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It is customary to examine religion from the standpoint of two categories: reason and revelation. The first finds its natural expression in philosophy, the second in scripture. The question of how, or if, they are related is as old as Judaism itself. Although the Torah portrays Abraham and Moses as loyal servants of God, it also portrays them as people with minds of their own willing to question God on the basis of firmly held convictions. There are commandments whose rationale is obscure, but there is also the claim (Deut. 4:6–7) that the commandments constitute a body of learning whose wisdom will be apparent to the people of every nation.
The question is how to think about reason in a religious context. Is it a gift of God that will lead one to God if used properly? Is it a critical faculty neutral with respect to God and religion? Or is it so tied up with skepticism that it is bound to prevent access to God? These questions invariably lead to others. What are the inherent powers or limitations of reason, and how do they affect its relation to revelation? It is hardly surprising that neither Judaism nor the Western philosophic tradition has a single answer. On the contrary, the history of Jewish philosophy can be seen as an ongoing attempt to wrestle with these issues.
Belief in the coming of a Messiah poses a genuine dilemma. From a Jewish perspective, the historical record is overwhelmingly against it. If, despite all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, no legitimate Messiah has come forward, has the belief not been shown to be groundless? Yet for all the problems associated with messianism, the historical record also shows it is an idea with enormous staying power. The prayer book mentions it on page after page. The great Jewish philosophers all wrote about it. Secular thinkers in the twentieth century returned to it and reformulated it. And victims of the Holocaust invoked it in the last few minutes of their life. This book examines the staying power of messianism and formulates it in a way that retains its redemptive force without succumbing to mythology.