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Mystery in History

Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah

by Gershom Scholem, translated by R.J. Werblowsky
Princeton, 1040, 15 plates pp., $25.00

I: A Jewish Messiah

I must begin this review with an apology. Being unable to read Hebrew and Aramaic, I have no firsthand knowledge of the main sources of professor Scholem’s book; indeed what little acquaintance I have with Jewish religious thought comes almost entirely from his other works, supported by some reading of the inadequate and mostly incomplete English and Latin translations of a few Cabalistic writings. My only excuses for writing this review are that nearly all other historians of European thought are in the same boat and that I hope I may be able at least to encourage others to read this immensely important and fascinating book. Some encouragement may be necessary, since a book a thousand pages long is daunting, and its subject is not widely known. I shall not therefore attempt to criticize it—to do so would be presumptuous and silly; and I shall concentrate on those aspects which are of particular interest to the historian of Christianity.

This book is a translation of Scholem’s Hebrew work on Sabbatai Sevi, the Jewish mystic who in 1665 proclaimed himself the Messiah. It was published in 1957, but it has been considerably expanded because since then important new sources have come to light, in particular documents from the archives of a secret group of Sabbatai’s followers who had survived at Salonika into the 1920s, documents which were not discovered until 1960. Professor Werblowsky’s translation reads excellently, and, since the author has revised the whole of it, we may trust its accuracy. It must have been a colossal task, and the translator deserves the gratitude of the scholarly world. The original book, as Scholem tells us in his preface, had begun as a projected history of the whole course of the Sabbatian movement; but, to his surprise, he found such a wealth of unexplored or misinterpreted material on Sabbatai’s life and the movement during his lifetime that he was obliged to limit himself to a period bounded by Sabbatai’s death in 1676, or rather by that of his prophet, Nathan of Gaza in 1680, and it is here that the book ends.

Scholem tells us, however, that he hopes to “be able to complete at a later time a sequel covering the history of Sabbatianism in its various forms after the death of Sabbatai Sevi—its conflicts, its metamorphoses, and its reverberations.” Until the realization of this project, which I very much hope will be sooner than later, we can get some idea of the further developments of the movement from the collection of Scholem’s essays entitles The Messianic Idea in Judaism (1971) and from the later chapters of his classic Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Some knowledge of these developments is necessary in order to see the true historical importance of Sabbatianism, though the story told in the present book is indeed in itself important and surprising enough. This story I must now very briefly summarize so that the reader may know what I am talking about.

Sabbatai Sevi was born at smyrna in 1626. He was well educated in the rabbinic tradition, which by this time included a dominant strain of mysticism deriving from the sixteenth-century Cabala of Isaac Luria and his school. He had great personal charm, but no force of character, and until he was nearly forty no one took much notice of him. His one striking peculiarity was a form of mental abnormality which we should nowadays call manic-depressive. In his states of exaltation he was wont to perform “strange works,” acts which deliberately and publicly violated Jewish religious law, such as the ritual eating of forbidden animal fats or pronouncing the ineffable name of God, and which in his alternating states of passive melancholy he could not explain. This peculiarity was, as Scholem remarks, “hardly likely to win him adherents.” But in March 1665, a young rabbi, Nathan of Gaza, had a vision in which Sabbatai, whom he must have seen in Jerusalem a few years earlier, appeared to him as the Messiah. Soon after, Sabbatai came to Gaza and was convinced by nathan that he was indeed the Messiah.

Nathan was a remarkable character, endowed with those qualities that his Messiah lacked: a powerful religious imagination, great literary ability, and a forceful personality. And, although Sabbatai had for many years, when in his manic states, had visions of himself as the Messiah, it was not until the two came together that his Messiahship was proclaimed and the movement began to gain adherents. It spread with amazing rapidity among all levels of all Jewish communities, from the Near East to England, from Holland to Russia—a great wave of intensely emotional faith in the imminence of redemption, of joyful expectation coupled with fantastic penitential acts to hasten on the End, of wild rumors, such as the reappearance of the lost ten tribes of Israel.

This extraordinary success can to some degree be explained by the diffusion at this period of Lurianic Cabalism among all classes of Jewish society, carrying with it urgent messianic expectations, which had developed out of the shock and misery of the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and had been recently reinforced by the terrible massacres in Poland of 1648. This great wave of hope and enthusiasm broke against the strangest of all Sabbatai’s strange acts. In September, 1666, little over a year after the movement had begun, he was taken to the Sultan in Adrianople and given the choice of death or conversion to Islam. He chose apostasy.

The enormous force of the movement is shown by the fact that the Messiah’s apostasy did not lead to its total collapse. The outward manifestations were of course checked: the flood of pilgrims to Turkey to see the Lord’s annointed had to cease; business and trade, which in many communities had come to a standstill, were resumed; and those firmly orthodox rabbis who had withstood the enthusiasm were able at least to impose silence on the believers. But the faith of many of these believers survived the shock, and they carried on the movement, which soon became Nicodemite, systematically secret. And remarkably soon, within the ten years before Sabbatai’s death, a whole new theology had grown up, designed to explain and justify the apostasy.

It is a remarkable achievement to have established these facts in all their living detail, and to have understood and conveyed clearly the development of the complex, symbolically expressed religious doctrines of the main actors in this drama. For this is the kind of history which inevitably conceals itself; as soon as the events occur, all the witnesses have strong motives for suppressing them or distorting them or embellishing them, and these motives often become stronger with later generations. In this case, the motives for the suppression of evidence were peculiarly strong. After the disgraceful end to the upheaval, everyone, except for the minority of now secret believers, wished to forget about it as completely as possible. In consequence, with the one exception of the Sephardim in Hamburg, no official records of Jewish communities for the years of 1665 and 1666 have survived, or, of they have, the pages relevant to the Sabbatian agitation have been torn out or deleted. This strong wish to forget the original explosion and its later heretical developments has persisted up to the present day.

Although, in spite of such destruction, there is an abundance of documents of all kinds on Sabbatai and the early history of his movement, every single bit of evidence has to be carefully and expertly judged. First, there is much bogus information to be cleared away, for Sabbatai soon acquired great news value outside as well as within the Jewish world. Many Christian thinkers were keenly interested in him, for example John Evelyn and Henry Oldenburg, the Dutch millenarist Peter Serrarius, and the great Biblical scholar Richard Simon; in London and Hamburg bets were laid on the chances of Sabbatai’s being proclaimed king of the world within a certain time. This interest was naturally exploited by journalists. As early as 1666 a kind of factory was discovered at Constantinople producing newsletters about Sabbatai, who was then on his way there.

Second, not only must the obvious bias of any genuine source be discounted—the legends made up about him by believers, or the tales of sexual immorality circulated by his opponents—but one must also make sure that, in spite of the bias, some grain of true information does not lie embedded in the slander or glorification. For example, in unraveling the extremely complicated question of Sabbatai’s meeting with the Polish prophet Nehemiah Kohen, which may have led to his apostasy, Scholem is able to use, as corroborative evidence to disprove one account of the events leading up to it, an obviously legendary Sabbatian source in which Sabbatai is described as giving an audience to scholars behind “a large piece of glass to protect those present from the heat radiating from him, for he is like an angel of fire.” And even this detail is not sheer invention, for reliable sources mention that in his manic state his face was curiously fiery and glowing. On the other side, the rumors, which arose mostly after his apostasy, about his odd sexual behavior cannot be dismissed as merely the routine slander on heretics, since they fit in so well with his other strange acts and his apparently complete sexual abstinence during his earlier life, a kind of asceticism which is not in accordance with Jewish traditions of sanctity.

Apart from the great importance of Sabbatianism in the history of the Jewish people and religion, it is of immense interest to the historian of Christianity. For the parallels and contrasts between the early phases of the two movements are striking and profound, and, whereas for early Christianity the documentary evidence is inevitably sparse, for Sabbatianism it is profuse, and in the hands of such an expert as Scholem can yield a full and detailed picture both of the Messiah’s life and personality and of the doctrinal evolution caused by the disappointment of the messianic hopes aroused. The significance of these parallels is increased by the remarkable paucity of any hard evidence for the direct influence of Christianity on Sabbatai and his followers; there are, however, some interesting exceptions to this statement and I will return to the subject later.

Some of the likenesses between the two movements are obvious enough. The messianic expectations aroused by both were rooted in the Old Testament; they were in both cases abruptly dashed by the disastrous end of the Messiah, and had therefore to be somehow transformed to fit the new situation. But here the contrasts as well as the similarities must be borne in mind. By Sabbatai’s time the Jewish religious tradition had acquired many new strands. The Old Testament was still the central sacred text, but later accretions offered growing points for doctrinal development that were not available to the early Christians, in particular Lurianic Cabalism with its gnostic doctrine of the origin and resolution of evil. There is also a huge difference of quality between the ends of the two Messiahs. Apostasy, followed by ten years of passive, uneventful life, is a much more shaky foundation for building a new religion than the death, however ignominious, on the cross. For Christianity, the more serious and lasting disaster was the failure of the Second Coming to take place, and this was the major cause of doctrinal evolution, as Schweitzer and his followers have shown. For Sabbatianism, although there were continuing hopes of some kind of reappearance of the Messiah, the main crisis, and the main source of new doctrines, was the apostasy, the worst of all betrayals.

Here again we must remember another historical difference between the two movements. At the time of Christ the Jews had already suffered exile and persecution; but by the time of Sabbatai they had also undergone the worse horror of enforced conversions to Christianity, particularly in Spain in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Messiah’s apostasy could then be regarded by the marranos, or those of marrano ancestry, as a kind of divine justification of their own betrayal; and it was so regarded by one of the chief early theologians to work out a doctrinal justification of Sabbatai’s conversion, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, who was born in a crypto-Jewish family in Spain.

In the many theories designed to justify Sabbatai’s apostasy there is, as one would expect, a strong antinomian tendency. The Messiah is not bound by moral law; he is jenseits des Guten und Bösen because he has succeeded in getting back to the level of primordial innocence before the Trees of Life and of the knowledge of Good and Evil were separated. Now, even without the special motive of justifying the apostasy, there is likely to be such a tendency in any messianic movement. If there is to be a new, totally transformed age, then all the laws governing the old world must be broken to pieces; the constricting shell of prohibition and punishment must be burst to allow the emergence of the new, regenerated, perfect generation of the elect, who are incapable of sin, in the sense that nothing they do can be classed as sinful. Moreover, this tendency was already conspicuous in Sabbatai himself before his conversion; his strange acts were foretastes of the Messianic Age, when the old law shall be completely abrogated.

The parallel here with Christianity is again evident, but significantly different. Christ too performed his strange acts: broke the Sabbath, defended and adultress, and forgave a whore; and his moral preaching was paradoxical, revolutionary, and likely to blow up existing society. At a later stage Saint Paul proclaimed the abrogation of the Jewish law; but not, as Scholem points out, because of his messianic faith, but because this was demanded by his situation as apostle to the gentiles—though here again there may be a parallel in Sabbatai’s own doctrine of his apostasy, as we shall see. In Christianity the antinomian tendencies were suppressed as the movement became a stable institution. Indeed the Church could not have survived without their suppression; but with every eruption of millenarist hopes they have made their reappearance. Sabbatianism went underground and did not become a church; in consequence the antinomian seeds could sprout and grow, and in the later eighteenth century they bore strange, black fruit in the total nihilism of Jakob Frank and the members of his heretical sect.

There was also a more constructive side to Sabbatian post-apostasy theology. To make this comprehensible I must give a drastically simplified version of the doctrine or myth of evil and redemption that appears in the sixteenth-century Cabala of Isaac Luria and his followers. In the beginning, the supreme, unknowable God, Ensof, performed an act of contraction or withdrawal, Tsimtsum, thus making a void in which creation and emanation could take place. This act separated off one of God’s latent attributes, Din, stern justice as opposed to mercy, which became Gevurah, one of the ten Sefiroth (literally, numbers), the primary emanations from Ensof. The divine light, from which these emanations derive, was caught in vessels, and those of the last six Sefiroth broke; some of the light was thus spilt and fell as sparks into the abyss, the realm of the evil husks or shells, the qelippoth (in Knorr von Rosenroth’s seventeenth-century Latin version the terms are scintillae and cortices). This was a cathartic process, by which the sefiroth were cleansed of their admixture with the evil aspects of Din; the qelippoth are, as it were, the excrement from the emanations, or, in some versions, are the fragments of the broken vessels.

By this cataclysmic event, which is prior to the creation of our universe, evil became a separate, distinct realm, and embedded in it, among the husks, are the sparks of the spilt divine light. The extraction of these sparks and their reunion with the upper light is a process of reconciliation interior to the godhead, but it is also reflected in the historical process of redemption in this world. In both cases, man can play an active role, by prayer, mystical meditation, and pious deeds, in bringing about the final reconciliation, which will be consummated by the advent of the Messiah. Not only will Israel be restored to unity from exile, but also God Himself; the Shekhinah, the immanence of God among His people, the last sefirah, which fell when the vessels were broken and again when Adam sinned, will be reunited as bride to her bridegroom, the Holy One blessed be He, the personification of the lower sefiroth.

In human terms the sparks among the husks are the redeemable souls among the gentiles. The Missiah then, by apostasizing, has entered the realm of the qelippoth, with the purpose of somehow bringing it back to order. On one theory, that of Nathan, he will do this by extracting the few good souls remaining there, thus rendering the husks totally lifeless and powerless; he will then explode the evil world from within, and emerge as the triumphant messianic king. That is to say, he has entered the world of the gentiles in order to hasten its destruction. On another theory, and this seems to have been Sabbatia’s own doctrine, he will, by his messianic power, convert the gentiles, perhaps only the Muslims, among whom he is living, or perhaps the whole gentile world, to his own kind of Judaism, and thus not destroy the realm of evil but transform it. That Sabbatai had eirenic hopes, which included Christians, is indicated by his interest in the soul of Christ, more deeply embedded among the husks than any other, and his apparent intention of saving it, as a supreme feat of redemption.

This is perhaps an example of a direct influence of Christianity on Sabbatianism. Christian messianic hopes, unlike Jewish ones, often lay greater emphasis on the reuniting of all nations by conversion to one universal religion (“and there shall be one shepherd and one fold”) than on the destruction of the wicked; and this is especially true of the seventeenth century. It is possible then that this was one of Sabbatai’s motives for apostasy: that, like Saint Paul, he was prepared to reject the Jewish law in order to convert the gentiles, convert them to some all-embracing faith founded on a new interpretation of the Torah, something like the new Gospel, the Evengelium Aeternum of the followers of Joachim of Flora.

Another possible instance of direct Christian influence, which Scholem suggests, is Nathan’s doctrine of justification by faith, which is formulated in terms strikingly similar to those of Saint Paul and his Protestant followers. But, as Scholem points out, it is equally possible that the same situation, namely a Messiah who gave no outward signs of kingship independently produced the same demand for unconditional trust on the part of believers. The same doubt applies to other instances of possible Christian influence, such as the development in Sabbatian theology of a trinitarian God and of a doctrine of incarnation.

There is one other, to me surprising, aspect of early Sabbatian movement that may be explained as deriving ultimately from the Christian tradition: the extraordinary violence of the penitential acts performed during the great wave of messianic enthusiasm. Many people died from excessive fasting; curious practices, such as rolling naked in the snow at night “for half an hour or at least a quarter of an hour,” were common; “some caused boiling wax to drip down their naked bodies for an hour or more, others again wrapped their naked flesh in nettles and put on heavy clothes in order to increase the mortification of the flesh. In large communities the supply of nettles from the neighborhood was insufficient, and they had to be obtained from afar and at great cost” (Leyb B. Ozer, Beshraybung fun Shabsai Zvi). Now such practices first appear in Judaism, together with a systematic theory of penitence, in medieval German Hasidism, and, as Scholem states in Major Trends, they undoubtedly derive from early medieval Christian practice and theory. This tradition must have been still very much alive in the seventeenth century, since so many Jewish communities, widely separated geographically, spontaneously strove to hasten the messianic process by such extreme penitential suffering.

I hope I have not given the impression that these parallels and connections with Christianity, extremely interesting though they are, constitute the main riches of this book. It is a monumental work of historical scholarship, which recounts in minute detail a moving tragedy of vast dimensions. On Nathan of Gaza’s tombstone was written: “The punishment of thine iniquities is accomplished, O daughter of Zion” (Lam. IV:22), and on this Scholem comments:

These words indeed sum up the message of the tempestuous lives of Sabbatai Sevi, the “messiah of the God of Jacob,” and Nathan of Gaza, his prophet. They had meant to open the gates of redemption, and succeeded in arousing the whole House of Israel. Yet they did not, and indeed could not, find the way from vision to realization. The furrow which they plowed in the heart of their people was deep, and the seed of their message germinated, albeit in a different manner and in very different circumstances from those envisaged by them, in subsequent phases of Jewish history. The crisis precipitated by the movement which they initiated may well be regarded as one of the decisive turning-points in Jewish history.

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