumulating growth day by day until it turns into year by year like water dripping on a rock. If we all look inward enough, and allow ourselves to be transformed by growth even the tiniest, most unseeable bit, day by day, eventually, as a nation, we will transform to being the people who will greet Mashiach.
Renov presents a vision of repentance which serves to hasten the messiah’s arrival. Through our self improvement, we can help to transform the world, and eventually God will inevitably redeem us.
These strands of popular modern Jewish thought, as well as Rav and Rabbi Eliezer, share the belief that the powerful transformation of the world we are hoping for comes through some sort of divine intervention: our good deeds influencing the arrival of the messiah. However, there are movements that share their optimism―that we are capable of improving and that our improvement can cause revolutionary change―without the obvious divine intervention of the messiah’s arrival. Certain progressive movements have a similar framework in which we can enact revolutionary change through our good actions. The phrase “Tikkun Olam” has become common in American Jewish institutional mission statements: these communities believe that through our efforts, we can fundamentally fix the broken world. Some organizations state our power to radically change the world explicitly. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a nonprofit “building the Jewish left,” writes on its website: “Together we will dismantle the systems and institutions that perpetuate racism, inequity, and injustice, and grow something new and beautiful in their place.” Implicit in this statement is the fundamental belief that we have the capacity to dismantle and then grow: our actions do have profound and transformative impact. Similarly, Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization, includes on its website the following statement:
This can be a country for all of us―where everyone can thrive, no matter what we look like, how we pray, or where we come from. We’re mobilizing in cities and states across the country and advocating in Washington to win a new future, where all of us are safe and free.
Once again, through our actions―such as mobilization and advocacy―we can create a transformed “new future” of freedom and safety. While these organizations use very different imagery from that of the Talmud, they all share a fundamental optimism in our agency to radically change the world through our good actions.
It may come as a surprise that although this optimism permeates many strands of modern Judaism, this optimism is only a minority opinion in the perek. The chapter entertains three other possibilities which are far more pessimistic about our ability to positively change the world:
1) We can be good, but our good actions have no bearing on the messiah’s arrival;
2) We cannot actually be good, and the messiah will come anyway;
3) We cannot actually be truly good, and therefore the messiah will not come.
These three other options not only outnumber our popular optimistic one, but they also are the favored, more dominant voices of the chapter. In order to take the rabbinic approach to the messiah seriously, we must contend with these pessimistic frameworks in which our good actions cannot enact revolutionary change.
The first opinion is voiced by Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Eliezer’s interlocutor, who argues fiercely that even if we can be good, this goodness has no bearing on the messiah’s arrival. He challenges Rabbi Eliezer:
If they do not repent, will they not be redeemed at all? Rather, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will establish a king for them whose decrees are as harsh as those issued by Haman, and the Jewish people will have no choice but to repent, and this will restore them to the right path.
In other words, if we are not good, God will simply force us to be good in order to bring the messiah. Our own individual good actions do not matter in this framework. Indeed, Rabbi Yehoshua’s next proof text emphasizes that our actions have no bearing on our redemption. He quotes:
But isn’t it already stated: “So says the Lord: You were sold for naught, and without money you shall be redeemed” (Isaiah 52:3)? Rabbi Yehoshua explains: “You were sold for naught” means you were sold for idol worship. “And without money you shall be redeemed” means you will be redeemed not through repentance and good deeds.
Rabbi Yehoshua’s reading of this verse devalues good deeds even more than his introductory challenge to Rabbi Eliezer. Here, God does not even force Israel to be good. Rather, good deeds have no impact on our redemption whatsoever.
Rabbi Yehoshua wins his debate with Rabbi Eliezer. After Rabbi Yehoshua’s final and forceful proof text, Rabbi Eliezer has no way to respond and remains silent. At least in this tannaitic source, good deeds decidedly lose to God’s will. Our good deeds and repentance are ultimately irrelevant to redemption. To imagine this position in a less theological framework, this source suggests that even if we do all sorts of justice work, ultimately that has no impact on large scale systems. The world may become more just, but that justice will not be a result of intentional good deeds.
In the way we have been reading Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, we have assumed that they entertain the possibility that we can actually do good in the world. Even if according to Rabbi Yehoshua repentance does not bring redemption, redemption is a possible option. Other sources within the perek are not as hopeful about our potential to change for the better. According to several tannaitic sources, the messiah will only come when society totally devolves and any moral order we have achieved is upended. One particularly striking source states:
During the generation that the son of David comes, the hall of the assembly of the Sages will be designated for prostitution, and the Galilee will be destroyed, and the Gavlan, i.e., Bashan, will be desolate, and the residents of the border who flee the neighboring gentiles will circulate from city to city and will receive no sympathy. The wisdom of scholars will diminish, and sin-fearing people will be despised. And the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog in its impudence and shamelessness.
In this vision of the messiah’s―here referred to as “Ben David’s”―arrival, we see a world whose moral order is flipped from the ideal. Houses of Torah learning will turn into brothels or will be destroyed; people will not show mercy or compassion to refugees. The temperament of the nation will change: there will be less wisdom―the nation will love sin so much that they hate those who stay away from sin. They will be shameless. The messiah will not come when the world has progressed to near-moral perfection. Rather, the messiah will come when progress utterly fails.
In another tannaitic source, this moral failure manifests in an upending of hierarchical relationships. The baraita states:
Rabbi Nehorai says: During the generation in which the son of David comes, youths will humiliate elders and elders will stand in deference before youths, and a daughter will rebel against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law, and the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog, and a son will not be ashamed before his father.
In this vision, various familial roles are flipped to emphasize the moral corruption of the generation of the messiah. We again see the comparison of the eschatological generation’s countenance to that of a dog, to highlight its shamelessness. This is the opposite of Rabbi Eliezer’s vision for the eschaton, in which he argues that repentance is a prerequisite for redemption. In this baraita, the messiah comes when we utterly fail to repent. Our attempts to better ourselves will inevitably fail, and we can only be saved by the grace of God.
The sources of the perek imply―but do not explicitly discuss―a final and perhaps least hopeful option for the eschaton. Rabbi Eliezer and Rav argue that redemption is only dependent upon our repentance. Our examples of modern Jewish movements have asserted that this means that we eventually improve the world to the point at which the world radically changes. This change can happen in a variety of ways―through divine intervention through the messiah or through an accumulation of transformative justice work―but the change will happen. Rav and Rabbi Eliezer may not be as confident. Their statements do not guarantee a happy ending. Yes, our actions have the power to enact radical change, but what if we don’t repent? Our final option is that we may fail to transform the world, and the world will simply remain unredeemed.
We have seen that while modern Jewish movements are optimistic about our power to transform the world through our good work, this perek, a central locus of rabbinic eschatology, is predominantly pessimistic about our agency to radically change the world. Radical transformation can happen, but only through miraculous divine intervention. This pessimism begs the question: if my actions do not have the power to transform the world, why try to be good anyway?
One option is to simply adapt the minority optimistic stance. Even if the perek does not prefer the traditions which posit that we can bring redemption by our own merit, those traditions are preserved in the text and have been carried through our theological heritage to this day. In one fascinating story within the perek, the messiah himself is eagerly awaiting the imminent day when we will have improved ourselves enough to enable his arrival. We can simply choose to believe that we have the agency to transform the world in line with these traditions.
However, if we are to take the varied rabbinic approaches to world transformation more seriously, we must consider the possibility that we may not have grand-scale world-redemptive power. This pessimism need not lead to hopelessness or nihilism. The voices in the perek do not offer a clear answer to why we should be good if this good is not transformative, but perhaps this is because the rabbis understand that good actions are obviously good anyway. Working to ameliorate the suffering in the world we live in―in its current and perhaps never-ending broken state―is important and holy in its own right. The rabbis might have given up on the hope of our ability to impact the world on a grand scale, but this does not stop them from creating two Talmuds’ worth of discourse about how we should act in the world. Every day we have the opportunity to ease pain, bring comfort, and foster joy. These actions are holy even in their impermanence, and they are their own moments of redemption. Perhaps, one day, God will transformationally and permanently redeem the world for us.