Occasionally I exchange emails about Yeshua with a non-Messianic Jewish friend. In our last round my friend said, “Don’t you think that if Jesus was truly the Messiah, it would have been unavoidable for the Jews to recognize it?” (Have you ever noticed that most Jews who don’t believe in the Messiah insist on calling him Jesus, no matter how much we say Yeshua?) Here’s my response:
Not only do I not think that it would be unavoidable for Jews to recognize Yeshua, but I believe our corporate (but not permanent) Jewish non-recognition is an essential part of the story. It’s consistent with Jewish understandings of the Messiah to see him as hidden and rejected before he is fully revealed.
One example is Isaiah 53. I know the argument that Isaiah is speaking of the sufferings of Israel, not of a suffering Messiah, but of course there are many Jewish sources that see Isaiah 53 as a picture of Messiah. For example, Sanhedrin 98b [in the Talmud]:
What is his [the Messiah’s] name? — The School of R. Shila said: His name is Shiloh, for it is written, until Shiloh come. . . . The Rabbis said: His name is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.
The Rabbis here are quoting Isaiah 53:3-4:
He was despised, shunned by men,
A man of suffering, familiar with disease.
As one who hid his face from us, [I.e., as a leper; cf. Lev. 13.45 ff., according to the footnote]
He was despised, we held him of no account.
Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,
Our suffering that he endured.
We accounted him plagued,
Smitten and afflicted by God . . .
This is from the Jewish Publication Society TANAKH, and it brings out the Hebrew allusion to leprosy that Sanhedrin 98b picks up. A previous passage, in Sanhedrin 98a, develops the same idea:
R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai’s tomb. He asked him: ‘When will the Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ was his reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’ — ‘At the entrance.’ And by what sign may I recognize him?’ — ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [them] all at once, and rebandage them together, whereas he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], thinking, should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].’
Lots to talk about here, but I’ll control myself and just make the one point that these texts see the Messiah as unrecognized and stigmatized by Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people as a whole] until the time of redemption. Isaiah asks “who has believed our report?” and says “We accounted him plagued, smitten and afflicted by God,” in other words, we, Israel, rejected him and failed to recognize who he really was.
The story of Joseph and his brothers provides a framework within Torah itself for such interpretations. Joseph, who will become the rescuer of all the tribes of Israel, is first rejected by his brothers and then goes unrecognized by them, even as he is in the midst of rescuing the nations. From this story and from allusions to a suffering Messiah like Isaiah 53, the rabbis developed the idea of Messiah ben Yosef, whose sufferings must include exile from his own people for the sake of their ultimate redemption. So, in a teaching ascribed originally to the Gaon of Vilna [arguably the greatest 18th century rabbinic authority], we read,
Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him (Gen. 42:8)—This is one of the traits of Joseph not only in his own generation, but in every generation, i.e., that Mashiach ben Yosef recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. This is the work of Satan, who hides the characteristics of Mashiach ben Yosef so that the footsteps of the Mashiach are not recognized and are even belittled because of our many sins . . . Were Israel to recognize Joseph, that is, the footsteps of ben Yosef the Mashiach which is the ingathering of the exiles, etc., then we would already have been redeemed with a complete redemption. (The Voice of the Turtledove, Kol HaTor 2:39, trans., R. Shaklover)
The idea that we—Klal Yisrael—still need redemption is interwoven throughout all the rabbinic literature and the Siddur itself, although it is downplayed in much of contemporary Judaism. But long before this redemption comes to pass, Yosef must be rejected by his brothers to fulfill his mission of saving the nations, and he must remain unrecognized for a time to bring about the restoration of the sons of Israel. So it is with Messiah Yeshua—his corporate, although by no means complete, rejection by Israel was necessary for the purpose of bringing the knowledge of the God of Israel to all nations, and he remains largely unrecognized until the culmination of that purpose under the triumphant Mashiach ben David.
Here’s a final reference to the Joseph story, from the Artscroll Chumash [a major Orthodox edition of the Torah]:
When Joseph said, “I am Joseph,” God’s master plan became clear to the brothers. They had no more questions. Everything that had happened for the last twenty-two years fell into perspective. So, too, will it be in the time to come, when God will reveal Himself and announce, “I am Hashem!” The veil will be lifted from our eyes and we will comprehend everything that has transpired throughout history (Chafetz Chaim). [Artscroll Chumash on Gen. 45:3, p. 253]
Note that this highly traditional source is expecting a time when God will reveal Himself to the Jewish people as Hashem. Obviously we already know him as Hashem, but a much greater revelation awaits, when the veil will be lifted from our eyes. Our corporate inability to recognize Yeshua as Messiah, which includes our inability to see him as Hashem in our midst, is part of the larger picture of redemption that will unfold “in the time to come.”