False Messiahs and Whirling Dervishes: A Scholar’s Fresh Take on an Old Topic

By Allan Nadler

Published July 09, 2004, issue of July 09, 2004.

The Sabbatean Prophets

By Matt Goldish

Harvard University Press, 240 pages, $39.95.


The following dire, revolutionary proclamation issues forth from a charismatic provocateur in Gaza:

“None will be saved from these tribulations except those dwelling in this place. The [very] name of the place [connoting strength] expresses her nature. And with the advent of her redemption, strength will spread and the people of Gaza will act in this strength.”

The response of the leader of the Gazans’ enemy, both to this message and to those Jews residing in Gaza, is to remind them that Gaza is a place unworthy of triggering apocalyptic violence, since it is “technically outside the borders of the [biblical] Land of Israel.”

At the same time, in a nearby Arab country, classified information, laden with potentially devastating secrets, is conveyed via a shady Middle Eastern businessman named Chelebi.

The latest news from Israel and Iraq? Hardly!

The proclamation from Gaza was issued not by a leader of Hamas, but rather by the 17th-century Jewish kabbalist Nathan of Gaza, who in 1665 became the major prophet of the infamous false messiah from Izmir, Shabbetai Zevi. The proclamation’s rebuke was not part of Ariel Sharon’s argument for evacuating Jewish settlers from Gaza, but of a ruling by Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, the most outspoken and tireless opponent of the Sabbatean messianic outbreak. And the Chelebi in question was not the now-disgraced White House confidant, Ahmed Chalabi, but rather Raphael Chelebi, an Egyptian Jewish businessman who was the first outsider to whom Nathan of Gaza revealed the “secret” that the messiah had arrived.

Matt Goldish traces these tidbits and many other riveting developments in his new book, “The Sabbatean Prophets,” a fresh scholarly re-evaluation of the events that led to the wildfire-rapid spread across the Jewish world of belief in Shabbetai Zevi as the Jews’ long-awaited king and savior.

It is natural to approach a new, rather thin, volume about Sabbateanism with a certain degree of skepticism. How much more can be revealed about a subject to which the great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, devoted a monumental 950-page study — a work that has itself spawned decades of critical commentary and re-evaluation on the part of Scholem’s colleagues and disciples?

As it turns out, however, Goldish, who is the Melton associate professor of Jewish history at The Ohio State University, succeeds in going well beyond the foundational work of previous scholars. He achieves this not by uncovering hitherto unknown Sabbatean texts, but by significantly widening the lens through which the Sabbatean messianic phenomenon is viewed, taking his readers on a fascinating voyage through the turbulent worlds of 17th-century religious enthusiasm and prophetic millenarian thought — Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Goldish contends that it is in the broader context of religious thought in Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire that the startling outbreak and rapid spread of Sabbateanism can be best appreciated. Moreover, pace Scholem, Goldish argues that it was not the dissemination of an esoteric Sabbatean version of Lurianic Kabbalah that best accounts for the extent of Shabbetai Zevi’s popularity, but the parallel outbreak of widespread ecstatic prophecies on the part of simple Jews, young women in particular.

The intellectual and spiritual turbulence of the early modern period, particularly in Western Europe, gave rise to a dizzying array of novel religious ideas and mystical enthusiasm, most notably a variety of what Goldish broadly defines as new forms of “prophecy.” There were many, widely divergent factors that led to this spiritual outbreak, all ably described by Goldish. The Reformation’s challenge to the Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly on religious truth in the 16th-century eventually led to the rise of a variety of charismatic sects whose leaders relied on direct personal access to the word of God in the 17th century.

Goldish pays particular attention to the probable impact on Jewish thought of the millenarian enthusiasm of Quaker missionaries, rapidly spreading from England to present-day Turkey at precisely the same time that Sabbateanism erupted. But he also notes a host of other small English millenarian religious sects that cropped up in the wake of the end of the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution. They were part of the larger continental atmosphere of millenarian thinking fostered by such groups as the Collegiants, French prophets, Spanish beatas and even the alchemists that pervaded Europe in the mid-17th century.

More surprisingly, Goldish makes the counter-intuitive argument that the scientific revolution — far from leading to estrangement from religion — was deeply and inextricably wound up with a particularly messianic form of spirituality. His discussions of the prophetic postures and messianic expectations of noted scientists such as Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon complicate accepted wisdom about the place of the scientific revolution in the trajectory of early modern intellectual history.

They also contribute richly to Goldish’s portrayal of the degree to which 17th-century Christian Europe was rife with expectations of the Second Coming. Additionally, the daring voyages of the great 16th- and 17th-century European explorers led many to imagine that the fabled 10 Lost Tribes of Israel had been discovered, further fueling millenarian excitement and sparking a renewed Christian interest in the secret teachings of kabbalah. This often brought together in a weirdly shared apocalyptism rabbis and churchmen whose only real differences were their respective imaginings of precisely how the imminently expected scenario of salvation would end.

Critics of Goldish’s approach almost certainly will argue that while he may have stumbled upon a coincidence of parallel messianic excitement during the same historical moment in both the Christian and Jewish worlds, he has not proved any direct connection between them. Goldish anticipates this problem by appealing to the theory, best articulated in the work of the French historian Jean-Michel Oughourlian, of “universal mimesis,” or what nonscholars simply would call, “something in the air.”

With the help of his copious translations of documents describing the prophetic experiences of Nathan of Gaza, the lay Sabbatean prophets as well as their Christian contemporaries, Goldish shows just how similar — at times almost identical — these bizarre phenomena were. The dramatic fainting, the convulsions, the losses of pulse, etc. — all inevitably followed by apocalyptic illuminations — were being experienced at precisely the same time by Jews, Christians and Muslims around the globe. Goldish insists that during this period of feverish worldwide travel, it is simply naive, even myopic, to rule out mutual influences:

In such merchant centers as Aleppo and Izmir, filled with Europeans, it is hardly credible that news of the Quakers, various Italian and French ecstatics and other European prophetic groups would not have reached the ears of the Jews. It is even more certain that Sepharadi exiles and escaped conversos, whose culture was Iberian through and through, knew a great deal about similar phenomena among beatas and nuns in Spain and Portugal. In their own environs, they had the models of the Sufis and dervishes. Even if they had not seen such possessions and visions in person, they could hardly have helped knowing about them. For this reason it is probable that the model of Nathan [of Gaza] struck a particular chord.

Aside from vividly describing, and explaining the widespread belief in, Sabbatean messianic prophecies, this book refines both the timeline of Sabbateanism’s spread and the exact nature of its heresy. Scholem located that heresy in the convoluted kabbalistic rationalizations by his believers that followed Shabbetai Zevi’s conversion to Islam in 1666. Goldish counters that the real heresy began earlier, exemplified by the very existence and growing influence of charismatic figures such as Nathan of Gaza and the lay Sabbatean prophets. It was the shifting of power from rabbis (whose authority was based on sound Talmudic scholarship) to charismatics (whose authority emerged from supernatural prophetic abilities) that represented the real heresy against traditional Judaism. In that sense, the “Sabbatean Prophets” were anti-establishment heretics.

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