Monday, November 11, 2013

Sabbatai Sevi: the mystical messiah by Gershom Scholem

This volume is a magisterial effort that exhibits the master craftsman at his craft.  If one is interested in understanding what a professional historian does, Sabbatai Sevi: The mystical Messiah is a perfect example.  Scholem reviews all the different accounts reporting on the rise and fall of Sabbatai Sevi showing his command of languages from Hebrew, German, English and French.  He shows his power of analysis of each source, exposing bias, some sympathetic, some hostile and some curious about the subject!  He enjoys dismissing Henrich Graetz based on the sources. Scholem tells the story of hope and anticipation of the Jewish Messiah by sifting through the labyrinths of mystical codes and ecsoterica of Lurianic Kabbala.

Scholem's thesis seems to be that by the end of the Medieval period the religious world was steeped in the esoteric world of mysticism (more so than Maimonides' rationalism and almost negation of Mysticism) to the extent that a pretender and his marketeer could fool practically the entire nation.  According to Scholem, virtually the entire Jewish world was swept up by the marvelous events surrounding Sabbatai's appearance.  How else could vociferous rabbinic opposition be drowned out by the wave of excitement.  The desire for messianic relief was so great that one's faith was challenged when voicing opposition.

Early on Sabbatai was recognized exhibiting odd behavior before he rose to prominence.  His behavior reflected extreme mood swings of elation and ecstasy on the one hand and melancholia on the other. These episodes gave rise to antinomian practice, either ignoring or blatantly violating Jewish law.  The rabbinic ban was imposed on him (although curiously without much effect).  Nathan of Gaza, a fellow mystic then becomes his John the Baptist and Paul of Taursis all wrapped into one person.  Nathan begins prophesying and interpreting Sabbatai's odd behavior as illustrious signs of future events.  He calls for preparation of the 'Kingdom of Heaven' much like John the Baptist.  He proclaims Sabbatai as the Messiah much like Paul did about Jesus.

What is fascinating about this tragedy in Modern Jewish History is the determination to believe that he was the Messiah.  Even after his apostasy, large segments are not satisfied that he failed.  Nathan even explains that his apostasy was part of a divine plan.  Even with his death, people are reluctant to give up hope or faith.  Only after the death of Nathan, his prophet does the Jewish world begin to feel the depression of their mistake.

A few rabbis, like Sasportas, and Samuel Halevi were steadfast in their disbelief.  Some gloated to say "I told you so" and some were diplomatic in tending to their flock to help heal the open wounds of despair. One is told that the great aged rav at the time who's classic commentary on the Code of Jewish law, known as the TAZ was a believer.  He died before Sabbatai's conversion to Islam.

Today, perhaps because of the embarrassment of this tragedy most of us are unaware of how influential this movement was.  The Jewish world would like to forget Sabbatai Sevi.  Reading about Sabbatai Sevi, however, enables one to reflect on the rise of Hasidism and the fears of Messianism as reflected in the concept of Hasidic lore.  One may gain a better appreciation of the Vilna Gaon' s opposition, that perhaps instead of being preoccupied with the Kabbalah and the coming of the Messiah (like so many are today) one should fix times for old fashioned Torah Study stressing the rationality of Jewish practice and law.  That one should keep in mind that Misnagged (Those who oppose)  idea of the coming of the messiah:  that he will come late on a Friday afternoon, when one's household is frantically preparing for the arrival of the Sabbath oblivious to everything going on in the world so that observance of Shabbos can be ideally accomplished according to the Torah law and Halacha.

May we usher in his coming when we least expect it speedily in our days.

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