Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism, and the Origins of Jewish Modernity, ed. Pawel Maciejko

Reviewed by Solomon Intrater

In the 17th through 18th centuries and beyond, a significant, though often ignored, messianic movement occurred, in association with the supposed messiah Shabbtai Zvi. Proper historical academic research into Sabbatianism was not initiated until the middle of the 20th century, at the hand of the famous German-Israeli scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem. Scholem’s main work on the movement, however, is almost 700 pages, and somewhat outdated. In Sabbatian Heresy there is finally a user-friendly introduction to the Sabbatian messianic movement and ensuing religious phenomena of the 17th through 18th centuries and beyond.1

Sabbatian Heresy is organized into chapters covering the history and ideas of Sabbatianism, each with an explanation and selected Sabbatian texts. The editor, Pawel Maciejko (pronounced me’chai-ko), is a Polish-born scholar of modern history educated at Oxford, who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and now holds a chair at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. His doctoral dissertation and first book was a history of the Jacob Frank fringe sect of Sabbatian messianic adherents in 18th-century Poland.2 This work forms the background of his expertise in Sabbatian Kabbalistic messianism, along with his focus on the work and legacy of Gershom Scholem.3

It was Scholem who recreated and solidified the historical academic knowledge of Sabbatian messianism. His seminal work, published in Hebrew in 1957, is an exhaustive history of the movement beginning with its inception in 1666, through the conversion of Shabbtai Zvi to Islam the following year, and until Zvi’s death. It is based on thousands of sources of various kinds, some religious and some historical, some Jewish and some Christian, some supportive and some critical. Since then, no one has produced another history of the movement, whether because there is no need to or because the task is too great. Academic work on Sabbatianism since then has focused on aspects of the Sabbatian phenomenon in order to add to Scholem’s work, critique it, or both.

By providing the best and most up-to-date introduction to Sabbatian history and academic research, Sabbatian Heresy by Pawel Maciejko also raises awareness of the Sabbatian messianic phenomenon beyond the few relatively narrow circles of professional and recreational scholars where it is currently studied. Scholem’s agenda (and the apparent agenda of his students and those following his school of thought) was that knowledge of Sabbatianism should be integrated in the historical consciousness of the Jewish people, perhaps even the Jewish faith. Maciejko continues in this vein while also adding his own perspective to the discussion.

Scholem’s monumental work put Sabbatianism in the center of Jewish scholarship and provided a history of the movement that stands until today. Scholem gave credit to Sabbatianism as a stream of Jewish thought, considering the depth of its theology and interpretative enterprise, instead of just a bizarre divergence in Jewish history. Scholem, however, emphasized that Shabbtai Zvi himself was personally more of a figurehead in the scheme of things, crediting the conceptual and practical influence to the young brilliant scholar Nathan of Gaza whom he saw as the prophet and pioneer of Sabbatian messianism. This view of Scholem’s emphasizes the conceptual substance of Sabbatianism as filtered through the thought of Nathan of Gaza, which was based primarily on the Lurianic myth of descent and ascent, and releasing the divine sparks from the evil husks, motivating Shabbtai Zvi’s messianic mission and climactic event when he converted to Islam.

The scholar Yehuda Liebes added a major contribution to this discussion by considering Shabbtai Zvi himself as a thinker and existential religious individual.4 Citing a letter Shabbtai Zvi wrote after his conversion to Islam (one of Zvi’s only writings), Liebes argued that Zvi chose to convert in obedience to his personal divine directive rather than being motivated by Lurianic concepts. Maciejko takes this notion further, finding that this was not the mindset of Shabbtai Zvi alone but rather a fundamental and influential conceptual framework of Sabbatians more broadly, as shown in the later developments after Shabbtai Zvi’s conversion and demise, when compared to parallel accounts and writings in the movement. This shifts the conceptual weight of Sabbatianism from Nathan of Gaza to Shabbtai Zvi himself, making the messianic figure personally responsible for theoretical and practical developments both early and later in the Sabbatian movement.

Another important principle developed by Maciejko is the syncretistic aspect of Sabbatian religious thought. Scholem and Liebes did not see in Sabbatianism—even in the conversion of Shabbtai Zvi to Islam, the conversion of many followers to Islam, and the Frankist Sabbatian converts to Christianity—anything beyond a Jewish sect (albeit an extreme one) rooted in strictly Jewish concepts that ironically led them to convert. To Scholem and Liebes, these followers of Shabbtai Zvi remained converts only on the outside, on the surface level, and their conversion was fundamentally a Jewish-religious act. Against this view, Maciejko asserts that the Sabbatian converts to Islam and Christianity actually embraced their new formal religions and naturally grew syncretistic, as their original Sabbatian concepts of individualistic relation to the divine was structurally chaotic, leading them to rebel against one formal religious structure and move into other religious traditions while never really being bound to any structure at all. This stance is proposed by Maciejko to be the religious thought behind the Sabbatian conversions and other acts by Shabbtai Zvi and later followers perceived by outsiders as heretical, deceitful, and reckless. In Maciejko’s view, this individual, existential, and inherently anti-institutional religious behavior anticipates modern or postmodern values in Western culture.

Each chapter introduces and comments on a specific group of historical Sabbatian texts, as follows:

1) Sabbatian Movement prior to Shabbtai Zvi’s Conversion to Islam—covering the early stages of the messianic movement, the letters declaring the new messiah and basic theology, disputes of his messianic claims, and historical testimonies of the events;

2) Shabbtai Zvi’s Conversion and Its Interpretation—covering early responses to the conversion, including the famous letter by Zvi himself;

3) Sabbatianism in the Ottoman Empire—exemplifying the lyrical and hermeneutical expressions of the sub-sectarian converts to Islam following the conversion of Shabbtai Zvi, while the major theologians spoke against such actions;

4) Avraham Miguel Cardozo—the great theologian second in influence only to Nathan of Gaza, a scholar and Spanish descendent of Jews obligated to convert to Christianity, who himself converted back to Judaism, and then joined the Sabbatian movement, and after the messianic conversion continued to establish a creative worldview for Sabbatianism, with significant transfer of concepts from Christian theology;

5) The Hayon Controversy—Hayon was a traveling rabbi and Kabbalist, who spread writings of Sabbatian nature publicly, which ensued in public debate and his own isolation;

6) The Eibeschütz Controversy—Eibeschütz was a high level rabbinical scholar and esteemed leader, who was accused of Sabbatianism and denied it, which ensued in a destructive battle of accusations within the broad Jewish community in the mid-18th century;

7) Jacob Frank and the Frankists—the infamous Sabbatian cult, whose “doctrines are highly idiosyncratic and feature his role as destroyer of all established religions, customs, and mores;”5

8) Literary Accounts of Sabbatianism—examples of the use of Sabbatianism in creative literature, including Bashevis Singer and Agnon.

Sabbatianism is important to the study of messianism more broadly, which is relevant for the discourse of Messianic Judaism, internally and externally. Historical research of Sabbatianism went hand in hand with that of Jewish mysticism and messianism (as is the case of Gershom Scholem, famous in both of these fields). Sabbatianism was a messianic kabbalistic movement and religious phenomenon in which messianism and mysticism are mixed and cultivated together. Studying Sabbatianism thus leads us to a broader discussion not only of Jewish mysticism but of messianism at large. There is not much academic literature on this topic that is broad and balanced; most books are either ideological, outdated, or narrow in their focus on the topic of messianism (focused on particular messianic figures or movements or on philosophical definitions of messianism or messianic sentiments in a particular chapter of history). Rare are books that are academic, relatively recent, broad in perspective, and taking into account the major cases of messianism, Sabbatianism, and early Christianity.

The most important work on messianism for this discussion is The Messianic Idea in Judaism by Scholem, which is a collection of articles.6 Scholem’s legacy caused a renewal of interest into messianism as a category within Judaism. Many of Scholem’s disciples continued this discussion and research, and further research has been motivated by continual interest in Zionism and so-called messianic religious Zionism, as well as the case of Chabad messianism.

Messianism should be of utmost importance to those interested in Messianic Judaism, to trace and compare ancient original aspects versus later aspects of messianism. There is potentially great value in a comparison between Sabbatian and Early Christian forms of messianism. To understand any phenomenon, it is critical to compare with other cases; if there are no such cases to compare, then knowledge of such a thing is problematic. Yeshua messianists can be more self-aware as to what is unique about their brand of messianism through comparison with Shabbtai Zvi messianism. For example, in both cases (as in the case of Chabad and Breslov), the messianic or quasi-messianic figure was and is not present materially and did not fulfill the entire redemption, and in all cases the followers develop a revised creative version of traditional messianic expectations, which are all inherently paradoxical in that they explain that the figure is the Messiah even though he is not present and the full redemption is not yet manifested.

Sabbatian messianism also uses Isaiah 53, not as a persecuted sacrificial messianic figure like Yeshua, but rather a twisted version—not a sacrificial lamb but a provocative and bizarre offender of laws and norms and convert to another religion. Another case of Christian interpretation is likening of Yeshua to Joseph who revealed himself to his brethren; in Sabbatianism the messiah is likened to Joseph in that he must twist his identity.

One last example is that some Sabbatian followers formed their own separate sect of converts while others practiced their faith within the fold of normative Judaism with some thinking they were the true Judaism and others thinking they were separated for a special calling in addition to normative Judaism. When the paradoxical aspect coincides with the creative and often bizarre interpretation, and with the aspect of dissimulation and not separatism, what is created is a very interesting and possibly effective case of messianic religious community and practice.

What can postmodern Messianic Judaism adherents learn from the curious case of Sabbatianism? Both movements face questions of sectarianism and concealment, separatism or dissimulation. Messianic followers may choose to integrate themselves among the mainstream of traditional Judaism, Jewish community, and orthopraxy, for mystical or missional purposes, or for existential purposes, whether Orthodox Judaism is embraced by conviction or for utility. The hermeneutical creativity of Sabbatian messianism is also highly relevant, as many of the same messianic passages from the Bible are interpreted differently and often rather alternatively.

Another relevant matter is the broader sense of identity and nomenclature, as one of a variety of Jewish messianisms. The name Messianic Judaism was historically a progressive translation of Hebrew Christian, which is a name from the context of Christian denominations. There is also Jewish messianism of Chabad, Breslov, modern Kabbalah of Ashlag, the Zionist national religious factions, Sabbatianism, or even a liberal or socialist humanistic utopian messianism, and more, from past and present. Other names might be fitting, for example Jesus or Yeshua Judaism, or Jesus/Yeshua messianism, or something to the effect of “Yeshua followers.” The advantage in using such terminology would be recognition of a variety of messianisms, and comparison of Yeshua messianism with other forms of messianism within Jewish history.7

The greatest value of this book is that it provides a 30-page introduction summarizing Sabbatianism during and after Shabbtai Zvi’s lifetime, as well as the later developments in the following centuries. It also summarizes the academic research on Sabbatianism from Scholem until recently, including the mistakes and shortcomings of Scholem, and new discoveries. For anyone interested in studying the history of Sabbatianism, this book should be the first step, and only afterwards should they make the effort of reading Scholem’s large book and other articles by scholars after Scholem.8 For those asking questions like “How does Jesus fit within modern Orthodox Judaism and postmodern Jewish messianism?” the case of Sabbatianism is deeply relevant, and Maciejko’s book is the right starting place.

1 Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism, and the Origins of Jewish Modernity, ed. Pawel Maciejko (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017).

2 The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755–1816 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

3 I use the term “messianism” in this article not to refer specifically to the first-century movement of followers of Yeshua of Nazareth, but to texts or ideas in general that pertain to the figure of messiah, or to messianic expectation.

4 Liebes is a disciple of Scholem whose articles form a book published in 1995 (but only in Hebrew) named On Sabbateanism and its Kabbalah, Collected Essays (in Hebrew literally The Secret of the Sabbatian Faith).

5 Sabbatian Heresy, 142.

6 New York: Schocken Books, 1971, 1995.

7 “Nazarene,” in Hebrew “Notzri,” would be even more meaningful, as it points to a type of Jewish messianism, that of the Nazarene, and a play on the word “netzer,” which means a “shoot” or “scion.” as in the words of Isaiah 11, “and a branch will come out of the stump of Jesse, a shoot from his roots will grow.”

8 The most important scholar after Scholem is Yehuda Liebes, cited above.