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Sympathy for the Devil

Burning the Talmud (Poland, 18th century).

Occupying a place of particular infamy in Jewish collective memory is an 18th-century serial apostate, sexual deviant, messianic pretender, and chameleonic charlatan. His name was Jacob Frank. Throughout Poland, particularly in his native territory of Podolia, he and his adherents succeeded in fomenting widespread chaos as well as persecutions of his fellow Jews. They are the subject of The Mixed Multitude, a magisterial and ground-breaking new study by Pawel Maciejko.

Relevant Links
Their Master's Voice  Ben Zion Wacholder, Hebrew Union College Annual. After Jacob Frank’s death, in an urgent effort to sustain his message, his disciples circulated two apocalyptic letters ascribed to him.
Frankism  Pawel Maciejko, YIVO Encyclopedia. Initially thinking of themselves as a branch of Judaism opposed to the authority of the rabbis, the followers of Jacob Frank subsequently redefined themselves as independent from both Judaism and Christianity.

If there was a single consistent thread in Frank's messy theology, it was the conviction that, following the example of fraternal reunion limned in Genesis 32, "Jacob must approach Esau," interpreted by him to mean that the final redemption would arrive only "by way of Edom"—that is, only after the Jews' prior conversion to Christianity.

Under that banner, he and his followers committed a variety of shocking acts. Three stand out: introducing bizarre sexual rites into synagogue services; promoting public burnings of the Talmud by Catholic authorities; and, most infamously, affirming the truth of the notorious blood libel before an ecclesiastic tribunal.

Understanding these exploits requires a little background. Frank's early inspiration was the antinomian system of the false messiah Shabtai Tzvi (1626-1676), whom Frank revered early in his own career (before later rejecting him entirely). Tzvi himself had crushed the hopes of his worldwide enthusiasts by converting to Islam—a deed he rationalized by radically re-interpreting a kabbalistic teaching on the need for descent into the realm of darkness to retrieve and repair the broken shards containing God's primal light. Tzvi claimed to have committed apostasy precisely in order to effectuate such a "repair." In dialectical fashion, his reinterpretation subsequently provoked others to undertake deliberate violations of specific biblical commandments for, supposedly, the higher purpose of their perfection. Frank took this inversion to unprecedented depths, especially in the erotic arena.

To return to the first of our three examples: on Sabbath eve, January 27, 1756, in the small village of Lanckoronie, Frank assembled a dozen followers in the home of the local Sabbatean "rabbi." There they conducted a bizarre ceremony involving nudity, dancing, and ecstatic chanting. According to eyewitnesses, the men wore crucifixes, which they burned after the ceremony, and performed a version of the Eucharist rite involving bread and "the wine of the condemned one." Most scandalously, the rabbi's wife was ceremonially undressed, crowned with a silver tiara taken from the top of a Torah scroll, and placed under a wedding canopy as the men danced around her, bowing and—in the words of the anti-Sabbatean polemicist Jacob Emden—"kissing her like a mezuzah."

Alerted, officials of the Jewish community broke into the house, roughed up and jailed some of the sectarians, and ultimately issued a ban of excommunication against this deviant branch of the detested Sabbatean movement. Most significantly, as Maciejko describes, the incident led the alarmed Jewish community to seek the intervention of the Polish Catholic authorities, an unprecedented and highly risky move, not least because the regional bishop was well known to be a rabid anti-Semite.

The second incident—the burning of the Talmud later in the same year—arose out of a public disputation between Frank's adherents and their rabbinic opponents in Kamieniec-Podolsk. Frank himself was in Salonika at the time, where he was converting to Islam. A deputy (and rival) led the Frankist contingent, which presented nine articles of faith. Among other heresies, these affirmed belief in a divine trinity and alleged that "the Talmud is full of scandalous blasphemies against God and should be rejected." Three years later, a revised version of the Frankists' ever-shifting articles of faith incorporated an explicit call for burning the Talmud.

The third and most scandalous of the Frankists' travesties, and the one that until now has received the greatest attention by historians, was the knowingly false denunciation of their fellow Jews as guilty of the blood libel. This occurred in September 1759 during a second, far more elaborate and more publicized disputation in the cathedral of Lwów (today Lviv, Ukraine). It featured this assertion: "the Talmud teaches that Jews need Christian blood, and whoever believes in the Talmud is bound to use it." The disputation culminated in the baptism of Frank and hundreds if not thousands of his followers.

In addition to exposing the degree of the Frankists' depravity, this dramatic finale brought Frank to the height of his public prestige in Poland. For, shortly after this mass conversion, the bishop's successor launched an investigation into reports that Frank had converted to Islam prior to his baptism, thus bringing the sincerity of his Christian faith under intense question. He ended up imprisoned in the town of Częstochowa, the site of the Black Madonna, Polish Catholicism's holiest relic.

Remaining in Częstochowa for the next thirteen years, eventually released from prison and ensconced in a castle, Frank became infatuated with the cult of Mary, incorporating many aspects of Marian Christology into his already convoluted theology. At first his wife, Hana, was held to be the incarnation of the "holy Mother"; after her premature death, the role was quickly re-assigned to their teenage daughter Eve, by all accounts a dazzling beauty. Forbidding his followers to mourn Hana's demise, Frank consoled himself with being suckled by the wives of two of his closest disciples, in the husbands' presence. At the sight, one of the husbands leaped from a castle window.

From there, Frank's life took a further series of dizzying twists and turns, ultimately to end with his holding opulent court in the palace of Offenbach on the Rhine, dressed in royal Turkic garb and surrounded by minions and acolytes. There he died in 1791. After his death, his teachings, recorded in a vast, random collection of adages known as Divrei Elohim ("The Words of the Lord"), were radically revised. Although his hard-core believers formally deified him, most of his followers returned to the ranks of the Polish Sabbateans or their Turkish-Muslim offshoot, the Dönmeh. As for the masses of Jews voluntarily baptized in Lwów, most ended up in Warsaw, where within a couple of generations they had thoroughly assimilated into Catholic society and retained barely a trace or memory of their Jewish origins.

Until now, curiously enough, Frank and his teachings have never been assessed comprehensively, let alone in a balanced manner. This has changed with the appearance of Maciejko's sober and erudite study, the product of a decade's labor with source materials ranging from obscure Polish archival documents to hitherto unexamined manuscripts in the Vatican. Maciejko, born and raised in Poland, trained in Great Britain, today teaches Jewish history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. It may well have been his upbringing as a Jew in post-Holocaust Poland, where the lines between Pole and Jew were both so fraught and so impossibly blurred by the collective trauma of the Nazi years, that attracted him to his subject: the story of the first Polish Jew daringly to break down centuries-old national barriers and trample sacrosanct religious boundaries. In this pursuit if in nothing else, Maciejko makes clear, Frank was completely consistent.

Maciejko displays a remarkable ability to hover above the polemical passions that have tainted every previous study of Frankism. Take, for instance, the most notorious of the three public Frankist scandals: the outrageous affirmation before a Catholic tribunal of the truth of the blood libel. Understandably enough, this issue has caused the blood of all previous Jewish historians to boil. In his own serenely objective treatment, Maciejko points to two prior developments that must be kept in mind in assessing the scandal.

First, it was the rabbis themselves, including the eminent Jacob Emden, who had raised their dispute with the Frankists to a murderous level by suggesting to the Christian authorities that Sabbateans and followers of Frank should themselves be burned at the stake by the Inquisition. Others declared a general open season on the Frankists, arguing from halakhic sources that other Jews were permitted to kill them without benefit of prior legal process. At least a dozen Frankists fleeing to Turkey were in fact murdered by fellow Jews.

Moreover, the disputation in Lwów was not a trial of an actual alleged case of blood libel but a theoretical debate about what rabbinic Judaism teaches about the use of blood. Hence, the Frankists' accusation, scandalous and reprehensible though it was, raised no immediate danger to Jewish safety. Paradoxically enough, it ultimately led the rabbis to appeal to Christian scholars for affidavits dismissing the blood libel as a bogus calumny; many obliged, creating a formidable file disproving the truth of this monstrous allegation. Finally, Maciejko contends, the rabbis themselves seemed satisfied with the end result of the disputation: namely, the decisive severance of the Frankists from the Jewish community through their mass conversion to Christianity.

Maciejko brings the same objectivity to bear on a host of other highly charged subjects, from Frank's anti-establishment religious teachings, to his weird sexual behavior, to his adoration of the Virgin Mary and identification of his own daughter as her reincarnation. These and other aspects of Frank's life and teachings are placed by Maciejko in the broad context of 18th-century Eastern and Central Europe, a region that witnessed the emergence of a whole array not only of rogues and charlatans but of syncretistic spiritual movements from Alchemists and Rosicrucians to Freemasons. Among Maciejko's most original contributions is his comparison of Frank with the scandal-ridden adventurer Giacomo Casanova, who appears to have maintained extensive connections with Frank's daughter Eve and several of her disciples.

Maciejko is also at pains to point out that Frank never declared himself to be an incarnation of God, and that even at the height of his dispute with the rabbis, when he expressed his willingness to bring thousands of Jews to the baptismal font, he demanded (albeit unsuccessfully) their right to continue to wear beards and sidecurls, to refrain from intermarrying with born Christians, to abstain from eating pork, and to inhabit an autonomous, self-governing territory. For Maciejko, such considerations ought in themselves to qualify the outright demonization to which Frankists have been subjected in much Jewish historiography.

Earlier historians of Frankism, most notably Gershom Scholem, have seen in its radical challenge to rabbinic authority a foreshadowing of Jewish political and religious modernity. Thus, Frank's yearning for an autonomous territory for his followers struck Scholem as an anticipation of Jewish nationalism and Zionism, while Frank's and Shabtai Tzvi's antinomianism prefigured both the Jewish Enlightenment and Reform Judaism. Maciejko politely but firmly dismisses such speculation—which endures among many historians today—as a "teleological misreading" of Frank's intentions. In this, he is certainly correct.

A drawback of Maciejko's admirable restraint and objectivity may be that, while readers will come away from his book with a far more balanced and nuanced understanding of Frankism, many will be frustrated by his refusal to grapple with the questions his story unavoidably raises. The most elusive of such questions is whether Frankism, for all its intrinsic fascination, retains any relevance whatsoever for Jews, Poles, or Catholics today.

On this as on other matters, Maciejko has certainly earned the right to maintain his scholarly agnosticism. Nevertheless, given the astonishingly rapid erasure of religious, ethnic, and national boundaries in our multicultural era, when nothing in liberal society is more celebrated than "diversity," and when religious syncretism is so blithely feted (interfaith Haggadahs and the mix-and-match wedding service of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky being but mild examples), it is hard not to think of Jacob Frank as, for better or worse, the unintended prophet of our own mystifying times. 

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.

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