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The lost messiah

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I first read about Sabbatai Sevi (the spelling of whose name varies) in Colin Wilson’s recent book The Devil’s Party (a.k.a. Rogue Messiahs in the US). In that book he occupied only part of one chapter and shared space with the likes of David Koresh, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, Aleister Crowley, and so on. As Wilson describes him, Sabbatai was merely the latest in a long line of messiahs, the saviour expected by the Jewish people since the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC. The Greek conqueror Alexander the Great was considered by the Jews of the 4th century BC to be the anointed one, for example. Judas Maccabeus (d. 161 BC) was the next most serious contender. That nice young man Jesus then came along and wound up instead becoming the anointed one of an entirely different group of people. Such figures as Simon bar Kochba, Moses of Crete, the Christ of Gevaudon, Aldebert, Eudo de Stella, Tanchelm of Antwerp and Klaus Ludwig followed over the next fifteen centuries.

Sabbatai Sevi then came along in the 17th century and set about becoming the most successful saviour of the Jews since Jesus himself. From a reasonably early age he acquired a considerable number of followers, though an equal number regarded him and his proclamations about changes to the Law, the abolition of the Ten Commandments, etc, as merely mad; then, just as he was at the height of his influence and people everywhere were basically expecting him to be crowned king of the entire world in 1666, the entire edifice came crashing down when the Sultan of Istanbul, Mehmet IV, flung him into prison and offered him the choice between conversion to Islam and death. Understandably he took the former, whereupon the wind was well and truly knocked out of the sails of the messianic movement he had created.

Wilson has a long-standing fascination with human failure that stretches all the way back to his first book, The Outsider. As for me, I want a little bit more than that. And Wilson’s short section on Sabbatai didn’t entirely convince me that he was much more than a not particularly interesting segment of that subset of religious history containing those people who mistook themselves for God. I was interested, therefore, to see John Freely’s The Lost Messiah (out now in Australia in paperback, though not available in the US until next February, apparently) on sale recently, with its promise of a much fuller and more detailed look at Sabbatai’s life and times.

One thing Freely’s book has done for me is made me realise there are some pretty significant gaps in my knowledge (this I already knew, though) and that one of those is the history of the Jewish people in Europe throughout the centuries. The world in which Sabbatai Sevi moved was one I clearly knew little if anything about previously, and I suppose the book has performed a valuable service in making me aware of this. And yet, having said that, I found it a hard world to visualise. Freely’s book never quite makes it vivid and real. As he himself says, it was a world far removed from the scientific revolution happening in the rest of Europe in that age, but Freely still doesn’t make me imagine it.

And unfortunately the same is ultimately true of Sabbatai himself. Freely does at least perhaps paint a more convincing picture of Sabbatai’s achievements in galvanising so much of the Jewish world to believe in him, to convince them the messiah was finally at hand for real this time after centuries of disappointment, and that he was the messiah in question. If in the end Sabbatai’s mission was still a failure, it doesn’t seem quite so ignominious in Freely’s account as it does in Wilson’s (the end of the life itself, exiled to Albania after committing certain inappropriate sexual deeds, is another matter); certainly Wilson does not give the Sabbatian movement credit for surviving long after his death and into the 20th century as Freely does.

Sabbatai Sevi himself, though, remains about as distant and unimaginable as the world he lived in. For all Freely’s efforts to bring him forth from behind the obscuring haze of the hagiographic writings of his devotees and the equally biased efforts of his detractors, he somehow never quite does it for me. In the end, the impression I’m left with from Freely’s book is that the successes and failures of Sabbatai Sevi were those of an idea, some abstract desire that took hold of European Jewry in an astonishing way, rather than those of someone who was once a living, breathing human being… and the living, breathing human being is as far away from us in Freely’s book as the messiah seems to be these days.

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