Anthony Mayer ;  alternative history ;  Jonathan Edelstein's Spinoza in Turkey - Part 3
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1. Preface

2. Spinoza's World, 1664

3. The Sabbateans

4. The Disputation

5. The Holy Land

6. Marriage

7. Common Prayer

8. America

9. Gottfried and Sophia

10. The Sublime Porte

11. Spinoza's World, 1691

12. Mustafa and the Janissaries

13. Naomi

14. Regime Change

15. Tulips

16. Twilight

17. Spinoza's World, 1712

18. Epilogue


Spinoza in Turkey

Part 3 - The Sabbateans

August 1665 to January 1667

Kabbalah is not for everyone. According to the sages, no man should study the Kabbalah before marrying and attaining the age of forty, because anyone younger and less anchored to reality might get carried away by its mysteries. The rule was often broken in practice; Isaac Luria, perhaps the greatest of the cabalists, first encountered the Zohar as a teenager and died at 38. Had the age restriction been strictly applied to Luria, the Jewish world would have lost one of its most influential authors. On the other hand, Judaism might have been spared much upheaval if someone had enforced the rule against Sabbatai Zevi.

Zevi was born in Smyrna in August 1626, and showed early promise as a student of Talmud. By the age of twenty, however, his attention had drifted to the occult teachings of the Zohar. He spent hours in study and ecstatic prayer, fasted, mortified his flesh and sought the mysteries of God, and even at this early date, his fervor and charisma attracted disciples.

As luck would have it, this was a traumatic time for the Jewish people. In 1648, one of the greatest calamities ever to befall eastern European Jewry erupted: the uprising of Bogdan Chmielnicki. Chmielnicki, believing Jews to be the agents of the hated Polish landlords, pursued them with a ferocity rare even for those times. Thousands of Polish and Ukrainian Jews, already devastated by the madness of the Thirty Years' War, were massacred, and many more were sold into slavery or forced to flee their homes. At the same time, persecution of Jews intensified in the cities of the Italian peninsula and the Holy Roman Empire. It is hardly surprising that, even in the distant Ottoman realm, such news would cause Jews to believe that the end of the world was at hand, and to seek a redeemer to deliver them.

Over time, as Zevi's instability increased, he slowly became convinced that he was the promised savior. The first indication of his megalomania came in late 1648, when he marched boldly into the largest synagogue of Smyrna and pronounced the name of God from the pulpit. Expelled from Smyrna by the angry rabbis, Zevi wandered through the cities of Greece and Palestine. Sometimes he settled into obscurity for months at a time before yet again angering the religious authorities. At times he did so in a spectacular fashion, as when he was expelled from Salonika for holding a marriage ceremony with himself as the groom and the Torah as the bride.

It was in Palestine during the early 1660s that his messianic ambitions came fully into their own. The cities of Safed and Jerusalem were centers of cabalism, and many of their people were receptive to Zevi's mystical teachings. His striking appearance and charismatic manner - "tall as a cedar of Lebanon, framed in a black beard, shining in beauty" [FN1] - gave strength to his words, and his followers regarded him with a reverence bordering on worship.

While in Jerusalem, he met an itinerant cabalist called Nathan of Gaza, who recognized him as the redeemer of mankind and began to call himself the "Messiah's Prophet." At around the same time, in Cairo, Zevi heard the story of Sarah, a Polish Jew who had escaped the convent where she had lived since the murder of her parents and become convinced that her destiny was to marry the Messiah. He sent for her in Livorno, and she came to him, making him surer than ever that he was the one chosen to restore Israel. They were married in Cairo at the home of a wealthy follower amid great rejoicing.

It was shortly thereafter that Zevi declared himself to the world, entering his home city of Smyrna on horseback at the head of an entourage. The people lined the streets to acclaim him as their king, and whipped themselves into a frenzy of ecstatic prayer and self-mortification. At the same time, Nathan of Gaza sent letters to Jewish communities throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire bearing the news of Zevi's advent.

The Jews of Europe reacted in much the same way as those of Smyrna. In Amsterdam and the German cities, crowds of Jews danced in the streets with Torah scrolls, and thousands sold their homes and prepared to return to Jerusalem. Rich merchants, respected professional men and even rabbis hailed Zevi as the Messiah.

Some rabbis stood against the tide; in Jerusalem, a group of learned men went so far as to declare Zevi herem. In Smyrna, however, the authorities that had whipped him from the city 17 years before now rallied to his cause, including the respected commentator Chaim ben Israel Benvenisti. As it happened, Benvenisti, who became one of the leaders of Zevi's movement in Smyrna, was the brother of the rabbi who had excommunicated Baruch Spinoza in Constantinople two years before. That rabbi as well became a prominent supporter of Zevi, leading congregations in ecstatic worship and repentance in preparation for the redemption of Israel.

Spinoza, on the other hand, despised Zevi instantly. He had no patience for Zevi's charismatic messianism, nor for the way his followers abandoned reason and worshiped him with a reverence due only to God. Spinoza recognized that Zevi was not a true philosopher-prophet who drew his teachings from the ability to commune with God mind to mind [FN2]; instead, he was merely a charlatan who had managed to fool himself. In discussion groups and synagogues, Spinoza fulminated against the would-be messiah, and, although some of the onlookers at his lectures went over to Zevi, few of his followers did. In all Constantinople - indeed, in all the Jewish world - Spinoza's nascent congregation was one of the few islands of sanity.

The false messiah and the philosopher, although they never met, were nearly perfect foils, and Zevi's millennial prophecies drove Spinoza to new heights in his defense of reason. As Zevi's movement spread, he became a near-obsession for Spinoza, who took pen to paper and published a pamphlet called Against Zevi.

The first part of this pamphlet was devoted to proving that a human messiah did not, and could not, exist. Spinoza's arguments were twofold. First, he deduced that any being capable of freeing the world from injustice and immorality, and bring it to a state of perfection would have to have all the attributes of God. No messiah could exist without sharing God's nature and in essence being a second God - a possibility that Spinoza had rejected in the Ethics when he postulated that no two beings could share a single nature. Thus, only God Himself could redeem the world; no single human agent could combine all the attributes necessary to accomplish this.

Spinoza also argued that the messianic age as described in Jewish tradition was a logical impossibility, because it involved the reversion of part of the universe to a previously existing state without changing the remainder. He contended that, once a substance had been changed, it could not be restored to its prior state without undoing the entire chain of causes resulting from the change. For example, the resurrection of the dead - an essential aspect of the messianic age - could not be accomplished without reconstituting their physical bodies, which had returned to dust and spread among all the creatures of the world. Since the changes caused by death and burial had resulted in the substance of the dead being distributed among the living, these changes could not be reversed without stripping the living of their substance.

Through numerous other arguments, Spinoza attempted to prove that the promised Messiah must be something other than a human redeemer. Instead, he held out the possibility that the innate capability of faith, reason and morality that existed in every human being as part of the divine substance would eventually result in an age of perfect justice and peace. This age, in which not only Israel but all other peoples would be redeemed, would complete the unity of the human race with God.

Spinoza was astute enough to recognize, however, that such rational argument and long-term hope might not appeal to a population in the grip of religious frenzy. Thus, the second part of his pamphlet was devoted to showing that, even if the biblical prophecies of the Messiah were accepted as true, it was still possible to prove through logic that Zevi's claims were false. "Although I do not accept these axioms because I have disproven them," he wrote, "I will nevertheless argue from them as a further rebuttal to Zevi. By claiming to be the fulfillment of these prophecies, Zevi himself has set them as the standard of proof, and even according to them he is found wanting. By his own words is he disproven." One by one, he discussed each of the attributes of the Messiah and showed that Zevi had not and could not fulfill them, even devoting a chapter to debunking Zevi's claims of descent from King David.

Against Zevi was published in January 1666, and editions were sent to Jewish communities throughout the world. It is not known how many Jews in Europe and Turkey were persuaded by Spinoza's arguments - although, based on surviving letters detailing the controversy, the number was probably substantial - or how many were prevented from abandoning their possessions and making the pilgrimage to Palestine. It is even possible that the opposition of such a notorious apostate as Spinoza may have convinced some Dutch Jews to rally to Zevi's side. Certainly, some Sabbatean rabbis, both in Europe and the Ottoman Empire, argued that the very fact of Spinoza's opposition was proof that Zevi was who he said he was. These arguments, however, were rendered moot by Zevi's arrival in Constantinople in September 1666.

The purpose of Zevi's trip was nothing less than a coronation journey. Zevi, by then drunk with holy ecstasy and certain that he was indeed the redeemer of the Jews, announced that he would reveal himself to the Sultan, that the Sultan would renounce his throne, and that he would recognize Zevi as messiah and secular king of the world. In late August 1666, he embarked from Smyrna with an entourage of rabbis and followers, and many Jews of Constantinople - including Benvenisti - prepared to greet him with a triumphal procession.

To say the least, things did not go as planned. When Zevi's ship landed on September 16, a crowd of supporters bore him to the Topkapi Palace, but the Sultan was not waiting outside with crown in hand. Instead, soldiers arrested him and brought him before the monarch, who offered him the choice of conversion to Islam or instant death. As the crowds outside the palace anxiously awaited news of the meeting, Zevi chose Islam, and was granted the sinecure of keeper of the palace gates.

Zevi's apostasy wakened the Jewish community from its Sabbatean fever dream, and reaction set in quickly. The vast majority of his supporters were filled with remorse, and wondered how they could ever have supported such a man; before long, most would deny that they ever had. They destroyed the books and poems they had written in praise of the false messiah and did their best to return to the lives they had led before.

Some went further than that. In Constantinople, many Jews remembered that Spinoza had been one of the few to stand firm against Zevi. If he had been right where so many others were wrong, then might he not be right about other things? The crowds at his lectures, and those of his chief students, increased, and some who came liked what they heard.

One of these was Rabbi Joshua ben Israel Benvenisti. Consumed with remorse for his advocacy of Zevi's messianic claims, he became certain that the opposite of what he had believed then must be true, and embraced the man he had once excommunicated. On January 5, 1667, he publicly recanted his decree of herem against Spinoza and ordained the philosopher as a rabbi through laying on of hands. It is this date that is now regarded as the formal beginning of Spinozan Judaism, later known as Rational Judaism.

The other rabbis of Constantinople were not as quick to accept Spinoza as one of their own. Although their plans to try him before a rabbinical court had been laid aside during the Sabbatean crisis, they still regarded him as a threat, and many now regretted waiting so long to confront him. The Zevi controversy had raised his standing immensely, and the rabbinate feared that a move against him now might backfire.

After some discussion, the rabbis revived the idea of challenging Spinoza to a theological disputation. The Ottoman Chief Rabbi, Yomtov Hananya Benyakar, demurred out of concern that the community might see such a challenge as tantamount to recognition. The proponents of the idea, however, pointed out that it was a sound tactical maneuver. If Spinoza refused the challenge, then he would lose by default. If he accepted and was bested in open debate, then the falsity of his doctrines would be exposed for all to see. And if he forced a draw by defending his views too vehemently, then his answers could be used to lay the groundwork for excommunication.

In the end, it was decided that the challenge would be issued, and that the Constantinople rabbinate would summon Jacob Zemah - a prominent Jerusalem rabbi who was among the group that had banned Zevi - to represent them. Spinoza accepted the invitation, and the debate was scheduled for April 11, 1667.

[FN1] The cabalist Abraham Cuenqui, as quoted in Werner Keller, Diaspora, at 335.

[FN2] In OTL, this was apparently Spinoza's view of Jesus, although his portrayal of Jesus as the greatest of the prophets might have been at least partly political. In the ATL, he might end up applying this description to Mohammed, or he might simply retain this idea as an abstract ideal of rational prophecy.

Last modified: Fri Dec 6 12:28:10 GMT 2002