62. Deviations of Qabbalah
In 1666, the Amsterdam Stock Exchange was in a state of great turmoil: the Jewish brokers and speculators were beside themselves with enthusiasm, the bull and bear players forgot their financial transactions and indulged in ecstatic dances of jubilation: commercial correspondence from the Levant announced that the Messiah had appeared to the Jews of Izmir. The cautious shopkeepers in Amsterdam wrote again to their correspondents for more reliable news, to convince themselves that there was no mistake, that the one who had appeared in Izmir was really the Messiah awaited for thousands of years by all the people of Israel. The answer was: “Hu velo acher”, “It is he and not others”. The happy message spread with lightning speed across seas and countries, in every place where the Torah was venerated. In Paris, in Livorno, in Vienna, the same scenes were repeated everywhere: men abandoned their business, women left their children and their homes, and everyone danced in the intoxication of an unrestrained enthusiasm.
With these vivid and historically unexceptionable words, an author describes the incredible adventure of a false Messiah. Šabbetay Ṣewi (1626-1676), son of a wealthy poultry merchant from Izmir, had experienced psychic breaks in the form of uncontrolled visions from an early age. In an attempt to bring some order to these experiences, he devoted himself to the study of Qabbalah from his adolescence. The Qabbalah he followed was not the traditional initiatic one, almost disappeared at that time, but the mystical and apocalyptic one that drew its source from the teachings of Abulafia, a deviation from the ancient tradition. At the age of 15, he received his first mystical revelations, which convinced him that he was the earthly manifestation of the saturnine aspect of God. Šabbetay indeed is the Hebrew term for the inauspicious planet of destruction. And, in fact, his behaviour was always characterized by that melancholy so typical also inall Christian Qabbalists and Renaissance Hermeticists of the time.
At the age of twenty-two he proclaimed himself Messiah to his circle of admirers in Smyrna: his concept of the Messiah differed considerably from that of the previous false Messiahs. He claimed that there was an essential identity between him being a Messiah and God himself and that he had succeeded in pronouncing the tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God, by rotating the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Punished of herem (rabbinical excommunication), Ṣewi began a wandering life between Byzantium, Thessaloniki, Jerusalem and Cairo. Through his preaching he attracted a small number of followers, who, however, wealthy and influential, protected him from the orthodox rabbinical and Talmudic circles and the Ottoman administration. In 1663 he met Nathan of Gaza, who quickly became his prophet and right-hand man. In 1666, year in which according to some ‘prophecies’ the Messianic era would have begun, started the great success of this false Messiah.
The illusion that the Messiah would quickly redeem the Jews from their marginalised status in Islamic and Christian countries raised a sudden enthusiasm in all the territories of the Diaspora. He returned with full honours to his native Smyrna, overthrew the chief rabbi who was hostile to him and began to reign as a ruler. He married several women, but his main wife had to appear in Smyrna with great pomp. The prostitute Sarah from Livorno, had claimed since childhood that her destiny was to become wife of the Messiah. Financed by bankers and merchants from Amsterdam and Livorno, accompanied by a procession of learned rabbis and Talmudic sages, Sara presented herself to the divine bridegroom. After the sumptuous ‘Tōrāh’ wedding, Izmir, a marginal and miserable town in the Ottoman Empire, flourished again. From Europe, Egypt and the Maghreb, ships laden with precious goods disembarked their treasures in its port, while Dutch, English, Genoese and Catalan banks, exchange offices and financial agencies opened new branches there. According to the general belief, the misery of the Jewish people was about to be redeemed by the mere presence of the Messiah and his Prophet. The majority of rabbis, at the time, sided, or pretended to side, with Šabbetay, while only a small minority remained anchored to tradition. In particular, these latter looked with horror at the alterations of the rituals that were being adopted at the behest of the Messiah and Nathan of Gaza.
In the spring of that year, Šabbetay Ṣewi went to Istanbul in order to be recognised as the Messiah by the Ottoman Sultan and to be given the imperial crown. Reported by the Jewish community of the capital and immediately arrested, after two months of gilded imprisonment, the false Messiah asked to be admitted before Sultan Mehmet IV. There he publicly converted to Islam, taking the Islamic name of Aziz Mehmet Effendi as a new Muslim. All the Jewish communities in the diaspora were sorely disappointed. There were two types of reaction: on the one side the traditional rabbinical circles unreservedly condemned Šabbetay as an impostor and a fraud.
From that moment on, the rabbis definitely turned away from the ecstatic-mystical Qabbalah, and this hardening of opinion also struck what remained of the authentic medieval Qabbalistic esotericism. On the other side, the most fanatical followers of the false Messiah tried to find a symbolic explanation for this shocking gesture, giving it the most disturbing and mysterious meanings. Nathan of Gaza himself circulated the rumour that the function of Messiah was to involve in the redemptive action also the qelippot. This justification, which only apparently resembles a descent into hell, draws a disturbing picture of the entire mission of Šabbetay as actively linked to infernal powers. But those who are clouded by fanaticism have no critical ability and are incapable of seeing the facts as they are; blinded by exaltation these weak minds look for any way possible to find sublime symbolic meanings and examples to follow.
In fact, the followers of the false Messiah emulated the example of their Lord and God, hypocritically converting to Islam in order to continue the work of redemption under cover. All in all, they revived the experience of their ancestors the Marranos of Spain; actually, the Thessalonian and Smyrna communities were mainly composed of Sephardim, Jews of Spanish origin. Those false followers of Islam are called dönmeh in Turkish, literally ‘converts’, a word which in time has come to mean ‘apostates’. Even after the death of their Messiah, the dönmeh continued to try to convince their sympathisers to leave their ghettos. During the 17th and 18th centuries, also in Eastern Europe, this propaganda induced many to integrate into the Christian environment, whether they converted or not. Later, they enthusiastically assumed the anti-religious spirit that had spread during the Enlightenment. This underground current adapted to the general situation, fitting in the new agnostic civilisation, and often taking the lead, while covertly maintaining a formal link with their religion and, above all, with their ethnic origin. In contrast, the Orthodox Jews continued to profess their faith publicly, often incurring criticism, hostility and even denunciation by the crypto-followers of Šabbetay Ṣewi.
Jakub Lejbowicz (1726-1791) is better known as Jacob Franck. His father, who belonged to the first generation of Ṣewi followers, was accused of heresy by the rabbis of the Orthodox Jewish tradition and forced to take refuge in Ottoman Bucharest, where Jacob was born. He was wild and rebellious, and throughout his life Jacob harboured a deep resentment against the rabbis and regular Judaism because of how his father was treated. He did not follow a regular upbringing or abide by the rules of social coexistence, extolling his ignorance and unrestraint as a sign of divine election. In 1753 he arrived in Thessaloniki, the centre of the dönmeh from which his father had been expelled.
He immediately assumed the way of thinking and acting of the dönmeh and, feeling intimately related to Šabbetay Ṣewi, first he proclaimed himself to be his reincarnation and thento be the Messiah. Ṣewi had been the Messiah of tribulation, whereas he would be the Messiah of power, the Messiah-King. He revealed that the age of the law was definitely over and with his reign his followers were freed from any requirements except total obedience to the Messiah’s wishes. The community that gathered around him lived simulating him and indulged in all its appetites, especially, of course, in the sexual ones. Franck took libertinism, that had already appeared with Ṣewi, to its extreme limits. He was excommunicated and denounced by the followers of the rabbinical tradition, and after various events, he decided to emigrate with the crowd of his debauched followers to Poland. At that time, the Kingdom of Poland, worrying about the refractoriness of Jews to convert to Catholicism, promised those who got baptised the status of nobles and estates. Franck began negotiations with King Augustus III. Together with about thirty thousand of his disciples, he would embrace Catholicism. In addition to land and mass ennoblement, he demanded all properties to be gathered into a single fief, still vassal to the King of Poland, but where the only owners were to be Franckists. The King was flattered to make such a good impression before the papal throne; however, it remained the geopolitical problem of granting an entire region to people from the Ottoman Empire, with relatives and friends on the other side of the border. Understanding the Crown’s hesitation on this last topic, the Polish rabbis denounced Frankism as heretical before the Holy Office. The confrontation between the rabbis and the Franckists took place in Lemberg Cathedral under the arbitration of Canon Mikulski. With great shamelessness, the Franckist speakers took up religious positions clearly based on the Christian faith and thus easily got the better of the more educated and trained regular rabbis. Franck’s true thinking, however, was as follows:
Our Lord and King Sabbataï Zevi had convert to the faith of the Ismaelites [Muslims], but I, Jacob, more perfect, must convert to the faith of the Nazarenes because Jesus of Nazareth was the skin or peel of the fruit and that his coming was permitted only to open the way for the true Messiah. We must therefore accept this Nazarene religion pro forma, observe it meticulously so as to appear as good Christians as they are. However, we must not marry any of their whores or have fun with them or mix with other nations. Even if we profess Christianity and regularly follow their commandments, we must never forget in our hearts the three pillars of our faith, the Lords and King Sabbataï Zevi, Berakhya [his successor] and Jacob Frank, the most perfect of the three.
The rituals taught by Franck, which had replaced the traditional ones now abrogated, are described as follows:
“The religious rites of the Frankists consisted of ecstatic songs accompanied by wild applause, with female participation ending in an orgiastic ritual. The ritual usually began as follows: Frank knelt, staring at two lit candles on a wooden bench, drove a nail into the wood and, brandishing a cross in all directions, exclaimed ‘Forsa damus para verti, seibul grandi asserventi! “(in Ladino, the Spanish dialect of the Jews sephardim: “Give us the strength to see you, the privilege to serve you”). Then the lights were switched off and pandemonium ensued. Men and women would undress completely “to get at the naked truth” and copulate in the hodgepodge and only the leader would refrain in the midst of it all.”
After his baptism, and once become lord of a large fiefdom vassal to the King of Poland, Franck decided to organise his own army. It was so well organised that many of the Franckists served a few decades later as officers in Napoleon’s army.
Generously financed by Mayer Amschel, founder of the Rothschild Bank, Jacob Franck and his wives lived in the splendour of a royal court. But It was short-lived. His followers, now convinced that they were above the law, began to reveal the secret that he was, in fact, the Messiah. Franck was imprisoned and put on trial by the Inquisition. He tried, in vain, to promise the Czar that he and his people would collectively convert to the Orthodox Church, but all to no avail. In the meantime, while waiting for the papal verdict, the prisoner in the fortress of Czenstokhova lived a princely life: he had dropped the act and no longer performed Catholic rites. He lived cursing Poland and prophesying that it would be wiped off the map. And so it happened. Russia invaded Poland, which was divided among the other powers, and Franck found himself free again. He settled in Moravia, which hadbecome a province of the Austrian Empire. Jacob Franck had a cousin in Brünn, Salomon Dobruška, a wealthy tobacco merchant and financial speculator. His son Moses played a mysterious destabilising role during the French Revolution; but that pertains to another historical moment.
Gian Giuseppe Filippi