Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements

By Stephen Sharot | Go to book overview

7.

The Sabbatian Movement

THE LARGEST and most significant messianic outburst in Jewish history was the Sabbatian movement in the seventeenth century. In 1666 a great many Jews were convinced that the messiah had arrived in the person of Sabbatai Zvi. Beginning in Gaza, Palestine, the movement spread to many communities throughout almost the whole diaspora. This chapter considers the movement in 1665 and 1666, before the totally unexpected conversion of Zvi to Islam. The following chapter will discuss the sectarian developments after Zvi's conversion.

In analyzing the Sabbatian movement, we have the benefit of Gershom Scholem's vast work on Sabbatai Zvi, probably the greatest history of a messiah and a messianic movement. Scholem is a superb historian, his scholarship is awe-inspiring, and his book has received much acclaim. 1 The critical reviews have been few, although he has been taken to task from a religious point of view. He has been accused of subverting traditional Judaism by claiming that Sabbatianism was a central episode in Jewish history and that the Sabbatian theology was as important as normative rabbinic thought. 2 But Scholem's claim that the majority in most Jewish communities believed in Zvi in 1666 and his explanation of the movement have received little questioning. Most commentators have accepted Scholem's idealist argument that the events of 1666 were an outcome of developments in the cabbalah and that nonreligious factors were of little consequence. Scholem's massive scholarship has blinded many scholars to the absence of a strong foundation for many of his general statements and his causal analysis. 3 His biography of Zvi, his description of the train of events, and his excavation of the historical sources on which they are based are exhaustive, but the wealth of information that he provides also contains much evidence that can be used to question his fundamental thesis and to support alternative explanations. The discussion here does not present new historical material on the movement itself, but it does relate the evidence to factors to which Scholem either gives little attention or entirely ignores.

On the eve of Pentecost 1665, in Gaza, Palestine, a young scholar, Nathan Ashkenazi, fell into a trance during the religious service and made a number of utterances, including a reference to an acquaintance, Sabbatai Zvi. After coming out of the trance, Nathan explained that he had been chosen by God as a prophet and that the meaning of his utterance was that

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