Let us not look at the phenomenon of Sabbatai Zevi through purely theological eyes.
Like Spinoza’s, Sabbatai Zevi’s messianism was a social, economic and political phenomenon, wrapped in an interpretation of Lurianic kabbalistic metaphors of exile and return.
Sabbatai Zevi in 1665
It was to the exiled Marranos who sailed eastwards for the Ottoman Empire that Sabbatai Zevi’s messianism appealed.
Like their Amsterdam counterparts, Renaissance humanism had shattered the world of the borderless free-trading Jews who, together with the landholding nobility and Venetian financiers, had once shared the spoils of surplus extracted from a serfdom held back in the Dark Ages.
The ‘shattering of the vessels’ commenced with the expulsion of the Jews from Renaissance states seeking to impose sovereign national control over their own affairs. The Peace of Westphalia represented the nadir of utter fragmentation in their terms; loss of privilege, fall from grace, a world fallen apart.
Unlike their cousins in Amsterdam who could exploit expanding trade and finance opportunities, the Smyrna exiles were in an Empire that had commenced its long, slow, decline.
Spinoza’s philosophy was intimately linked to Sarpi’s ‘Republick of merchants’ and was transformed by Locke into a philosophy of property and free trade.
The Smyrna exiles had no such outlet. They now found themselves constrained. Redemption through sin would be a much less philosophical affair.
Tikkun - the return to the original perfection of Ein Sof, would take the more radical and disruptive turn that sent shock waves across Europe.
Not only rejecting rabbinical teachings, Sabbatai Zevi positively courted rabbinical opprobrium of his self-proclaimed evil. He is said to have justified the torture on the Sabbath by his followers of a skeptic in Venice. Another event occurred at the Portuguese Synagogue in Smyrna in December of 1665. Although the synagogue had locked its doors on the Sabbath to Zevi, he broke his way through the doors with an axe. When he gained entrance, he terrorised and forced the attendants to reject Law and tradition by pronouncing the Name of God.
The violation of Jewish religious norms, on this and countless other occasions call attention to Sabbatai's unabashed representation of himself as one who is a being of evil.1
Emannuel Frances, a Jewish poet and opponent of the Sabbatean movement, compiled reports in 1667 from various sources about the life of Zevi. He describes Zevi's acts in one of his poems:
Is he the Lord's anointed or a traitor,
A Wicked sinner and a fornicator?
In public he the Sabbath desecrates,
And of the synagogue he breaks the gates.
To pronounce the Name Ineffable he dares,
And with profanity he impiously swears.
Forbidden women he embraces;
As first the one, and then the other he caresses.
The foolish people, gaping as spellbound,
Affirm: this is a mystery profound.2
Sabbatai Zevi shifted the dates in the ages-old religious calendar, which included changing the Sabbath to Monday or the officially sanctioned Day of Atonement to another day. This was Sabbatai Zevi's intentional way of proving that he had authority over the rabbinical calendar.
All these violations were true to his new benediction ‘to permit that which has hitherto been forbidden’.
It was said that Sabbatai Zevi had eradicated the sin of Adam and allowed for the new Torah to be established. Sin was transformed into something holy through a notion of redemption through sin. Radicals were committed to sin's redeeming power. Actions which seemed outwardly sinful were viewed as internally holy. Some saw it as starving the qelipot from their sparks of holiness until they died; others saw it as inundating the qelipot with sparks of holiness until they burst from the pressure. The Torah de-Atzilut (a Torah of the higher world) was to be secretly observed, while the Torah de-Beriah (the Torah in its sensual appearance) was to be transgressed.
When Sabbatai Zevi famously apostatised to Islam (rather than face the only alternative of death offered by the Sultan), many of his followers converted too.
These apostates could be found mainly in Salonika, southern Poland and parts of Europe.
The point is that not only could the former conversos of Spain and Portugal relate to the external facade of the apostasy, because of their experiences of forced conversion and their secret adherence to Jewish tradition, the Marranos were more prepared than most to accept Sabbatai Zevi's own conversion.
They could justify their own past behaviour because the ‘Messiah’ himself had to undergo a similar experience.
Because Marranos of all people could readily understand that Sabbatai Zevi was not leaving his faith when he chose to ‘convert’, they were prepared for a ‘post-conversion’ world.
The Doenmeh (Turkish for apostate) was an apostate Sabbatian sect which held to the belief that Sabbatai Zevi's followers must imitate his conversion. It retained its identity well into the twentieth century.
Sabbatai Zevi left Tikkun incomplete, however. There was no return to the Jewish golden age of pre-Renaissance, pre-expulsion Spain. There was no alternative to be found in a Sarpian ‘Republick of merchants’. Kings and borders still barred the way.
1 See D. J. Halperin, 'Sabbatai Zevi, Metatron, and Mehmed: Myth and History in Seventeenth-Century Judaism' in S. Daniel Breslauer, ed., The Seductiveness of Jewish Myth: Challenge or Response, Albany, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1997, p.291 and p,304 (note 91)
2 G. Scholem, Sabbatai Zevi: The Mystical Messiah, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1973, p.404
© John Dunn.