Sabbatean Subversion

By

Мог Altshuler

"The Sabbatean Prophets" by Matt Goldish,
Harvard University Press 2004, 240 pages

What led Jews to believe that an eccentricyoung man from Izmir was the messiah and that he would head a Jewish army thatwould cross the legendary Sambatyon River, seize the sultan's throne and redeemthe Jewish people from its oppressive exile? Even after Sabbatai Sevi convertedto Islam in 1666, in the wake of pressure from the sultan's court, the massescontinued to believe in him as the messiah.

In his famous book, "Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676," Gershom Scholem argues thatthe story began in the inner depths of the soul of Sabbatai Sevi, who sufferedfrom manic depression: In his moments of depression, he was subject to "hesterpanim", the concealment of God's face, while in his moments of illumination, hewould sign his letters with a drawing of the "nahash akalaton", the giantlegendary serpent-like Leviathan (nahash, or "snake," numerologically equals"messiah"); perform "bizarre deeds" that violated Jewish law's boundaries; andvow to vanquish the great alligator, Satan's earthly messenger.

Scholembelieves the secret of Sabbateanism's power lay in the ability of the movement'sprophet, Nathan of Gaza, to explain the euphoria and depression in SabbataiSevi's soul as the expression of the universal drama of shattering and repair, exile and redemption - a drama whose source was the mystical teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the "Ari." Even after Sabbatai Sevi's conversion to Islam, Nathan managed - with the help of the seductive idea of "mitzvah haba'a ba'avera - the sacred sin - to persuade people that the messiah converted to Islam sothat he could descend to the abyss of sin to rescue from there the sparksof sanctity and bring about redemption.

Unlike Scholem, who proceeds from the inner depths of the individual'ssoul to mass psychology, and from the kabbalistic symbols that all scholars of mysticism are familiar with to their public translation, Matt Goldish, Samuel M. and Esther Melton associate professor of history at Ohio State University, begins in the opposite direction: He anchors Sabbateanism in time and space - namely, as a product of the messianic hopes that sprouted in the 17th century inChristian Europe and the Muslim world. Both Christians and Muslims consideredthe Ottoman wars against the Hapsburg Empire a struggle over crowning theworld's messianic ruler. While the Muslims believed victory would return themahdi ("vanished messiah") to the world, the Christians perceived the fightingas Armageddon, a prelude to Christ's Second Coming. Both Christians and Muslimsregarded the Jews as Satan's messengers, and the Jews reacted by creating theirown messianic vision, according to which the two religions that were continuallyplotting against them would suffer defeat.

Cross-fertilization

"The Sabbatean Prophets" adopts an innovative perspective, known todayin academic research as "sociology of the mind" - a blend of philosophical andhistorical research that seeks to reveal how an abstract ideology or messianicvision creates a mass movement. It is a complex challenge, demanding the abilityto link kabbala - mysticism, whose underlying currents generated an internalearthquake in Judaism - with the history of the Jews and the nations among whomthey resided. Goldish tackles his task in an original, fascinating manner: Heexamines the conceptual world shared by 17th-century Christian, Muslim andJewish messianic movements and their cross-fertilization. The fertile ground onwhich the movements influenced one another was the Ottoman Empire, whoselocation between East and West made it a meeting place for the Christian andMuslim worlds, and for Jews of Europe and the East. The concept linking the various movements is "mimesis" - a term Goldishborrows from Jean-Michel Oughourlian to describe intellectual phenomena in thebroad context of mass culture: Humans learn by consciously and unconsciouslyimitating others. The patterns of the Sabbateans' prophecies recall millenarianprophets, although the former were convinced that heaven had revealed to themunique knowledge - namely, Sabbatai Sevi's messianism - so that they woulddisseminate it throughout the world.

The story opens in 17th-centuryEurope, plunged in an age of skepticism: Religious faith had disintegrated butits replacement, scientific research, had not yet secured a foothold. Theycoexisted in a state of turmoil in a Baroque, anarchic world that gave free reinto the messianic imagination. Francis Bacon believed scientific progress wouldbring messianic redemption, Sir Isaac Newton made mathematical calculations todetermine the precise date of Christ's Second Coming, and the new geography - the discovery of America and new accessibility of the East and Africa - washarnessed in a search for the Ten Lost Tribes.

The sense of liberationfrom antiquated axioms gave birth to millenarian sects like the Quakers inEngland, who rebelled against the Anglican Church's authority, relying on theapocalyptic visions of children and women. Grass-roots prophecy sprang up inSpain and France too: Virgins prophesied ecstatically, as if their bodies hadbeen penetrated by Christ's spirit, which was speaking through their mouths likea musician playing a recorder or strumming a harp's strings. These millenariansects were active in the East and many of their apocalyptic prophesies forecastthat the End of Days would begin in 1666, the year in which the millennium, widely accepted as Christ's era, would "meet" 666 - the number identified withSatan During this process of prophets imitating one another and disseminatingtheir gospel, news of Sabbatai Sevi's messianism spread as 1666 approached. Thenews originated in Gaza, the city where Nathan the Prophet resided, and traveledto Hebron and Aleppo, eventually reaching Izmir and Istanbul - which itself had800 Sabbatean prophets alone! - And also Adrianople (Hadrianopolis) and Salonikain the west. The Sabbatean prophets included naive adolescent girls, distinguished rabbis, as well as Talmudic scholars and Jews with no scholarlypretensions. As they delivered their prophecies, they would faint as if strickenby epilepsy, mumbling descriptions of visions of Jacob's ladder in heaven or thepillar of fire that accompanied the Israelites in the wilderness. They wouldclaim that the ladder or pillar bore Sabbatai Sevi's name.

Ripe fornew ideas
According to Goldish, this imagery recalls the Star ofBethlehem heralding Christ's birth. Like Moshe Idel, who notes the similaritybetween the pagan belief in the power of Saturn (Shabtai in Hebrew) and thefaith in Sabbatai Sevi as messiah, Goldish describes the Sabbateans' ability torestore to the fold of Judaism Christian images that were originally Jewish: Theimage of the king as the son of a star can be found in the Bible in the figureof "Helel Ben Shahar" ("the morning star"), king of Babylon, and in post-biblicaltradition, in the messianic Bar Kochva (literally, "son of the star" inAramaic).

The twilight area between Judaism and Christianity was notopen to casual influences. First of all, it was a defined geographic space inwhich a vibrant Jewish community - that of the Ottoman Empire centered in whatis now modern-day Turkey - existed and was ripe for the absorption of new ideas. Its western branches reached what is now Greece and its southern branchesreached Syria and Palestine. Goldish paints a unique portrait of a community,which in the 17th century became a microcosm of the Jewish world: Byzantine(Romaniote) Jews had been living in Asia Minor from the end of the ancientperiod and were familiar with the Eastern Christian culture of the Armenians andGreeks, just as they had first-hand knowledge of the ascetism and ecstaticbehavior of the dervishes and the Muslims Sabbatai Sevi most likely was the son of Byzantine Jews, because namesof animals - aryeh ("lion"), ze'ev ("wolf") and sevi ("gazelle") - were commonin his family. In the 16th century, the Byzantine Jewish community was augmentedby the arrival of Jews who had been expelled from Spain. These Spanish Jewsbrought with them a rich tradition in Jewish law and mysticism, as well as alonging for messianic redemption, which increased in the wake of theirexpulsion. Sabbatai Sevi apparently learned from them ballads in Ladino, whichhe would sing in his moments of enlightenment. However, the group thatcontributed more than any other to the development of the subversive train ofthinking that is characteristic of Sabbateanism was the Conversos, descendantsof Marranos (Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism). The Conversos, who came primarily from Portugal, settled in Western Europe and the OttomanEmpire, and openly returned to Judaism. Generations of living clandestinely gaverise to a psychology of duplicity, intended to conceal their Jewish identitybehind a mantle of devout Catholicism. While they sincerely strived to integrateinto the Jewish community, some of them unwittingly adopted a number of theirpersecutors' convictions, creating a system of beliefs that rested on Catholicinterpretations of the Holy Scriptures, especially regarding the messiah'sarrival. The confusing combination of profound hatred for the Inquisition and aCatholic loathing for Talmud was translated among the Conversos into a hatred ofthe rabbinical establishment. Together with a determination to justify theweakness of their ancestors who had converted, this hatred of the rabbinicalestablishment generated the belief among the Conversos that the messiah would bean apostate Jew.

Intricate mosaic

In Goldish's view, it is no coincidence that Baruch Spinoza, adescendant of converted Jews from Amsterdam, developed a philosophy ofintellectual heresy, or that another Marrano, Abraham Miguel Cardoso, rebelledagainst the rabbinical establishment before becoming one of the early prophetsof Sabbatai Sevi's messianism.

East European Jewry is also part of thisintricate mosaic: The mysterious figure of Sarah, Sabbatai Sevi's third wife, isan Ashkenazi version of the Spanish and Portuguese Marranos who were forciblyconverted to Christianity. As an adolescent she was abducted during the revoltled by Bogdan Chmielnitski (1648-1649) and was raised in a convent until, thestory goes; the ghost of her dead father rescued her, bringing her to a Jewishcemetery. In her journey from Poland to Istanbul, she apparently earned herlivelihood as a prostitute. She would tell everybody that she was destined tobecome the messiah's wife. To prove the veracity of her story, she would pointto the bruises her dead father left on her throat. This was a Jewish version ofthe stigmata - Christ's wounds - that appear on the limbs of Christian saints.

Sabbateanism's story from this unique perspective is also that of manyJews who were alienated from Judaism and who discovered that the way back wasrocky indeed. Nevertheless, this sad tale also sheds a special light on the Jewish community of the Ottoman Empire. Its position in the twilight areabetween the medieval world of tradition and the new world of skepticismtransformed it into an avant-garde community, where revolutionary ideasblossomed, along with its members' sense of liberty - which had been suppressedfor generations in the Diaspora - and the audacity to dream of a Jewish army anda sovereign kingdom.

At the end, the research returns to its beginnings: Scholem portrays Sabbateanism as an early version of "sacred sin" protestmovements. He argues that Sabbatean subversion, in its violation of Jewish law'sboundaries, gave rise to the liberty that enabled movements of renewal in the 18th century, like the Enlightenment, to provide the Jewish nation with thevitality that has characterized it in the modern era. "The Sabbatean Prophets"begins in the opposite direction: It defines Sabbateanism as the product of anera of skepticism and ends with the conclusion that it was created in anatmosphere of liberation from ancient chains, despite the fact thatthis liberation was imposed from outside. Despite its destructive aspects, both Scholem and Goldish assignSabbateanism a unique role as the bearer of a message of liberty that has notyet become aware of itself.

The End