Angel of History/Footsteps of the Messiah

In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History‘, Walter Benjamin condemns the image of ‘progress’ put forth as dogma by the Social Democrats, which insisted that humanity has evolved towards ever-greater perfection throughout history, into the present.

“Progress, as it was painted in the minds of the social democrats, was once upon a time the progress of humanity itself (not only that of its abilities and knowledges). It was, secondly, something unending (something corresponding to an endless perfectibility of humanity). It counted, thirdly, as something essentially unstoppable (as something self-activating, pursuing a straight or spiral path).”

He contrasts, with this image of progress, his conception of history as catastrophe-

“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”

There is a striking resemblance between Benjamin’s conception of history as catastrophe, and the notion of the ‘footsteps of the Messiah’ as it appears in rabbinic theology, especially when contrasted with the religious Zionist notion of redemption, so similar to Benjamin’s critique of progress.

From Rav Tamir Granot, describing the thought of early-1900s anti-Zionist Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman-

“Rabbi Wasserman was one of the personalities who molded the perception of the final period in the life of the Jewish nation in exile, including the period of the Jewish state, as “Ikveta de-Meshicha“, or ‘footsteps of the Messiah’…

The ancient term coined by Chazal is of great significance for an understanding of Rabbi Wasserman’s historical approach, and it should be contrasted with the term commonly associated with Religious Zionism – “at’chalta di-ge’ula,” the beginning of the redemption, or “reishit tzemichat ge’ulateinu,” the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.

The concept of the “beginning of the redemption” expresses a view of the modern era as a constructive stage on the way to the final redemption. It entails a positive view of our historical reality, seeing in it the Jewish nation’s development and progress on the way to redemption.

The term “footsteps of the Messiah,” although also denoting proximity in time to the redemption, expresses a completely opposite view of the period.  For the Jewish nation, the modern era – and especially the period between the two World Wars – looked like a general, almost catastrophic, crisis and disintegration, especially as pertaining to the spiritual situation.  The disintegration of traditional society, the loss of the communal structure, the Enlightenment, Reform, assimilation, and finally Zionism and Communism, all represented a multi-pronged attack on faithful Judaism, endangering the continuation of Jewish existence in accordance with Torah and the commandments.  If we add to this the reality of economic distress, WWI, emigration, and pogroms, intensified in the 1930’s with racist antisemitism, the murderous decrees, and Stalin’s persecution, we are faced with an extremely grim picture, which Rabbi Wasserman identified as a descent to the nethermost depths.  Chazal, in the final mishna in Sota and in the Gemara ad loc., describe just such a situation and refer to it as “the footsteps of the Messiah.”

18) The Chafetz Chaim taught further: The changes that take place in the world today within a short time, used to take hundreds of years.  We see that the wheel of time is spinning at lightning speed.  “What has God done to us?” (Yirmiyahu 5:19); why are conditions changing in this way? Concerning these questions, the Chafetz Chaim taught: Since the time of Creation and until today, endless accounts have piled up.  Before the Messiah comes, these accounts must be settled, because the redemption will remove the evil inclination, and thus all matters of this world that pertain to the battle waged against the evil inclination will be cancelled.  Therefore, every person must settle whatever debt he still owes God.  Since the time of the Messiah is very close, it is imperative that this process be speeded up.  From the day that the Chafetz Chaim, z”l, expressed this view, the pace of events in the world has grown even faster.  Overnight, literally, things have happened that previously would have taken many generations… It is as though the wheel of time is accelerating under pressure from an external command: “Hurry up!”  Anyone with intelligence can understand that we are living in a special period, which is destined to change the entire world order; day by day, the pace grows faster…”








History as a trial

‘To present history as a trial in which man as advocate for mute nature makes a complaint against the nonappearance of the promised Messiah. The court, however, decides to hear witnesses for the future. There appear the poet who senses it, the sculptor who sees it, the musician who hears it, and the philosopher who knows it. Their testimony thus diverges, though all of them testify to his coming. The court does not dare admit its indecision. Hence there is no end of new complaints or new witnesses. There is torture and martyrdom. The jury benches are occupied by the living, who listen to the human prosecutor and the witnesses with equal mistrust. The jurors’ seats are inherited by their sons. At length they grow afraid they may be driven from their benches. Finally all the jurors take flight, and only the prosecutor and the witnesses remain.’
– Walter Benjamin