[David Briand]: For the Tauber Institute at Brandeis University, I'm David Briand. Joining me for an interview is Pawel Maciejko, editor of the new book "Sabbatian Heresy: Writings on Mysticism, Messianism, and the Origins of Jewish Modernity." The book is a collection of writings about the self-styled 17th century prophet Sabbatai Tsevi, the movement Sabbatianism that grew around him and the reverberations of Sabbatianism in the years that followed. "Sabbatian Heresy" is available now through Brandeis University Press. Pawel joined me by phone from Johns Hopkins University. Pawel Maciejko, thanks very much for joining me today.
[Pawel]: Thank you.
[David]: I want to start with a quote from your introduction to "Sabbatian Heresy" in reference to Sabbatai Tsevi. You write, "the creed of his faith, largely forgotten, seems too bizarre to merit a serious discussion. Any lingering traces of belief in his messianic mandate have long since disappeared from living memory. But aside from Jesus, Tsevi a was the only Jewish Messiah whose gospel gained sufficient momentum to break through the confines of a particular social group or a specific geographic milieu." So to begin with, who was Sabbatai Tsevi?
[Pawel]: Sabbatai Tsevi was the most important Jewish messiah claimant since Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, Jewish history is in some sense a history of messianism, right. Every few years you have a person who claims that he is the Messiah. And these people have some following. In some cases, they are completely preposterous, and in some cases they are very important religious leaders. But even when they are important religious leaders, they are important locally. In other words, they are recognized as Messiah claimant within their immediate community but not outside of it. You have an important messsiah claimant in the [inaudible] in the Middle Ages but the Ashkenazim in Poland know nothing about it. You have a messiah claimant in Italy but nobody in the Muslim world heard about it, and so on and so forth. Sabbatai Tsevi, in contrast, is the only Jewish messiah claimant who is really important across the board. He's accepted among the Ashkenazim and among the Sepharadim, among men and women, among elites and the simple people to the extent that for brief periods of time the majority of the Jews accept him as the true Messiah, right. So there is a very, very brief moment during which the majority of the Jews say yes, Sabbatai Tsevi is the true Messiah; and those who oppose them are a tiny minority, at times in the persecuted minority.
[David]: What was distinctive about Sabbatianism? I know in your introduction you write a little bit about transgressive acts. What were the sort of hallmarks of Sabbatianism?
[Pawel]: Well this is, there are many different hallmarks, but yes, first of all, the transgressive acts. Sabbatai Tsevi, from his early years Sabbatai Tsevi tends to experience periods of intensive euphoria and intensive depression. During the periods of euphoria he commits weird acts. Some of them are merely weird. Some of them are transgressive in the sense that they involve public violation of halakhah, the Jewish law. Now during his youth most people treat him simply as a madman, right, as a mentally ill person. He's not even considered an impostor, charlatan or wrongdoer -- simply considered mentally ill. When he adds to his performance messianic pronouncement there is some religious outrage directed towards him, but everything [inaudible] and only after around 1665 when Sabbatai meets his prophet, Nathan of Gaza, suddenly there appears a theological doctrine which says the bizarre deeds of the Messiah and transgressive deeds of the Messiah are a part of his mission, are mystical signs of his elevanted state.
[David]: So the transgression itself is a kind of holiness.
[Pawel]: It's a holiness, and it's a sign of holiness, right. In other words, well in perfectly normative Judaism, you will have an idea just with the coming of the Messiah, some of the commandments are abolished, like some festivals are abolished for instance. Some of the commandments are no longer valid because they make no sense while the Messiah is here. Well for this reason, almost all Messianic movements you have a transgression element because if you have such an idea, about the only way to show the true Messiah is here is to violate the commandments, right. If they're supposed to be violated when the Messiah is here, it means the only way to show that someone is the Messiah is to violate the commandments. Of course again, you have it in Christianity also, right, when Paul distinguishes between moral commandments and ritual commandments, he would, very roughly speaking, say that the moral commandments are still valid. But since the advent of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the ritual commandments are no longer advised. Right, you do not have to circumcise your son. You can for medical reasons, but, right, but this commandment was abolished because since the advent of the Messiah it's no longer needed and you have this very similar move in the Sabbatianism. What is special about disobedience is not so much the violation of the commandments but the sheer weirdness of it. In other words, many of the actions of Sabbatai Tsevi are not so much bereft or immoral or whatever, they're just bizarre. And then you have theology which explains that. It said the fact that he behaves in such a weird way is in fact an external expression of some spirit, internal spiritual presence.
[David]: So how does this relate to the concept of redemption through sin?
[Pawel]: Well, the concept is, this is the title of by far the most famous scholarly paper on Sabbatianism, a paper written by Gershom Scholem who was basically the founder of this field. He was first, and in many ways the most important scholar who wrote on this movement, and in the 1930s he published the paper, titled in Hebrew Mitzvah ha-ba-ah ba-averah, which was mistranslated in English as "Redemptions Through Sin." As I said, there is a problem, first of all, because of the mistranslation. Literally, the concept is a rabbinic concept. It's not a Sabbatian concept, and it relates to a commandment who through fulfillment involves violating another commandment. And secondly, the concept of God does not appear to [inaudible]. In other words, it's a concept that was used by a very important scholar to analyze a Sabbatian text, but the concept itself does not appear in this text and on top of it, the English is a mistranslation of Hebrew. But basically, one of my arguments in this introduction is that this concept, which is often used as a kind of catchword, Sabbatianism is in fact misleading. Sabbatian texts do not talk about redemption through sin.
[David]: I see. Ok. I'd like to turn again to your introduction to the book Sabbatian Heresy. You write that Sabbatai Tsevi followers quote "developed a set of theological doctrines in which Jewish tradition was reinterpreted in novel and highly unorthodox ways, and was merged with Muslim and later Christian elements. Quarrels between Sabbatians and their detractors had a profound impact on the contours of central controversies of later Judaism, such as debate surrounding the emergence of Hasidism, the Haskalah and the reform movement." You go on to say here, "For some major Jewish thinkers, his rise and fall constitutes the key to the most crucial phenomena in modern Jewish history, Zionism and the establishment of Jewish political sovereignty and the secularization of traditional Jewish society." So my question is how did Sabbatianism have such a broad impact and influence on these different movements and phenomena?
[Pawel]: Well, there are several items here. I mean, first of all, this is the largest polemics in Judaism since -- we can argue since when, but since at least since the middle ages. So the patterns of polemics, the very paradigm of religious polemics within Judaism is Sabbatianism. I mean, it doesn't necessarily have, in some cases it doesn't have any direct relationship except for this, but just let's say Mitnagedic texts against Hasidim are based on the rabbinic texts against the Sabbatians. This is the blueprint for religious polemics within Judaism. This is one thing. Right? In terms of literary form, in terms of literary genre, in terms of terminology, in terms of vocabulary, this is what... this is essentially when, even today, when you have a religious debate within Judaism, Sabbatianism would be invoked as a kind of paradigm for every heresy as the most external layer. Now there is of course a more internal layer because in some cases there is either a direct connection or a very close overlap. So if you take Hasidism, for example, right, it so happens that Hasidism is developed in the same area and in the same time as the Frankist movement which is the last, and in many ways most radical, offshoot of Sabbatianism. So there is immediately a question -- was there any contact between the disciples of the Besht, of the founder of Hasidism, and the disciples of Yaakov Frank? Were there people going from Hasidic group to Frankists group? Or vice versa, whether there are there is an impact of ideas one way or or another. Now scholars debate the question. But the question you cannot avoid asking. Right? I personally think that there is vertical connection in this particular case but again, in .... I thought many observers back then, and also later scholars since both movements were developed at the same time in the same area, they are both based on charismatic leadership. They are both anti-establishment, if you will. They are naturally connected. The same holds for some forms of the Haskalah and wider Jewish emancipation or Jewish secularization. In this case it's even easier to show direct connections. In other words, you can show some prominent Maskilim had direct contact with Sabbatians or in fact were Sabbatians at earlier stages of their lives, right? So you have again, the Frankists in Prague in the early, early 19th century who later joined the Maskilic centers, circles in Prague. And there is again a scholarly question whether there is any transfer of ideas, whether while being Maskilim they still draw upon the Sabbatian course.
[David]: And what about this connection to
[Pawel]: to Zionism?
[David]: To Zionism, yeah.
[Pawel]: You know. This is again, this is again, there are some solemn, very strong claims. And the claim cuts both ways. In other words, Scholem argued that on the one hand, only through, from the Zionist perspective... basically, what is Sabbatianism? Sabbatianism is a movement of national liberation, according to Scholem. Right? It's the most important pre-modern attempt of the Jews to get out of the ghetto. Right? Of course, it's an event which is framed in religious category. But at the end of the day it's a movement of political liberation exactly as is Zionism. Zionism was also an attempt to get out of the ghetto and to start this Jewish sovreignty. Now there is a problem with this claim -- there are several problems with this claim. One of them is the fact the Land of Israel is in no way central in Sabbatian theology. So even if you argue, and this is also a problematic proposal but let's assume for the sake of argument that Sabbatianism can be seen as a movement of political liberation and not purely a religious phenomenon. Right, even if you argue this, there is clear that if Sabbatians want to establish some kind of Jewish sovreignty, they do not care about about the land of Israel. there's no governing of the exile. There is no return to the land. There is no rebuilding of the 2nd Temple, the Jerusalem Temple, and so on and so forth.
[David]: I want to turn to the book in general, or the book as a whole. How do you see the writings collected in this book as important in modern Jewish thought and in modern Jewish scholarship?
[Pawel]: Ok, yes. There are several things. Right? One is, to begin with, I think nobody questions the fact that Sabbatianism is very important. Like this is one of the... In any course of early modern Jewish history you would have a class on Sabbatianism; in any book covering the history of the Jews from the Middle Ages to the present, you would have a chapter on Sabbatianism. And yet very few primary texts are available to the English reader. In other words, everyone heard about it but very few people, aside from scholars who who work with the Hebrew material, ever read a primary text, a Sabbatian or an anti-Sabbatian text, but something that was written by the protagonists of the story themselves and not by the scholars. That's one point. Another point is -- and this is in any language, not only in English, but this also includes Hebrew. This is the first volume which contains facts written by all the parties involved. In other words, we know so much about debating because you have you have essentially three groups of the sources. You have the internal sources: texts written by Sabbatai Tsevi, his prophet, his followers, his followers 100 years later, and so on and so forth. You have to have rabbinic opponents who write against this movement, and you have external observers: Christians, Jews, Muslims, who encounter Sabbatians, who encounter anti-Sabbatians, who are trying to put it within the framework of their own religious interest, political interests and so on and so forth. So it's very rich in terms of the source. Now with this volume out, it brings text, or excerpts from the text, from all these perspectives. And this doesn't exist really in any language. So even for a scholar or student who can read primary text all of the Sabbatians, in this volume suddenly they can
[find] English translations of let's say a Christian Hebraist professor at a German university who wrote an account of Sabbatians; or a French review of one of the Sabbatian books. Right? Or that observer who met Sabbatai Tsevi during his youth. So in this sense this volume is impressive.
[David]: Bringing it all together in the same place for all these different perspectives and different interpretations and different voices.
[Pawel]: Yes. Yes, exactly. And many of these texts are hard, very difficult to obtain. Right? So again, some of them were translated directly from the manuscripts; some of them are from printed sources, but early modern printed sources that was
[sic] published in the late 17th or early early 18th century and was never republished, doesn't exist in scholarly edition.
[David]: So on that note, Pawel Maciejko, thank you so much. Thanks for calling in and being a part of this conversation.
[Pawel]: Thank you very much. Pawel Maciejko's book, "Sabbatian Heresy," is published by the Tauber Institute through Brandeis University Press and is part of the Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought. The editors of the library had this to say about Sabbatian Heresy: "We enthusiastically welcome this volume on Sabbatian mystical thought into the Brandeis Library of Modern Jewish Thought. Pawel Maciejko challenges readers to assess the reception of Sabbatian mystical thought as something that went well beyond its common portrayal as a misadventure in messianic manipulation and salacious transgression. Maciejko asks us to consider Sabbatianism as a substantive, religious and intellectual tradition marking the very origins of modern Jewish thought itself. Be sure to check the Tauber website for upcoming events and publications. That's brandeis.edu/tauber I'm David Briand. Thanks for tuning in.