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Another False Messiah


The fast on the Ninth of Av, Tisha B’Av, commemorates both the Babylonian and the Roman destructions of Jerusalem and the First Temple, in 586 BCE and then in 70 CE. The mourning for these cataclysmic losses affected law, lore, and the psychology of Jews no matter where they were exiled. Anyone who thinks Zionism is a response to the Holocaust is just an ignorant fool.

The dream of returning to the Land of Israel and rebuilding Jerusalem became positively obsessive as reflected in our liturgy. Not a generation went by without pilgrimage and settlement, however small. Regardless of how well or badly Jews were integrated into their host societies, from Nachmanides and Yehudah Halevy to Alroi, from Spain in the West to Persia in the East, each generation produced its rabbis and messiahs who tried to return to Zion.

Of these, one of the most colorful was Shabtai Zvi. He was born in Izmir and lived from 1626 to 1676. He captured the imagination and support of a whole generation of Jews across the world. His conversion to Islam was such a profound shock that it took years to overcome and was a major cause both of the suppression of mysticism and the obsessive defensivism that still characterizes much of Orthodoxy.

Scholars from Gershom Scholem to Moshe Idel have argued about the man and his message and about whether he was a genuine mystic, a charlatan, a brilliant pretender, or simply sick. Perhaps he was all of these. But I believe one should look at him through the prism of Zion.

He was born on the Ninth of Av. This in itself, in a credulous world, would have been a significant omen. He came from a prominent family in Izmir and was a prodigy. But he was also a rebel against what he saw as the oppressive rigidity and conformism of the Jewish community. His interest in Kabbalah led him to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. So he set off, or was encouraged to leave, on a tour of Greece and Turkey, in which he sought out mystical teachers of different traditions. Wherever he ended up, his antinomian, charismatic personality led to ideological conflict and clashes. The more he was rejected the more outlandish his challenges to the law and authority.

In Egypt in 1662, he met the celebrated scholar and merchant Rafael Yosef Chelebi. Chelebi had done a lot to settle refugees from Iberia, and now he was concerned about the large numbers of Eastern Europeans displaced by the terrible ( in Ukraine today he’s a hero) Bogdan Chmielnicki massacres of 1648 and the Catholic reprisals. The Sephardi communities of the Mediterranean were not that happy to be inundated with what they considered unwashed, Ashkenazi peasants. Chelebi had an interest in encouraging as many as possible to resettle in the Holy Land.

Apart from Safed, which had become a major center for Jews fleeing the Spanish expulsion because there was a textile industry, there was nothing in the Holy Land to sustain large numbers of immigrants. Chelebi wanted to persuade the Ottoman authorities to permit the establishment of new industries and agricultural settlements. But he needed a front man, someone with presence and stature to impress the Ottoman authorities as a spiritual man of peace rather than a commercial speculator. or worse, a military adventurer. The sultan hated instability but did respect spirituality.

Opinions vary as to whether Chelebi persuaded Shabtai that he could better impress Jew and non-Jew alike as the Messiah, or whether it was Nathan of Gaza, the Svengali he met on the way to canvass opinion in Jerusalem, who persuaded him he was the Messiah. Perhaps he always deluded himself into thinking he was a kind of mystical superhero. In one way he might be compared to Theodore Herzl, who cultivated an elegance and presence that enabled him to present himself as the Prince of the Jews, giving him easier access to the European aristocratic courts. And Shabtai’s desire to involve other religions and populations in his project anticipates Buber, Scholem, and other idealistic Zionists.

Shabtai’s assuming the Messianic mantle brought him the attention of the whole of the Jewish world, which desperately dreamed of returning to Zion and casting off the burden of exile. Even Gluckel of Hameln was so excited she started salting meat for the journey, and brokers at Lloyds took bets as to whether the Messiah had arrived.

But the Ottoman authorities came to see Shabtai as disruptive, doubtless encouraged by his Jewish and his Muslim enemies. He was given the choice: death or the turban. He converted to Islam but still maintained he was the Messiah working in mysterious ways as did Nathan of Gaza. Perhaps his disillusionment with Jewish authority convinced him he needed to escape the limitations of Judaism and reach out to Muslims and Christians too, because he persisted in presenting himself as all things to all people. The Ottomans lost patience with his prevarications and he was exiled to Dulcino in Albania, where he died still hoping to reconcile all three monotheistic faiths. For years his followers remained loyal, and a group of Turks called the Donmeh continue to revere him to this day.

I have always had a soft spot for him, despite his weird sex life and peculiar halachic deviations. I want to give Shabtai the benefit of the doubt. He saw himself as a metaphor for his people. The Jewish world was traumatized by exile and continuing humiliation. It was not always physical suffering, but alienation, a feeling of being unfairly singled out for hatred. The only possible escape was the Messiah leading the return to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Temple. But if the Jews had the means, they simply lacked the unity, the political power, and the allies to make it happen. Mysticism was the only option. Sadly, the political conditions were not right. It took another 300 years for pieces, good and bad, to come together. The Almighty has always had a different timetable.

So as we mark Tisha B’Av this year again, as we have for two thousand years, we will reiterate our ancient commitment never to forget our love for the land and our holy city and its centrality to our fate, as it was to Shabtai. Of course we will realize that for two thousand years we have had to share it with others, and it looks like only the real Messiah will be able to sort it all out.

6 thoughts on “Another False Messiah

  1. Jeremy Shalom Rav,
    I don't know if you still accept comments, questions to old articles, but only recently did I read this article about Shabtai ZVI. There are several sentences that are of extreme interest, or as it's called in Hebrew "PIKANTI m'od". I hope that the article has not timed out, and that you would be so kind as to respond??
    You write "I have always had a soft spot for him despite his weird sex life and peaculiar halachic deviations". Well, there are three questions the reader might have just there. But to complet your thought "I want to give Shabtai the benefit of the doubt."

    OK, if you will indulge my curiosity:
    You made no reference to his weird sex life in the article. You may very well not want to get specific here, but perhaps a link of some sort?? pikanti m'od. similarly, re his "peculiar halachic practices". Can you delineate something on that subject, or provide some sources to read? Perhaps it is too perrsonal to inquire why you have "always had a soft sport for him". So, i would not be surprised if you bypassed this question.
    Lastly, you refer to Dan L'Kaf Zechut. That is something we should all consider all the time, but in the case of Zvi, it wasn't clear to me, perhaps it should have been, to what benefit of the doubt are you referring, certainly not to the possibility of his having been Messiah. I would appreciate as much detail for which you have the time. Links to other sources would also be welcomed. Best, GAON

  2. Interesting points you raise.
    I did not want to go into greater detail about his sexual problems because although they do speak to the instability and possibly distorted aspect of his character they could also be a reflection of his attempt to mirror the opening chapter of Hoshea. But either way the issue was secondary to the broader themes of re settling the Jews in Israel and later on in his life the attempt to reconcile Jews, Muslims and Christians.
    The halachic ambiguity of his actions can also be explained through the mystical and Hassidic concept of Yerida LeTzorech Aliyah but also his attempt to shock people out of blind observance into deeper meaning and Kavannah as indeed do some of the stories of the Kotzker Rebbes antinomian actions.
    The truth is I dont knopw for certain, I was projecting my own struggles with established halachic Judaism and what I see as its problems and failings, onto him. Of course its possible as Gershon Scholem thinks that he was a brilliant sick nutcase!

    But as by now you must know I do enjoy throwing out fanciful theories to see what response I get and to test my own ideas.

    Chag Sameach and thanks for your questions.


  3. Thank you Jeremy.
    Your response is much appreciated. And you have referred to several areas with which I am unfamiliar. So I have some reading to do! But you never explained your "soft spot for him" LOL. and no link to the spicey stuff. Hope they are not related, (major LOLOLOL) just could not resist. Excuse my warped sense of humor…..and please do not interpret the curiosity re the "pikantiut" as simply prurient interest. But it is a bit unusual for me, to read such comments re "Moshiach".<>
    So I have some learning to do re Hoshea, and re the concept of Yerida Le'Tzorech Aliyah, (I did actually learn something about the latter a long time ago, probably at Chabad, in a different gilgul.)

    Glad you still respond to old posts.

    Chag Sameach

  4. My soft spot really derives from my feelings of identification with those who challenge authority, in general but specifically in public and all the more so if the motive is genuine Ahavat Yisrael or and Torah! But that doesnt mean I am historically correct of course. Could be guilty of wishful thinking. I certainly dont agree with his Messianic pretensions !

    Chag Sameach

  5. First of all, hope you don't live in US, because challenging authority, even forwarding emails challenging authority gets you quickly on the terrorist list/ and/or no fly list. (which all things being equal is better than getting sexually molested by felons at the TSA. last i looked terrorist list was 300K and growing. but that was several months ago. only a trifle tongue in cheek.
    And given the quantity of hollow core shells purchased in last year by DHS (and, even by the SSA, albeit far far less), criticizing Der Fuhrer, that includes Bloomberg, is not a prudent idea. should have bought that Greek Island, could have commuted to Salonika for shul.
    Hang around with me, and you'll get your heart's desire, challenging authority, but at a great expense. this is being read by fbi super computers, not that the incompetents know what to do with anything.
    chag sameach.
    are you on FB? I had a very long dormant account, set=up specifically to see photos of 2 daughters, but that is not allowed. even so, i just reactivated and am heavily involved in a lot of Jewish blogs, particularly, but not exclusively including child abuse fighters. yesterday was a holiday KOLKO in Lakewood NJ pleaded guilty, the beginning of he end of rabbinic control of the pedophilia problem in Lakewood, lots of my blogger sites are celebrating today. This was a major major victory, rivaling the Nehemiah Weberman Satmar sentence , 103 years. Room for him to timeshare with the two internecine Satmar Rebbes (sic). Triple bunk beds. Hey, I am going far off from Torah and probably boring you.

  6. My goodness me, you are special and clearly a doughty fighter because I completely idenmtify with the issues you have taken up and have published several pieces in books and journals over the years on the issue of abuse in the Jewish community.

    And would you believe it I retired to New York because I felt and still feel that crazy as this place is, its still better, healthier than Europe in general and for Jews in particular. But yes the controls and the invasion of privacy are disturbing. But not as disturbing as allowing murderoius fanatics to run wild.

    Shavua tov and more power to your elbow.


    Yes, I do have Facebook page under my own name but I rarely bother to check it. Whats yours?

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