Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Sabbatian Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell, in Tipping Point, makes the argument that major movements and changes in society come into being through small groups of individuals. Gladwell looks to three types of individuals necessary to create such changes, which he refers to as "Mavens," "Connectors" and "Salesmen." Mavens are recognized experts, often even lay experts. People are likely to pay close attention to them because they are in the "know." Connectors are people who know lots of people. They can spread a message to lot of people and even more importantly to lot of different types of people, crossing social and geographic lines. Salesmen are people enlisted to directly sell the message to others. On the one hand, because this group is most closely tied to spreading the message, they are most obviously in the front line in spreading the message. On the other hand this also makes them the most biased and therefore the least trusted type and thus the least effective.

The historical figure that Gladwell uses as his prototype Maven and Connector is Paul Revere. In April of 1775, when word got around that the British were planning to march on Concorde, numerous people set out to sound the alarm. Revere was the most successful, not because he was smarter, could shout louder or had a faster horse. Revere was a known respected figure in Boston society and in the opposition to Britain, someone that people would listen to. Also Revere simply knew lots of people along the way to Concorde. He knew which specific people he needed to talk to and was in a position to be able to talk to them. So on that night in April, Revere was not just some man on a horse shouting "the British are coming." He was the crucial piece of a large, if informal opposition to Britain that was quickly put into motion.

I find this discussion of tipping points, Mavens and Connectors to be a fruitful method to confront one of the great mysteries of Jewish Messianism, the Sabbatian movement. Here are the basic facts of the story. In May of 1665, Nathan of Gaza declared Sabbatai Sevi to be the Messiah. By September this message had spread from Palestine to every major Jewish community and had picked up followers. Jews in Amsterdam took to the streets in support of Sabbatai. As Scholem famously observed what is unique about the Sabbatian movement was that it is the one Jewish messianic movement (at least up until modern day Lubavitch Messianism) that managed to be a worldwide movement instead of simply a local affair.

In looking at the Early Modern version of Mavens and Connectors there is one common factor that is critical, mobility. The Early Modern period was an era of incredible mobility for a select few. Thus more than increased mobility, the Early Modern period saw an ever widening gap between those who did not travel and those who did. Being part of the mobile elite offered two critical advantages. It meant that you knew more people. More importantly, it means you knew many different people, who do not necessarily know each other. You are connected to many different groups and are likely one of the few connections between these groups, hence the perfect Connector. Being a member of the mobile elite offered one access to privileged knowledge. If you have been to far off places then you have firsthand experience and knowledge about something that most people do not know about and that people valued. If you are known to have this knowledge then people are likely to place you as the expert to be consulted on all such matters. This can range over many fields of knowledge. Having travel experience may give you knowledge of foreign places, peoples and politics. It might also give at least the impression of having special knowledge of foreign esoteric doctrines such as the various schools of Safed Kabbalah.

Mobility helps us explain, the importance of the land of Israel and why it was critical as a launching point of a mass messianic movement such as Sabbatianism. Despite the fact that Israel was in many respects a backwater Jewish community, it was a remarkably cosmopolitan with residents from other places and who would go on to other places. Students of Jewish history are already familiar with this phenomenon in terms of the failure of pre-modern "Zionist" movements. Getting Jews to move to Israel was one thing keeping them there was another. Ironically this inability to hold onto Jews, made Israel an ideal forge for churning out members of the mobile elite. The Jewish community in Israel was full of people from other places and communities across the Near East and Europe had people who were from Israel. The fact that they were from the Holy Land only served to enhance their status as Mavens to be put in positions of trust.

In our Sabbatian scenario of the summer and winter of 1665 there are many rumors spreading through far off Jewish communities about events unfolding in the Near East about a man named Sabbatai Sevi who may or may not be the Messiah. Ordinary individuals are not in a position to verify information on their own. As such they turn to the people viewed as having the necessary information, members of the mobile elite. And it is in this regard that the Sabbatians held the advantage over the Rabbinic establishment. The Sabbatian movement was a movement precisely of these mobile elites.  


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