Beware the Messiah: A True Kabbalistic Story


I have been attending classes in Me’ah, a program on Jewish history, theology and sociology for about 18 months. Me’ah means 100, the number of class hours the course contains. Today we finished the third semester, which covered the medieval period. The subject was one I have been very intrigued by—Jewish mysticism. The subject is much too broad to fit into a single lecture, but our teacher, who speaks at a lightning pace, gave it a try.

Much of the time today was spent on the earlier phases of mysticism that pertained to the development of Kabbalistic (cabalistic) Judaism. This movement which has remnants even today in the rituals of the very rationalistic form of Reform Judaism I practice was a reaction to the transcendentalism of traditional rabbinic teaching that tells us that God is ineffable, unknowable. We can know what God is not, but we can never know what God is. We can only approach God through the effects caused by God on Earth. Study of the Bible and living according to its commandments is the best way to appreciate and love God. Purists will certainly find much missing from this very brief explanation.

I add it only to illustrate what is different about Jewish mysticism. Not satisfied with the cool rationality of this tradition, the mystics wanted to feel or experience God. God was believed to be immanent, that is, internally present in everything. God was divided into two parts, Ein Sof, the transcendent part that was still unknowable, and a second part, Sefirot, which was accessible to humans, But not without some considerable effort because the form was mysterious. The two were connected by some sort of divine essence flowing out of Ein Sof. Many ritualistic practices evolved aiming at unscrambling the mystery so that the immanent God would be experienced ecstatically, that is, as present in one’s consciousness. Some practices survive to the present as a part of more mainstream groups within Judaism, but also as a more general mystical practice available to anyone.

This is all prelude to the main thrust of this blog post. Around the middle of the 16th Century, many Kabbalistic Jews had come to Safed in Palestine, as result of the expulsion from Europe during the period of the inquisition and later assaults. Safed was a center of learning. One Rabbi, Isaac Luria, taught a new doctrine different from traditional ideas that focused on individualistic practice. Each individual followed Jewish rituals and rules in order to find God’s favor, the rationalist viewpoint, or experience God, the mystical viewpoint. Luria changed this to a collective doctrine. Jews as a whole had to join in the practice so that redemption and return to Israel, the land of the forefathers would come. It would come in the form of a Messiah, a descendent of King David. The older idea of a Messianic appearance when things couldn’t be worse was replaced by a positive vision of a coming when the collective adherence peaked. To get there would take a pairing of ascetic and joyful activities.

About 100 years later, Shabbatai Tzvi (or Zevi) living in Smyrna, Turkey, became quite famous in this community for showing brilliance in his studies, but also in exhibiting very bizarre behavior. Today, he would probably be diagnosed as bipolar, but then he was a public curiosity. On learning of the terrible massacres of Jews in Europe, he began to have messianic visions of saving the Jews. He had a charming personality, fine appearance, pleasant voice and deep Kabbalistic learning, all of which made him a sort of idol and hope for a people that had been severely treated and yearned for redemption. He became even more convinced when he was “miraculously” saved from drowning. His visions and actions became of great concern to the authorities, and he was whipped and excommunicated, the first of a procession of similar outcomes as he began to wander from place to place, even as he gathered adherents as he roamed. After seven years when his banishment ended he returned to Smyrna.

He left for Constantinople after a few more years and the story might have ended there, but for the arrival on the scene of a man named, Nathan, from Gaza. Nathan convinced Sabbatai that he was, indeed, the Messiah. More importantly, Nathan took on the role of apostle and spread the word of coming of the true Messiah far and wide. Within a few years, messianic fever spread though the Jewish world with serious consequences to Jewish life. People began to stop their normal activities, and took to fasting, and more bizarre actions like burying themselves up to the neck in dirt. With the Messiah’s arrival imminent or even already here, there’s no point in continuing the normal.

The wiser heads in the Jewish communities tried to stop this fervor, but the Sabbatean movement continued, until the Turkish Sultan decided that Sabbatai was becoming a nuisance and ultimately a threat to Turkish authority. After several attempts at controlling him, the Sultan gave him the choice of beheading or conversion to Islam. He chose the latter to the chagrin of his adherents. The believers everywhere were ashamed to have so easily believed in this false messiah, and, for a long time, were confused, silent, and dejected.

This was not quite the immediate end of his story. Nathan continued to pass off Sabbatai, now, Aziz Mehmed Effendi, as the Messiah. Being a very clever PR man, he argued that external appearances were but a disguise of inner righteousness, and true believers should continue to believe in him. It’s not the end of the whole story either. This short period of Jewish history has consequences felt today. Here is a short quote from a Jewish historical website.

To a great extent, Sabbatai Zevi is the direct cause of the Reform movement, because he broke the back of the idea of waiting for the Messiah. The Jews in Western Europe and elsewhere were no longer willing to wait for a miraculous redemption. Having raised the expectations of the messianic time to such an extent and bankrupted it, there were vast sections of the Jewish people that were no longer willing to invest their faith in a messianic era.

Therefore, the Reform movement came and gave a completely different solution to the Jewish problem — a solution not dependent upon the land of Israel, the Messiah and supernatural events, but rather within the grasp of human reach and reason. It proved enormously popular because Sabbatai Zevi had bankrupted faith.

This tale has significance for more than just Jews. There is an uncanny similarity here to what has just happened here in the United States. I would not claim the Trump is bipolar, but he seems to have other personality disorders. He is a combination both Sabbatai and Nathan, combining the Messiah and the apostle, a very dangerous schizoid combination. He has promised redemption, but nowhere as clearly as Sabbatai and his followers who envisioned returning to the Jewish homeland, promised by God. Not much good came to the followers. Communities were torn apart. But eventually, historians tell us the Jews came to their senses, and the order was restored. For the “confused, silent and dejected” among us, hope lies ahead.

ps. A few small scattered communities of Sabbatai’s Jewish turned Moslem followers (Dönmeh) still await the Messiah in Turkey.

(Image: Sabbatai Sevi)