Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Sabbatai Z'vi - An Improbable Messiah (ii)

The leaders of religious and other sects tend to be complex, and frequently unstable, personalities. They generally appear at times when there is some degree of social instability, and their appeal derives largely from their own strong convictions and sense of purpose. When such a charismatic personality inspires a new movement this will usually be characterised by unconforming, and escalating, behaviour. Whatever their original stimulus, movements of these kinds are likely to be characterised by a sense of heightened excitement and anticipation.

The usual course of events is that the charismatic leader acquires a group of followers who, surrendering their own will, accept his vision. Following this process of conversion, the followers enter a sort of contract and have an emotional investment in the new message. The greater this commitment, the less likely it is that the leaders claims will be subjected to criticism - and the greater the enthusiasm for the new leader the more he will be encouraged, and the less likely to modify his aims and convictions. In this way the leaders and the led conform to each other’s expectations, and along the way the boundaries between their collective fantasies and reality are very likely to become blurred.

Obviously movements of this kind, which derive their inspiration, and their meaning, from a particular inspired leader are entirely bound up with his destiny. The following account concerns just such a figure, one who launched an enormously popular movement of religious reform, but who also managed to reduce it to utter confusion and ultimate failure.


In the middle of the 17th century, in the obscure Greek backwater of Smyrna, a dreamy young man, well known in the local Jewish community as a fantasist and dabbler in the Kabbala, took it upon himself to pronounce the name of God in his local synagogue. This shocking act was, in effect, a proclamation of his own status as the Messiah, the long-awaited Redeeming Prophet. To say that his action was irreverent scarcely conveys the impact it must have made on an orthodox congregation. His claims were blasphemous beyond belief, but, even more amazingly, many of the worshippers immediately accepted his messianic status. As may be imagined, the news of this sensational event rapidly spread out from this synagogue into the wider Jewish community of Smyrna, where it created an absolute uproar of dissent and excitement. Thus began the incredible career of Sabbatai Z'vi, whose charismatic mission to unite and redeem his scattered people finally succeeded only in rending apart this least schismatic of all faiths.

Sects and heresies have frequently appeared as a response to a threat, or real injury, to the social fabric. This was certainly the case with Sabbatai, whose mission began shortly after the Jewish world had suffered one of its most appalling and sustained periods of persecution, namely the 17th century Cossack pogroms. This cataclysm, a forerunner of the Nazi holocaust, resulted in the near destruction of Polish Jewry. Over a dreadful three-year period some 300,000 innocent Jews were murdered in these outrages and many more sold into captivity. News of these terrible events reached every part of the Diaspora, and there were widespread efforts to raise the huge sums that were demanded as ransom for the captives by the Cossack insurgent Chmelnitsky. An intense anguish was felt throughout the Jewish world and this gave rise to a resurgence of religious feeling, which was often accompanied by hopes of messianic deliverance.

This sort of thing had happened before in Jewish history. There was a well-known prophetic tradition that the coming of the Messiah would be heralded by catastrophic events. The Medieval persecutions had produced any number of would-be messiahs who ranged from self-convinced, but obviously disturbed individuals, through to outright criminal impostors. It is not easy to place Sabbatai Z'vi on this spectrum. Later events were to reveal Sabbatai as something of a waverer (to say the least), but for much of the time he appears to have been sincerely convinced of his calling. There were, however, many occasions in his erratic career when he seems to have descended to common opportunism.

Sabbatai was a highly complex individual. There is little doubt that, at least in the earlier stages in his career, he had a strong charismatic appeal, and in common with all charismatics the intensity of his self-belief and commitment to his mission lent a great power of suggestion to his claims. He attracted a following from the very moment of his declaration of himself as the Chosen One, and this group remained his most loyal of supporters. Sabbatai's claims divided the community in Smyrna, but after a period of bitter confrontation the doubters, particularly the local Rabbis, gained the ascendancy and he was banned and expelled. By this time, however, his followers had attained that critical point of devotion at which the leader had become heroic, and they themselves the nucleus of a cult.

Ejected from their hometown, the newly-emerged Messiah and his supporters took to the road, travelling from one Jewish community to another. In the nervous mood of the times, Sabbatai gradually began to gather a small following. The movement might have remained small and without influence (and to have gradually petered out), were it not for an encounter with an individual who was to transform their cause. This was Nathan of Gaza who, it transpired, had great natural gifts as a publicist. In fact no sooner had Nathan been converted than he began to apply his undoubted talents to promoting Sabbatai's mission. His approach was bold. The campaign was opened with the despatch of thousands of Messianic proclamations to every corner of the Diaspora - Israel's redemption was imminent; the Messiah would soon, as prophesied, ride into Jerusalem on a lion; the restoration of the Jews to the Promised Land, and the Rule of God on Earth, would follow. All this would take place by 1666 – that is to say, within a few short years.

As a result of Nathan's energetic propaganda campaign, and against the background of the crisis that was affecting the Jewish world at this time, Sabbatai's claims were taken far more seriously than those of any previous aspirant. Quite soon a serious messianic bandwagon began to roll. Disciples were sent to every part of the Jewish world to confirm the news that the Messiah had indeed arrived and, such was the mood of the time, many Jewish communities were swept along by a positive fever of religious exultation. Many began selling their entire belongings in anticipation of the Call to Jerusalem. The wealthy began to distribute their goods, old quarrels were patched up and criminal activity ceased. Having sold all their belongings many of the more impetuous groups of believers set off to Palestine in advance of the Call for the Return. When these pilgrims arrived in the Holy Land there were extraordinary demonstrations of religious hysteria - of uncontrollable weeping, convulsive seizures, glossolalia etc. (behaviour that was strangely similar to that demonstrated by Christian pilgrims on arrival in the Holy Land in the year 1000, in anticipation of the appearance of their Messiah).

For these Jews messianic expectations were very high. After suffering the miseries of exile and persecution for a millennia and a half of, and with accounts of the recent atrocities in Poland fresh in their minds, their hopes for redemption had at last found a focus. In the meantime Sabbatai, as Messiah, had pronounced a whole range of radical religious innovations. In their totality these were so far-reaching that they amounted to the virtual abandonment of most traditional Jewish precepts - women were to be equal to men; all food taboos were to be abandoned; Jesus was to be regarded as the equal of the Old Testament prophets; feast days were to be joyous events; musical instruments were to be brought into synagogues - and so on. This new formulation was quite unprecedented, and was enthusiastically received and acted on by Sabbatai's followers. More conservative Rabbinim, who were shocked by these developments, tried in vain to stem the fervour of the new movement, but their task was hopeless, Sabbatei's millenarianism swept all before it.

Then, just when the movement that he himself had inspired was at its peak of excitement and anticipation, Sabbatai began to waver, seemingly afflicted by a crisis of confidence. For some deep psychological reason he was suddenly beset by doubts, and fell into a state of despondency and foreboding. He appeared to have completely lost direction, and responded weakly to all and any suggestions put forward by his closest advisors. Naturally this was all rather confusing for them, and Sabbatai's condition was kept from the mass of followers. As for the would-be Messiah himself, his mission now appeared pointless, his schemes delusory. In this dejected and indecisive state, and for the lack of any more compelling course of action, Sabbatai set off travelling again. This time he and his followers made their way, not towards the Holy Land, but in the opposite direction, to Istanbul, which was to prove a singularly unfortunate choice of destination.

Their arrival in the Ottoman capital (in 1666) immediately attracted the attention of the authorities, and Sabbatai was placed under arrest as a potential troublemaker. So it was that the new Messiah, instead of riding into Jerusalem on the back of a lion, found himself languishing in a squalid debtor’s prison in Istanbul. His presence in the city became widely known and generated a great deal of interest, not only from local Jews (many of whom had been converted to his cause), but also from Muslims and Christians. The Turkish authorities were somewhat bemused by the claims of their captives followers, and were divided in their opinions on how to deal with him. Some ministers, predictably, advocated instant execution, others were rather more circumspect, concerned that this action might provoke civil unrest.

While they were considering the matter Sabbatai's mental condition deteriorated still further. He became thoroughly disorientated, believing that he was living in a sumptuous castle; he had also resumed his messianic role. The Sultan, intrigued by the accounts that were reaching him of this religious curiosity, decided to intervene and examine Sabbatei in person. After a short cross-examination, in which he concluded that the 'Messiah' was simply mad, he proposed a simple test of Sabbatei's claims to be the Messiah. This was to take the form of a firing squad of six archers from his personal bodyguard. 'Surely this is a small matter for one who is the Messiah?', would not the arrows simply bounce off the Anointed One?

If he had persisted in his claims and suffered the consequences Sabbati would almost certainly have established a new religious order, or even an entirely new religion - but although he was more than half crazy, he was not martyr material. His response to the Sultan's suggestion was an immediate and complete capitulation. Not only did he renounce his claims to be the Messiah, he disavowed his Jewish faith and opted instead to embrace Islam! He donned the turban and adopted the Muslim name of Aziz Mehmed Effendi.

When news of Sabbatai's decision was relayed to the loyal followers of the movement of which he was the sole inspiration (and which by now had a considerable international momentum), the effect was, as can be imagined, fairly devastating. Since their leader remained in prison they had no access to his thoughts and no guidance to the meaning of his actions. The initial reaction to these developments was complete confusion. Some of his more immediate retinue chose to follow his example and converted to Islam. But other responses gradually appeared. Many were simply disillusioned and made their various ways home, and there were many more converts to the Islamic fold. The greater proportion, however, remained loyal but became desperate for a convincing justification of Sabbatai's actions in terms of his previous teachings. But the movement had been effectively decapitated. The inner-core members were as confused as everybody else, and were having to fend off the demands for explanation that were coming in from Sabbatai's followers from near and far, and to deal with all kinds of emerging rumours. Naturally, they were also inclined to defend their own position in this new religious movement. Nathan, who was still around, put forward the face-saving idea that Sabbatai, having saved the Jews, had now to disguise himself as a Moslem in order to save the Muslims - but this piece of spin-doctoring was not generally well received.

The response to the crisis that finally emerged was the classic explanation of failed Messiahood ... The 'propaganda-wing' (which had amply demonstrated its effectiveness) were soon denouncing the Turkish authorities for their perfidy, and declaring that the individual that was converted was a mere likeness of Sabbatai. The Messiah himself had in fact been taken to heaven where he would reside until the appropriate time for his reappearance. To support this construction of events they fabricated a whole slew of miracle-stories that were supported by forged verifications from known and well-respected Rabbis. These fictions were then distributed widely throughout the Diaspora to quell the disquieting rumours of their Messiah's defection.

Meanwhile, Sabbatai had recovered his senses to some extent and was now inclined to salvage some advantage from his somewhat reduced situation. He attempted to play a rather dubious double game. On the one side, to the Turkish authorities, he promised to secure the conversion of even more Jews to Islam. But to his erstwhile followers, and to the Jewish community at large, he vowed to use his influence on the Sultan to promote their interests throughout the Ottoman Empire. These game-playing attempts at statesmanship could not, however, conceal the fact that he had abandoned his redemptive mission. Sabbatai had, in any case, lost his charismatic appeal. Eventually, and inevitably, he became more of a nuisance than an asset to the Turks, who finally banished him to a remote fortress in Albania, where, years later, he died in obscurity.

His cult, however, persisted in various forms. Many of his original adherents denounced the 'new' Sabbatai as an impostor and waited in the Holy Land for the reappearance of the genuine Messiah. Others formed a dissembling sect within Islam, which conformed outwardly to Islamic norms (even to the extent of performing the pilgrimage to Mecca), and yet preserved a great deal of Jewish ritual in private. This latter group managed to survive well into the twentieth century.

Momentous though they were at the time for the Jewish world, the events surrounding Sabbatai's Messianism, when they are remembered at all, are now regarded as little more than an aberration, a mere blip in Jewish history. Sabbatai continues to be reviled by the Orthodox, for whom the episode only confirmed the dangers of innovation - and of course the false Messiah made little impact on the non-Jewish world, which in any case had its own pretenders. But the great irony in this whole affair is that this strange figure, clearly the victim of a serious bi-polar mental disorder, anticipated in his own erratic program two of the great Jewish movements of more recent times namely that of the liberalising Reform movement, and Zionism, the restoration of a Jewish homeland.