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march / april 2007:

Heretic of the Month: Jacob Frank

By Jay Michaelson

He rejected the Torah (once threatening to defecate on it if angry rabbis didn’t leave him alone). He converted to both Islam and Catholicism. He slept with his followers — and maybe even his daughter. He preached a nihilistic doctrine that saw this world as intrinsically corrupt, and believed that the best way to imitate God was to cross every boundary, transgress every taboo, and mix the sacred with the profane.

A crazed cult leader from Texas, Fiji, or Jonestown? No — Jacob Frank, perhaps the greatest Jewish heretic of all time.

Frank’s name is little-known today. His recorded oral teachings, a disorganized, thousand-page jumble called the Words of the Lord, have never been published in English — and were only printed in their original Polish just a few years ago.

But in 1760, if you asked any Jew on the street who Jacob Frank was, they'd know exactly who you were talking about. Frank was the most infamous (ex-)Jew of his day, a man who had been caught engaging in orgiastic sexual ritual, was turned over to the Christian authorities for prosecution as a heretic (the Church had jurisdiction over all heretics in that day, not just Christian ones), and then, to avoid the gallows, led a mass conversion in which hundreds of his followers publicly renounced Judaism and became Christians. At the height of his popularity, as many as 50,000 Jews or ex-Jews considered themselves his disciples.

Born in 1726, Frank spent his formative years as a European expatriate in Turkey, consorting with the underground communities of believers in the messiah Shabbetai Tzvi (profiled in the previous issue of AJL), who had died thirty years prior but who still had thousands of followers. Some of these followers were Muslims who were secretly Jews; others were Jews who were secretly Shabbateans. Initially, Frank was just another heretic among heretics — but all that changed in 1756, when he was (allegedly) caught performing a heretical ritual (admit it, you want to know: it involved having a young maiden, either naked or topless, embody the Divine Feminine, and stand in the center of a circle of men who kissed her breasts the way we kiss the Torah today). A huge public disputation followed.

At first, Frank’s party — known as the Contra-Talmudists, because they rejected the Talmud and followed only Kabbalah — was victorious. But then, in late 1757, the pro-Frank (and anti-Semitic) bishop in charge of the disputation suddenly dropped dead. Quickly Frank’s fortunes reversed, and he was more or less forced to either convert to Catholicism, or admit that he was a heretic, in which case he would probably be killed. On September 17, 1759, Frank converted.

But something was strange about these “New Christians,” who insisted on maintaining their old customs (including — I kid you not — the eating of kugel) and who never quite renounced their old faith. Indeed, for Frank, the conversion to Christianity was actually just another transgression of a boundary. He never really accepted Christ as his savior — because he was the savior. Not quite the messiah; Frank never promised redemption. More like the anti-Messiah, the leader of a new sect that would transcend all the dichotomies between sacred and sinful.

The Church threw him in jail, and so Frank rotted in a monastery for 13 years until the Russians conquered that part of Poland and set him free. From 1772 until his death in 1791, Frank had an astonishing career as cult leader, confidante of Emperor Joseph II, and pseudo-Russian nobleman who set himself up with a small court and soldiers who paraded around his estate with guns and flags.

And throughout, Frank maintained with his followers a secret, heretical religion of transgression, antinomianism, and inversion. It really was the stuff of folk legends: a sinister leader, secret sexual orgies, and a rejection of every standard of decency. Frank parodied the Zohar, the Talmud, the Torah; he boasted about his sexual prowess and told dirty jokes.

Oh, and that Jewish-Masonic conspiracy that anti-Semites often talk about? Not entirely fiction — one follower of Frank, Moses Dobruska, was in fact a prominent Jacobin and powerful Freemason who went under the name of Junius Frey. He ran arms during the French Revolution, and may have spied for Austria. He was later executed by guillotine.

Amazingly, some of Frank’s followers went on to become leaders of the Prague Enlightenment, prominent attorneys in Poland, and shape-shifters of every kind. Adam Mickiewicz, considered Poland’s greatest poet, used Frankist themes in his work. Even Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had a portrait of Frank’s daughter Eva on his desk in the Supreme Court — an heirloom he received from his Dembitz relatives, whose ancestors were followers of Frank.

So, yes, it really is true that there were (and perhaps are) secret Jewish conspiracies and mystical orgies. Far greater than Frank's direct impact, though, was how his contemporary, the Baal Shem Tov, sublimated the messianic and Kabbalistic zeal of Frankism, removed the antinomian elements, and incorporated mystical practice into the stable, normative structure of Judaism. The result was Hasidism, still with us today.

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