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Sabbatai Sevi ePub

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From the article "The Greatness of Gershom Scholem" by Hiram Macooby, Commentary, Vol. 76, No. 3, September 1983, pp.37-46

HYAM MACOOBY is librarian and lecturer at the Leo Baeck College in London.He is the author of "Revolution in Judea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance", "Judaism on Trial", and, most recently, "The Sacred Executioner" (Thames & Hudson).

"SABBATAL SEVI (1626-76) was a strange and tortured personality who came from a milieu saturated with the concepts of the Lurianic Kabbalah.He alternated between moods of deep depression and moods of manic exaltation, when he thought himself the messiah and exuded a self-confidence that carried all before it.In his moods of exaltation he would commit in public “strange acts” involving the breach of important Jewish laws (for example, he would eat forbidden fat).To these acts, shocking to his audience, he attached a mystical significance; but in his ordinary moods he adhered strictly to all rabbinical and biblical laws.

"On his own, Sabbatai Sevi would not have gained widespread adherence.He was dismissed by most people as unbalanced, and he himself believed in his messianic mission only by fits and starts - and even when he believed in it, he was more concerned to provide impressive charismatic exhibitions than to build a movement or engage in the necessities of propaganda.It was only when Nathan of Gaza, a man of great gifts and industry who was widely respected as a scholar and kabbalist, became converted to a belief in Sabbatai that a messianic movement of historical importance became possible.It was Nathan who provided the link with the Lurianic Kabbalah and with the whole previous history of Jewish mysticism, and who brought all the energy of this centuries-old aspect of Jewish religious experience to the exploitation of the compelling contradictions of Sabbatai’s character.At the same time, Nathan, accepted as the prophet who by tradition would accompany the messiah, was able to mobilize non-kabbalistic messianic expectations as well.By the time the movement acquired mass support, it had become a mixture of talmudic, folkloristic, and kabbalistic elements capable of appealing to a wide spectrum of the Jewish people.

"Gershom Scholem’s great work, Sabbatai Sevi:The Mystical Messiah (Hebrew, 1957; English translation, 1973) is the apex of his achievement, combining as it does detailed, patient scholarship with his characteristic originality, cutting through the confusions of all previous writers on the subject and leading to new formulations of wide significance for the history of religion.The work is, however, disconcerting in many ways.The Sabbatian movement ended in utter bathos.The messiah-figure who had aroused such hopes throughout the Jewish world, when given the choice of death or conversion to Islam, accepted conversion.This ignoble collapse, for the vast majority of Jews, meant the end of the movement, and it then became of great concern to conceal the extent to which Sabbatai had received both official and mass support.Part of Scholem’s work consisted in exposing the extent of this cover-up, and here he aroused the anger of other scholars who felt he had gone too far.

"Even more controversial was Scholem’s assessment of the antinomian aspect of the Sabbatian movement.He showed how the Sabbatian movement had put forward doctrines usually regarded as the antithesis of Judaism, and yet these doctrines were not repudiated by the learned and pious scholars who flocked to Sabbatal’s banner.For example, Sabbatai claimed divine status by signing his letters “Shaddai,” one of the biblical names of God.(He also made great play of the fact that the name Sabbatai Sevi and “Shaddai” were equivalent in the system of numerology known as gematria.)One would have thought that, as far as pious Jews were concerned, this would have spelled an end to his claims; and indeed some Jewish leaders were horrified by this blasphemy and withdrew their support.But what is surprising is how ‘many Jewish leaders took this claim to divinity in their stride.

"One could argue that the development of the Kabbalah, especially in its Lurianic form, had prepared the way for this by according the messiah a cosmic status that he did not have in talmudic Judaism, and also by dividing the Godhead into so many layers or departments that it was possible to identify the messiah with one of these aspects without deifying him completely.Nevertheless, the fact is that the, very thing that had been held to make Christianity idolatrous was now accepted without protest by a large portion of the Jewish people amid their leaders.On the basis of this, Gershom Scholern came to the startling conclusion that there is no fixed definition of Judaism; Judaism is simply everything that it has been historically, and must therefore include a doctrine of the deification of the messiah, at least as one of its possible manifestations.

"The Sabbatian movement proved similar to Christianity in another important respect: its abrogation of the Torah and declaration of the advent of a new law.This aspect was not fully developed in the lifetime of Sabbatai Sevi himself; yet he did introduce many innovations of a liturgical character, incorporated new festivals, and by his own performance of “strange acts” signalized that there could be mystical power in the breaking of the law as well as in its observance.This clear tendency to antinomianism was, however, again accepted by the majority as within their understanding of the character and function of a messiah.

"After the apostasy and death of Sabbatai Sevi, these antinomian tendencies were intensified by those who remained faithful to his memory.The whole Torah was regarded as abrogated, or at most as in force only until the expected return of the messiah.Many Sabbatians regarded Sabbatai’s apostasy as itself an act of mystical significance, the last of his “strange acts,” and decided to follow his example.They formed the Donmeh sect, continuing to believe in Sabbatai secretly while outwardly behaving as Muslims - a weird regression to the condition of the Marranos under Christianity.Finally, the Sabbatian sect known as the Frankists turned antinomianism into a regime of sexual license and deliberate ceremonial breaches of Jewish law.Their “sanctification” of sin, together with their gnostic theology, made them them the spiritual heirs of such gnostic libertine sects of the ancient world as the Carpocratians.

"SCHOLEM wrote with a certain sympathy even about the wildest excesses of Sabbatian antinomianism, with its doctrine of salvation through sin.For he saw this development as a logical and understandable outcome of the anarchic forces within the Kabbalah - forces which were invoked for the defense of Judaism against rationalism but which contained their own destructiveness.Moreover, he characteristically considered Sabbatianism a creative as well as a destructive force.By breaking the mold of the Law, it released new energies and new religious and political possibilities.Scholem pointed out the part taken by Sabbatians, or ex-Sabbatians, in the French Revolution; and also what he claimed was a strong Sabbatian influence in the growth of the Reform movement in Judaism - a movement usually regarded as rationalist in the extreme, far removed from mystical fantasies.According to Scholem, the genesis of new ways of thought is more catastrophic and agonized than later beneficiaries suppose; the Enlightenment itself owed more to kabbalistic and neoplatonic occultism than to sober common sense.When one looks at the maelstrom of ideas underlying the discoveries of Kepler and Newton, one is forced to agree."


"Scholem’s work on the paradoxically creative power of antinomianism aroused opposition from many quarters.He was accused of glorifying antinomianism, and also of exaggerating its part in the fundamental thought of the Kabbalah.Here there was considerable misunderstanding.Scholem called himself a “religious anarchist,” but he did not mean by this that he sided with the antinomians.He meant that he did not believe that there was a norm or orthodoxy in Judaism in comparison with which all other trends were to be condemned as heresies or as inauthentic.Any trend that made use of Jewish concepts and that did not seek to turn people away from Judaism (as, for example, Christianity did) was part of the whirlpool that formed the historical reality of Judaism, showing its vitality by the ceaseless opposition, conflict, and ebb and flow of ideas.The later forms of Sabbatianism, by their utter rejection of Orthodoxy, made the same error of one-sidedness as did the rigid Orthodox who sought to repudiate the vivifying concepts of Jewish mysticism.The health of Judaism lay in the interplay of opposites, and thus in the acceptance of the whole of Jewish tradition, not just part of it."

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