Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sabbatianism as a Political Movement

Gershom Scholem, while he focused on the Kabbalistic elements of Sabbatianism, still took Sabbatianism seriously as a political movement. Yehudah Liebes, though, argues that Sabbatianism lacked any serious political component and did not concern itself with the physical redemption of Israel.

Sabbetai Zevi's utmost concern was not the fate of the people but rather a spiritual realm the people count not reach, and he was profoundly alienated from the masses of his followers. Even Nathan of Gaza failed to understand him and was at times forced to take insult and abuse or to work strenuously to restore to the Messiah his faith in himself (it is indeed possible that Sabbetai Zevi's estrangement from public concerns and his immersion in the spiritual realm added to his messianic charm in the people's eyes). Sabbetai Zevi's messianism was directed upward, to his God, which was why he was always careful to refer to himself precisely as the Messiah of the God of Jacob, a title he did not approach as a metaphor. (Liebes, Studies in Jewish Myth and Messianism pg. 100.)

Nathan of Gaza also is seen as abandoning politics for a mystical war between good and evil. As a former converso, Abraham Cardozo's messianism focused on the redemption of the Jews from the sin of idolatry. The Messiah is a human being who seeks out and is enlightened as to the true nature of the divinity.

Needless to say the masses of Jews, who followed Sabbatai, did have an interest in a political redemption. They were expecting Sabbatai to literally overthrow the Ottoman Empire and for Sabbatai to rule in Israel and over the entire world as an earthly Messiah. The Jews, like Glukel of Hameln's father-in-law, who sold their possessions and waited by the docks for a boat to come to take them to Israel, were literally expecting to move to Israel. Liebes dismisses these people as being on the periphery of the movement. From Liebes' perspective, there were the real Sabbatians, consisting of a small elite, privy to Sabbatianism's esoteric antinomian theology. Such people did not abandon belief in the Messiah after his conversion, but accepted it as part of the divine plan for redemption. The mass of Sabbatian believers were not privy to this true understanding of the Messiah and quickly abandoned faith in him. Such people are, Liebes' perspective, irrelevant to understanding true Sabbatianism.

I find myself uncomfortable with the notion of a center and periphery in Sabbatianism as if the later is unimportant. I am certainly not on the side of Scholem, who depicted a seventeenth century Judaism overtaken by Lurianic Kabbalah and waiting for their Lurianic mystical Messiah. Very few Jews were in a position to understand Lurianic Kabbalah let alone the radical variant of it espoused by Nathan of Gaza. Nor am I willing to accept Scholem's premise that Sabbatianism broke the back of rabbinic authority, that the Jews had now experienced the reality of a redeemed world, would not accept going back to the old order and therefore turned to other forms of redemption such as the Enlightenment to bring forth their already redeemed world. The majority of Jews who turned to Sabbatianism in the summer and fall of 1665 were traditional Jews looking for a traditional Jewish Messiah. When Sabbatai converted to Islam in September of 1666, they remained traditional Jews. Does this mean that they were not real Sabbatians? In a sense they should be at the center of the story. Sabbatianism became a worldwide phenomenon not because it possessed a revolutionary theology, but because thousands of simple Jews accepted Sabbatai as a traditional Jewish Messiah, in complete ignorance of "true" Sabbatianism. Thus an understanding of Sabbatianism requires one to confront this "peripheral" Sabbatianism, which was certainly political.

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