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Kabbalah: Sabbatai Sevi and his Contemporaries I

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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.

Whatever the reason for the interest we have in Sabbatai Sevi today, back in those days, Sevi was hot news. As it turns out, English folks’ curiosity about Jewish affairs was not restricted to commercial matters. We know for a fact that in 1666, English sportsmen were betting on Sevi’s career, with odds of ten to one (!) that the Messiah of Izmir would be crowned King of Jerusalem within two years.

The most immediate effect of Sevi was the disruption of commerce; in anticipation of the imminent return to their land, Jews sold their property and dissolved their businesses that promoted much of the international trade between East and West.

More significant, though, was the extent to which historical understanding was inseparable from apocalyptic myth in those days (today too?). The year 1666 was expected to bring an apocalyptic disaster as promised by the numerical warning in the Book of Revelation 13:18. The fact that in 1656 Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews to England was a further definite sign of the imminent Messianic times.

John Evelyn’s account begins with a description of these expectations:

“…this Year 1666 was to prove a Year of Wonders, of strange Revolutions in the World, and particularly of Blessing for the Jewes, either in respect of their Conversion to the Christian Faith, or of their Restoration to their Temporal Kingdome…”

Evelyn continues with the abundant stories and accounts of miracles, like the story of a ship that arrived in north Scotland, its sails and ropes made of silk, its sailors speaking only Hebrew, and on the sails the motto The Twelve Tribes of Israel (a known sign of messianic redemption).

Evelyn’s report represents a historical example of how news travelled in those days and became public. His rather secular approach exhibits an intellectual curiosity, the regular condemnation of the Jewish people, and a warning against religious enthusiasts in general. 

I will continue in my next post (next Monday, no further delay) with another contemporary account, of a more religious nature, directed against Jewish religion in general and Kabbalah in particular.

Continued in Part II

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About michal Schwartz