Photo: Howie Mischel
The Messianic Process of Modern Israel:
The 3 Stages of Shaul, David and Shlomo
BY DR. PINCHAS POLONSKY
1. Traditional Jewish messianism: the challenge of our time
As Maimonides put it, we will only be able to grasp the messianic process fully when we actually experience it firsthand. It is not surprising, therefore, that throughout Jewish history there has been a continuous reinterpretation and refinement of messianic concepts.
According to traditional Jewish sources, the redemption will unfold in two distinct phases linked to two messiahs, Mashiach ben Yosef (the Mashiach the son of Yosef) and Mashiach ben David (the Mashiach the son of David). Mashiach ben Yosef will put in place the material conditions for the redemption, after which he will “die” and be replaced by Mashiach ben David, who will bring the process of redemption to fruition. According to this traditional approach, the Mashiach will arrive at a particular moment in the future, without distinct stages.
Over the last 250 years, the redemption and the two messiahs were reassessed by leading Jewish thinkers and the founders of Religious Zionism. At the end of the eighteenth century, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, the Vilna Gaon, taught that Mashiach ben Yosef does not refer to a particular person but rather an epoch, a time of change. In the mid-nineteenth century, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer contended that the messianic era was not the end of days, but a part of ongoing human history – and that the Jewish people were responsible for bringing the messiah themselves.
In the early twentieth century, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook identified the secular Zionist movement with Mashiach ben Yosef. The goal of secular Zionism was to normalize the Jewish people by establishing and then protecting a sovereign Jewish nation like other nations. This goal was similar to that of King Shaul, the first Jewish king and archetypical Mashiach ben Yosef figure. Just as King Shaul’s role was to prepare the way for the coming of King David, secular Zionism would prepare the way for Mashiach ben David. Rav Kook’s understanding of the messianic process has become the standard view of mainstream Religious Zionism.
Today, almost 90 years after Rav Kook’s passing, we must reevaluate his understanding of redemption. Secular Zionism has successfully achieved the goals of normalizing and protecting the Jewish people through the establishment and success of the modern State of Israel. According to Rav Kook’s two-phase model of messianic philosophy, it is now time for secular Zionism – the modern manifestation of Mashiach ben Yosef – to “die” and be replaced by Mashiach ben David. Unfortunately, there is still no sign of him; no political or social movement in modern Israel could plausibly be identified as Mashiach ben David.
How should we perceive our own generation? Which phase of the messianic process are we currently living through?
2. A proposed correction: the three phases of redemption
To answer these critical questions, we must refine the standard model for redemption.
As described in the books of Shmuel and Melachim, Jewish monarchy went through three phases of development, represented by the reigns of three Biblical monarchs: Shaul, David, and Shlomo. Shaul, a descendant of Rachel associated with the tribes of Yosef, is a root of the messianic projection of Mashiach ben Yosef, while Shlomo is a root of the messianic projection of Mashiach ben David, for he is the son of David. David himself, however, seems to have no place in this two-part messianic scheme!
I propose to return David to his proper place in the messianic process. I believe that the three Biblical kings represent a three-phase messianic process, with each phase reflecting the main values and goals of respective generations of the Jewish people.
The reign of Shaul (Mashiach ben Yosef): normalization and security
King Shaul sought security and normalization, goals he accomplished by unifying the people and strengthening their hold on the Land of Israel. Spiritual aspirations, however, were not his priority.
When the people of Israel asked the prophet Shmuel to appoint a king for them, normalization and security were their explicit goals: “That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (Shmuel I 8:20). Sovereignty, social stability, and national security were their top priorities.
Given this backdrop, it is unsurprising that King Shaul made no attempt to bring back the Aron HaKodesh to reestablish the Mishkan. Instead, he allowed the Aron HaKodesh to remain in Kiryat Yearim throughout his reign. Indeed, throughout King Shaul’s reign the Aron HaKodesh is hardly mentioned, for Shaul had little interest in building a religious center. Though he invites the prophet Shmuel to stand at his side, he does so only to gain respect from the people, ultimately ignoring some of the prophet’s instructions.
A similar dynamic can be found in modern Israel, in which the secular state shows respect for Judaism while having little real interest in religion.
The reign of David: spiritual revival
King David made spiritual matters an essential component of his policies. When confronting the enemy, Shaul’s army regarded the Philistines’ verbal insults as an attempt “to defy Israel”, an insult to the honor of the people and the nation (Shmuel I 17:25). David, by contrast, saw these insults as aimed against G-d, asking, “who is that uncircumcised Philistine that he dares defy the ranks of the living G-d?” (Shmuel I 17:26).
For King David, the nation of Israel was the manifestation in this world of Divine Providence, and so the nation’s religious revival and relationship with G-d took priority. David paid special attention to the advice and guidance of the prophet Natan, who often reprimanded him, and restored the Aron HaKodesh to its proper place in Jerusalem. Though G-d did not allow him to do so, David yearned to build the Beit HaMikdash, the spiritual center of the people of Israel.
The reign of Shlomo (Mashiach ben David): a universal appeal to humanity
By the time King Shlomo assumed the throne, Shaul and David had secured the safety and stability of the nation and begun a religious revival. This allowed Shlomo to take the next step: bringing the belief in G-d and the Torah to other nations. He advanced this mission through his many dynastic marriages and by raising the political and economic status of his kingdom. To a great degree, he succeeded in teaching the surrounding idol-worshiping peoples to revere the G-d and people of Israel.
For this reason, Shlomo was the right man to build the Beit HaMikdash: “Thus, all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built” (Melachim I 8:41–43). With the Beit HaMikdash serving as a magnetic attraction to non-Jewish leaders like the Queen of Sheba all over the world, King Shlomo could now bring the teachings of Torah to all of humanity.
The trajectory of these three kings of Israel can serve as a framework for understanding the messianic process – and where our generation fits in.
Our present moment corresponds to the completion of the first phase of redemption – the reign of Shaul, who represents the Mashiach ben Yosef. The next phase will not yet bring the final redemption of Shlomo and Mashiach ben David, but rather the religious revival of King David. This second phase is clearly present in modern Israel, and its arrival is led by the Religious Zionist community, who are settling Judea and Samaria and bringing a religious revival to cities throughout Israel through Garinim Torani’im. Like King David, the Religious Zionist community is not satisfied with a national-secular revival, but seeks a national-religious revival as well.
There are clear parallels between the transition from Shaul to David and the shifting phases of redemption in our own time. Just as Shaul feared that David was coming to replace him and tried to eliminate him, the old Zionist elite is confronting the settlement movement and attempting to discredit and eliminate it. Shaul’s pursuit of David was ultimately unsuccessful, and so too will be the attempts of the old elite to tear down the settlements. At the same time, just as David refused to fight against Shaul and revered him as the King of Israel, the Religious Zionists respect and support the ideals of Herzl’s Zionism.
We are living at a time of transition between two messianic phases: the phase of Shaul, Mashiach ben Yosef and secular Zionism on the one hand, and the phase of David, the interim messiah of spiritual revival and Religious Zionism. The third and final phase of King Shlomo, the era of Mashiach ben David, is still beyond the horizon.
3. The mission of our generation
Given our place in the messianic process, what is the mission of our generation? I believe our religious agenda must work on two levels: taking practical steps for today while also laying the groundwork for the next and final phase.
One hundred years ago, Rav Kook called upon religious Jews to support secular Zionism, Mashiach ben Yosef, for it was the Mashiach of that time. At the same time, Rav Kook established Yeshivat Merkaz Harav to educate future leaders who would prepare the next phase of the messianic process.
In our time, we must find the same balance. As we strengthen the settlement movement and continue the religious revival in Israeli society, we must also develop those aspects of Judaism that will become the foundation for the final phase of redemption, Mashiach ben David.
The main difference between Kings David and Shlomo was the character of their mission. David made Jerusalem the political and religious center of the nation, the focal point of the nation of Israel. Shlomo took the next step and made Jerusalem the spiritual center of humanity’s connection to the G-d of Judaism, so that “all the families of the Earth will be blessed through you” (Bereishit 12:3). To prepare for the reign of Shlomo, to make the Divine spirit accessible to the nations of the world, we must add universal parameters to today’s national Religious Zionism.
In 1910, Rav Kook argued that while at the present moment the Jewish people were divided into three ideological camps – those who focused on G-d (religious), nationhood (Zionist), and humanity (universalist) – the Judaism of the future would be a synthesis of all three: G-d, the people of Israel, and humanity.
A century ago, many influential Orthodox rabbis argued that national Zionist ideals contradicted the values of Judaism. Today, however, these ideals harmoniously coexist in Religious Zionism. Similarly, many people today believe that universal values such as science, technology, art, democracy, human rights, ecology, the value of development itself, and many others are somehow foreign to Judaism. In fact, integrating these values into Judaism is not only possible, but also absolutely necessary, for otherwise we cannot become a “light unto the nations”.
For this reason, Religious Zionists should combine these universal values with Jewish tradition – but without compromising the national and Orthodox religious elements of Religious Zionism. We must proceed carefully, adopting only what we can define as “sparks of Divine Light”.
Religious Zionists must begin to turn outwards, so that “teaching will go out from Zion; and the word of the L-rd from Jerusalem” (Yishayahu 2:3), to all the nations of the world. By doing this, the ideals of Judaism will become universal values, and Israel and Jerusalem will become the global spiritual center.
An important contribution to this work is made by cross-cultural enrichment, interfaith dialogue (especially with Christianity), and also by bnei Noach, “non-Jews professing Judaism”. All these play important part in fulfilling the prophecy: as our people’s body is revived from “dry bones” in modern Israel, and G-d is about to “make breath enter” the body (Yechezkel 37:5), the breath will come “from the four winds” (Yechezkel 37:9), that is, from around the world.
In the heyday of secular Zionism, as in the days of King Shaul, the Temple Mount did not play a role in Israeli life. When the Israeli army captured the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967, the Chief Rabbinate issued a ban to prevent Jews from ascending the Temple Mount. Recently, as in the days of David, we have witnessed an increasing interest among Israeli society in the Temple Mount. Many rabbinic authorities now permit Jews to ascend and pray there. Like King David, our generation must accept that the Beit HaMikdash can only be built in the forthcoming era of Mashiach ben David. In the meantime, our preparation should focus on practically increasing Jewish pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, while simultaneously teaching our people that the Temple cannot be only for internal Jewish needs, but must also serve as a link between G-d and the nations of the world. Recognizing the universal significance of the Beit HaMikdash is a necessary condition for its rebuilding.
In our current phase of redemption, the phase of King David, we must actively work to bring the phase of King Shlomo, the era of Mashiach ben David. By integrating universal values into Judaism, making Judaism accessible to non-Jews and increasing our awareness of the universal role of the Beit HaMikdash, we will play our part in bringing the final redemption – may it come speedily, in our days!
● The full text of this essay, and other writings by Dr. Polonsky, are available at www.PinchasPolonsky.org/en/.
Dr. Pinchas Polonsky is a Russian-Israeli philosopher and educator. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was a leading Torah teacher in the Moscow underground and was one of the founders of Machanaim, an organization that assists Russian immigrants in Israel learn more about their Jewish heritage. The author of Bible Dynamics: Contemporary Torah Commentary, Dr. Polonsky’s research focuses on the Torah of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook.
Thank you to Rabbi Ouri Cherki, Dr. Zvi Leshem, Ariel Margulis, Yair Sagi, Vassili Schedrin, Alex Shlyankevich, Nechama Simanovich, Elena Smirnova, Itzhak Streshinsky, and Svetlana Rousakovski for their help with this essay.