A: If you asked my grandmother, of blessed memory, about the Jewish
view of redemption, she'd probably assume you were talking about
money-saving coupons, but in fact, it is a central theological
idea for all streams of Judaism, even if they understand the concept
in different ways.
Basically, when Christians talk about redemption, they are talking
about their messiah saving them from punishment for sin, which
they believe is the fate of every person who doesn't accept their
messiah. My imperfect understanding of the Christian view of redemption
is that it's an individual thing that happens on the level of
a person's soul.
The Jewish view of redemption is very different, and, in my humble
rabbinic opinion, much closer to the Biblical texts. For Jews,
the bad thing that God redeems, or saves, us from is not sin,
but exile. The Encyclopaedia Judaica offers a broader definition;
it defines redemption as "salvation from the states or circumstances
that destroy the value of human existence or human existence itself."
For example, the paradigmatic redemption story in the Torah is
the Exodus from Egypt, where God redeems the people from slavery,
oppression, and exile; see Exodus 6:1-10, among many other places.
Much later, when the Israelite kingdom gets overthrown by nasty
empires like the Babylonians and the Assyrians, prophets such
as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah preached to the people that God
would eventually restore Israel to its land and renew both the
Temple worship and the line of kings descended from King David.
See for example, extended sections of the book of Isaiah, including
chapters 40-54, or Ezekiel chapter 37, or Jeremiah chapter 32.
The later prophets sometimes looked back to the redemption from
Egypt as an inspiration or assurance that there would be a future,
even greater redemption from their current suffering.
In post-Biblical times, when the Jews were again in exile and
the Temple lay in ruins after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem
in 70 C.E., the rabbis associated redemption, as before, with
return to the land and the restoration of native kingship. They
also began to discuss the idea of a messiah, whom they thought
of as a Jewish king who would lead the people back from their
dispersal. All these events would take place when the Jews were
worthy of them; repentance and good deeds were the key to the
ushering in of the messianic era.
A third element mixed in with the post-Biblical concept of redemption
is the idea of resurrection of the dead, which some rabbis believed
would happen in messianic times. Not everybody agreed with this,
and there is no single classical Jewish belief about the connection
between redemption, messiah, resurrection, and afterlife. See
my predecessor's Reb On the Web column "What does the Torah teach about an afterlife?" for more on this topic.
In the late middle ages, some mystics began to see the Jewish
situation of exile as being part of a cosmic drama involving the
very nature of God- just as the Jews were in exile from their
land, an aspect of God went into "exile" with us, and the Jewish
redemption will mirror the perfection and wholeness of the Divine
in the upper worlds. The task of the Jews in exile is to gather
"Divine Sparks" and lift them up to their Source; when enough
holiness has been "raised up," the world will find its perfection
and the Jews will be gathered in. This is a difficult and complex
theology, full of metaphors and symbols, but it gave rise to the
idea of "tikkun olam," or "repairing the world," which many liberal
Jews understand as our part in the redemption drama.
Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have reworked
the idea of messiah to symbolize not a particular person but an
age when the entire world, including the Jewish people, will be
redeemed from all that causes our humanity to be diminished- including
but not limited to Jewish dispersal. Even with the Jews back in
Israel, there are still vast human problems that indicate that
the age of wholeness and peace has not arrived; thus, many Jews,
both liberal and traditional, believe that they have a personal
responsibility to engage in small but cumulative acts which will
either hasten or make us worthy of the messianic age. You may
have noticed advertisements placed by Lubavitcher Hassidim, who
advise us to bring the "Moshiach" (Messiah) with acts of kindness
and compassion, or perhaps you've heard a Reform or Conservative
rabbi talk about "tikkun olam" projects, which might include housing
the homeless or other community social justice initiatives. It's
all part of the Jewish belief in redemption, and the fundamental
belief in a brighter future.
There have been many, many articles and books written on these
and related topics. To begin with you might just want to find
an Encyclopaedia Judaica under the topic headings "Redemption,"
"Messiah," and "Resurrection," and then follow the cross-references
to the Biblical, classical, and modern authors that interest you.
The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements all have
statements of belief in some form of redemption and messianic
age, and you could probably obtain these through local rabbis.