“I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah,” declares Maimonides in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, “and even if he tarries, nevertheless I shall await him any day that he might come.” And yet, however much one believes, one purchases a house or rents living quarters, seeks employment and social networks and otherwise relegates one’s belief in and longing for the Messiah to one’s prayers. Indeed, both Rabbah and Ullah admitted they wanted the Messiah to come, but each added, “let me not see him” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98b). The Talmud entertains the possibility that both hoped to be no-shows at the Messianic arrival because of a mysterious institution called “the birth pangs of the Messiah” (chevlei Mashiach).
Even these few examples of an enormous body of Jewish textual attention to the ensuing Messianic era, show what an excellent postmodern symbol that era is. It is simultaneously Edenic and painful (thus the childbirth reference), and one can make a valid argument from Jewish texts that the Messiah will come either as a result of people making the world such a wonderful place that he will be welcome, or such a terrible place that people will have no hope whatsoever without his arrival.
The Messiah remains intangible, for no one has seen him. To that end, Motti Lerner’s “Pangs of the Messiah” (which American audiences have waited painfully for 22 years, so the title is apt) does for Jewish theater what some sects of Chabad Lubavitch have done in the theological realm – stamped a distinctly modern impression on the Messiah. This is not to say either party has resorted to a contemporary, blasphemous reenactment of Sabbatai Zeviism, but each has altered the way we think of and talk about the Messianic era.
From left to right: Joel Ruben Ganz (Benny), John Johnston (Avner), Michael Tolaydo (Shmuel). Courtesy of Theater J.
Set in a West Bank settlement in the year 2012, Lerner’s “Pangs of the Messiah” tells of eight settlers who are caught in the middle of a peace accord between the Israeli and Palestinian governments which would render them homeless. The settlers join together to fight off IDF forces, leaving Rabbi Shmuel Berger (Michael Tolaydo), spiritual leader of the settlement, to grapple with the same concerns that plagued the teachers of Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir.
Tolaydo plays Berger like an aging King Lear who, after losing touch with his peers and his family, sobers up just in time to respond to an engulfing nightmare by suffering a tragic suicide/death. Protagonists have a way of fairing poorly in Lerner’s plays, as does Binder, a stand-in for Yitzhak Rabin in Lerner’s “The Murder of Isaac” (reviewed in theses pages on April 19, 2006).
“I think that a dramatic conclusion is necessary in any play,” said Lerner over email, explaining his choice of tragic endings. “In both ‘The Murder of Isaac’ and ‘Pangs of the Messiah’ the issues at stake are matters of life and death, and the internal actions of the characters are so total that there’s almost no other conclusion.” But Lerner insists the plays are not only not pessimistic, but quite the opposite. “Writing a tragic end is very optimistic – the tragic end paradoxically strengthens the spectator and encourages him to choose life.”
Throughout the play, Berger and his family debate which strategy is most strategic to frustrate the Israeli government’s aims to dismantle the settlements. Berger seeks to exploit his Knesset connections to fight the plan peacefully. But his son Avner (John Johnston), peace activist turned aggressive much to the dismay of his wife Tirtzah (Becky Peters), joins forces with his brother-in-law Benny (Joel Reuben Ganz) to attack the IDF forces sent to dismantle the settlement.
From left to right: Norman Aronovic (Menachem), John Johnston (Avner), Becky Peters (Tirtzah), Michael Tolaydo (Shmuel). Courtesy of Theater J.
Part of the trouble centers on Benny’s recent imprisonment for murdering Palestinian families, which he blames on Berger’s teachings. Berger’s and his wife Amalia’s (Laura Giannarelli) daughter, Chava (Lindsay Haynes), blindly supports Benny (her husband), while his father Menachem (Norman Aronovic) initially suspects his motives, only to later join forces with him to outvote Berger. Berger’s disabled son Nadav (Alexander Strain) serves throughout as a Shakespearean “fool” character, speaking the widely ignored voice of truth.
To make matters worse, the set design of a West Bank house (with white minimalist design, save for a few book cases and pieces of living room furniture) includes the Hebrew verses from Genesis (chapter 12) in which G-d promises the land of Israel to Abraham is written on the floor. The characters literally trample G-d’s promise throughout the play. (G-d’s name does not appear on the floor). The irony, of course, is that both the Israelis and Palestinians agree that the land went to Abraham; they differ regarding which son received the inheritance from him.
The trampling of G-d’s word also takes the form of otherwise well-intentioned religious men trying to force G-d’s hand at launching the Messianic era. Benny (probably intentionally) misinterprets his teacher Shmuel Berger’s words, using them to justify his violent plans:
Benny: You’re not calling the police because you know that this war is a holy war. Because you know it will bring about an awakening on earth that will create an awakening in heaven, and bring redemption. Because you know that we must obey His will and go on fighting, and not allow Him to rest until redemption is complete
Shmuel: G-d in heaven. We must carry on fighting in order not to allow the Almighty to rest? To force Him to complete the redemption? Everything is done by His will. Redemption, too, will be only completed by His will
Benny: This morning you told me explicitly that when that desperate time comes, we shall do everything to shake the heavens in order to avoid disaster
Shmuel: Shake the heavens with dynamite? With prayer. With endeavor. Step by step. Patiently
Yet to an immature, overly aggressive fundamentalist like Benny, Berger’s call for patience falls upon deaf ears. Indeed, Berger himself longs for the Messiah just as much as his peers. But the difference between religion and fundamentalism lies perhaps in what decisions people make to realize that longing. The Bennys and Avners of this world seek to act violently upon those religious longings, and they view anyone who stands in their way as blasphemous non-believers.
It is easy to read Berger’s suicide as a pessimistic note in an already tragic tale. When his family and congregation needed him the most, the rabbi removed himself from the occasion in a cowardly fashion. Another death in a conflict that has seen far too many deaths on both sides. And yet, as Lerner explained, there is perhaps a more optimistic sign. Pulling her son Nadav aside as he cries over the toy house he built which was destroyed by settlers who beat him to send a message to his father, Amalia tells him, “We will live, Nadav. We’ll leave here and live Abba will speak on our behalf in heaven and maybe the Almighty will have mercy on us”
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.