Aug 6, 2008

Revisiting Shabbatai Zvi, the False Messiah.

Oy it's been a busy couple of days. Word got out that I really wasn't doing much at work, so my administrator decided to throw a whole bunch of work at me, just to make sure my last week really reminds me of what I'm leaving. At any rate, I haven't had much time at work to respond to comments or to work on any blogging. So here I am, sacrificing dinner to hang out at this lovely coffee shop in my neighborhood for some liquid dinner so I can respond to some emails and perhaps elaborate on comments I made about Shabbatai Zvi and the Baal Shem Tov and the book Constantine’s Sword in this post. In that post, I mentioned a note I had made while reading the text some months ago about the author's mention of these two men so close together implied "falseness." Let's discuss.

(As background on the author: James Carroll, is a former priest and former Catholic chaplain, who left the cloth to become a writer. He is active in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim debate circle and has written extensively on Catholicism. This book, in particular is a confessional of sorts, about his coming to terms with the church's role in Jewish history.)

I've transcribed the text from the scanned copy of the page (389) I have, and I realized that the rest of the section, which is important, is on a page that I didn't scan (and 390 isn't part of the Google Book Preview!). Thus, this is what I have:

... other manifestations of Jewish vitality showed themselves. Messianic figures appeared, like David Reubeni and Solomon Molcho in Portugal, and conversos and unconverted Jews alike took heart from their bold rejection of the idea that Jews were fated to be oppressed. In the next century a Kabbalist from the Turkish city of Izmir emerged as the leader of one of the most potent religious-political movements in Jewish history. He was Shabbatai Zvi, a self-declared Messiah who found enthusiastic followers in Jewish communities around the Mediterranean, and in Europe as well, especially Poland. The political hopes that many had for Shabbatai came to nothing when, imprisoned by the Turks in 1666 -- the combination of sixes in that year had made it portentous -- he chose to convert to Islam rather than risk martyrdom. But his heroic movement had by then spawned numerous centers of enthusiastic Judaism, including one that would quicken in Poland and Ukraine in the eighteenth century. Spreading throughout eastern Europe, this movement was led by Israel ben Eliezer, the beloved Baal Shem Tov.  ...
I know that it is the author's intention to discuss the prevailing movements during this period in relation to Kabbalah, and I know that a simple reading of this section alone would leave an average reader with the sense that Shabbatai Zvi did a good thing for the community, as his "heroic movement ... spawned numerous centers of enthusiastic Judaism." Follow this with the Baal Shem Tov, and the reader is just aglow with the glory of these two men and their contributions to Judaism and the Jewish community. But for those who know about Shabbetai Zvi and how he truly effected the Jewish community, this is a mess of irritating text.

Shabbatai Zvi declared himself the Messiah. The Baal Shem Tov never did such a thing (some of his followers see him as coming from the Davidic line and thus is a part of the Messianic story, though). From a very basic perspective, this puts the two men very, very far apart. SZ was viewed later as a loony, sort of a joke and an unfortunate person in the history of Jewish thought, whereas the BST is revered as a great sage and a great founder of a mighty powerful spiritual movement. Simply saying that SZ helped create this lively, enthusiastic Judaism is ignorant, because as Torah Jew pointed out in the comments on my previous post, he did a lot to destroy much of Judaism. The short-term effects might have been useful, but the long-term effects were tragic. I can't even fathom why the author would call SZ's efforts a "heroic movement." I just can't bring myself to think that there IS NOT some type of subtext here.

Am I crazy? I am an analyst of text; it's what I do. And to me, obviously when I read this it set off some red flags, and it continues to grate my cheese.

There are some interesting comments about what it was that Shabbatai Zvi was doing juxtaposed with what the Baal Shem Tov was doing. These comments are from The Rebbe, but more can be found at that link:
As for comparing the movement of Shabbatai Zvi to the Hassidic movement—every movement that is started by someone of the Jewish people has some common point because it was started by a Jew. Shabbatai Zvi also was a scholar not only in Kabbalah but in halacha, but after a few years he deviated from the right derech (path). It became something that not was only deviant just the opposite of Judaism. ...
Shabbatai Zvi negated halacha. In the time of Shabbatai Zvi there was a group of Catholic priests that translated Kabbalistic manuscripts and studied Kabbalah. But this is not considered Jewish Kabbalah, as the Catholics did not put on tefillin. It is just like someone in Sorbonne, Brooklyn College, or some other university who can learn Kabbalah without putting on tefillin. For true Kabbalah cannot be separated from halacha.
I feel awkward posting this for some reason. I'm not a Hasid, nor am I Orthodox (yet!), but I think examining the two routes are significant. At any rate, this point of view makes sense to me, and it's also why I roll my eyes at Madonna and A-Rod.

Anyhow, if it is most necessary I'll pick the book back up and find out what's on that next page to satisfy the readers of the blog. I'm not sure if I'm getting my point across, but I hope that I am. Let me know what you think, and please let me know if you think I'm reading way too much into the author's intent. 

NOTE: Computer battery is dying, so I might add more to this post in the AM. Stay tuned, please!

5 comments:

Mottel said...

I see no reason to feel awkward . . .

Rachel said...

I wish, wish, wish I knew more about Judaism NOW! You know, making the decision to convert has blown my mind an dnow I find it being blown by all the material and information and commments and opinions (just add more words!) that I could/should/want to read. I can feel my brain expanding each day as I absorb more and more. Nobody told me I would turn into a sponge as a result of my choice!

But it's so fantastic.

I will read and re-read this Chaviva. It will sink in!

Daniel Saunders said...

I think that the author is confusing cause and effect. I would say that there were certain factors in early modern Europe that encouraged the development of a popular, mystical form of Judaism. From that point of view, the movements around Shabbatai Tzvi and the Baal Shem Tov may have had similar causes, but that is not the same as saying that one caused the other.

Also, I don't think there is any need for you to feel awkward about posting this.

chaviva said...

Mottel/Daniel: I'm not sure why I feel awkward posting the thoughts of the rebbe. I admire the rebbe and the Hasidic movements, of course, but I'm consistently conscious of those who think I'm fading into the "dark side" of non-"liberal" Judaism. Not that I should be caring what people say, I know, but still. Does that make sense? At any rate, I had dreams of Hasidism last night at length. I just wish I could remember the dream.

Also, Daniel, I think you're right about the cause and effect issue.

Rachel: I know what you mean, really. Every day I'm blown away by something new I didn't know before. There are thousands of years of Jewish history, theology, knowledge, belief, stories, images to take in, and this is why we spend our entire lives learning and taking it all in. And even in all that time, we'll never absorb it all. But we must be the best sponges we can be!

Daniel Saunders said...

Does that make sense?

Yes.

As for the need to keep learning, I was born Jewish and had a reasonable Jewish education, and I'm still learning things all the time!

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