The Sabbatean Movement
Sabbatai Zevi.
by Gershom Scholem.
Am Oved (Tel Aviv). 2 vols.


Nothing in the history of the Jewish diaspora can be compared with the Sabbatean movement for depth of spiritual influence and psychological impact. On New Year’s day of 1665, a relatively obscure Sephardic Jew named Sabbatai Zevi proclaimed himself the Messiah in the synagogue of his native Smyrna, and within a few short months the word had spread not only throughout every Jewish community in Europe but into Africa, the Arabian desert, and Babylonia. Rabbis and laymen, rich and poor, the learned and the illiterate, accepted Sabbatai Zevi’s claim, and even his subsequent conversion to Islam (in 1666) failed to shake many of his followers, who continued to believe in him and to await his re-appearance. What was the secret of the amazing growth and tenacity of this movement? What accounted for the universality of its appeal when so many other religious and social movements—including messianic ones—were able to succeed in stirring only a relatively small fraction of the Jewish world? More than one hundred fifty books—histories, novels, biographies, and plays—have been written in an attempt to cope with these questions, but it was not until the recent appearance in Israel of Professor Gershom Scholem’s two masterly volumes that anything like an adequate answer began to be provided. These two volumes, written in Hebrew and unfortunately still not available in English, carry the story up to the death of Sabbatai Zevi (1676); they will be followed by others covering the subsequent history of the movement.

Scholem, one of the great scholars of modern times and the foremost living authority on Jewish mysticism, brings a unique combination of gifts to this work. Not only is he thoroughly expert in the literature and history of Cabbalism—an indispensable requirement for understanding Sabbateanism—but he has spent some twenty years collecting and interpreting new manuscript material from all over the world in an effort to build up as full and accurate a picture as possible of Sabbateanism in all its many ramifications. Beyond that, however, he is equipped with the psychological insight of a first-rate novelist, which has enabled him to deal sensitively with the fantastic personality of Sabbatai Zevi himself and imagine the state of mind and soul which led so large a number of his contemporaries to accept his messianic pretensions. All this serves to deepen Scholem’s account of the movement, while infusing his book with dramatic force.



Scholem rejects the generally accepted view of Sabbateanism as an expression of the yearning for salvation among the poor and illiterate, and he denies that it had any vital connection with the Heidamak pogroms of 1648—49. He adduces a wealth of evidence to show that Sabbateanism recruited followers from all classes of Jewry, and that its chief fortresses were rich and flourishing communities like those of Amsterdam and Salonica. Moreover, he demonstrates that Sabbatai Zevi’s main followers never suffered from the Haidamak pogroms: the real beginnings of the movement were in places untouched by events of that kind. If Scholem devotes so much energy to exposing the inadequacy of any sociological or economic interpretation of Sabbateanism it is becase he is intent on accepting religious and mystical experience as an independent and finally irreducible historical force. Thus, he locates the “cause” of the movement not in political or social factors but in the slowly germinating influence of the Lurianic Cabbala, whose doctrines and symbols had penetrated deeply into the soul of 17th-century Jewry, preparing it both intellectually and spiritually for the advent of a Messiah.

The advantage of Scholem’s emphasis on religious origins is that it helps to illuminate the specific character of Sabbateanism in a more detailed and precise way than has ever before been done, for a large part of the language and imagery of the movement (as he so richly reveals) derive ultimately from the Lurianic Cabbala. It goes without saying that even Scholem cannot solve all the riddles of Sabbateanism—why, for example, did a messianic impulse formed and nurtured by the study of Cabbala arise in Turkey rather than Italy, where the Cabbala was much better known? But it is one of his main premises of this book that an element of mystery always surrounds the ways of the human spirit; as I have noted, what chiefly concerns Scholem here is to establish the primacy of religious factors in the birth and development of Sabbateanism and to determine its true significance within Jewish history.

Perhaps the main impression we get from Scholem’s account is that Sabbateanism succeeded because, at a time when the hold of tradition over the Jews was just beginning to weaken, the leaders of the movement were daring enough to appeal directly to the yearning for liberation from history which is implicit in the very centers of Jewish thought. Both the Rabbinical tradition, stemming from the Talmud and the mystical tradition stemming from the Cabbala regarded the coming of the Messiah precisely as an interpretation of the historical process, a sudden act of fulfillment that would bring history to an end and usher in a new age and a wholly new way of life. But the Rabbis believed that man himself could do nothing to hasten this coming; he could only wait in hope for God to redeem the world in His own good time and in his own way. The Cabbala, on the other hand, taught that human effort could bring the day of salvation nearer, but it conceived of this effort as so complicated and difficult that the final result was an attitude hardly less pessimistic than that of the Talmud.1 It was into such a context of hopelessness that Sabbateanism erupted, declaring to the skeptical that liberation from the onerous burden of history was not a mere illusion or an expectation for the future, but a present reality brought about by the appearance of the Messiah. A new law had come into the world to supersede the Torah and it was therefore no longer necessary for the Jews to observe the 613 commandments. What, then, did they have to observe? The answer is nothing; the new law demanded no concrete act of its followers. To the extent that it came to be formulated at all, its main purpose was to prove that the Sabbateans had already been liberated from the ordinary restrictions of the human condition—and more particularly from those which applied only to Jews. The Sabbateans, then, were not very different in their behavior from the pneumatic sects of other nations and other times (including certain early Christian groups). What distinguished them was the specific character of the imaginary world they constructed for themselves—that is, their mythology.

As has already been indicated, this mythology came from the Lurianic Cabbala, but Sabbatai Zevi and Nathan of Gaza (who was, as Scholem has proved, the real prophet and leader of the movement) used it in a new and revolutionary way—to express and justify the deep, ancient, elementary impulse of man to idolize himself, to become God. Almost any mythological conception of the universe can be turned to such uses, for by embracing myth man ceases to grasp his existence as a developing process (i.e. a history) and can then begin to believe in the possibility of the man-god, a thoroughly free being bound by no laws save the dictates of his own will. And in the Cabbala the Sabbateans found a particularly rich mythological treasure to mine. They were able to elaborate compelling rationalizations for their assertion that the reign of the Torah had come to an end. No practical demands had to be made of the followers: they had only to believe in Sabbatai Zevi as an incarnation of one of the Sephirot and to experience the ecstasy of his advent in order to liberate themselves from the yoke of the old laws (especially those pertaining to sex).

In support of his contention that the Sabbatean movement was an integral part of Judaism, then, Scholem can point to its psychological and spiritual foundations as well as to its symbolic and mythological expression. But neither does Scholem deny that Sabbateanism represented the first great impulse of the diaspora Jew to break with traditional Judaism without casting off his Jewish identity. It can be said, indeed, that the Sabbateans were struggling to define a new conception of what it meant to be a Jew—even after his conversion Sabbatai Zevi seems to have regarded himself as still a Jew, as did those of his followers who continued to believe in him. But were they Jews, and if so, in what sense? This is finally the most intriguing of all the questions raised by the Sabbatean movement, for it involves us not only in a delicate aspect of the movement itself but in speculations on the nature of Jewish identity.

Scholem does not engage in such speculations in those two volumes, though it is hard to see how he will be able to avoid them in dealing with the later history of Sabbateanism. Nor does he touch more than lightly on several other aspects of the subject that also involve speculative considerations. What, for example, causes a whole people to turn so dramatically and explosively to myth? Is this impulse the creature of certain historical situations, or is it a fixed element in the human soul that constantly seeks for an opportunity to burst forth? We should also like to know something more about the general psychological significance of the language of Sabbateanism: do its roots perhaps strike deeper than the Cabbala and into the soil of older and more universal myths? And what of the fantastic attempt of a historical movement to achieve the absolute within the boundaries of the human condition—is this also a fixed spiritual need that can be unleashed at almost any time? It is among the virtues of Scholem’s great book that it forces us to dwell on such matters—to ask questions that he himself omits to ask, and to feel that we have been carried close to the outer limits of the knowable.



1 The English reader can consult Scholem's article “Jewish Messianism and the Idea of Progress” in the April 1958 COMMENTARY for a discussion of these points.

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