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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2014
Number 80
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Salvation Through Transgression

A Review essay by Peter J. Haas

The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816 by Pawel Maciejko. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

One of Theodor Herzl’s famous early fantasies of how to solve “The Jewish Question” in nineteenth century Europe was to orchestrate the mass conversion of Jews to Roman Catholicism. Although he set the stage beautifully as regards how this mass conversion was to take place, it was obviously a fantasy scenario that could never play out in real history. There was no precedent at all in Jewish history for any such voluntary mass conversion to Christianity, with one exception. As Maciejko points out at the very beginning of his book, such a voluntary mass conversion did take place reportedly in the city of Lwow in 1759 and was led by Jacob Frank. This event in some sense culminated the life cycle of a very odd group that emerged out of one of the streams of Sabbateanism and along its trajectory intersected in complicated ways with Karaites, Protestant missionaries, blood libels, a sort of proto-Zionism, messianism, medieval disputations, the worship of Mary and the breakup of Poland. Maybe just as astonishing as the voluntary mass conversion of a group of Jews to Roman Catholicism was the reaction of the Jewish community, which responded with relief if not celebration: they were glad to see the group go. In fact, by the time of the death in the Offenbach Castle in 1816 of the Frankist messiah, Eve Frank (Jacob Frank’s daughter), many outsiders were completely unaware that the court of this colorful and apparently Polish Catholic nobleman had any connection with the Jews or Judaism. There is obviously quite some back story to this event and the strange offspring it spawned, and Maciejko sets out to research and describe it.

Sabbateanism and its aftermaths are not easy phenomena to research. The events of the messianic movement surrounding Shabbtai Zevi are well-known, at least in broad outline. Gershom Sholem has written a 1000-page exhaustive and presumably definitive account of the movement and its founder. What is less well-studied is what happened to the followers of Shabbtai Zevi after his conversion to Islam in 1666. We know that several responses emerged, ranging from a penitent and chastised return to normative rabbinism to the formation of various Sabbatean sects, that practiced forms of Sabbatean inspired antinomianism to various degrees, sometimes openly sometimes in deep privacy. We also know that some of these groups persisted for decades, the “Dönmeh” sect in Turkey even lasting into the twentieth century. What also appears to be the case, as Maciejko points out, is that Sabbatean-inspired activities were often tolerated, or at least not forcefully addressed in the Polish territories of central Europe, nor elsewhere, well into the eighteenth century. Why this was so is open to speculation: maybe it was because such Sabbatean groups were marginal and so not seen as a real threat, maybe because the Sabbateans enjoyed too much popular sympathy and rabbinic power was too limited to launch a frontal attack, maybe because of a fear of washing too much crazy Jewish dirty laundry in public. Whatever the reasons, the tensions between Sabbateans and normative rabbinites continued to boil beneath the surface, appearing in veiled form in all sorts of polemics back and forth, but rarely broke out into public view. There are at least two major exceptions to this “discretion”. One was the famous Emden-Eibeschütz controversy that rocked Central European German Jewry from the 1750’s on. The other was what Maciejko calls the “Lanckoronie Affair”, which involved the Frankists and occurred in a little town near the Moldavian border in January 1756.

The original event was, on the surface, maybe nothing all that unusual. A group of Sabbateans, led by Jacob Frank, held what might have been, so Maciejko speculates, a sort of distorted “Simhat Torah” celebration, which would have included dancing with, and maybe hugging and kissing the Torah scrolls. Usually this celebration occurs in late September/early October, just after the Jewish New Year and marks the beginning of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah. That a Sabbatean sect would celebrate an established rabbinic ritual on the wrong day, in fact in the wrong season, is perfectly within character for Shabbatai Zevi’s disciples. As noted above, such bizarre activities were usually ignored by the authorities. What made the events at Lanckoronie distinctly controversial, apparently, is that instead of dancing, hugging and kissing the Torah scrolls, the adherents allegedly danced, hugged and kissed an allegedly naked or semi-naked woman (allegedly also the wife of a local rabbi). To be sure the ceremony seemed to have been carried out with some discretion, heavy curtains or rugs apparently having been placed over the windows, for example. Nonetheless word got out and the local Jewish authorities decided this time to intervene and to do so by turning to ecclesiastical authorities. A consistory trial was called, to be presided over by Bishop Dembowski. The main perpetrators were arrested and a trial was set up in the dioceses of Kamieniec diocese. At this juncture, the Lanckoronie celebration became the Lanckoronie Affair, and the starting point for Maciejko’s study.

The first six chapters of the book review the history of the Frankist movement in Poland. The turn to ecclesiastical authorities had its own complications. One of the elements of Sabbateanism was that it appropriated non-Jewish symbols, including Christian crosses. There are in fact some grounds for thinking that certain forms of Sabbateanism were influenced by Jews whose ancestors had converted to Catholicism in Spain and whose families later returned to Judaism, but brought with them some elements of Christianity. Thus when the Lanckoronie case came before the ecclesial court, the Sabbateans could argue with some credibility that they were actually closer to Christianity than were to their rabbinic Jewish prosecutors, and hence potential allies of the Church. To forestall such an argument, Rabbi Jacob Emden, already on the warpath against Sabbateans, crafted a letter to the Council of the Four Lands, the “governing” body for the Jews in the area roughly of Poland, supplying arguments to establish just the opposite. According to Emden, the very New Testament itself testified that Paul and the apostles regarded Judaism as a valid religion and did not preach the end of the law but its fulfillment. Jews too could recognize the validity of the religion expressed in the New Testament. What both Christians and Jews shared now, according to Emden, was the threat of a newly invented orgiastic heresy such as Sabbateanism, which distorted both Judaism and Christianity. Emden, Maciejko argues, made a powerful case, and in the process, for the first time, drew a definition around what could be called “orthodox” Judaism. In this definition, Sabbateans were clearly outside the bounds; they were a heresy that even Christians could discern.

In light of this argument, the “Lankoronie” Sabbateans built a defense strategy based on Christian anti-Judaism. In fact Maciejko refers to the confrontation as the “Kamieniec Disputation”. The Sabbateans now argued that in fact Talmudic Judaism was indeed law without spirit, just as the Church had always been teaching. Moreover, the Sabbateans now averred that they accepted many basic Catholic doctrines, including that of the trinity and that such acceptance had deep roots in Jewish thought, especially the Kabbalah and more particularly the Zohar. In framing matters this way, the Sabbateans managed to position themselves on essentially the same side as the Christians, denouncing the common enemy who refused to accept the truth, namely Talmudic Jews. This strategy, Maciejko argues, gave the Sabbateans another advantage. They could be identified, at least implicitly, with the other anti-Talmudic Jewish group in the region, a group that already had recognized legal standing, the Karaites. It also put the rabbinic side in an awkward position because they now were forced in effect to denounce the Kabbalah.

Things now went from bad to worse. The consistory court ruled in favor of the Sabbateans and even decreed the burning of the Talmud. In order not to give the still-not-Christian Sabbateans too much of a victory, however, it also denounced the Kabbalah. When the archbishop suddenly died and was replaced by none other than the Bishop Dembowski who had issued the outcome of the “disputation”, the situation of the rabbinic authorities seemed hopeless. But then Dembowski himself suddenly died, and the poles were reversed. The pressure on the “Talmudic” Jews abated, and the persecution of Sabbateans, who were now neither Christians nor Jews, began in earnest. In the end Frank and many of his followers converted to Islam and soon Podolian Sabbateanism seemed to have been driven from the land.

But the Sabbateans returned, and just in time to be part of a revival of the “blood libel”, that charged Jews with needing to kill Christians for their blood. The details of the libel and the “disputation” that took place in Lwow need not detain us here. Suffice it to say that the resurfacing Frankists did not hesitate, according to Maciejko, from adding their own “expertise” concerning the moral depravity of Talmudic Jews. In the end, it was determined that there was no basis for the blood libel charge and so the worst fears of Polish Jewish authorities faded. Moreover, by this point the Frankists hadin a body converted to Christianity and so no longer posed the threat they once did. No wonder the Jewish community wished them a good riddance.

Actually, as Maciejko points out, even the conversion was not so simple. Apparently every one of the religious players saw it differently. The rabbinic opponents had by the time of the conversion convinced themselves that the Frankists weren’t even practicing Judaism, so the “conversion” to Roman Catholicism was basically a non-event; Protestant missions in Poland, who saw hope of converting the Christianizing Frankists, were astonished that they chose the Catholic Church instead; the Frankists, in order to blunt rabbinic charges of immorality had already distanced themselves from Sabbateanism and had begun to see themselves as a distinct religion, just as the rabbis had been claiming; and the Roman Catholics in the end were not quite sure that they had converted actual Jews. In all this argumentation to and fro, the movement took shape as an “ism” with a very mixed DNA.

The end of the Frankist movement was as bizarre as everything else about it. After the full conversion was completed, Frank and his followers settled in Warsaw and began bargaining for land and for the right to serve in the military. Eventually some “Christian Sabbatian” colonies were established, although according to Maciejko, only the Warsaw group had any robustness. The rest gradually fell away. At the same time denunciations of Frank began to surface. He was eventually arrested and ended up imprisoned in Czestochowa, where he fell under the spell of the icon of the Virgin Mary and gradually came to fantasize that the Virgin Mary, the Shekhina, the messiah and his daughter Eve were all interconnected. As Macielkjo puts it (on page 179),“...Frank developed a doctrine in which he was the physical father and partner (metaphorical or not) of his daughter Eve, the true messiah of the Frankists.”

The concluding three chapters of the book piece together what might be called the afterglow of the Polish Frankist movement. Chapter Seven concerns itself with Frank’s eventual move to Moravia and the apparent ties he seems to have had, or had developed, with the Viennese court. This story gives Maciejko an opportunity to examine the differences between Frankists in Poland and their apparently more educated counterparts in the Hapsburg Empire, more specifically the area around Prague. Chapter Eight focuses attention on the person described as “Frank’s most important rival for the leadership of Eastern European Sabbatians”, namely Wolf Eibeschütz, the youngest son of the Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschütz who was so famously attacked as a Sabbateian by Rabbi Jacob Emden. Wolf seems to have an unusual life as a sort of playboy — big mansions, racy artwork and all. After being forced to leave Altona, he appeared in Vienna and eventually became a Hoffaktor in Dresden, managing to procure along the way the title of Baron, although the exact meaning of this ennoblement evokes some careful definition from Maciejko. This chapter also contemplates the intersections of Moravian Frankism with a variety of other occult or mystery movements active at the time such as Christian Kabbalah, Freemansonry and “Der Ritter des Lichts” (even Giacomo Casanova makes a cameo appearance here). The ninth and last chapter takes up the story as Frank makes his last major move, this time to Frankfurt am Main (or more accurately, the suburb of Offenbach).

It is here that Frank begins the transition from historical person to legend. Even Maciejko despairs of sorting fact from fiction. Allegedly, Frank entered Frankfurt in regal procession, complete with an entourage and pages in livery. He set himself up in Eve’s residence, a castle he called the “Gotteshaus” and was known locally as some sort of Polish baron. He attended Catholic mass at a church in a nearby village. Unlike Warsaw or Prague, it seems that his Jewish roots were unknown in Offenbach; he was simply “the Polish prince” with a strange and mixed following that was vaguely Catholic in practice. But despite his royal airs and ostentatious living, the movement was in financial ruin. Frank himself died in 1807, his son Roch in 1813, and his daughter and messiah, Eve, in 1816 while under house arrest as her creditors were closing in. But the legend was already in the making. Two sources lay the foundation of the legend, the so-called “Red Letters” (some written in red ink to Eastern and Central European Jews by Frankist leaders in Offenbach) and “The Prophecies of Isaiah”. On the basis of these, and the royal legends circulating in Frankfurt, a myth grew up about the mystical and magic Frankist “state within a state”, or secret society, or whatever it was. For the remaining Frankists, the death of the founding prophet led to a Weberian routinization or institutionalization, with the movement exorcising some of the most radical theological innovations of Jacob Frank and so a return to a more “normative” Sabbateanism. The Warsaw group for example, is described as having given up their orgiastic practices in favor of a more bourgeois morality. Maciejko even asserts that attacks on the movement in the first half of the nineteenth century, especially by rabbinic opponents, served both to define, moderate and keep intact the surviving groups. They certainly helped formulate the way in which Frankism began to enter the writing of modern Jewish history.

In the end, Maciejko helps us see clearly that Frankism failed in its own self-proclaimed mission. The world remained unredeemed and Rabbinic Judaism continued. But it nonetheless had immense impact on Jews, on Christians and on Jewish-Christian perceptions of each other as Europe stumbled into the modern world. How exactly to understand and evaluate this strange group and its various receptions and legends is still an open question. But what the book before us does make clear is that for the rabbinic Jewish community, the Frankists represented a strange and ultimately embarrassing collection of peoples, theologies and moralities located in the heart of the Jewish world. It truly was an analog of that unwelcomed part of the Jewish people’s journey out of Egypt, the “mixed multitude”. Nobody, it seems, came out of this encounter the same as when they went in.


Peter J. Haas holds the Abba Hillel Silver Chair of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University and is a contributing editor.

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