On January 6, 1760, Jacob Frank, a mystic, messianic Polish Jew who created a new, transgressive religion that attracted tens of thousands of followers, was arrested in Warsaw and turned over to the Catholic Church, beginning an imprisonment that lasted 13 years.
Jacob Leibowitz (as he was called at birth) was born circa 1726 in Korolivka, a town in Podolia, eastern Poland (today in Ukraine). Although it was around 60 years since the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi converted to Islam and about 50 years after his death – and despite the fact that in 1722 Poland’s rabbis had placed a ban on the so-called “Sabbatean heresy” – there was still a large movement of Jews in Europe who regarded themselves as his disciples. One of them was the father of Jacob Leibowitz, who, when he was expelled by the Jewish community of Korolivka, in 1730, moved with his family to Czernowitz, where there was a large group of Jews who shared his beliefs.
Jacob himself had a minimal education. He became a gem and textile trader, traveling frequently to the Ottoman Empire for business. In cities such as Smyrna and Salonika he came into regular contact with various Sabbatean sects including Doenmeh, crypto-Jews who maintained an outwardly Muslim lifestyle. It was during these travels that he was given the nickname “Frank,” a general term for Europeans in the East.
In about 1751, Jacob Frank decided that he was the Messiah. When he brought that news back to Podolia, he also brought with him some of the Sabbatean teachings he had picked up. Not a modest man, Frank announced that he had superseded Shabbetai Zvi, and like Zvi, he adopted an antinomian ideology that declared that “all laws and teachings will fall.” Transgression was the key: turning Jewish fast days into feasts, eating foods prohibited by the laws of kashrut and participating in orgies.
What certainly got Frank into trouble was a ritual in which a young woman, representing the Shechinah – the feminine aspect of God – would stand topless in a circle and the men of the community would kiss her breasts, similar to how worshipers in synagogue kiss the Torah scrolls.
Frank was driven out of town, and some of his followers were tried by a rabbinical court for immodest behavior. When a rabbinical assembly in Brody banned Jews from any contact with Frank or his followers, Frank went to the bishop of Kamenetz-Podolsk and declared that he and his group did not recognize the sanctity of the Talmud. The only Hebrew book they found holy, they said, was the Zohar, the principal text of kabbalist mysticism.
Frank was taken under the protection of Bishop Dembowski, who pitted some of Frank’s followers against traditional rabbis in a “disputation.” As judge of the debate, Dembowski declared the Frankists victors, and ordered the burning of all copies of the Talmud in Poland.
The next step for the Frankists was conversion to Catholicism, apparently an intermediary step on the way to a new religion. In 1759, Frank was baptized (with King Augustus III of Poland as his godfather). In the coming decades an estimated 26,000 Frankists followed suit.
But Frank also aroused the suspicion of the Church, whose protection he lost after the death of Dembowski, his patron. On February 6, 1760, he was arrested. He was tried and convicted of heresy in a Catholic court, and imprisoned in the Czestochowa monastery. It was only after the first partition of Poland, in 1772, and the arrival of Russian troops in Czestochowa that he was freed.
Frank lived out the remainder of his life first in Brno, and then in Offenbach, Germany. There, calling himself “Baron Frank,” he continued instructing his followers, and there he died, on December 10, 1791.
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