When the Profane Becomes Sacred

The Frankist chapter of Jewish history in Podolia, where Jacob Frank was active, lasted for only two years in the middle of the 18th century. It all began with a mystic-erotic ceremony in Lanckorona.

The Mixed Multitude:

Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816, by Pawel Maciejko. University of Pennsylvania Press, 376 pages, $65

Jacob Frank

Many messianic figures in Jewish history bore names with messianic significance. Two of the most famous would-be redeemers whose names testify to their messianic qualities were Jesus ("redeemer," in Hebrew ) of Nazareth and Shimon Bar Kochba (Bar Kochba is "son of the star," in Hebrew ). It may be that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna, also saw himself as a messiah, identifying with the tribe of Judah, which established the kingdom of the House of David. I recently came upon a suggestion that Moses Maimonides had messianic pretensions too, stemming from his identification with his name. He saw himself as a second Moses, and therefore, like the first one, he wrote a new Torah (the Mishna Torah ), led his people as the rais (leader ) of the Jews, and was close to the ruler of Egypt. Scholar Moshe Idel argues that Shabbetai Zvi identified with the astrological and messianic qualities of the planet Saturn ("Shabbetai" in Hebrew ). And Jacob Frank, who died in 1790, the founder of the Frankists, the sect that viewed him as the Messiah, identified with the biblical figure of Jacob the forefather, and saw himself as the third Shabbetai, after Shabbetai Zvi and his disciple Baruchia Russo.

Pawel Maciejko's book about the history of the Frankist movement, soon to be published in Hebrew translation by the Zalman Shazar Center, reminded me of the experience I had several decades back when I read Gershom Scholem's book "Sabbetai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676." It is very rare for a work of scholarly research to offer such a fascinating reading experience. From this point of view, Maciejko's book on Frank and the Frankist movement, which was awarded a 2010 Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanities at the Hebrew University, where the author is a lecturer in Jewish thought, is a natural and valuable successor to Scholem's classic volume on Shabbetai Zvi and his followers.

And it is also an innovative book, with not merely one, but many important innovations. One of them is the difference Maciejko discerns between the Frankists and the Sabbateans. Maciejko argues that the Frankists cannot be seen as the direct descendants of the latter. Jacob Frank himself made every effort to distance himself from the Sabbateans as well as from the Doenmeh (the Sabbatean sect in the Ottoman Empire ). To Frank, Shabbetai Zvi achieved nothing, and it was he alone who could be considered an innovator. This search for difference and uniqueness characterizes Frank's life story and his behavior. Everywhere he went, he stood out as different and foreign.

Maciejko takes the time to point out some of the traits that differentiate the Frankists from the previous movement: their public profile and their willingness to involve the government in internal Jewish matters, and as a result, the brutality of the rabbinic campaign against them. While the Sabbateans were considered an internal Jewish problem, with which Jewish laws and theological arguments could cope, the Frankists were seen as a divisive presence within Judaism, and one that was likely to create a new religion.

Dance of the rabbi's wife

The book depicts Podolia (today part of Ukraine, at the time in Poland ), where Jacob Frank was active in the mid-18th century, as a place in which Jewish heresy flourished. Even a century after Shabbetai Zvi's conversion to Islam, in 1666, many Jews in Podolia continued to follow his path. The Frankist-Jewish chapter lasted only two years. It began in 1756, with a mystical and erotic ceremony in the city of Lanckorona. The local rabbi's wife danced naked with a Torah crown on her head and the rest of the participants, Frank's followers, sang and danced with her. They celebrated with bread and wine, and kissed her as though she were a mezuzah.

The ceremony illustrates a position that equates religious symbolism with real, ontological existence, and some see it as an expression of the abandonment of a medieval symbolism that was detached from real life. This incident presents the Frankists as people who see the profanation of religious commandments as being of central importance in the undermining of rabbinical authority. The affair raised a rabbinical storm and led to the ostracizing of the Frankists.

While the Sabbateans were also officially excommunicated, their ostracism was never enforced. And their excommunication had been undertaken only at the initiative of individuals, and not of the rabbinic establishment. The Frankists were the first to be excommunicated in an organized and methodical way. The reason was that the ceremony in Lanckorona broke the earlier conspiracy of silence. The Sabbateans had acted without attracting rabbinic attention, along the lines of "Don't ask, don't tell." But this incident was the crossing of a line well beyond what had been acceptable in an earlier time. The straw that broke the camel's back was not necessarily the erotic-sexual aspect of the ceremony, but the use of the Christian symbols of bread and wine.

The Frankist Jewish chapter ended in 1759, with the conversion of the Frankists to Christianity. Like the Cathar movement that arose in Languedoc, France, in the 12th and 13th centuries, whose followers were accused of heresy and excommunicated, and which led the Church to establish the Inquisition, those who brought the Frankists to conversion were traditional Jews, headed by the Council of Four Lands (a representative body of Jews from Eastern Europe that met to discuss issues of mutual interest between 1580 and 1764 ), which preferred to see them outside the community rather than tolerate the existence of Jewish heresy within.

But not all the Jews felt this way. Judah Leibes raises the possibility that the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, the founder of Hasidism ) died in 1760 of sorrow, due to the conversion of the Frankists a year earlier, since he viewed them as an organ of the mystical body of Judaism. But this was his personal opinion, while the rabbinic establishment preferred to expel the rebellious sons. And so, after many generations in which the Jews struggled with all their might against conversion to Christianity, the rabbinic leadership in Poland supported and even encouraged the followers of Jacob Frank to become Christians.

Confirm the blood libel

This push toward conversion was a result of the loathing that the Frankists aroused among traditional Jews. Maciejko points to the Frankists' attempts to confirm the truth of the blood libel (the claim that Jews required Christian blood for their religious ceremonies ), with the support of conservatives in the church establishment, even in the face of opposition by church office holders, headed by conservative circles in the papal curia. The Frankists enlarged the controversy by claiming that proof could be found in Jewish texts - in the customs of Passover, and in the Talmud. The innovation here was that the apparent Jewish demand for Christian blood was not made in the name of healing or magic, as was claimed during the Middle Ages, but as an inherent requirement of religious commandments. From then on not only marginal and deluded groups were suspected of this deed, but all the practitioners of the religion of Moses. In his excellent analysis, Maciejko describes the stance of the Frankists with regard to the blood libel from the perspective of its future impact, as well, and shows that the destructive influence of their claims percolated into the 20th century, feeding even into the infamous ritual murder charge against Menahem Mendel Beilis, in Russia, in 1913.

The exacerbation of internal religious tensions within Judaism was directly connected to the lessening of tensions with Christians. One of the biggest fighters against the Sabbateans, Rabbi Jacob Emden (Germany, 1697-1776 ), viewed Christianity as a religion meant to spread monotheism and the "seven commandments of the sons of Noah" among the pagans, and as a "heavenly church." Whereas Christianity and Judaism were borne, he believed, out of a common denominator, and both were legitimate, though meant for different peoples, he regarded Sabbateanism as a new and dangerous religion. But while his war against the Sabbateans was not a big success, the emergence of Frankism enabled him to extend the battle to the Frankists too.

Emdan's position led him to involve Christians in his struggle against the Jewish heresy. The Frankists responded in kind. And so the two camps stood facing each other, each turning to different Christian groups for aid. The Frankists depicted Judaism as a religion of the uncharitable letter of the law, while the rabbis depended on the revulsion of the church toward ecstatic religious movements and their suspicion of private religious experience which deviated from the church framework.

These processes led to the differentiation of Frankism from Sabbateanism. And this occurred, paradoxically, at a time when Jacob Frank was absent from Podolia, in the decisive years of 1756-7, which he spent in Turkey. But Frank continued to guide his followers even from a distance, a fact expressed in two main principles: adoption of the Christian holy trinity and rejection of the Talmud as filled with errors and sacrilege.

The history of the Frankists did not end with their conversion. Some of them sought to retain marks of their Judaism even after they became Christian: to keep Hebrew names, to refrain from marrying non-Jewish women and eating pork, to rest on the Jewish Sabbath as well as on Sunday, and to study Jewish mysticism. The conversion of the Frankists aroused contradictory responses in the Christian world. The Protestants were disappointed with the Frankists' attachment to "idolatrous" Catholicism, rather than "pure" Protestantism, which seemed to them closer to Judaism. In contrast, the Catholics used their success with the Frankists to serve their infighting with the Protestants, especially after religious tolerance became part of the Polish legal system at the beginning of the 1770s. Frank really was a pious Catholic in his religious consciousness, attracted to the mythic and ritualistic aspects of Christianity.

And so the Frankist movement owed a large debt to the collaboration between the rabbis and the priesthood. When the Sabbatean movement began, when it was still a small group, all it sought to do was oppose the rabbis and their authority. Sabbateanism started out as a mass movement but after the conversion to Islam of Shabbetai Zvi and Nathan of Gaza, it became marginal and had a scattered leadership. The Frankists moved in the opposite direction. Rabbinical rejection turned them into a mass movement in 1759-60. Rabbinical pressure on one side and the rabbis' praise for Catholicism on the other caused the Frankists to define their identity more clearly as separate both from Judaism and from Christianity. These determinations are the most important innovations in this fertile and groundbreaking book.

"The Mixed Multitude" ends with a description of the Frankist movement in three of its largest centers: Offenbach, Prague and Warsaw. It points out that the figures active in the Prague center at first admired Jacob Frank but then had reservations about him and his descendants. This circle is most responsible for the idea that Frankism is a natural continuation of Sabbateanism, and developed the view that sees both of these movements as forerunners of the Jewish Enlightenment.

The story of the Frankist movement in the book is woven into the texture of the political and intellectual history of the period; the result is a wonderful panorama of a Jewish world well-connected with its non-Jewish surroundings.

Israel Jacob Yuval is a professor of Jewish history, and academic head of the Scholion center of Jewish studies, at the Hebrew University.