“What type of benefit, if any, do my good actions do to the world?” - Rabbi Atara Cohen

Rabbi Atara Cohen asks the question “What type of benefit, if any, do my good actions do to the world?” She uses the idea of the Messiah, as found in the eleventh chapter of tractate Sanhedrin, perek Helek, as a way into this question and uses the text of the Talmud alongside modern examples to offer multiple lenses through which to view what it is we do when we do good.

Many modern Jews are fairly optimistic about our capacity to improve the world through our good actions. In Perek Helek, Rav suggests that not only can we improve the world through our good actions, but also that our moral improvement is the key to the Messiah’s arrival. He states that, “all of the appointed times have passed, and the matter [the eschaton] only depends on repentance and good deeds.” According to some Rabbinic opinions, the Messiah will come at an appointed time regardless of our actions. However, Rav argues that those appointed times are irrelevant, and that not only do teshuva and good deeds impact the messiah’s arrival, they are the only factors that will impact his arrival. The Gemara maps Rav's opinion onto the earlier statement of Rabbi Eliezer, who simply states “If the Jewish people repent they are redeemed, and if not they are not redeemed.” Repentance is the only factor determining whether Israel will experience redemption.

According to Rav and Rabbi Eliezer, my teshuva, my improved actions, can enact profound world transformation. Not only are my good actions valuable in the immediate good they provide, but they also have the power to create the radical change of world redemption. This belief in the power of accumulating good deeds in order to bring the Messiah has permeated many parts of modern Jewish culture. These modern movements optimistically believe that not only can my good actions enact revolutionary change, but that this progress towards a better world will surely unfold at some point in our future. This appears perhaps most explicitly in popular Chabad theology. On the Chabad website, under a section called “Questions & Answers about Moshiach and the Redemption,” the subheading reads “Who is Moshiach and how will we know when he's coming? Is the world really getting better?” These questions assume both that Mashiach is coming and that the “world getting better” will enable him to arrive. The questions also assume that this radical world transformation is a given.

This type of theology extends beyond Chabad. In the dessert section of a popular kosher cookbook, the author, Danielle Renov, writes

“[Our role in this world] is to work on ourselves internally, quietly, little by little. Accumulating growth day by day until it turns into year by year like water dripping on a rock. If we all look inward enough, and allow ourselves to be transformed by growth even the tiniest, most unseeable bit, day by day, eventually, as a nation, we will transform to being the people who will greet Mashiach”

Renov presents a vision of the repentance that Rav and Rabbi Eliezer say is a prerequisite for the Messiah’s arrival. The slow accumulation of goodness she describes maps onto the repentance that Rav and Rabbi Eliezer claim enables the messiah’s arrival. This transformation occurs through our self improvement and is inevitable. We have the agency to bring the Messiah.

These strands of popular modern Jewish thought, Rav, and Rabbi Eliezer share the belief that the powerful transformation of the world we are hoping for comes through some sort of divine intervention. However, there are movements that share their optimism--that we are capable of improving and that our improvement can cause revolutionary change--without the obvious divine intervention of the Messiah’s arrival. Certain progressive movements have a similar framework in which through our good actions, we can enact revolutionary change. Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a nonprofit “building the Jewish left” writes on its website “Together we will dismantle the systems and institutions that perpetuate racism, inequity, and injustice, and grow something new and beautiful in their place.” Implicit in this statement is the fundamental belief that we have the capacity to dismantle and then grow: our actions do have profound and transformative impact. Similarly, Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization, includes on its website the statement that,

“This can be a country for all of us — where everyone can thrive, no matter what we look like, how we pray, or where we come from. We’re mobilizing in cities and states across the country and advocating in Washington to win a new future, where all of us are safe and free.”

Once again, through our actions, such as mobilization and advocacy, we can create a transformed “new future” of freedom and safety.

The optimism that we can transform the world through our good actions permeates many strands of Judaism. Strikingly, this optimism is only a minority opinion in Perek Helek. Perek Helek entertains three other possibilities which are far more pessimistic about our ability to positively contribute to the world:

  1. We can be good, but our good actions have no bearing on the Messiah’s arrival
  2. We cannot actually be good, and the Messiah will come anyway.
  3. We cannot actually be truly good, and therefore the Messiah will not come

These three other options not only outnumber our popular optimistic one, but they also are the favored, more dominant voices of the chapter. In order to take the Rabbinic approach to the Messiah seriously, we must contend with these pessimistic frameworks in which our good actions cannot enact revolutionary change.

About Rabbi Atara Cohen

Rabbi Atara Cohen is passionate about Torah which speaks to our social, intellectual, and emotional realities. She received semikha from Yeshivat Maharat in June 2020 and currently teaches Torah She’beal Peh at The Heschel Middle School. She has studied Torah in a variety of settings, including Nishmat, Hadar, Drisha, and has a BA in religion at Princeton University. During rabbinical school, Atara focused on human rights and social change through various fellowships. She served as a rabbinic intern at the Columbia-Barnard Hillel and as a Cooperberg-Rittmaster Pastoral and Educational Intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Atara lives in Manhattan, where she runs, knits, and experiments with Persian cooking.