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january / february 2007:

Heretic of the Month: Shabbetai Tzvi

By Jay Michaelson




Heretics are fascinating figures, especially in Judaism. Although easily reduced in pop culture to mere villains, heretics are actually much more subtle than that. Consider the dictionary’s definition: “a professed believer who maintains religious opinions contrary to those accepted by his or her church.” The last part of that definition is what we all know — that heretics espouse anti-establishment ideas — but it’s that first part that makes them interesting. Because heretics are believers. You don’t get to be a heretic simply by rejecting tradition — you have to believe that God wants you to do it. In other words, you have to mean it.

Today, as almost all of us think we’re entitled to pick and choose from our religious tradition(s), the notion of the heretic has lost some of its force. After all, how many Jews do you know who, while holding some belief in the existence of God, nonetheless deny that they must keep the traditional commandments in order to please Him, Her, or It? In our times, that’s par for the course. Once, it was heresy.

Yet Jews also have a uniquely love/hate relationship with their heretical brothers and sisters. Ours is not a top-down theological tradition, with an omniscient earthly leader telling us what scripture says. Even the most Orthodox of rabbis can openly disagree with another one. Indeed, doing so is part of the point — part of the heavenly injunction to debate the text, argue the law, and wrestle with God and people. So, while Orthodox rabbis have not hesitated to excommunicate heretics like Spinoza, Jacob Frank, and the followers of false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi, un-Orthodox and anti-Orthodox Jews have celebrated all of them, not to mention latter-day heretics such as Satanist Anton LaVey (born Howard Levey) and Screw’s Al Goldstein. And what, after all, are famous Jewish dissenters like Emma Goldman and Allen Ginsberg, if not great American heretics — people who disobey their country’s laws because they cherish its ideals?

Perhaps the greatest Jewish heretic is a man whose name is not well-known today, but was infamous in its day: Shabbetai Tzvi. In the mid-17th century, messianic fervor was widespread in the Jewish and Christian worlds — not unlike today, when more than 40% of Americans believe that Jesus will return to earth during their lifetimes. Animated by historical unrest, and the messianic doctrines of the Kabbalah (both of which came to a head in 1648, both the time that the Thirty Years War ended in Europe, and a year prophesied for the coming of the messiah), the Jewish community was ripe for redemption. Along came Shabbetai Tzvi, an idiosyncratic, possibly bipolar mystic from Smyrna (now part of Turkey). Tzvi had grandiose ideas of himself, but was generally regarded as an eccentric until 1665, when he met with Nathan of Gaza, a brilliant Kabbalist who became Shabbetai’s prophet and publicist.

Within twelve months, Shabbetai Tzvi counted among his followers more than one third of the European Jewish community. People left their homes, sold their belongings, and awaited the reconquest of Israel. Entire communities were overturned, with Shabbatean leaders replacing traditional ones. In fulfillment of Kabbalistic prophecies, fast days were turned to feast days, and certain ritual laws annulled. Indeed, not to believe in Shabbetai Tzvi was regarded, in many communities, as a lack of faith.

All of this attention did not escape the notice of worldly leaders, and when Shabbetai arrived in Constantinople in 1666, he was promptly arrested by the Turkish sultan. At first, Shabbetai lived a lavish life in his “imprisonment” in a castle, receiving visitors and carrying himself like the king he was heralded to be. However, things soon turned sour, and Sultan Mehmet IV did not like this peculiar Jew pretending to be king. Under duress, Shabbetai Tzvi converted to Islam on September 16, 1666.

For most Jews, the conversion of the messiah came as a terrible shock, instantly dashing their hopes of redemption. But for a considerable minority, it was all part of the plan. Some of Shabbetai’s faithful converted to Islam themselves, while maintaining their Judaism secretly. Others, while not converting, maintained their secret faith in Shabbetai Tzvi — a tradition which lasted in some families for hundreds of years. These “believers” were relentlessly persecuted by mainstream rabbinic authorities, but they were never quite erased. As late as the last century, they still existed, either as crypto-Muslims in Turkey, or hidden Shabbateans in other communities.

The most colorful aspect of these secret Jewish heretics was their abolition of Jewish ritual laws, especially those around sexuality. Some of the more radical ones would convene on special holidays to engage in orgiastic behavior and sexual rituals. Others would eat specially non-kosher meals of lamb cooked in milk — scholars have published the recipes. The idea behind these practices wasn’t hedonism — remember, heretics are believers, not sinners — but rather the belief that since the messiah has come, certain laws have been abolished. And what better way to prove your faith than to deliberately violate the laws of the pious?

Today, hardly anyone knows about Shabbetai Tzvi. The traditional saying used in connection with villains is yemach shmo — may his name be blotted out — and it often works. But just last spring I was talking with an Egged bus driver in Jerusalem, and he described himself as “from Salonika,” a code-word for the followers of Shabbetai Tzvi. I looked him dead in the eye, and asked him (in Hebrew) if he meant what I thought he meant. He told me that he did.



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