The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816 (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

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9780812243154: The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816 (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

In 1756, the Jewish heretical leader Jacob Frank was discovered leading a group of fellow travelers in a suspect religious service. At the request of the local rabbis, Polish authorities arrested the participants. Jewish authorities contacted the bishop in whose diocese the service had taken place and argued that since the rites of Frank's followers involved the practice of magic and immoral conduct, both Jews and Christians should condemn them and burn them at the stake. The scheme backfired, as the Frankists took the opportunity to ally themselves with the Church, presenting themselves as Contra-Talmudists who believed in a triune God.

Who were Jacob Frank and his followers? To most Christians, they seemed to be members of a Jewish sect; to Jewish reformers, they formed a group making a valiant if misguided attempt to bring an end to the power of the rabbis. Based on extensive archival research in Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel, Germany, the United States, and the Vatican, The Mixed Multitude is the first comprehensive study of Frank and Frankism in more than a century and offers an important new perspective on Jewish-Christian relations in the Age of Enlightenment.

The Mixed Multitude was awarded the Salo Baron Prize by the American Academy of Jewish Research and the Polonsky Prize by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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About the Author:

Pawel Maciejko is a Joseph H. and Belle Braun Senior Lecturer in the Humanities and Director of the Center for Research on the History and Culture of Polish Jews at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

Conversions to Christianity were among the most traumatic events in the history of medieval and early modern Jewish communities. Jews regarded baptism as a "betrayal of communal values, a rejection of Jewish destiny, a submission to the illusory verdict of history." Willing apostates were seen as the worst traitors and renegades, forced conversions were considered the ultimate form of persecution of Israel by the Gentiles, and, according to the common ideal, it was better to choose a martyr's death than to submit to the power of the Church. Each soul that Judaism lost was mourned. The dominant narrative did not even entertain the possibility that a Jew might embrace Christianity without any threat or ulterior motive. Christians themselves, while officially praising the apostates and expressing hope for "the blind synagogue's" future recognition of the "obvious" truth of Christianity, privately voiced doubts concerning the sincerity of the converts and the very ability of the Jews to truly accept Christ.

In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest Catholic country in Europe and, at the same time, the home of the largest Jewish community in premodern times, baptisms of Jews were rare. Neither the local church nor the state conducted systematic missionary campaigns targeting the Jews. Forced conversions of individuals were forbidden by law and were few. Mass apostasies, like those known in Western Europe, did not occur-with one significant exception. In late summer and early autumn 1759, a sizable group of Jews-thousands, by most accounts-led by one Jacob Frank embraced Roman Catholicism in the city of Lwów. The conversion was unique not only in its sheer size. It was also-or at least appeared to be-voluntary: whatever caused Frank and his followers to approach the baptismal font, they were not facing a choice between baptism and expulsion or violent death like their brethren in medieval German lands or Portugal. What was most unusual, however, was the reaction of most Jewish contemporaries. In contrast to typical reactions of sadness, anger, or despair, many Jews saw the conversion of Frank and his group as a God-given miracle and a great victory for Judaism. Entire communities celebrated.

Among early Jewish accounts of the 1759 conversion, only one departed from the prevailing triumphant mood and expressed radically different sentiments. Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, known as the BeSh"T (1698-1760), who was the founder of Hasidism, the most important spiritual movement in Judaism of the period, was said to have bemoaned the Lwów mass apostasy or even to have died of pain caused by it. According to the story recorded in the hagiographic collection Shivhe ha-BeSh"T, the Ba'al Shem Tov laid the blame for the eruption of the entire affair on the Jewish establishment; he was "very angry with the rabbis and said that it was because of them, since they invented lies of their own." The leader of Hasidism saw Frank and his group as part of the mystical body of Israel and presented their baptism as the amputation of a limb from the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence on earth: "I heard from the rabbi of our community that concerning those who converted [in Lwów], the Besht said: As long as the member is connected, there is some hope that it will recover, but when the member is cut off, there is no repair possible. Each person of Israel is a member of the Shekhinah."

The Ba'al Shem Tov died in 1760, a year after the Lwów apostasy. Some 150 years later, in Berlin, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, an aspiring writer who was later to become the State of Israel's most celebrated author and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote a short essay on Frank. He juxtaposed various Jewish accounts of the 1759 conversion, ending his piece with the testimony concerning the BeSh"T's words. He concluded:

We are only dust under the feet of this holy man, yet we dare to be of another opinion. Frank and his gang were not a limb of the body of Israel; rather, they were a [pathological] excrescence. Praise and thanks to our doctors, who cut it off in time, before it took root in the body!... Undoubtedly, Frank and his group were descendants of the foreign rabble, which tacked itself onto Israel during the Exodus from Egypt, and followed it thereafter. In the desert, in the Land of Israel, and later in the Exile, this multitude defiled the purity of Israel and defiled its holiness. May we be freed from them forever!

In recounting the BeSh"T's reaction to Frank's conversion, Agnon alluded to the symbolism of the "mixed rabble" or "mixed multitude," the erev rav. The concept appears in the Hebrew Bible in the narrative account of the Exodus (Exod. 12:37-38): "And the People of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot, who were men, beside children. And a mixed multitude [ erev rav] went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, and very many cattle." Jewish tradition interpreted the phrase erev rav as denoting a group of foreigners who joined the Israelites following Moses from Egypt. While some midrashim understood it as a reference to the "righteous among the Egyptians, who celebrated Passover together with Israel," a prototype for future converts to Judaism, the majority of rabbinic exegetes saw in the mixed multitude the source of corruption, sin, and discord: accustomed to idolatry, the erev rav enticed Israelites to make the Golden Calf and angered God by demanding the abolition of the prohibition of incest. Thus, the emblem of the erev rav came to evoke the image of unwelcome strangers present in the very midst of the Holy People; the mixed multitude were not true "children of Abraham" but Egyptian rabble who mingled with Israelites, contaminated their purity, incited them to sin, and caused them to stray from the right path in the wilderness. It was because of them that the generation of the Exodus lost the right path on the desert and Moses did not enter the Land of Israel.

In the Middle Ages, the symbolism established by the ancient midrash was taken up and developed by kabbalah, particularly the book of the Zohar. The Zohar universalized the midrashic image by removing it from its original place in the sequence of biblical narrative: the presence and activity of the mixed multitude were not restricted to the generation of the Exodus but extended over the entire history of humanity. The erev rav were the impurity that the serpent injected into Eve; they were the descendants of Cain; the nefilim, "sons of God" who procreated with the daughters of men (Gen. 6:2-4); the wicked ones who survived the deluge. They were progeny of the demonic rulers, Samael and Lilith. They contributed to the building of the Tower of Babel and caused the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. They practiced incest, idolatry, and witchcraft. They were the cause of the imprisonment of the Divine Presence in the demonic realm of the "husks" (kelippot) and, likewise, the exile of Israel among the nations.

In the Zohar's narrative, the activity of the mixed multitude was by no means restricted to the past. Rather, the erev rav represented the ever-present force of destruction, whose aim was to bring the world back to the state of biblical "waste and void," the primordial chaos (tohu va-vohu). And, it should be noted, this force was located within the Jewish people. As the mixed multitude mingled with Israelites in the desert, their descendants became outwardly undistinguishable from other Jews and existed in every generation: in accordance with its wider mythology of metempsychosis, the Zohar depicted present-day Jewish sinners as Jews the "roots of whose souls" originated among the erev rav.

The topos of the mixed multitude thus became the figure of the ultimate enemy within, as opposed to Gentile haters of Israel. As Yitzhak Baer has demonstrated, in its original Zoharic setting, this motif had already been employed as a vehicle of a powerful social critique directed against the contemporary Jewish establishment, which was said to oppress scholars and abuse the poor. The rabbis and parnassim (lay leaders), who "studied Torah not for its own sake," "erected synagogues not for the glory of God but rather to make a name for themselves," and turned into "false shepherds of Israel," were surely not "true children of Israel" but the descendants of the Egyptian hangers-on who had joined Moses in the wilderness. Thus, the rich, powerful, materialistic rabbinic and secular powers were contrasted with holy spiritualists lacking riches or high social position and extolling poverty for the sake of God. In the eyes of kabbalists, only the latter formed the true congregation of Israel.

The Jews who converted in Lwów in 1759 were Sabbatians-followers of a religious movement triggered by messianic claims of the Ottoman Jew Sabbatai Tsevi (1626-76). Sabbatai first voiced his pretensions to the messiahship in 1648, but the movement that formed around him began to gain momentum only in 1665, when a young kabbalist, Nathan of Gaza (1643-80), "recognized" the truth of his mandate in an ecstatic vision. Shortly after proclaiming Sabbatai as the messiah, Nathan-who was soon to become "at once the John the Baptist and the Paul of the new messiah" -composed a commentary on an ancient apocalyptic text that he had supposedly discovered in an old synagogue's storage room. In order to counter rabbinic opposition to the budding messianic upheaval, he invoked the symbolism of the mixed multitude: the messiah's contemporaries "shall rise against him with reproaches and blasphemies-they are the 'mixed multitude,' the sons of Lilith, the 'caul above the liver' [Lev. 3:4], the leaders and rabbis of the generation."

In his subsequent writings, Nathan developed a doctrine of salvation attainable by messianic belief alone (as opposed to the observance of commandments) and extended his use of the motif of the erev rav claiming that all Jews who fully observed the Law but denied Sabbatai's mandate had souls of the mixed multitude. As Gershom Scholem observed, by linking the symbolism of the mixed multitude with eschatology and messianic mysteries, Nathan combined two distinct motifs that function separately in the Zohar. For the Sabbatians, the litmus test of what was the root of one's soul became not, as in the Zohar, spiritual piety and "observance of the Torah for its own sake" but faith in the messiah Sabbatai Tsevi (or lack thereof): the sectarians "increasingly felt themselves to be the true Israel, harassed by the 'mixed multitude' because of their faith."

The radical dichotomy between the messianic believers and the rabbinic skeptics was further elaborated in the Commentary on the Midnight-Vigil Liturgy, composed by Nathan's disciple Rabbi Israel Hazzan of Kastoria. Hazzan argued that the true messiah would be recognized not by the Jewish leaders, whom he defined as the progeny of the mixed multitude, but by simpletons. The denial of Sabbatai Tsevi as the messiah and the failure to understand hints about him in the Jewish canon came to be attributed to a kind of metaphysical blindness stemming from the very roots of the nonbelievers' souls. According to the Sabbatians, the "pretended rabbis" could no longer assert any rights to leadership over the Jewish people or lay claims to the authoritative interpretation of Jewish tradition. Their learning was false, their worldly position based on abuses of power, their ostensible piety worthless and lacking deeper sense.

As Nathan of Gaza and Israel Hazzan composed their polemics against the rabbis, detractors of the new messiah attempted to turn the tables on the Sabbatians. Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, the preeminent adversary of early Sabbatianism, heard about Nathan's statements. Angered by the preposterous claims that the very cream of the cream of the rabbinic elite consisted of descendants of the mixed multitude, Sasportas proclaimed that it was not the leaders of the generation but the Sabbatians themselves whose souls originated among the erev rav. In a short time, the symbolic opposition of the "mixed multitude" and the "true Israelites" permanently entered the lexicon of the debate between the Sabbatians and their opponents. This became especially pronounced in the eighteenth century and in the documents directly concerning Frank. In one of the first accounts of the Lwów conversion, Ber Birkenthal of Bolechów reported that "they call us [the anti-Sabbatians] the erev rav, and their faction they call the mahaneh [company, fellowship]." Frank's most important competitor for leadership over all the Eastern and Central European Sabbatians, Wolf Eibeschütz, also defined the conflict between the sectarians and the rabbinate as a struggle between bne mehimenuta (children of the faith) and the children of the erev rav.

On the other side of the barricade, Rabbi Jacob Emden, the most zealous anti-Sabbatian of the period, interpreted Frank's baptism as the final severance of the erev rav from the chosen people, so that the purified Israel might taste from the Tree of Life and achieve redemption. Shortly after the conversion of the Frankists, Emden composed a laudatory poem praising God for "separating between the unclean and the pure . between us and the mixed multitude, who tried to bring the world back to its antediluvian state."

The issue was not merely terminological and went far beyond the mutual mudslinging. The dichotomy between the true Israel and the mixed multitude constituted the major conceptual axis of the theological controversies that tore apart eighteenth-century Judaism. Approximately a century after the advent of Sabbatai Tsevi, most debates concerning Sabbatianism (and, more broadly, Jewish heterodoxy) did not revolve around messianism, let alone Sabbatai's specific messianic claims. Rather, the disputes concentrated on the limits of religion and conditions for belonging to the Jewish people. Each side considered only its own version of Judaism legitimate and claimed to be the one true Israel. Each party branded the other as "progeny of the mixed multitude," implicitly denying its Jewishness. Thus the discourse of the mixed multitude endeavored to establish the boundaries of Judaism and of the Jewish people independently of the traditional halakhic criteria of who is a Jew: within the framework of this discourse, certain groups of people might have been "externally" Jewish for generations but were said to remain alien in the depths of their souls. By drawing a line between those whose souls originated from "children of Abraham" and those who came from the erev rav, the Sabbatian debate aimed to distinguish between the "real" Jews and pseudo-Jews, "true" Judaism and false faith. Frankism, the movement that crystallized around Jacob Frank in the 1750s, was the last-and, in many ways, most dramatic-word in this debate.

Sabbatianism in the Eighteenth Century

The beginning of Sabbatianism was Sabbatai Tsevi's messianic self-revelation and the prophecies of Nathan of Gaza. The news of the messiah's advent spread like wildfire through Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire and Europe and, for a brief period, the majority of the Jewish people seem to have been inclined to accept ...

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