The rebel Messiah who was an early Zionist

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on what connects the pseudo-Messiah, Shabbetai Zevi, to next Thursday’s fast of Tishah b’Av


By Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, July 23, 2009
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The man who wanted to be the Messiah: Shabbetai Zevi

The man who wanted to be the Messiah: Shabbetai Zevi

When President Obama spoke in Cairo last month, impressive as his speech was, it betrayed an ignorance of Jewish history. The implication that the justification for a Jewish state was the result of the atrocities that the Germans and their European allies inflicted on the Jews, flies in the face of 2,000 years of history. It might have been a justification in non-Jewish minds, but never in ours.

The fast of Tishah b’Av commemorates the destruction by the Babylonians of Jerusalem and the First Temple in 586 BCE and the Roman destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 CE. The mourning for these cataclysmic losses became central to Jews no matter where they were exiled. Remembering the catastrophe involved fasting, laws banning celebrations or the playing of musical instruments, midnight mourning and leaving part of every building incomplete. The dream of returning to the Land of Israel and rebuilding Jerusalem became positively obsessive as reflected in our liturgy.

Not a generation went by without pilgrimage and settlement, however small. Regardless of how well or badly Jews were integrated into their host societies, from Nachmanides or Yehudah Halevy in Spain in the West to Alroi in Persia in the East, each generation produced its rabbis and messiahs who tried to return to Zion.
Of these, one of the most colourful was Shabbetai Zevi. He was born in Izmir, Turkey, and lived from 1626 to 1676. He captured the imagination and support of a whole generation of Jews across the world and his eventual conversion to Islam was such a profound shock that it took years to overcome. Scholars have argued about the man and his message and whether he was a genuine mystic, a charlatan, a brilliant pretender or a sick man. Perhaps he was all of these. But I believe one can look at him through what we might call the prism of Zion.
Shabbetai Zevi was born on the Ninth of Av. This in itself will, in a credulous world, have been a significant omen. He came from a prominent family in Izmir and was a prodigy. But he was also a rebel against what he saw as the oppressive rigidity and conformism of the Jewish community. His interest in Kabbalah led him to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. So he set off, or was encouraged to leave, on a tour of Greece and Turkey in which he sought out mystical teachers of different traditions. Wherever he ended up, his arrogance and charismatic personality led to ideological conflict and clashes. The more he was rejected, the more outlandish his challenges to authority.

In Egypt in 1662, he met the celebrated scholar and merchant, Refael Yosef Chelebi. Chelebi had done a lot to settle refugees from Iberia and now he was concerned at the large numbers of Eastern Europeans displaced by the terrible Bogdan Chmielnicki massacres of 1648 and the Catholic reprisals. The Sephardi communities of the Mediterranean were not that happy to be inundated with what they considered unwashed, unlettered, Ashkenazi peasants. Chelebi had an interest in encouraging as many as possible to resettle in the Holy Land.

Apart from Safed, which had become a major centre for Jews fleeing the Spanish expulsion because there was a textile industry, there was nothing in the Holy Land to sustain large numbers of immigrants. And so together with several other prominent Jews, Chelebi wanted to persuade the Ottoman authorities to permit the establishment of new industries and agricultural settlements. But he needed a front man, someone with presence and stature to impress the Ottoman authorities as a spiritual man of peace rather than a commercial speculator or worse, military adventurer. The Sultan hated instability but did respect spirituality.

Opinions vary as to whether Chelebi persuaded Shabbetai that as the Messiah he could better impress Jew and non-Jew alike or whether it was Nathan of Gaza, the svengali he met on the way to canvass opinion in Jerusalem, who persuaded him he was the Messiah. Perhaps he always deluded himself into thinking he was a kind of mystical superhero. In one way he might be compared to Theodore Herzl, who cultivated an elegance and presence that enabled him to present himself as the Prince of the Jews and gain easier access to the European aristocratic courts. And his desire to involve other religions in the project anticipated Herzl’s Altneuland.
Shabbetai’s assuming the messianic mantle brought him the attention of the whole of the Jewish world, which desperately dreamed of returning to Zion and casting off the burden of exile. Even Gluckel of Hamelin was so excited she started salting meat for the journey and brokers at Lloyds took bets as to whether the Messiah had arrived.

But the Ottoman authorities came to see Shabbtai as disruptive, doubtless encouraged by his Jewish enemies. He was given the choice, death or the turban. He converted to Islam but still maintained he was the Messiah working in mysterious ways. Perhaps his disillusionment with Jewish authority convinced him he needed to escape the limitations of Judaism and reach out to Muslims and Christians, too, because he persisted in presenting himself as all things to all people. The Ottomans lost patience with his prevarications and exiled him to Dulcino where he died, still hoping to reconcile all three monotheistic faiths. For years his followers remained loyal: a sect of Muslims called the Donmeh continue to revere him.

I want to give Shabbetai the benefit of the doubt. He saw himself as a metaphor for his people. The Jewish world was traumatised by exile and continuing humiliation. It was not always physical suffering but also alienation, a feeling of being unfairly singled out for hatred. The only possible escape was the Messiah leading the return to Jerusalem and rebuilding the Temple. But if they had the means, they simply lacked the unity, the political power and the allies to make it happen. Mysticism was the only option.

So as we mark Tishah b’Av this year again, as we have for 2,000 years, we will reiterate our ancient commitment never to forget our love for the land and our holy city and its centrality to our fate as it was to Shabbetai. And of course we will realise that for 2,000 years we have had to share it with others and it looks like only the real Messiah will achieve complete reconciliation.

Rabbi Rosen blogs at www.jeremyrosen.com

    Last updated: 12:14pm, July 23 2009