When it is advisable to put on a fez

Richard Popkin

  • The Lost Messiah: In Search of Sabbatai Sevi by John Freely
    Viking, 275 pp, £20.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 670 88675 0

The dramatic story of the rise and fall of the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Sevi has usually been presented as a weird anomaly in Jewish history, with no redeeming merit as a lesson. However, as more and more becomes known about it, the case becomes of greater, and more general interest.

Sabbatai Sevi was born in 1626, the son of a Jewish assistant to the Dutch, English and French merchants then living in Smyrna (now Izmir). He was a brilliant student, with an impressive knowledge and understanding of Jewish texts. But then, after periods of fasting followed by moments of ecstasy, he began violating the fundamental principles of Jewish belief and law, something only the messiah was permitted to do. He had heard that the messiah would be named Sabbatai, the Hebrew equivalent of Saturn, and seems to have gone around testing to see whether he was the right Sabbatai. He is supposed, for example, to have uttered the Tetragrammaton, the taboo name of God. The rabbis banished him from Smyrna, and not long afterwards Nathan of Gaza, a kabbalistic scholar who had got to know him, announced that Sabbatai was indeed the expected messiah.

By the end of 1665, Sabbatai was declaring that, as the messiah, he was no longer bound by Jewish ritual and laws; he changed a fast day into a feast on the grounds that although it commemorated the fall of the First and Second Temple, it was also his own birthday. He started eating forbidden food in public and giving women a leading role in religious services.

Over the next months he gained an immense following, not only in the Ottoman Empire but among Jews throughout North Africa, Europe and Central Asia. He also attracted quite a few non-Jewish adherents. The Sultan, fearing that Sabbatai might be trying to usurp his power, had him arrested and incarcerated in the Dardanelles, first in the notorious Bagno prison, then in more comfortable quarters. There, Jews from all over flocked to pay homage to him. However, a rabbi from Poland who spent several days discussing and arguing with him decided he was a charlatan, and said as much to the Turkish authorities. They removed Sabbatai from his sumptuous prison cell and brought him before the Sultan, who devised a simple test. He would have his archers shoot at him: if Sabbatai was the messiah, he would deflect the arrows and the Sultan would hand over his crown. As the archers prepared to shoot, Sabbatai is said to have given up his messianic pretensions, declared that he had always wanted to be a Turk and put on a fez. In 1667, he became a minor functionary of the Ottoman Empire as a guard at the Sultan’s palace; he later served in Albania. It was never clear to what extent he had given up Judaism or taken up Islam. He died at the end of a Yom Kippur service in Albania in 1676.

The cult of the messiah spread through most of the Jewish population of Europe and the Middle East, which became wildly excited only to learn some two years later that the new messiah had become a convert to Islam. The effects of this are brilliantly described in Satan in Goray, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s 1935 novel about a Polish village which becomes ecstatic at the news that the messiah has finally arrived and then loses its moral compass when its inhabitants learn that he has deserted them. I first heard Sabbatai’s story from my mother at an early age, when I was told that the alleged messiah was a confidence man, a scoundrel, one of the real villains of Jewish history. There was a period of a century or more after the events themselves when blame and then more blame was heaped on the pretended messiah and his leading propagandist, Nathan of Gaza.

New research in the last century has given us a much richer picture of Sabbatai’s background and career. In particular, Gershom Scholem, whose monumental biography appeared in Hebrew in 1957 and in English in 1973, found many new documents relating to Sabbatai and his followers and constructed a picture of a manic-depressive figure who had moments of wild excess. Scholem sought to make the story fit entirely within the context of the Jewish community of the time, stressing its expectations following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, and the new kabbalistic ideas coming from the school of Isaac Luria in Palestine.

John Freely’s lively book is basically a retelling of Scholem’s story enriched by the author’s knowledge of the Ottoman background. His one significant addition to Scholem is his suggestion as to where Sabbatai might be buried. Freely has omitted all of Scholem’s scholarly apparatus, which has the advantage of making his book easier to read, but the disadvantage that we don’t know what the sources are for various elements in the story.

In Scholem’s telling, the development of the great messianic movement within the Ottoman Empire took place without any influence from the broader Christian or Islamic worlds. Much recent research, however, has questioned this attempt to isolate the story from the emergence in the 17th century of the messianic and millenarian expectations expressed by religious thinkers from the New England colonies to Jerusalem, and places further east. For his contemporaries, Sabbatai would have fitted quite naturally in the context of the religious drama being played out in England, or of various prophetic movements in France, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere. At the very beginning of his messianic career, he was identified, for example, in a Polish pamphlet as a Quaker-Jew, and a contemporary woodcut from Germany labelled ‘the two great impostors’ shows him facing James Nayler, the messianic English Quaker. Nayler had entered Bristol like Jesus entering Jerusalem, on the back of an ass. His followers walked behind him and a sign proclaimed him King of the Jews. His movement had effects right across Europe, the Middle East and the New England colonies. He himself was arrested, charged with blasphemy, convicted – despite being defended by Oliver Cromwell – and punished by being whipped through the streets of London and then thrown in jail. His followers had to flee, from the wrath of both the Government and the Quakers, who disowned him.

The plausibility of Nayler’s messianic claims derived in part from the work of the popular Jewish thinker Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam. In 1650, Menasseh published The Hope of Israel, outlining the various developments which showed that the world was drawing closer and closer to the messianic age. Menasseh, a rabbi at the Amsterdam synagogue, and probably a teacher of the young Spinoza, figured that the most important pre-messianic event yet to be realised was the readmission of the Jews to England, from where they had been expelled under Edward II in 1290. He argued that the prelude to the messianic age would be the spreading of the Jews to the four corners of the world. Recent reports had it that some of the lost tribes were to be found in the Andes in South America, and there were other Jews in Sweden, China and so on – everywhere, in fact, except England, and England was Angleterre, a cornerstone of the world.

This, instead of being taken as special pleading on the part of an Amsterdam Jew, was received as a clear message by the leading English millenarians, who were expecting the Second Coming. They arranged for the translation of Menasseh’s work into English, which appeared in 1651-52, dedicated to Parliament. The millenarians then began pressing Cromwell’s Government to invite the rabbi into the country to negotiate the readmission of the Jews. Menasseh, meanwhile, became even more excited about other clues indicating that the coming of the messiah was imminent. In 1654, he went to Brussels to meet Queen Christina of Sweden, who had recently abdicated her throne. While he was there he became acquainted with Du Rappel des Juifs (written by the French courtier Isaac de La Peyrère in 1643 and anonymously published by him). Menasseh rushed back to Amsterdam and told a gathering of Protestant millenarians the great news that the coming of the messiah was at hand. He and a friend, Paul Felgenhauer, published a work called Good News for the Jews, and Menasseh appointed himself agent for the entire Jewish world. In 1655, he set off for England, where he was received by several prominent figures. He came to know many English religious leaders, but left again in 1657. Nothing had been done about allowing the Jews legally to enter England, and he died a month or two later.

Menasseh had made Jewish expectations known to the general public and some of his English friends were not at all surprised when they learned about Sabbatai. They simply said that Menasseh had told them that there would in fact be two messiahs, one for Jews and one for Gentiles.

Menasseh’s thought also seems to have been influential in the Ottoman world. Recent studies by Jacob Barnai have shown that a number of his students or associates moved from Amsterdam to Smyrna, where they published The Hope of Israel. Some were appointed by Sabbatai as monarchs in his list of the 12 new ‘kings of the world’. These ‘kingships’ were intended as a reward for his friends and followers. Some were kingships of ancient Israel, others of countries such as Portugal which already had a king. Two of his brothers were appointed ‘king of kings’, to supervise the others. The appointees took their new roles seriously despite never having a chance to implement them.

One of Sabbatai’s first pronouncements about his role as messiah was sent to the Jewish community of Amsterdam. At the head of the proclamation there was a picture of Sabbatai sitting on a throne. The Amsterdam Jews quickly became adherents, and the news was soon known to Protestant millenarians as well, one of whom at least accepted Sabbatai as the genuine messiah and died on his way to meet him.

Sabbatai’s ideas soon became the subject of books published in England, France, the Netherlands and Germany. In a book edited by John Evelyn, entitled The History of the Three Late Famous Impostors, there is a long account written by Paul Rycaut, who was British Consul at Smyrna at the time. It was reprinted again and again, as a warning against the credulity of Jews and the dangers of millenarian enthusiasm among Christians. Two other accounts appeared later. One, written in French by Jean Baptiste de Rocoles, discussed various fake messiahs, but the longest and final chapter concerns Sabbatai. Rocoles’s book was intended as an indictment of Jews throughout history and a warning against tolerating them in the future. Another anonymous English account, The Devils of Delphi, appeared early in the 18th century. Its main purpose was to condemn a Christian millenarian group very active in England at that time, the French Prophets, though Sabbatai, once again, was the most prominent of the book’s fake messiahs.

The movement that Sabbatai began has continued right down to the present, and it repeatedly intersects with European and Middle Eastern history. Right after his conversion to Islam some of his Christian followers, including Henry Oldenburg, who was to become secretary to the Royal Society, still accepted him, on the grounds that God acts in mysterious ways. In December 1665, Oldenburg wrote to his friend Spinoza:

Here there is a widespread rumour that the Israelites, who have been dispersed for more than two thousand years, are to return to their homeland. Few hereabouts believe it, but may wish it. Do let your friend know what you hear about this matter, and what you think. For my part, I cannot put any faith in this news as long as it is not reported by trustworthy men from the city of Constantinople, which is most of all concerned in this matter. I am anxious to know what the Jews of Amsterdam have heard about it, and how they are affected by so momentous an announcement, which, if true, is likely to bring about a world crisis.

There is no evidence that Spinoza answered, though it would be wonderful to have had his view about what was going on. Instead, we have an answer from Spinoza’s patron, Peter Serrarius, who was a leading millenarian in Amsterdam, in which Serrarius assured Oldenburg that it was true, that he knew all sorts of reliable people in the Middle East who attested to it.

Oldenburg’s father-in-law, John Dury, who was actively trying to unify all the Protestant churches in Europe, also deliberat-ed about what to make of a new messiah. He finally decided that Sabbatai must be the King of the Jews – though only the Jews – a minor Middle Eastern potentate. Meanwhile, the great preacher Jean de Labadie, in the Netherlands, told his huge audiences that because the Christians had been so wicked God had given the messianic moment to the Jews. He and his associate, Anna Maria van Schurman, were forced to flee the Netherlands and their followers set up the first communist communities in the New World: every day was to be a holy day and every place a holy place, with no creeds or dogmas.

Among his followers in the Ottoman Empire, several versions of the significance of his conversion were offered. One suggested that Sabbatai had taken on the sins of all mankind by committing the greatest sin of all: apostasy. Another idea was that only the physical Sabbatai had converted, while his spirit remained pure; yet another that he would return in glory after a given period as the Jewish messiah.

After Sabbatai’s death, there was a movement in the Turkish world of people who became fake Muslims while secretly adhering to Judaism or parts thereof. They claimed they were following the way of life of their messiah. One group, called the Dönmeh, persists today, mainly in Turkey, though for a while most of them lived in Salonika, in a special quarter of the city. They have tried to keep their actual practices and beliefs secret, and it was only in the last century that Scholem was able to publish one of their prayer books. They do not, however, keep their adherence to the group secret. The larger community of Turks and Jews seem to know who belongs to the Dönmeh, many of whom have become important figures in modern Turkey.

To show how important the issue still is, I can report that some years ago, when I gave a talk at the University of Istanbul, I was taken to lunch by some of the faculty. In the course of it I asked if anyone was then doing research on the Jewish messiah, Sabbatai Sevi from Izmir. One of those at the table looked at his watch and said he had to go, then another, and within a minute or two I was left alone, even though we hadn’t yet ordered our meal. Later, I received a call from one of the faculty: he wanted to explain what had happened. He took my wife and me on a drive to the Black Sea and said I should never have asked that question. When I asked why, he explained that one never asked about Sabbatai when a member of the Dönmeh was present. We were shown a secret hand movement the Dönmeh used. He then told us of an explosive rumour that seems to lie close to the surface in modern Turkey, namely, that Kemal Atatürk was a Dönmeh.

A few days later, we were in Jerusalem at Gershom Scholem’s 70th-birthday party. When I told him what had happened at my lunch he said he didn’t know any of the people but one of the names could only belong to a Dönmeh. He told me that the first time he gave a talk about his researches on the Dönmeh, two people asked to see him privately. They asked him why he hadn’t mentioned Atatürk; he was then told the great Turkish secret. Recently, a member of the Dönmeh community in Turkey published a memoir about the difficulty of withdrawing from the group. He claimed that the Turks were too suspicious of any ex-Dönmeh and the Jews too concerned about whether any particular Dönmeh was a Jew in the Orthodox sense.

In the mid-18th century one Jacob Frank from Poland announced that he was the reincarnation of Sabbatai. He, too, started changing Jewish law and practice and was ostracised by the Jewish community. He and his followers joined the Bohemian Catholic Church and seem to have kept up an underground Jewish religious practice under their Catholic exterior. Like the Dönmeh, the Frankists apparently still exist. It has been suggested that some of the Polish religious revolutionaries of the 19th century emerged from the Frankist movement. The great poet Adam Mickiewicz may have been the son of a Frankist woman, and certainly his mystical revolutionary views seem to draw on earlier kabbalistic theories.

One group of Sabbatai’s followers remained Jewish. At the end of the 17th century they were led by an interesting Sephardic intellectual, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, who wrote tracts trying to explain the theological importance of Sabbatai’s conversion. Cardozo argued with Jewish scholars all over the world; he was murdered by his nephew in Alexandria in 1706. By then, Jewish authorities had decided not to investigate who had been a follower of Sabbatai, so as to avoid disrupting Jewish communities. From about 1715, however, cases started to be brought accusing rabbis and others of being secret Sabbateans, and a strenuous housecleaning took place, which lasted throughout the 18th century. Suspicion was cast on anyone who came from Salonika or who had studied with suspected Sabbateans. By the early 19th century a new” option was being offered: Reform Judaism, in which people could accept some of the more modest changes in practice and still consider themselves part of the Jewish tradition. Whether there are still secret followers of Sabbatai within the Jewish community we do not know.

The traumas caused by Sabbatai’s career and his acceptance remain in the background of much Jewish speculation. As he became more and more demonised, enlightened Jewish leaders started to try to neutralise the whole notion of a Jewish messiah. They claimed that the idea no longer referred to a particular person but rather to the people of Israel, the suffering servants of humanity. By about 1900, for Western Jews the messianic idea had become an impetus to social work and achieving social harmony. A new form of messianism was advanced by Rabbi Abraham Kook, who saw the ingathering of the Jews in Palestine as the birth pangs of the messiah. Kook made the Zionist programme into a religious one that would lead to the theological climax of Jewish history – and was denounced by many as offering a new form of Sabbateanism. In the present debate over the future of Palestine, various groups who have started Jewish settlements among Arab towns and villages have claimed that they also are part of the birth pangs of the messiah, that they are fulfilling ancient prophecies, and that it is religiously necessary that they carry on their expansionist activities. They, too, have been denounced as offering a new form of Sabbateanism.

More recently, the followers of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (1902-1994) claimed that he was the messiah and would reveal himself as such at any moment. They became so excited that they had messengers all around the world standing by with pagers, ready to announce it. They constructed an exact replica of the Rebbe’s house and office in Brooklyn out in the Israeli desert, to which he would supposedly travel when the announcement had been made. The drama took a new turn when the Rebbe had a stroke and could no longer speak: they would ask him if he was the messiah and try to make something out of the small movements he was able to make in reply. Unfortunately, he remained in this state until his death. But, notwithstanding Schneerson and his followers, the possibility that a human being could be the long-awaited messiah has been pushed far back in Jewish consciousness.