I was reading a discussion on Jewish opinions on the idea of a Messianic Age on a Jewish Ravelry group just now. Someone suggested that liberal Jews believe in a Messianic Age, whereas more conservative Jews tend toward the idea of a Messiah in the form of an actual person. I object to this generalization and the way it seems to suggest that this is a uniform, required thing among Jews - the belief in a Messiah or Messianic Age - when it certainly is not. Because the last discussion of this topic was nearly a year ago, I'm uncomfortable with replying there with my thoughts. So I will do it here...
I do not believe in either a Messiah or Messianic Age. At all. In any way, shape or form. I am not an Apocalyptic Jew. I recognise that this was a direct influence of Zoroastrian thought on Jewish thought during the Pre-Hellenistic period. I also must point out that the Sadducees, and likely some other Jewish sects of the Second Temple Period of which we just have no record (and there are many of those), rejected Messianic ideas as being even less than apocryphal. Sadduceean thought did not subscribe to Messianic ideas because no information about a Messiah exists in the Torah, only in some of the Writings and some of the Prophets. Due to this, they rejected the idea... (One should also remember that there were a lot more Writings and Prophets that are now lost to history that existed for reading and study during that time.) I quite agree with their take on that.
I think that the Apocalyptic and Messianic ideas were fostered during the formation of Post-Temple Judaism because times were so very bad. For the same reason, early Christians expanded their influence at the time. People felt quite powerless to help themselves. People were probably pretty angry about it, downtrodden and oppressed. And unable to do anything on very literal pain of death at the hands of the Romans, the idea of a future in which God would assist them through an intermediary was quite attractive and comforting. In the Second Temple Period, this had taken on many forms. Some believed a Golem-like creature (and you might have thought that a Rabbi in Prague came up with that one, but no) or another supernatural creature would be sent, others that the Messiah would be a man, some believed that it would be many, some believed it would be just one. In the Post-Temple reformation, like all things in Judaism, there was a special effort to make the theology uniform, so one single idea of the Messiah was decided upon after what was no doubt a very long debate among the early Rabbis.
I take the attitude that if one keeps waiting for something to happen in order for something to be done, it never, ever will. "God helps those who help themselves" and "If not now, when, if not me, then who?" and all that. If we want things to change, we have to do it ourselves.
I'd like to add that Judaism has never really been an orthodoxy. Even in the Medieval period, there would be some disagreement among scholars on different theological points. As a professor of mine liked to say, Judaism is more of an orthopraxy (his word, not mine)... meaning belief varies, but approved actions tend to be more universal. This is an imperfect analogy too, however, since belief guides practice and practice guides belief. But I still think it's an interesting thought.
I realize to some Jews my thoughts and beliefs are heretical. In response, I giggle.