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Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks: Charismatic Leaders, False Messiahs

‘The Mixed Multitude’ by Pawel Maciejko

David Wolpe
February 28, 2014

Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In this Scroll series, Wolpe examines a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.

Speaking of the conversion of Jacob Frank and his followers to Christianity in the mid-1700s, historian Pawel Maciejko writes: “In contrast to typical reactions of sadness, anger, or despair, many Jews saw the conversion Frank and his group as a God-given miracle and a great victory for Judaism. Entire communities celebrated.”

Why would a Jewish community be glad that others were converting? In his detailed and important book, The Mixed Multitude, Maciejko recounts the tale of Jacob Frank, a charismatic heretic turned Muslim and Christian, whose name was anathema to generations of Jews before the memory of the Frankist debacle disappeared, save among scholars, in the mists of shamed forgetfulness.

In the mid-twentieth century, the historian Gershom Scholem resurrected the remarkable story of Sabbatai Sevi, the false Messiah. In the course of this revival of Jewish memory, he also brought to life the long and influential tale of Sabbatianism and its influence. Sabbatai Sevi was once widely hailed as the Jewish Messiah, but gradually, after the hope was proved false, the tale degenerated into a sad saga of syncretism, recrimination, and forced amnesia. Jacob Frank, a charismatic leader who was once taken as a Sabbatian, created his own movement with elements of heresy, highlighting Christian, Trinitarian ideas, an exaltation of the feminine, and a rejection of rabbinic teaching that led to his group being labeled the “contra-Talmudists.”

In Lanckoronie, January 1756, Frank and a group of his disciples arranged some sort of mystical marriage with the Torah, a celebration with Sabbatian echoes, which apparently also involved an orgy. Up to this point there had been a concerted attempt to keep these activities internal and quiet; but whatever tacit agreement existed broke apart, and the Polish rabbinate engaged in full-scale battle.

Although Frankism, like Sabbatianism before it, was clearly a movement that violated much of normative Judaism, many scholars and rabbis as well as masses of Jews were drawn to Frank as they has been to Sevi. Maciejko shows how the Polish and church authorities were deeply intertwined in trying to manage the conflict to their own advantage. In the end, an alliance grew up between the Rabbis—who wanted the Frankists to convert so that they would not impair Jewish standing—and the Polish-Catholic priests, who wished to show the superiority of Catholicism to the German Pietists seeking converts among the Jews.

Maciejko, who was born in Warsaw and educated at Oxford, has mastered a range of languages to present sources that show the complexity of this tale. The tile is taken from the erev rav, the “mixed multitude” that left Egypt with the Israelites (Ex. 12:38). Both the Frankists and anti-Frankists threw this epithet at one another. As in most bitter controversies, there is a great deal of viciousness and despair. Maciejko has written a history of heresy and division that manages to make this painful tale a gripping one as well.

Follow along with the rest of Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks here.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe