A hypothetical parallel

As I’ve been reading Scholem this summer and as I’ve therefore become increasingly familiar with the Sabbatian movement, a hypothetical parallel occurs to me: making Sabbatianism so central to his understanding of Jewish history is like a scholar of Christianity making Mormonism central to his or her understanding of Christian history. This is not to say that Mormonism necessarily could be made to fill a parallel role, but I’m just trying to get a feel for how daring his move is — since I get the impression that Sabbatianism, like Mormonism for most mainstream Christians, is something mainstream Jews would like to forget about. (Pelikan doesn’t even mention it in The Christian Tradition.)


  • Perhaps a closer parallel is the central role that Taubes grants to Joachim of Fiore in Occidental Eschatology.
  • Also, searching in the archives I found this post arguing in favor of “quasi-Mormonism.”

17 thoughts on “A hypothetical parallel

  1. Actually, the comparison would work only if:

  2. Joseph Smith, before his encounter with the angel and the golden tablets, had been named Pope.

    Joseph Smith, on a trip to America, claimed to have had an encounter with an angel and been given a new revelation, namely, the Book of Mormon.

  3. That would about capture the effect of Sabbatai Zvi on the Jews of the world after he converted to Islam after having been accepted by the majority of Jews (and most rabbis) as the Messiah. Now you can imagine that Pope Smith would not figure largely in the official annals of the chuirch.

  4. I was aiming at a comparison only on the level of people’s attitudes toward the respective movements, but it is admittedly difficult to isolate that from the content of the movements. On either level, the parallel is not close — and in fact, I’m struggling to come up with an event in Christian history parallel to the Sabbatai Zevi event.

  5. And further imagine that the devoted followers of the former Pope Smith, dying soon after his claims to a new revelation, would suffer at the hands of the Inquisition if they accepted his new revelation openly, so you had a group of underground Catholics who were crypto-Mormons. And some of them were highly placed in the Vatican.

    This is beginning to sound like a Dan Brown novel. But this is the sort of drama that Scholem uncovered.

  6. Perhaps Christianity is “innoculated” against a similar event due to the belief that the messiah has already come (and when he comes again, will be “recognizably” Jesus, whatever that may mean) — anyone else who seems to be the messiah can only be the Antichrist.

  7. Good point, Adam. But Christianity is exposed to the “Is this the endtime?” problem, and this can lead to similar results. Sabbatianism is a millenarian movement. It lives beyond the failure of the endtime to arrive by virtue of a theology that says that the endtime has arrived secretly, in the transformed inwardness of the faithful. They remain hidden from other Jews because they believe that hiddenness is the necessary condition of the transformation until God will restore the Messiah to glory. Their hiddenness is also an expression of their participation in the suffering of the Messiah until the moment of his full revelation. (There were some Sabbatians who believed that they should follow the Messiah into apostasy, in order to assist him in absorbing the evil and transforming it, thus hastening the final redemption of the world and the Messiah.) The magnum opus of Scholem, Sabbatai Zvi: The Mystical Messiah is the story of these theological twists and turns. Sabbatai Zvi himself left no theological reflections, only his self-proclaimed Messiahship (believed by most Jews at the time) and then the deed of his apostasy to Islam (equivalent to the death of Jesus in terms of what it led his version of Paul, there were two men in fact who played this role, to do in order to explicate the mystery of the apostate Messiah. They both drew on the Kabbalah. Scholem’s book is a brilliant study of the theology (and psychology) of Messianic redemption through willing submission to humiliation and the ways that this is made meaningful among the faithful in both theory and practice.

  8. I meant to add that the structure of hidden belief in the coming of (or the already present but not yet fully revealed) the endtime redemption is certainly not unknown in Christian history, from the Bogomils and their ilk onwards. Nor is it unknown to have communities of such hidden believers engange in secret antinomian practices, both to demonstrate their freedom from the laws of this age and to actually hasten the coming of the end of the age.

  9. Bruce, kind of a weird place to ask, but do you like the writings of Jacob Taubes? I only know of Sabbatai from his Occidental Eschatology and I think he gets a few references in From Cult to Culture (which, for those who saw Southland Tales and kind of liked it, works really well with the “I got soul but I’m not a solider” formula). I’m wondering if you could help enlighten me as to where Taubes fits in modern Jewish thought, seeing as he plays quite openly with various forms of Gnosis (Jewish and Christian) and seems to prize apocalyptic thought.

  10. I do plan on reading the first 100 pages of Sabbatai Zvi as you suggested, but I am increasingly tempted to try the whole thing — though I wonder if my endurance is sufficient.

  11. I have read the Paul book by Taubes, not the Occidental Eschatology. I confess that I find Taubes not very fruitful as a thinker, perhaps because of his nearly aphoristic style. I sense that he is trying to somehow innoculate himself and Jewish thought from the dangers of apocalypticism, and that he finds Paul to be trying to do something similar. The danger being, as I take it, the idea of “redemption through sin,” the idea that the endtime can be hastened by smashing the law to pieces. I am not sure, but I guess he thinks a Messiah who changes everything but also leaves everything exactly where it was would take the sting out of the antinomian threat. But I am not at all certain of my reading. As to his general importance to modern Jewish thought, I would say that there is none. People write about him, but no one is looking to him to explicate Jewish theology or apocalypticism etc. Unfortunately, he lived under the rather large shadow of Gershom Scholem and he is more important for people like Agamben than for anyone concerned with understanding Jewish thought per se. Taubes will be forever dear to my heart, however, for his having pestered Carl Schmitt.

  12. You definitely do get the sense from Taubes that he knows he can never live up to the “heroic era” of German Jewish thought — for instance, the super-long quotations from Rosenzweig in the Paul book.

  13. Thanks, Bruce. That is somewhat disappointing for me, though I trust Jewish thinkers aren’t too concerned what disappoints me or not. I have found his work very interesting, somewhat like Henry Corbin’s, but incomplete (obviously, since he hardly wrote).

  14. The merits of Scholem’s ascription of Jewish modernity to Sabbateanism have been endlessly debated. But you underestimate the diffusion of Lurianic kabbalah throughout the Jewish world. This leads you in turn to underplay the globalized and popular nature of Sabbateanism. Sabbateanism captured most of the Jewish world and most of its scholars. For a brief time it was not a heresy. Even after the apostasy, it was still fashionable among Yonatan Eyebeshutz, Moses Luzzatto and other major rabbinic figures.

  15. I am just not seeing the usefulness of the parallel, other than that both ascriptions would share the quality of tendentiousness. While I guess both are broadly revivalist, I am confused as to how they line up.

    In terms of wanting to forget about Sabbateanism the picture is not simple. Remember that Sabbatean theology can be read into diverse and important figures across the firmament of Rabbinic culture. Broadly construed, the teleological reflections of an Ishbitz or even R Kook have a Sabbatean genealogy. Religious figures of contemporary importance like Besht and Nachman also view some of their activity as a response to, or a fix for, the Sabbatean breach. Jews in the largest Jewish communities of the Mediterranean basin lived shoulder to shoulder with Sabbatean believers up until the Holocaust.

    Even if you want to cover up such a wide ranging trauma, which by no means was on everyones agenda, it would be impossible.

    Is this the case with Mormonism?

  16. Oh, I see — you’re just responding to the post without reading the comments. Over the course of the comment thread, I came to the conclusion that the parallel isn’t very good, for many of the same reasons you state.

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