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The Place of Jesus in Sabbatean Theology

Yakov Leib HaKohain

I have already discussed this sensitive topic in an essay I published a few years ago, titled "To Die for the People: A Jewish Interpretation of the Crucifixion of Christ," in the Catholic journal, THE PRIEST. Here, I want to look a little more closely at the role of Jesus in Sabbatian Messianism.


To begin with, there are two classes of attitudes toward Jesus among the Jewish people: these are "sociological" and "theological."  The First, by far the most commonly known and expressed, is the result of almost two thousand years of persecution by the Church and are, therefore, fundamentally  negative; the Second, less well known and less often discussed, is also less negative and more accommodating. It is this second class of attitudes toward Jesus among the Jews that I wish to discuss here before describing his role in Sabbatian theology.

To begin with the great Rabbi and Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote in his monumental work, Mishnah Torah,

"Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth . . . will only serve to prepare the way for the Messiah's coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the Gentiles to serve God together [with the Jews]." (Hilchot Melachim U'Milchamoteihem 11:4)
In modern times, a leading Hassidic rabbi confided,
"We [religious Jews] believe that Jesus was taken away from [us]. He was a great power, he could have been a great Tzaddik [Jewish Saint], but he was drawn to the other [Gentile] side of the fence."
(Quoted in Legends of the Hasidim by Jerome R. Mintz, University of Chicago Press.)

Moreover, the Talmud, in fact, acknowledges Jesus as a legitimate heir to the Throne of David -- which is to say, in the Messianic succession:

The fact is, that before Paul took the message of the Jewish Messiah to the Gentiles, Jesus's following consisted entirely of Jews. The "multitudes" who thronged to him, the thousands who followed him -- all were Jews. In fact the Jerusalem Church of Peter and James required that any Gentile should first convert to Judaism before he or she could become a "christian." It was Paul, through his Church of Antioch, who extended inclusion in the Community of Israel to the Gentiles without their prior conversion to Judaism, but simply by receiving baptism in Christ.

Thus, by the time of Sabbatai Zevi in 1665 feelings toward Jesus were decidedly mixed among Jewish theologians.  Prior to that there had been several rabbis who secretly approved of his teachings, and were excommunicated for their beliefs  when they were discovered.  (See the Midrash Rabba.)  So into that milieu came the Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi and, a century later, his spiritual successor Yakov Leib Frank. What did they teach about Jesus?


Nathan of Gaza, the prime framer of Sabbatian theology, wrote:

"[Sabbatai Zevi] will restore to holiness his qelippah, which is Jesus Christ." (Be'Iqvoth Mashiach)

What this means simply is that Jesus was believed to be the "shell" or "container" which surrounded the advent of Sabbatai Zevi who would restore Christ to his rightful place of holiness among the Jews. Concerning this, Gershom Scholem writes,

"One has to realize the significance -- for seventeenth century Jewish minds -- of the doctrine [espoused by Nathan of Gaza] of the eschatological restoration of Jesus to his people [the Jews] and to his ‘holy root' . . . Nathan's vision [of] Sabbatai redeeming the soul of Jesus . . . is an exact analogy, nay, anticipation of the later Hasidic legend [in which the Baal Shem Tov] attempted to save the soul of Sabbatai Zevi."
("Sabbatai Zevi: The Mystical Messiah, p. 286)

Yakov Leib Frank, Sabbatai's 18th century Messianic heir, saw himself even more clearly in a direct line of succession from Jesus. He states,

"In a dream I saw [Jesus Christ] sitting --  and around him were Catholic priests -- by a fountain of good pure water; and when I looked closely I saw that the fountain flowed out from there [where Jesus sat] and came to me."

And again,

"I will show you the Holy One, Blessed be He [Yahweh], for in me is Strength and Governance, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, has chosen me and they have revealed to me from heaven what to do."

Thus, both Sabbatai and Frank believed their mission was,  in part, to restore holiness to Jesus and return him to the Jewish people. This, of course, was at the foundation of the Great Tikkun they initiated to redeem the world and which we, in this Donmeh, have immodestly taken up.

Yakov Leib
The Sabbatean Movement
The Sabbatean Movement
and the Donmeh or Apostate Judaism

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page uploaded 21 November 1998