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Laurance Wieder

Far from Me

Messianic unease.

Tradition holds that a messiah is born in every generation. "Yes," the talmudic sages say. "Let the Messiah come, but not in our time." Since 2001, at least seven books have been published concerning three Jewish messiahs of the past three-and-a-half centuries: Sabbatai Sevi, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, and Jacob Frank. All such studies and historical revisions are written in the shadows or on the shoulders of Gershom Scholem's landmark 20th-century history, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah. That work of scholarship made respectable again a mystical tradition based largely on the Zohar. Scholem established that Moses de Leon, a late-medieval Spanish Jew, wrote the Zohar. Among learned Jews, that book enjoyed a status equal to the Talmud, a respect undone by the Messiahship of Sabbatai Sevi. Following the English and French Revolutions, modern Jewry sought enlightenment before redemption, citizenship before Jerusalem. Philosophy became preferable to prophecy.

Born in Turkey in 1626, Sabbatai Sevi spent much of his adult life oscillating between a luminous conviction that he was the long-awaited Messiah son of David, and profound inner darkness. Hoping to be cured of delusive sickness, in 1665 Sevi sought out a young healer of souls, the kabbalist-prophet Nathan of Gaza. Alas, instead of release, Nathan proclaimed the manic-depressive rabbi the Redeemer.

That same year, the newly anointed Messiah delivered a public address (reproduced by Ada Rapoport-Albert in Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi) on what the Messiah means for the other half of humanity:

As for you wretched women, great is your misery, for on Eve's account you suffer agonies in childbirth. What is more, you are in bondage to your husbands and can do nothing great or small without their consent …. Give thanks to God, then, that I have come to the world to redeem you from all your sufferings, to liberate you and make you as happy as your husbands, for I have come to annul the sin of Adam.

Jewry flocked to their new hope. Despite his strange deeds and words, despite the opposition of some rabbis who rejected the Messiah, an army of believers followed Sabbatai Sevi's call to march with him to Constantinople. There, he said, he would receive the earthly crown of empire from the Turkish sultan, and so bring on the new order. In 1666, a year of astrological portent, the Mystical Messiah was arrested outside the Ottoman capital. Called to an audience before the Grand Turk, Sabbatai took the turban.

The Jewish Messiah's apostasy to Islam was enough to disillusion many of those who thought the promised time had arrived. Not to mention those who always doubted. In November 1666, Rabbi Joseph Halevi sent a letter to Jacob Sasportas of Hamburg. He observed that a full year had passed since dispatches from Alexandria, from Egypt, from the Holy Land, from Syria and from all Asia announced that redemption was at hand. "This good news was brought us by a brainless adolescent from Gaza, Nathan the Lying Prophet," Halevi wrote, "who, not satisfied with proclaiming himself a prophet, went on to anoint king of Israel a coarse, malignant lunatic whose Jewish name used to be Sabbatai Sevi."

For those able to weather their disappointment, Nathan of Gaza justified Sabbatai Sevi's abandonment of faith on kabbalistic grounds. The Torah is now void. Words have no meaning, except what we say they mean. Bad is now good, good evil. The Messiah must sink low in order to mount high. And so forth. Some of the faithful remained faithful.

Six years after Sabbatai Sevi's death in 1676 in Alkum, Sabbataian devotee Joseph Karillo and a companion called on Abraham Miguel Cardozo in Constantinople. Cardozo was a Catholic convert to Judaism who had accepted the Turkish-born messiah and claimed a messianic role of his own.

The companion recounted for Cardozo their final audience with Sabbatai Sevi. "After the New Year [Rosh Hashanah] …, he took us out to the seashore with him and said to us: 'Each of you go back home. How long will you adhere to me? Until you see the rock that is on the seashore, perhaps?' And we had no idea what he was talking about. So we left Alkum, and he died on the Day of Atonement [Yom Kippur], early in the morning." A Sabbataian sect practices their version of Judaized Islam in Smyrna to this day.

Moshe Idel, a contemporary Israeli scholar of kabbalism, interprets history as a kind of sacred text, written in glyphs or emblems as well as in narrative. This method follows a path trod by the Renaissance philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, by the 20th-century essayist Walter Benjamin, and by Benjamin's friend Gershom Scholem. They assume that events, like words, conceal meaning. Thus, the fact that Sabbatai Sevi was born on the Ninth of Av, the day both Temples fell, 1626, is a sign, and not only to the orthodox.

As Abraham Cardozo put it: "What save sadness did Sabbatai, who was born on a funeral day, predict? He was unfortunate in his very name, since, in the Hebrew language, Saturn is called Sabbatai, a sad and malignant star."

Or as Gershom Scholem wrote in a poem from 1933:

In days of old all roads somehow led
To God and to his name.
We are not devout. We remain in the Profane,
And where 'God' once stood, [now] Melancholy stands.

Abraham Miguel Cardozo was born in 1630, in Portugal. His family were Marranos, or secret Jews. Raised Catholic and educated at a university in Spain, Cardozo left home after graduation to join his brother in Venice. There, he converted (back) to Judaism. A fervent scholar of Judaica, Cardozo identified himself with the Messiah son of Joseph, a figure who traditionally heralded rather than followed the Messiah from the line of David.

Cardozo accepted the Mystical Messiah, but did not follow Sevi into Islam. Indeed, he neither wanted nor expected Sabbatai to bring the Jews back to the Holy Land. "When the Redeemer comes," Cardozo wrote, "the Jews will still be living among the Gentiles even after their salvation is accomplished. But they will not be dead men, as they had been previously." As in the 19th-century dream of Enlightenment, through redemption Jews will experience happiness, and enjoy dignity and honor.

Cardozo's dissent, like Nathan of Gaza's, was rooted in the Zohar. But the Sephardic exile's vision faced forward to William Blake's irascible God and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, rather than backward toward Andalusia, Moses de Leon, and the Zoharic circle of Simeon ben Yohai.

David J. Halperin summarizes the Marrano's minority theology in his edition of Abraham Miguel Cardozo: Selected Writings:

The world hosts four basic religious systems: Absolute, Prophetic Monotheism (Judaism and Islam); Philosophical Deism; Christian Trinitarianism; and pagan polytheism. All four are false religions. Muslims and Jews insist that there is no God except the being philosophers call the First Cause. Yet the message that Moses brought to Israel, when he came to redeem them from Pharaoh, was that there is a God other than the First Cause. He is the God whom the Bible calls by the sacred four-letter Name, whom the ancient rabbis called the Blessed Holy One.

Where Sabbatai Sevi sounds grandiose, Cardozo's voice is modest and extreme. "I am no Messiah," he wrote later in life. "But I am the man of whom the Faithful Shepherd [Moses] spoke when he addressed Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai and his companions: 'Worthy is he who struggles, in the final generation, to know the Shekhinah [the female side of the Divine Presence], to honor Her through the Torah's commandments, and to endure much distress for Her sake.' "

Abraham Cardozo outlived his fallen Messiah by thirty years. Addressing Sevi's failure to reappear, Cardozo explained that "Our ancient rabbis have said that King Messiah will tell every Jew who his father is, that is to say, his Father in heaven, God, whom they have forgotten in their exile. Sabbatai Sevi has not done this. He has not openly proclaimed to the Jewish people the divinity of the Shekhinah, the existence of the Great Name, the truth of God. Even if he was aware of all this, his awareness was for himself alone."

Jacob Frank was another Messiah successful for himself alone. Born in 1726, this Polish Jew with a knack for commerce found his calling in mid-18th-century Smyrna. By force of personality, Frank assumed his messianic mantle in the Ottoman Sabbataian community. This Messiah's revealed truth identified four aspects of holiness: the God of Life, of Wealth, of Death, and the God of Gods. Frank lived like an Oriental potentate on the offerings of his followers as he progressed from Turkey through Anatolia to Poland and Bohemia, all the while promising everlasting life on this earth to those numbers of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews he converted—to Catholicism.

Frank's converts assumed Polish names and received aristocratic patents when they followed their redeemer into the Catholic Church. Frank identified his daughter—born Rachel Frank in 1754 and later known as Eva—with the Shekhinah, as well as with the Madonna. The Frankists addressed Eva as "The Maiden" or "The Virgin."

Frank's sayings and stories are compiled in a book, The Words of the Lord. There, the master asks, "How could you think that the messiah would be a man? That may by no means be, for the foundation is the Maiden. She will be the true messiah. She will lead all the worlds."

Pawel Maciejko calls his Frankist history The Mixed Multitude, alluding to both the generation that followed Moses out of Egypt and to the rising tide of spiritual and political democracy. Witnesses withheld their hosannahs. A contemporary rabbi's account of one early Frankist-cum-Sabbataian ritual in Lanckoronie, Poland, in 1756, reads like a scene from Isaac B. Singer's novel Satan in Goray: "And they took the wife of a local rabbi (who also belonged to the sect), a woman beautiful but lacking discretion, they undressed her naked and placed the Crown of the Torah on her head, sat her under the canopy like a bride, and danced a dance around her. They celebrated with bread and wine of the condemned, and they pleased their hearts with music like King David … and in dance they fell upon her kissing her, and called her 'mezuzah,' as if they were kissing a mezuzah."

The outside world also took note of Jacob Frank. A 1759 issue of the English Gentleman's Magazine featured an anonymous "Friendly Address to the Jews." Its author expressed surprise at a report "that some thousands of Jews in Poland and Hungary had lately sent to the Polish bishop … to inform him of their desire to embrace the Roman Catholic Religion." The correspondent suggested that if you think that the Christian religion is true, and believe the messiah is already come, then why not "embrace the Protestant religion, that true Christianity which is delivered to us … without the false traditions and wicked intentions and additions of the Popes, who have entirely perverted the truth, and corrupted primitive Christianity."

Overtly Catholic, the Frankists also kept Jewish feasts and holy days. A few years after the Maiden's death in 1816, a secret society, called the Asiatic Brethren of Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary, mirrored the Frankists. These Masonic Protestants celebrated Christian holidays as well as the birth and death of Moses, and Shavuot, "to bring about religious unity by leading Christianity back to its Jewish form."

In his table talk, Frank dismisses Jewish worship and tradition with a wave of his hand: "All the Jews are seeking something of which they have not the slightest inkling. They have a custom of reciting every sabbath: 'Come, my beloved, to meet the bride,' calling out 'Welcome' to the Maiden. This is all mere talk and song. But we pursue her and try to see her in reality."

"The whole Zohar is not satisfying for me," he announced, "and we have no need for the books of kabbalah."

With regard to his scriptural forebears, Frank models his conduct after an alternative lawgiver: "Moses did not die but went to another religion and God permitted it. The Israelites in the desert did not want to walk that road, and when they came to … bitterness, they became aware of that freedom and it was in that place where there was no obligation."

What of Frank's own place in suspended history? "All religion, all laws, and all the books published up to now as well as whoever reads them, are like reflections of words that died a long time ago. All that comes out of Death. The wise man's eyes should always look to the person in front of him. This man does not look left or right or to the back, yet everybody turns his eyes towards him."

Just before his own death in 1791, Frank announced: "I tell you, Christ is known to you as coming to liberate the world from Satan's hands, but I came to liberate you from all laws and statutes that existed up to now. I have to destroy them all, and only then will God reveal himself."

In The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, Peter Cole translates a popular hymn by Yisrael Najara that is still part of mainstream Jewish worship. The song, "Your Kingdom's Glory," was adopted by Sabbataians as an anthem of messianic kingship. Its seven stanzas were chanted in the Cathedral of Lublin in the presence of Jacob Frank. The hymn begins:

Let your Kingdom's glory be revealed
over a poor and wandering people,
and reign, Lord who has ruled forever,
before the reign of any King.

Stanza four, the song's center, states:

I hope for the time of your redemption
and wait with patience for your salvation.
If it tarries, Lord, in your absence,
I will look for no other King.

The plea concludes:

Bring my people back to you There [Sion's mountain],
and I will rejoice around your altar.
With a new song, I will offer
thanks to you, my Lord and King.

More precise and moving, Cole's verse-paraphrase of one passage from the Likutei Amarim Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, an hasidic contemporary of Jacob Frank, embodies the messianic fervor merely alluded to in the earlier, generic hymn:

All before Him is as nothing:
The soul stirs and burns
for the precious glory of His greatness,
to behold the light of the King
like coals of the fierce flame rising.
To be freed from the wick
or the wood to which it clings.

Historically, Christians are vexed with the Jews, who insist on waiting for their own messiah, amid discussion of how he will be known, what marks he shall bear both in the scriptural and in the worldly sense, and when. Islam, too, looks for the Mahdi and a day of salvation. Yet even those who believe that their messiah has appeared await a second coming.

So the question of who and what to accept, of how to recognize the truth, abides. I must ask it of myself, if I ask it of others: How could you believe? Or, How could you not?

Considering the matter of the pretender, or the fallen Messiah, the question changes: How could a person be so false, and yet walk the earth?

Legend tells that on the day the Temple was destroyed, the redeemer was born. At that very moment, a certain Jew was plowing his field, and his heifer lowed. A passing Arab said, "Weep, Jew. Your Temple is destroyed. I know this from your heifer's moo."

The heifer lowed again. The Arab said, "Rejoice, for the Messiah, who will deliver Israel, is born."

The Jew asked the Messiah's name and birthplace.

The Arab answered, "Menachem (the Comforter) son of Hezekiah, in Bethlehem."

The Jew sold everything, became a garment merchant, and traveled until he reached Bethlehem. Women flocked to buy his wares, and urged Menachem's mother to buy a little something from the merchant. She replied, "Better to have Israel's enemies strangled, than to buy one rag for such a son. The day he was born was the day the Temple was destroyed."

The Jew who came so far to find her said, "It may have fallen on the day your son was born, but I am certain that on his account the Temple will be rebuilt. Take what you need. I will come again, and you will repay me."

Time passed. The Jew returned to Bethlehem, and sought out Menachem's mother. "So tell me, how is your son?"

The woman answered, "Right after you spoke to me, a windstorm snatched him from my hands and carried him off."

So it is said in the Book of Lamentations: Menachem the Comforter is far from me.

Laurance Wieder is a poet living in Charlottesville, Virginia. His books include The Last Century: Selected Poems (Picador Australia) and Words to God's Music: A New Book of Psalms (Eerdmans). He can be found regularly at PoemSite (free subscription available from poemsite@gmail.com).

Books discussed in this essay:

Book of Legends/Sefer HaAggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, by Hayyim Bialik and Y. H. Rawnitzky (Schocken, 1992).

The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition, translated and annotated by Peter Cole, co-edited and with an afterword by Aminadav Dykman (Yale Univ. Press, 2012).

Sabbatai Zevi: Testimonies to a Fallen Messiah, translated, with notes and introductions, by David J. Halperin (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012 [2007]).

Abraham Miguel Cardozo: Selected Writings, translated and introduced by David J. Halperin (Paulist Press, 2001).

Saturn's Jews: On Witches' Sabbat and Sabbateanism, by Moshe Idel (Continuum, 2011).

Jacob Frank: The End to the Sabbataian Heresy, by Alexander Kraushaar, translated, edited, annotated, and introduced by Herbert Levy (Univ. Press Of America, 2001).

The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816, by Pawel Maciejko (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666-1816, by Ada Rapoport-Albert, translated by Deborah Greniman (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011).

Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676, by Gershom Scholem (Princeton Univ. Press, 1973).

Satan in Goray, by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996 [1955]).

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