Regardless of how well or poorly Jews have integrated into their host societies, in each generation, they have fasted over the two destructions of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BCE and 70 CE. And have prayed to be able to return. But there remains a division between those Jews who see the return as a miraculous manifestation of Messianism and those who believe we have to act in the present to correct the mistakes of the past and build a better future.
Judaism has produced many false Messiahs who thought they could save the world. Of these one of the most colorful was Shabtai Zvi. He was born in Izmir on the Ninth of Av in 1626. Significantly the very day the Temple was destroyed which was today. And the day that a tradition had it that the Messiah who would rebuild the Temple, would be born.
Shabtai Zvi captured the imagination of a whole generation of Jews across the world and more than half placed complete faith in him and prepared to follow him to Israel. His eventual conversion to Islam was such a profound shock that it took generations to overcome the trauma. Was he a genuine mystic, a charlatan, a brilliant pretender, or a sick man? Perhaps he was all of these. But I believe one can look at him through what we might call the prism of Zion.
He came from a prominent family in Izmir and was a prodigy. But he was also a rebel against the oppressive rigidity and conformism of the Jewish community. His interest in Kabbalah led him to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Wherever he went his arrogance and charismatic personality led to conflict and clashes. The more he was rejected, the more outlandish his challenges to authority. Often riots broke out between his supporters and local rabbinic authorities because he not only challenged authority but preached a heretical and less strict, more popular Judaism to appeal to a wider audience. His private life was pretty unusual too.
In Egypt, in 1662, he met the scholar and merchant Refael Yosef Chelebi. He was concerned about the large numbers of Eastern Europeans displaced by the horrific Bogdan Chmielnicki massacres in Ukraine and Poland of 1648 and wanted to encourage as many as possible to resettle in the Holy Land. 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, adventurer. The Sultan hated instability but did respect spirituality and had a record of encouraging Jews to settle in the Ottoman Empire.
Chelebi introduced Zvi to the outstanding mystic of the time Nathan of Gaza, himself a charismatic and influential leader, and he persuaded Zvi that if he would present himself as a Messiah, he could better impress Jews and non-Jews alike. Zvi initially reluctantly agreed. Perhaps he always deluded himself into thinking he was a kind of mystical superhero. On the other hand, you might compare him to Theodore Herzl, who cultivated an elegance and presence that enabled him to present himself as the Prince of the Jews and this gave him easier access to the European aristocratic courts. Perhaps Zvi was a kind of proto-Zionist.
He traveled to meet the Sultan to ask for his support. But when he arrived in Istanbul in 1666, the Ottomans imprisoned him. They too saw him as disruptive. He was given the choice, of death or conversion. He converted to Islam but still maintained he was the Messiah working in mysterious ways to bring peace and unity to the world.
He persisted in presenting himself as all things to all people. The Ottomans lost patience. He was exiled to Dulcino in Albania, where he befriended the local Christian community. He died in 1676 still hoping to reconcile all three Monotheistic Faiths. For years his followers remained loyal. A sect of Muslims called the Donmeh in Turkey, continue to revere him to this very day and have suffered ostracism and persecution for it.
I’d like to give Shabtai the benefit of the doubt, that he saw himself as a metaphor for his people. The Jewish world was traumatized by exile and continuing humiliation. And alienated. Messianism was the only option.
Meanwhile, yet the dream of peace on earth and unity still escapes us, as Jews and human beings. This is probably why there has been this resurgence of Messianic fervor and each year someone claims that this is the one when the Messiah will come. Meanwhile, we wait in vain.
What lies behind this fascination with Messianism? On one level it is the desperate hope that a magical figure, a superman, will appear to solve all our problems and unite us all. This is the predictive version. On the other hand, it can mean making the world better through our own efforts. This is the proactive version.
Not everything in life is rational or makes sense. Although some things are more probable than others. But Shabtai’s way proved to be another dead end like every other false Messiah. Is it better to be rational or mystical? Perhaps one doesn’t have to choose. I prefer looking at the world through a positive and proactive prism. And we each choose which approach resonates for us.
This is why when Rabbi Akiva saw the ruins and the other rabbis cried, he laughed because he was confident that one day it would all be rebuilt. As we look around us with despair at the conflicts within our Jewish world and those beyond, perhaps the dream that one day we may all be at peace can sustain us.