Messianism is about deferral. As Scholem explained, the tension between the utopian wish to establish the new messianic rule and the aspiration to preserve the existing law led to the infinite postponement of action. Hence my delay in writing about Sabbatai Sevi...
I’ve just returned from the University of PEI (Prince Edward Island), a beautiful enclave of serenity, away from the crowd of international conflicts and violence, which made it all the more a perfect spot for my lecture on messianism and contemporary metaphysics of law. Where else could I reflect on the current interpretations of messianism as an intellectual idea of progress without having to fret about current messianism as fanatic politics?
Messianic aspirations continue to flourish. It can be a dangerous, destructive political belief, or a new way of thinking about law and the human predicament in general. This ambivalence is well documented in the various historical and immediate reactions to Sabbatai Sevi that were not confined to the Jewish world.
Take, for instance, John Evelyn (1620-1706), who came from a landowning family in Surrey, England and was a great diarist and dilettante, a connoisseur of engraving and trees and – smoke. He left England during the Civil War, and spent much of his youth traveling in Italy and France. After his return to England in 1652, and with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Evelyn became involved in politics. Along with his activities in public committees he found time to comment on current events, among them the phenomenon of Sabbatai Sevi.
In 1669, Evelyn published his History of Sabbatai Sevi, The Pretended Messiah of the Jewes or History of the Three late Famous Imposters (The other two were Padre Ottomano and Mahomed Bei).
Why should an English politician and landowner be interested in spreading the news of Sabbatai Sevi?
At the time the book was published, Sevi, who died in 1675, had already converted to Islam, leaving his followers in great shock and his philosopher, or more accurately, prophet, Nathan of Gaza, with the tricky task of coming up with a convincing theological explanation for this scandalous move.