Pawel Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement

I just finished the first of the many books in my summer pile of reading. Pawel Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement 1755-1816 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) There are already a variety of good reviews on the web already so I will not repeat them. I will deal with some things that struck me.

First of all, the book is done using solid British historical methods and offers a contrast to many of the concerns of Jewish narratives. (On the author. and his works.) The book is also not a continuous biography or a theology work, rather flash points in 60 years of a movement. Major conclusions is that one has to separate Jacob Frank from Scholem’s Sabbatian setting, Shabbatai or Kabbalah. Frank was a heretical 18th century charlatan and had much in common with his younger contemporaries Wolf Eybeschutz and Casanova, inventing royal titles, seducing women, and crossing back and forth between religious lines. A significant excerpt of the book with most of the conclusions is available here.

Now to the interesting questions for today. During most of the Early Modern period, those who left Judaism or sinned or considered the eruv rav- the mixed multitude who should be wiped out or left to rot. It is an important point for understanding how Judaism saw the laity. The Vilna Gaon and his intellectual followers had deep misgivings about the masses whom they termed the eruv rav. One still finds this attitude in 1920’s Haredi circles in which the masses of Jews are the evil mixed multitude. 20th century views of people hood owe much to Graetz, Reines, Kook, Schechter, Rebbe Riyatz, Dinur and other modernists. (For the current emptiness of the term, see Daniel Septimus’s recent piece.) How do see the collective today? What if one wants to be Catholic and Jewish like Frank? Would we celebrate if a messianic Jew properly converts to Christianity? I have always been amazed that many communities in Jewish have assimilated and we find few mentions. If one converts or assimilates then one has proved one is the mixed multitude. (We find some of this invoked in the statements and teshuvot in the recent conversion controversies.)

In late summer and early autumn 1759, a sizable group of Jews-thousands, by most accounts-led by one Jacob Frank embraced Roman Catholicism in the city of Lwów. The conversion was unique not only in its sheer size. It was also-or at least appeared to be-voluntary: whatever caused Frank and his followers to approach the baptismal font, they were not facing a choice between baptism and expulsion or violent death like their brethren in medieval German lands or Portugal. What was most unusual, however, was the reaction of most Jewish contemporaries. In contrast to typical reactions of sadness, anger, or despair, many Jews saw the conversion of Frank and his group as a God-given miracle and a great victory for Judaism. Entire communities celebrated.

Among early Jewish accounts of the 1759 conversion, only one departed from the prevailing triumphant mood and expressed radically different sentiments. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, known as the BeSh”T (1698-1760), who was the founder of Hasidism, the most important spiritual movement in Judaism of the period, was said to have bemoaned the Lwów mass apostasy or even to have died of pain caused by it. According to the story recorded in the hagiographic collection Shivhe ha-BeSh”T, the Ba’al Shem Tov laid the blame for the eruption of the entire affair on the Jewish establishment; he was “very angry with the rabbis and said that it was because of them, since they invented lies of their own.” The leader of Hasidism saw Frank and his group as part of the mystical body of Israel and presented their baptism as the amputation of a limb from the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence on earth: “I heard from the rabbi of our community that concerning those who converted [in Lwów], the Besht said: As long as the member is connected, there is some hope that it will recover, but when the member is cut off, there is no repair possible. Each person of Israel is a member of the Shekhinah.”

In recounting the BeSh”T’s reaction to Frank’s conversion, Agnon alluded to the symbolism of the “mixed rabble” or “mixed multitude,” the erev rav. The concept appears in the Hebrew Bible in the narrative account of the Exodus (Exod. 12:37-38): “And the People of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot, who were men, beside children. And a mixed multitude [erev rav] went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, and very many cattle.” Jewish tradition interpreted the phrase erev rav as denoting a group of foreigners who joined the Israelites following Moses from Egypt.

the majority of rabbinic exegetes saw in the mixed multitude the source of corruption, sin, and discord: accustomed to idolatry, the erev rav enticed Israelites to make the Golden Calf and angered God by demanding the abolition of the prohibition of incest. Thus, the emblem of the erev rav came to evoke the image of unwelcome strangers present in the very midst of the Holy People; the mixed multitude were not true “children of Abraham” but Egyptian rabble who mingled with Israelites, contaminated their purity, incited them to sin, and caused them to stray from the right path in the wilderness.

The Zohar universalized the midrashic image by removing it from its original place in the sequence of biblical narrative: the presence and activity of the mixed multitude were not restricted to the generation of the Exodus but extended over the entire history of humanity. The erev rav were the impurity that the serpent injected into Eve; they were the descendants of Cain; the nefilim, “sons of God” who procreated with the daughters of men (Gen. 6:2-4); the wicked ones who survived the deluge. They were progeny of the demonic rulers, Samael and Lilith. They contributed to the building of the Tower of Babel and caused the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. They practiced incest, idolatry, and witchcraft. They were the cause of the imprisonment of the Divine Presence in the demonic realm of the “husks” (kelippot) and, likewise, the exile of Israel among the nations.

In the Zohar’s narrative, the activity of the mixed multitude was by no means restricted to the past. Rather, the erev rav represented the ever-present force of destruction, whose aim was to bring the world back to the state of biblical “waste and void,”… : in accordance with its wider mythology of metempsychosis, the Zohar depicted present-day Jewish sinners as Jews the “roots of whose souls” originated among the erev rav.

Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, the preeminent adversary of early Sabbatianism, heard about Nathan’s statements. Angered by the preposterous claims that the very cream of the cream of the rabbinic elite consisted of descendants of the mixed multitude, Sasportas proclaimed that it was not the leaders of the generation but the Sabbatians themselves whose souls originated among the erev rav. In a short time, the symbolic opposition of the “mixed multitude” and the “true Israelites” permanently entered the lexicon of the debate between the Sabbatians and their opponents.

The book has a nice section on the impact that the 27 years Podolian spent under the Ottomans had on the Jews of the region. It created a sense of ideological and social separatism in the region in that they where considered a new Polish land and became the place where Hasidism started.

In the late seventeenth century, the situation of Podolian Jewry went through a significant change. Following the disastrous war with the Porte and the Crimean Khanate, the Commonwealth signed a humiliating peace treaty in Buczacz in 1672, ceding the Palatinates of Podolia and Braclaw to the Ottoman Empire. Poland-Lithuania had regained part of its territories by the following year, and all of them after the treaty of Karlowitz (1699); yet the impact upon the province’s Jewish communities of twenty-seven years of practical independence from the central administrative bodies of Polish Jewry was profound. Podolian Jews developed close ties with their brethren in Turkey, and for over twenty years, Turkish, Wallachian, and Moldavian Jews settled in the region. Even after the province was returned to Poland in 1699, the Council of Four Lands did not regain full control: local Jews often voiced their dissent from the decisions of the council or the rabbi of the Ruthenian Land in Lwów, and many disgruntled individuals moved to Podolia to seek a measure of freedom from the scrutiny imposed by the rabbinate in other parts of the Commonwealth.

After their return to Poland, the Podolian communities refused to pay their poll tax to the Land of Ruthenia, and the tax evasion in Podolia severely increased the fiscal burden placed on other regions. On 1 June 1713, King Augustus II ordered the creation of a separate, fifth Land, with the seat of the presiding rabbi in Satanów.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Podolia became for Judaism what twelfth-century Languedoc was for Christianity: a seditious province where dissenters gathered and heterodoxy was practiced openly and publicly. Podolia was the only place in the world where-almost a hundred years after Sabbatai Tsevi’s conversion to Islam-many Jews openly adhered to Sabbatianism. A number of communal rabbis belonged to the sect and drew in their entire communities. Many Podolian Sabbatians were scholars: among some twenty sectarians identified by name in Ber Birkenthal’s Divre binah, the names of eight of them are preceded by the title morenu (“our teacher”),

Pawel Maciejko, “The Jews’ Entry into the Public Sphere: the Emden-Eibeschuetz Controversy Reconsidered”, Jahrbuch of the Simon Dubnow Insitute for Jewish History. Special Issue: Early Modern Culture and Haskalah, 6 (2007)is an great article by the same author on how and why the Emden-Eybeschutz debate went public and why Eybeschutz was suspected of being a Crypto-Christian. Maciejko took the discussion way beyond the usual antiquarianism.(I was able to find it before online, and now I cannot.)

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