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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/3
Women in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Pages 23 - 27)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah
Hayim Goren Perelmuter


Gershom Scholem is a quiet revolutionary in the field of Jewish scholarship.

For half a century he has been diligently at work using the scholarly tools of Jewish enlightenment to .« do in » some of its most cherished conclusions. He has touched off a whole new enterprise of re-evaluating Jewish history and bringing a new and profound insight into its processes.

He began far ahead of his time and time is now catching up with him as he continues his work in his study on Rehov Abarbanel in Rehavia. For we have come to know that one does not live by rationalism alone; indeed, we have come to realize that history is shaped by the mystical and the metarational, and we had better understand how it works. The lens that Spinoza so patiently ground has suddenly become opaque and demands that we look beyond it.

Scholem early concluded — and his mammoth scholarship confirmed — that the major Jewish historians of the nineteenth century, worshipping at the altars of rationalism alone, uncomfortable with the hidden forces behind this process, refused to face the fact that the hidden forces of mysticism and messianism, running as an immense subterranean stream in Jewish history, play a significant role that must be faced and understood.

This is the principal thrust of his monumental study of Sabbatai Sevi which appeared first in the Hebrew in 1957 and has recently been published in a superb translation by Zvi Werblowski. It is more than a translation, for a significant amount of new data has since appeared to flesh out this extraordinary study even ore. These new sources include a collection of manuscripts that until 1924 had formed a part of the archives of the Sabbatian sect of the DOnmeh in Salonika, which survived the Nazi occupation in Greece and found their way to the Ben Zvi Institute for the History of Oriental Jewish Communities in 1960. In addition, an important Yiddish manuscript of a contemporary of Sabbatai Sevi in the possession of Zalman Shazar was also made available.

So what we have here is more than just a translation — it is a monumental work in new form, illuminating perhaps the grandest of all themes of Jewish history, the theme of survival and redemption of the Jewish people. It is a book not written for the sake of apology or condemnation but to elucidate « all aspects of the very complex phenomenon known as Sabbatianism ».' Nor is it intended as a treatise on theology but rather as a contribution to an understanding of the history of the Jewish people.

For here was a movement « that shook the House of Israel to its very foundations » and revealed not only the vitality of the Jewish people but also the dangerous shoals of the messianic idea. Scholem's perceptive statement « that Jewish historiography has generally chosen to ignore the fact that the Jewish people have paid a very high price for the messianic idea » 2 is worth pondering.

It is echoed by the recent sober analysis of the October War by Israel Kolat in Molad when he wrote that the whole concept of the Zionist movement, with its goal of a secure home ultimately for the Jewish people in a hostile world, becomes a terrifying reality that the State that came into being as a haven for future generations is devouring its present generation in constant wars.
To face this truth is not necessarily to flee from it, war is the conclusion warranted that the price is too great for the process. On the contrary, the awesomeness of the confrontation with this reality deepens the sense of the ultimate worth of the struggle, and this comes through as a major thrust of the work.

Sabbatai Sevi is the portrait of an age. It is as though, like an instant replay, the action of several years in mid-seventeenth century is frozen, and an entire panorama of events revealing the throbbing heart of Jewish history lies exposed before us for a minute examination.

The genius of Scholem is both macrocosmic and microscopic. He grasps vast expanses with an amazing mastery of the widest variety of sources, and he has the capacity of squeezing the last drop from the dried-up lemon of some recondite source. He can perceive psychological nuances, read between the lines of opaque evasiveness, pursue his quarry with relentless determination and leave the reader with a sense of illumination and insight.

Sabbatai Sevi, that strange, charismatic sweet singer of Jewish liturgy and Spanish love songs, part manic-depressive, part paranoid, who comes to Nathan of Gaza seeking the « root of his soul >> as a modern does to his psychiatrist, is confirmed by this « prophet » in his messianic claims. As a result of this meeting of a would-be messiah and his diagnostician apostle, a movement sweeps the Jewish world encompassing the rich and the poor, western and oriental, sophisticate and naif in its irresistible appeal.

It swept beyond the bounds of the Jewish world, catching the attention of millennium-minded Christians who abounded in the Christian world of the late Middle Ages as underground and overt opponents of the Catholic Church. Diplomatic observers in Constantinople, Christian clergymen, a Yiddish-writing book-keeper from Poland, and even Samuel Pepys in his day could react to the event. Pepys' Diary records this entry of February 19, 1666:

I am told for certain, what I have heard once or twice already, of a Jew in town, that in the name of the rest do offer to give any man £10 to be paid £100 if a certain person now at Smyrna be within these two years owned by all the Princes of the East, particularly the Grand Signor, as the King of the world, in the same manner we do the King of England here, and that this man is the true Messiah ... certainly this year of 1666 will be a year of great action; but what the consequences of it will be, God knows! 4

For a moment in history it seemed that the messianic impulse was poised to overthrow the existing powers, restoring hegemony to the House of Israel after 1600 years. Scholem captures the flavor of this moment, helps us savor it, meet the characters in the drama, come to know and understand them, and to penetrate deeply into an understanding of the forces that shaped them.

It is a fascinating experience to witness the relentless application of the scientific, scholarly method to the interpretation of mystical themes and the spelling out of historical events. These thousand pages have it all, from the sensitive introduction, the setting of the background, the cutting away of the web of confusion as the real Sabbatai emerges, the people and forces around him, the impact throughout the Jewish world and the tragic denouement. And it includes a bibliography that is encyclopedic and total. I recall Scholem saying wistfully about his book: « It will not be a best seller, but writers will weave many best sellers out of it. » It is at once a fascinating world of experience in and out of itself, and an inexhaustible sourcebook for all who turn to it.

Here, perhaps as nowhere else, the reader will come to see how the development of mystical thought through Lurianic Kabbalah and the aftermath of the trauma of the expulsion from Spain come together in a messianic explosion. One cannot help but think, as one examines this fact, of the traumatic impact of the Holocaust and of the messianic explosion into being of the State of Israel.

Where Jewish mysticism in its earlier phases concentrated on the mysteries of Creation and had little apocalyptic concern and the messianic impulses following the dispersions of the years 70 and 135 were kept under relative control, nevertheless mysticism was there, and we see the tension and the efforts of rationalists like Maimonides to define the messianic future in non-apocalyptic terms and totally within the orbit of Torah and the halakha.

It was in Safed, where the kabbalists settled and meditated upon the implications of the expulsion from Spain and the problems of exile, that the two forces, Kabbalism and Messianism met in the evolving thought of Isaac Luria. His system turned toward the apocalyptic, the concept of the ultimate redemption through tiqqun as a symbolic restoration from exile to fulfillment in the cosmic scheme of things. This coincided fully with the inner feelings of the Jewish masses, wherever they were, who saw in the upheaval of 1492, coupled with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the flutterings of the wings of destiny heralding the birth-pangs of the Messiah and the assurance of imminent redemption.

The Lurianic Kabbalah spread its influence throughout the Jewish world with a rapidity reminiscent of the spread of Islam, and by the year 1600 was an all-pervasive force in the Jewish world. Add to this the serious yearnings of the Marranos and the Spanish exiles, who saw Christian power challenged by the onslaught of the Turks and the spread of their power with its messianic implications.

Scholem sees the appearance and rapid spread of the Shulhan Arukh by Luria's fellow townsman and contemporary, Joseph Karo, not just as a codification of Jewish law, but rather impelled also by a strong sense of a messianic tomorrow that called for a code of mitzvot for the Jewish people, to be completely fulfilled to hasten its coming.

Wherever Jews lived, whether in affluence or in poverty, whether in the aftermath of the Chmelnitzky massacres in Poland or the prospering centers in Turkey, Italy or Western Europe, they shared the sense of uncertainty and waited.

Scholem dwells upon the historic significance of the Lurianic ideas, and expounds them with a lucid precision rarely to be encountered. « They provided, » he writes, « an immediate answer to the most pressing question of the time — Israel's existence in exile ... The Jew's very existence was profoundly symbolic, both in its present suffering and its future redemption. »5

So along comes a manic-depressive kabbalist who can sing and has charisma!

Born in Smyrna, of a family that was of Ashkenazic origin and had lived some time in Greece, he was the second of three sons in a well-to-do family. He mastered kabbalistic studies early and drew around him a small coterie of followers who saw in his « strange actions » seeds of messianic possibility. Interestingly enough, he avoided the newer Lurianic Kabbalah, concentrating on the older sources, the Zohar and the Se/er Kanah, the latter with its mystical devotion to halakha combined with halfveiled but occasionally very radical criticism of halakhic methods.

Here perhaps were the seeds of his earlier antinomianism. Yet he could become the Messiah figure to a Jewish world steeped in Lurianic Kabbalah.

Recently discovered DOnmeh documents, memoirs of his closest entourage, give clear contemporary insight to his strange behavior patterns, which in terms of present scientific knowledge clearly reveal the manic-depressive quality of his personality as it developed from his fifteenth year onward. It was an alternating cycle of manic and depressive states, at unpredictable intervals, with occasional periods of normalcy in between. In the manic state, his mind and thought processes glowed, his personality was incandescent. Yet he would never write down his thoughts.

His « ups » were characterized by mental exaltation and certainty of inspiration, but in his « downs » there was dejection, melancholia, passivity and a deep sense of agony. But despite the swings the total personality remained intact. The process is described by a contemporary and follower, Samuel Gandoor, writing in 1665:

It is said of him that for fifteen years he has been afflicted in the following manner: he suffers anxieties that leave him constantly depressed and do not even permit him to read, without his being able to say what is the nature of this pain that has come upon him. Thus he suffers until the great anxiety departs from him, when he returns with great joy to his studies. For many years he has suffered from this illness and no doctor has found a remedy for it, but it is the sufferings (inflicted) by heaven!

In 1648, these inner forces — and perhaps a reaction to the catastrophe of Polish Jewry — move him to his first messianic claim, but it goes relatively unnoticed. He makes his way to Smyrna, where in his manic state, he has messianic revelations, and his « strange acts » become more manifest. He interprets the « mattir assurim » of the Amidah to imply mattir issurim »! By 1662, he turns up in Egypt and spends some time in the entourage of the wealthy Egyptian Jew, the Chelebi Raphael Joseph, around whom a large group of kabbalist scholars had gathered, and from whose circles the messianic tidings went out to the Jewish world.

He spends a year in Jerusalem, where a young student Nathan Ashkenazi, later to become the « St. Paul » of the movement, is studying and may have encountered him. Nathan becomes a great kabbalist and settles in Gaza, where he displays among other things a capacity to tell people the « root of their soul » in the manner of the later hasidic tsaddik (or contemporary analyst? ).

Sevi has arrived through his kabbalistic speculation at a deep sense of messianic imminence. In a relatively normal period, Sabbatai is sent to Egypt on a fundraising mission, which he performs well. On the way back, deeply troubled by his periodic depressions and not sure about his periods of exaltation, he stops to see Nathan and seek his help. Nathan confronts him as the Messiah, and they spend some time in discussion. Sabbatai, in his normal period, with many doubts, needed persuasion. He gets it from Nathan. « He went a shaliah and returned a Mashiah! » — so punned the Jerusalemites.7

Nathan of Gaza emerges as the theologian and organizer of the movement. For now Sabbatai « goes public », in a journey that takes him finally to Constantinople to confront the Sultan, and the tragic denouement of the confrontation — the apostasy of the Messiah!

By the time Sabbatai found his way to Nathan, the latter had developed into a tyro of kabbalistic thought. In the spring of 1665, he achieved an ecstatic vision that combined both ends of the messianic process, the vision of the cosmogony and Merkabah on the one hand, and the messianic vision of Redemption on the other. It was Nathan's great talent to bring these spheres together. He it is, who points the finger at Sabbatai. For the first time someone else had recognized Sabbatai as messiah in a vision. For the first time the eccentric kabbalist from Smyrna had made an impression on somebody who was really a somebody. Scholem writes of Nathan:

The hidden revolutionary tendencies of his generation crystallized in Nathan Ashkenazi. He functioned as a kind of « transformer » — concentrating in his person, articulating and transmitting the historical focus at work. By making himself the herald and standard bearer of the Messiah, Nathan gave the crucial impetus to the formation of the Sabbatian movement.8

This, then, was Nathan of Gaza who had moved from kabbalist student to visionary prophet to spiritual director of those who sought tigqun for their souls, and who felt the historical forces moving toward redemption churning, and could say, with another kind of intent, the words of his predecessor who stood before King David — « Thou art the man! *

What a cast of characters! Jacob Sasportas, that dour, sober opponent of Sabbatianism, mounting his opposition from Hamburg and Amsterdam, looking down at us from his portrait with a Puritan mien; the Italian brothers Jacob and Emanuel Frances, writing their barbs in Hebrew satiric poetry; Abraham Yakhini, the devout and inspired follower; Israel Hazzan, the recorder of Sabbatian theology; Berechya Berech, Darshan of Cracow up to 1648, Amsterdam by 1664, originally suspicious and finally making his pilgrimage to the « Messiah »; Abraham Cardozo from Morocco who helped shape the movement after the Messiah's apostasy; — these and a host of others, each with their special brand of fascination.

The theology of the movement is clearly etched in all its nuances and complexities, clearly outlined and analyzed with depth and clarity. We see the emergence of a « reforming » trend with the emphasis shifting from halakha to aggadah. We discover the essence of Sabbatai's mystic view of the Godhead as an absence of providence, becoming an impersonal and abstract « first cause » in the manner of Spinoza and developing into the movement's central heresy. The God to be worshipped is the one that becomes manifest in the Messiah!

It becomes intriguing to note how messianic movements in the moment of fulfillment tend to move in the direction of anti-nomianism. When the goal of history is fulfilled, halakha can be changed; Tisha be-Av can be transformed from fast day to feast day.

One toys with the thought that there was a sense of messianic fulfillment in the early years of our movement, when the optimistic view of history held sway, with « precedent » triumphantly « broadening to precedent *; when so many were swept along with the belief of the imminence of the messianic fulfillment in an age of infinite progress. And halakha went by the board. One toys with the thought that the whole sweep of Zionism drew its momentum from the forces churned up by this movement as Jewish history entered the modern era.

Reform and Zionism, those bitter antagonists of the turn of the century, sired by the same, strange, mystical, aborted force! And elements of the enlightenment to boot! Habent sua fata libelli. History indeed plays strange tricks on us.

Scholem helps us see the whole Sabbatian movement as a continuation of the Jewish messianic dream that refuses to accept defeat and that sees a continuing covenant role ending in triumph. It is a direct line from the abortive attempt of Zerubabel, the struggle from 66 to 135, the Zealots in Jerusalem, the men of Masada, Akiba placing his hopes in Bar Kochba. And will we come to see Yohanan ben Zakkai as one who turned his back on one abortive messianic debacle, to restructure the people to survive in history for new attempts in our time?

For while the Yohanan ben Zakkais and the Maimonides figures of their respective ages and ours looked on in concern and doubt, it swept onward, and sweeps onward. What other explanation for the resurgence and resistance of Soviet Jewry?

Even in defeat and disaster — and the Sabbatian movement was surely that — it loosed immense forces that lurked behind the sweet reasonableness of the enlightenment and emerged as the forces of Jewish regeneration and survival as we know them today.

Sabbatai Sevi is more than a book. It is a searing experience in which the reader touches the throbbing heart of Jewish experience, an experience itself that has the touch of depressive depths and manic heights, of triumphs and of defeats, and of a capacity to emerge scarred, yet somehow whole and ever ready for renewed struggle.

The debris of the historical process becomes both prism and stepping stone. The prism reveals much of the deep yearnings of a people. The stepping stones we struggle over into the future. Perhaps the Messiah who failed did not fail so badly after all!

Another great signpost along the highway of Jewish history and scholarship is there to guide us. It bears the stamp of Gershom Scholem's immense talent. It profondly affects the course of Jewish history and scholarship.

Rabbi Perelmuter is the Rabbi of K.A.M. Congregation, Chicago, Illinois.

The editors are grateful for the authorization to reprint this article/review on Gershom Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah which first appeared in CCAR Journal, Winter 1975.

1. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (Princeton University Press, 1973), p. xii.
2. Ibid.
3. “Mehir haPikahon », Molad, October-December 1974.
4. Pepys' Diary (Everyman's Edition, 1959) II, 224.
5. Sabbatai Sevi, p. 44.
6. Ibid., p. 129.
7. Ibid., p. 214.
8. Ibid., p. 208.


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