When you publish a book about someone, as I just have, you hear one question over and over: “Why did you decide to study this person?”
That’s especially true when the person in question is obscure, like the subject of my new book The Heresy of Jacob Frank: From Jewish Messianism to Esoteric Myth. Jacob Frank (1726-91) was, at his time, a notorious heretic, apostate and scoundrel. Among European Jews at the time, he may have been the single most-hated Jew in the world. In 1759, he led the largest mass conversion in Jewish history, and his sect was complicit in antisemitic campaigns that culminated in the burning of the Talmud. But his sect died out, and today, no one has heard of him.
So why, indeed?
The truthful answer is that, at least at first, I didn’t know why. A million years ago (2005), I went to Jerusalem to pursue a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought. My intention was to write about the also-somewhat-obscure Hasidic master Rabbi Aharon of Staroselye, the foremost disciple of the first Habad rebbe. Rav Aharon was probably the most audaciously pantheistic and nondualistic Hasidic teacher in history, but because he lost the battle for leadership of the Habad sect to Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, his work is little known and largely untranslated. I found him tremendously inspiring, and he plays a significant role in my 2009 book, Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism.
But, as a scholarly matter, I found him disappointing. At the end of the day, you knew he was going to affirm the traditional life of Torah and Mitzvot, no matter how bold his theology. The only question was how — and that, to me, was uninteresting. For the better part of a year, I struggled to find a scholarly question I really wanted to answer.
Meanwhile, shelved right alongside the Hasidim in the Mount Scopus library of the Hebrew University were the few texts available from the Sabbatean movement, the second-largest messianic schism in Jewish history (Christianity being the first). And alongside those texts were a (small) handful about Jacob Frank, a sinister follower of Sabbetai who, according to the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, was “a religious leader who, whether for purely self-interested motives or otherwise, was in all his actions a truly corrupt and degenerate individual … a man who could snuff out [Sabbateanism’s] last inner lights and pervert whatever will to truth and goodness was still to be found in the maze-like ruins of the ‘believers’ souls.”
I had never heard of Frank, but as I paged through the typewritten-and-to-this-day-still-unpublished Hebrew and English translations of his oral teachings (contained in a Polish-language anthology known as Zbiór Słów Pańskich, or Words of the Lord), I was seduced. Unlike Rav Aharon and the other Hasidim, here nothing was predictable. There were no guardrails; on the contrary, Frank seemed intent on driving the car off the cliff. His tales were bawdy and outrageous. His critiques of religion were surprisingly modern: Religion’s promises are lies, the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, and to the extent we can know anything about God, God wants us to live our lives richly, boldly and erotically.
I have clear memories of reading Frankist texts on Israeli buses in the cold rain of Jerusalem winter. They were unlike anything I’d ever seen, except maybe in the Marquis de Sade.
Along the way, I also became convinced that Scholem was wrong. There was a theology here — just a radical, and mutable, one that combined aspects of messianism, antinomianism (the view that disobeying the law is a moral imperative), and, to my surprise, Western Esotericism. Not only was Frank not a mere follower of Sabbetai Zevi, he ridiculed the foundations of Sabbateanism, chiefly its emphasis on faith in the unseen. For Frank, only what was visible and material was of value. Promises of some invisible world to come, either after death or in a messianic period, were nonsense. Kabbalistic secrets were just make-believe.
And yet, at the same time, Frank also taught preposterous doctrines about “real,” physical magical beings: an entire parallel world, with immortal superhumans; demons and elves and wizards in our own world, right in our midst; and a shocking gnostic theology that the world is being overseen by three malevolent, powerful demigods — not God.
At first, I think I was drawn simply to Frank’s unpredictability. As I say in The Heresy of Jacob Frank, even today, almost 20 years later, I am surprised every time I read “The Words of the Lord.” The text is so weird, so complex that I find it an endless source of fascination.
But as my study of Frank deepened, I found deeper resonances as well. Frank’s theodicy- and humanism-based critique of religious repression seemed to anticipate (and perhaps influence, though this is controversial) those of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) and Reform movements. His insistence that one could have a powerful “spiritual” life — really a transformation of the messianic impulse — beyond the confines of religion seemed to foreshadow contemporary Jewish spirituality and the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon that is ascendant today.
And sex. Frank’s sect first came to infamy in 1756, when they were allegedly found conducting a sexual ritual in which a group of men and women danced around a half-naked teenage girl — the embodiment of the Shechinah — and kissed her breasts like one would kiss the Torah. My research suggests that this ritual may not have happened and was actually a stock accusation made against Sabbateans. But in any case, not only was the accusation believed (leading to the rabbinic authorities compelling the sect to convert) but Frank’s sect became associated with wild, hedonistic orgies and sexual libertinism.
There is no textual evidence for this. On the contrary, as the late Ada Rapoport-Albert has shown, Frankist sexual ritual was rare, carefully orchestrated and imbued with messianic meaning. Frank’s tales do include wild stories of sexual adventure, but it’s not known how reflective they are of reality.
The real scandal, as Rapoport-Albert’s and my own work describes in detail, was that Sabbatean and Frankist communities were shockingly egalitarian, with women taking leadership roles, participating fully in ritual and rejecting the repressive constraints of 18th-century patriarchal society. For Frank, the liberation of women and the liberation of sexuality were hallmarks of the messianic age. Indeed, the messiah is herself a woman, a kind of perennialist figure known as the Maiden, who incarnates in various women throughout history, including Frank’s daughter Eve.
It was this scandal (mixed dancing! women on the bimah!) that, Rapoport-Albert proposes, led to accusations of licentiousness against Sabbatean/Frankist communities in general and Sabbatean/Frankist women in particular.
To be sure, there are significant limits to Frank’s “feminism.” Frank was voraciously heterosexual and toxically masculine; in my work, I propose that this was a “queering of the queer”; a rejection of Jewish “effeminacy,” which Frank believed was epitomized by Sabbetai Zevi; and a replacement of it with a virile, violent Jewish masculinity. Frank was abusive to his followers. And the Frankist liberation of women was based on the association of women with sexuality and the body, a longstanding misogynistic trope.
Still, as a queer person who remembers all too well the repressive restrictions of traditional religion, I found Frank’s rejection of those restrictions to be inspiring. In most ways, Frank was not a good person. But he was a brilliant, fascinating, erratic, erotic and innovative one.
For me, all of this appreciation developed gradually. I finally completed the Ph.D. dissertation in 2013, and began the process of turning it into a book a few years later, all the while pursuing three or four other careers in journalism, teaching meditation and spirituality, LGBTQ activism and academic work. (Probably another thing I found resonant about Frank is his shape-shifting; I haven’t even mentioned his career as a charlatan, posing as Russian nobility, living in a rented castle and playing a bit part in bringing about the French Revolution. For that, you’ll have to get the book.) Eventually, I came to a kind of considered ambivalence about Frank, recognizing his brilliant and problematic aspects — which, to be honest, is how I think we should regard all religious figures, texts and traditions.
My work on Frank was always a kind of private undercurrent to the more public work I’ve been doing for the past decade. When I needed a break from writing about Donald Trump, I’d turn back to Jacob Frank, although the two are actually quite similar in some disturbing ways. And yet, here that work is in public — and, by bizarre coincidence, alongside the English translation of most significant text on Frank ever written, Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s masterpiece, The Books of Jacob. (I should also mention Pawel Maciejko’s brilliant history of the movement, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement; my book attempts to complement that historical analysis with a study of Frank’s religious ideas.) While I doubt Frankist antinomianism will become a mass cultural phenomenon anytime soon, my hope is that a few of you will find it as intriguing, affirming and puzzling as I do.