Review: Dissident Rabbi

This definitive study illuminates ways in which Sasportas’s text and conservative stance 'came to serve as a stand-in for a habit of mind that rejected novelty', writes Howard Cooper


Dissident Rabbi by Yaacob Dweck (Princeton University Press, £35)

As the summer of 1665 faded into autumn, messianic fervour swept across the Jewish world. 
From Gaza, through north Africa and Turkey on to Prague, Hamburg, Amsterdam and London, word was spreading: finally, an end to exile was in sight. 

Redemption was arriving through Sabbetai Zevi, who had proclaimed himself the Messiah, and whose message of the need for repentance and fasting was being promulgated through his appointed “prophet”, Nathan, a charismatic holy man and kabbalist from the Holy Land.  

Whole communities (rabbis as well as laity) succumbed to a form of mass hysteria. People fell into trances, spoke in tongues, sold all their possessions. There were few disbelievers — after all, who could, or would want to, oppose the coming of the long-awaited Redemption? 

Enter Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, the impecunious, peripatetic Sephardic hero of Yaacob Dweck’s monumental and erudite study.  

Having recently fled his rabbinic post in London because of the plague, Rabbi Sasportas — a pre-eminent European talmudist but at this point jobless in Hamburg — was sceptical from the beginning about the reports he was hearing. 

And this was before Sabbatianism turned in an antinominian direction, which it did by transforming traditional fast days into public holidays, ritually sacrificing animals as in Temple times, and allowing the celebration of Shabbat on any day of the week. 

As Dweck illustrates in compelling detail through an analysis of the written text Sasportas compiled as the messianic passions began to wane (following Zevi’s conversion to Islam in late 1666) — a text in which the dissenting letters he wrote to prominent rabbis, replete with legal arguments against the pseudo-Messiah’s claims, are woven into a historical narrative. 

Sasportas used “his mastery over the entirety of Jewish law from the Mishnah and the Talmud… through the codes and commentaries of the Middle Ages up through the most recent responsa” as the intellectual bedrock for his opposition to the emotionality and gullibility of the unlearned masses and the supposedly-learned alike.  

Drawing in particular on the legal and philosophical texts of his 12th-century Sephardi forebear Maimonides, who had spelt out with sober rationalism what the messianic days would look like and what the actions of the Messiah would consist of (and obedience to the law was a pre-requisite), Sasportas insisted on the authority of textual tradition as a counter to subjective experiential fervour. In this way, he was making, as Dweck shows to brilliant effect, intellectual doubt and scepticism into a religious virtue. 

Lived Jewish experience was not enough: unless it was grounded in textual tradition, it was not only valueless but dangerous.   

One of the virtues of this definitive study — which stands comparison with Gershom Scholem’s path-breaking Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah (1973) — is how the author goes on to illuminate ways in which Sasportas’s text and conservative stance “came to serve as a stand-in for a habit of mind that rejected novelty as such”. 

Chasidim v Mitnagdim, Orthodox v Reform, Zionists v Orthodox rejectionists of a pre-messianic Zionist state — all these debates have been shadowed by Sasportas’s uncompromising stand against the new.  

Howard Cooper is a rabbi and psychotherapist

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