October 17, 2019

Examining Orthodoxy’s Historical Aberrations and Bygone Eccentrics

Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs: Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History

“I believe with a full heart in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry, I will still wait for him.”

Maimonides wrote those words eight centuries ago in one of his 13 affirmations of the Jewish faith, but the Messiah still tarries. Some Jews, however, were not willing to wait. That’s the starting point of “Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs: Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History” (The Toby Press) by Rabbi Pini Dunner, a descendant of a distinguished rabbinical family that originated in Germany, an expert on antiquarian Hebrew books, and the spiritual leader of Beverly Hills Synagogue.

Some of the episodes in Jewish history that Dunner describes will be familiar to many readers — such as Shabbetai Tsvi, the 17th century charismatic messianic pretender who attracted followers all over the Jewish world before the Sultan of Turkey threatened to put him to death unless he converted to Islam, and Shabbetai promptly chose apostasy over martyrdom. Other incidents and characters, like the bitter struggle by Rabbi Yaakov Emden against Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz in Hamburg in the mid-18th century, will be more surprising. Dunner illuminates all of these dark corners of Jewish history in rich, lively and yet scholarly detail.

The unlikely story of Emden and Eybeschutz’s battle within Orthodoxy is a good example. Emden accused Eybeschutz of having secretly practiced Sabbateanism by, for example, inserting the name of the false Messiah into amulets that he provided to pregnant Jewish women. Dunner shows how the controversy was deeply rooted in the events and personalities of a mystical sect within Judaism that persisted long after the apostasy and death of Shabbetai Tsvi, and he re-creates the very moment when Emden opened and inspected an amulet that had been written by Eybeschutz, which revealed what Emden insisted was a single, coded word that betrayed Eybeschutz’s real beliefs.

“This word is made up of an acrostic using a cryptic code known as ATBASH, where an aleph is a tav, a beit is a shin, a gimmel is a reish, and so on,” Emden is quoted as saying. “What this word actually says is ‘King Messiah Shabbetai Tzvi.’”

The two contending rabbis excommunicated each other and each other’s followers, thus sparking what each of them regarded as a “holy war.” Remarkably, the hostilities reached far beyond the Jewish community and ultimately attracted the attention of the King of Denmark, who enjoyed sovereignty over the city where Emden had taken up residence. The litigation that surrounded these two rabbis, Dickensian in scale and scope, is painstakingly described by Dunner, who declares their battle a draw.

“In the final analysis, was Rabbi Yaakov right? Was Rabbi Yonatan really a Sabbatian? And if he was a Sabbatian, did he actually pose a danger to normative Judaism?” Dunner muses. “Both Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz and Rabbi Yaakov Emden, despite the vicious maĥloket [differences of opinion] that so scarred the last years of their lives, are considered two of the most prominent rabbinic luminaries to have graced us with their presence and scholarship in the early modern era.”

When do the differences that have always existed among the Jewish people go beyond healthy diversity and enter the realm of pathology?

Among the other stories from “the margins of Jewish history” that attract Dunner’s attention are a dubious Jewish mystic named Samuel Falk, who came to be known as “the Baal Shem Tov of London” in the late 18th century; “the Get of Cleves,” a dispute over the legitimacy of a Jewish divorce in Germany in the mid-18th century; the unlikely saga of a British lord who secretly converted to Judaism during the reign of King George III; and a forged copy of a cherished Haggadah first composed in the 16th century that helps to explain the origins of the tradition of a fifth cup of wine at the Passover seder. 

Dunner confesses that he is “fascinated by historical aberrations and drawn to bygone eccentrics,” which explains why his book is so compelling and sometimes even shocking. But he does not celebrate these outliers. Rather, he regards their existence as a caution against the diversity in Jewish belief and practice that exists in the modern world. 

“The fact that Shabbetai Tzvi existed and created such chaos in the Jewish world prompted responsible leadership in the Jewish world — people who had seen him in action and witnessed the chaos he had generated as it unfolded — to put up the guardrails and prevent such a disaster from happening again in the future,” Dunner writes.

One of the dangers that Dunner warns against is the fact that charisma can have a dark and dysfunctional side, which explains why Shabbetai Tzvi held such a powerful appeal for his followers. “Sometimes he was enthusiastically joyful, exuberant, and ecstatic, while at other times he was depressed, anxious, paranoid, and passive,” Dunner explains. “Today we recognize these wild mood swings as symptoms of acute manic depression, or bipolar syndrome….”

Dunner signals how seriously he takes the notion of Judaism with guardrails when he compares the revered Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who served as the first president of Israel, with “the debonair Hungarian-born trickster [Ignaz] Trebitsch-Lincoln,” who in the early 20th century converted to Christianity from Judaism and yet played upon his Jewish origins to promote his ultimately abortive career in politics, finance and espionage in England, Germany and Hungary. Both of them were raised in Orthodoxy, he points out, and both of them abandoned their traditional religious upbringings. Dunner acknowledges the fundamental differences between these two Jews, but he also insists they have similarities that he sees among all Jews who stray from Orthodoxy and reinvent themselves.

“As it turned out, Weizmann leveraged this guise for the benefit of his co-religionists and devoted his life to furthering the cause of Zionism — unlike Trebitsch, who was a narcissist and a scoundrel and did nothing for anyone but himself,” Dunner writes. “Nonetheless, the pathology is remarkably similar.”

Dunner’s choice of words is telling, and here is where we find one of the unsettling questions that he raises: When do the differences that have always existed among the Jewish people go beyond healthy diversity and enter the realm of pathology?

I suspect that at least some of Dunner’s readers may reach a different conclusion than he does, but he must be credited with urging all of us to consider the question in the first place.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.