The reactions to Sabbatai Sevi in the Jewish world were as varied as can be (up to this very day); he had zealous followers who continued to worship him and adopted his rituals even after his infamous conversion to Islam, and he had bitter and obsessive enemies (some of whom studied him so meticulously that their writings remain important source about Sevi).
Already as a young man who declared himself the Messiah and dared pronounce God’s forbidden name, Sevi provoked the rabbis of Izmir (his birthplace), who expelled him more than once. Between 1651 and 1654, he was excommunicated and forced to leave Izmir. He wandered through Greece, arrived in Istanbul, and around 1659 returned to Izmir only to be forced to leave it in 1662. This time he headed for Jerusalem, an always popular destination for visionaries and anyone with messianic aspirations.
In Jerusalem, he gathered a few followers, and after two years he was sent by the community to Egypt to collect donations. (Some say this was an indication of his high status in Jerusalem, others claim it was an elegant way for the Jerusalem rabbis to get rid of him). In any case, he continued to gather followers, enemies, and fame. He established close contacts with some of the Jewish leaders and in particular with Raphael Joseph Chelbi, one of the richest leaders of the Cairo Jewish community. These connections helped him later in spreading the Sabbatean movement in the Jewish world.
After a few months in Egypt, on his journey back to Jerusalem, Sevi passed through Gaza, and met with a young man, Abraham ben Nathan, known as Nathan of Gaza. Nathan was a prodigious student who had started studying the Kabbalah already at the age of 20, had a strong will for power and a rare charisma with remarkable interpersonal skills. On meeting Sevi, Nathan fell on his knees and vouched complete loyalty to the now officially declared Messiah.
This encounter in 1665 had historical consequences. Nathan became the movement’s prophet and major ideologue, and as a most efficient advocate he had a crucial role in promoting and spreading the word about this Messiah.
Sevi’s followers came from all walks of life. He was admired by the elite of mystics, rich leaders, and rabbis, and worshipped by crowds who received him ecstatically; admirers followed Sevi wherever he turned, women and children fainted publicly after having had prophetic spasms, believers fasted for days to hasten redemption or, alternately, obeyed Sevi when he cancelled religious fasting days and announced them as days of celebration, during which people abandoned their daily routine and succumbed to excessive feasting, breaking many laws of decorum not to mention of sexual activity… Altogether, Sevi wasn’t unlike a provocative rock star (he has been described as very handsome) with lots of wild, intoxicated fans and a few grouchy critics who cling to the old world order.
The Sabbatean influence grew to such an extent that its antagonists (who did after all have a point, considering Sevi’s more provocative ideas and abundant influence) were ostracized and at times banned from their communities. Only with Sevi’s conversion to Islam did his opponents surface. Having been obviously terrified at the events and stories of Sevi’s anarchic behavior, they gradually turned Sevi into the arch-villain, the “he who must not be named” of Jewish history. However, over the centuries, Sevi continued to have followers (albeit secretly) and some claim that Sevi influenced Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, founder of the Hasidic movement.
The 20th century opened new perspectives and Sevi found new, perhaps not admirers, but certainly curious and unprejudiced minds who sought to go beyond the customary defamations and learn more about the man and his movement.
As Abraham Elkayam, a leading authority on Sabbatai Sevi and Nathan of Gaza, explains, it has been, up to this very day, Sevi’s anarchical ideas and behavior that made him such a controversial figure; the abolishing of any law, religious or secular, the return to the chaos of lawlessness, social as well as erotic, is a frightening project that intimidates even the most open mind.
In my next post I will write about contemporary artists who, inspired by Sabbatai Sevi, incorporate his ideas into today’s world.
I’d like to end with a symbolic note: This coming Friday marks both Passover and Good Friday, a calendar coincidence that fits well into the overall Sabbatean scheme of bringing religions together…