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How some Israelis see the sacred in settlements

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He sees the ingathering of the exiles in Israel as part of a messianic process, but says he doesn't know what shape the Messiah will take or when he will come. As for where, he cites a 12th-century rabbi and philosopher from Spain, Rabbi Judah Halevi, who wrote that the land of Israel is the only place where a person can be a prophet – which is to say, someone who has a direct connection with God.

Mr. Magnes refers to a page in the Talmud that says that the Messiah will come on clouds – or on a mule. "If we do it the easy way, then he'll come on clouds.... But if we do it the hard way, we're talking about a lot of suffering," he says.

Given the Holocaust and sufferings in the land of Israel over the past 100 years, he says, "then I can't say he's coming on clouds.... But it's coming."

Within the broader Jewish community, there is no unanimity on the exact characteristics of the Messiah or the prerequisites for his coming, says Bible scholar Israel Knohl of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Previous figures seen by some as messianic include fighters like Bar Kokhba, who led a rebellion against Roman rule, as well as spiritual leaders like Shlomo Molko, a "very impressive scholar of Talmud and kabbalah," says Professor Knohl.

And some, Knohl adds, "see the state of Israel as a messianic response to the Holocaust. Namely, that it was a type of redemption to the people, which came after the Holocaust."

Building 'ruined places'

While many religious Zionists don't expect the Messiah to appear imminently, and some say it's a secondary point in settling the land, they see signs that the process is under way.

Three signs they point to are the return of Jews to this land, Israel's quick conquering of the West Bank in 1967, and the land becoming fruitful under Jewish cultivation.

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