- Messianism and Modernity:Jacob Frank and the Sexual Politics of Transgression in Jewish Eastern Europe
The mercurial messianic leader Jacob Frank (1726-1791) is probably the most colorful and intriguing figure in eighteenth-century Jewish history. He was born in Podolia, where his family, like many Jews in this notably heterodox province on the eastern borderlands of Poland, was associated with the heretical Sabbatian movement, which had first emerged in the 1660s around the self-proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676). In the early 1750s in Salonika, Frank established close contacts with a group of the Dönmeh, a clandestine Islamic sect made up of descendants of those disciples of Sabbatai who, following their leader's enigmatic conversion to Islam in 1666, later also outwardly adopted the Muslim faith. In 1755 he returned to Podolia, declaring himself Sabbatai's messianic heir. Following the discovery of his involvement in an antinomian, highly sexually transgressive ritual in a Podolian village in 1756, the local rabbinic authorities imposed a communal ban [herem] on him and those associated with his movement. After this, with much ceremony, Frank and approximately 3,000 others converted to Christianity and were at first warmly welcomed by the Polish Catholic Church. But Frank's charismatic messianism and his enduring grip on his followers soon gave rise to ecclesiastical anxieties, and a half-hearted attempt was made to isolate him in a monastery in Czestochowa, where he was secluded for thirteen years. On his release in 1773 he joined a group of prominent supporters in Brünn (Brno) in Moravia. After a quarrel [End Page 299] with Emperor Joseph II, the Frankists left the Habsburg territories in 1786. Many of them then settled in the German town of Offenbach, where after Frank's death his daughter Eva continued to lead the movement until her own death in 1816. Frankist communities, occupying an ambiguous cultural space between Judaism and Christianity, were a significant presence in both Warsaw and Prague in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and to some extent beyond that time.
This singular story has received plenty of attention, both from serious and not-so-serious historians. However, an up-to-date and rigorously scholarly study of the Frankist movement has long been lacking. This is now more than remedied by this excellent pair of books, both of which guide their readers through this highly complex, contested, and at times lurid and mysterious terrain with exemplary erudition and clarity. Maciejko pieces together the Frankist narrative with much greater subtlety and archival assiduousness than has any historian hitherto, and thoughtfully situates the movement within the wider context of late Enlightenment Europe. Rapoport-Albert's focus is both broader and more narrow. She traces the prominence of women, and the place of women's sexuality and agency, from the seventeenth-century beginnings of Sabbatianism to the death of Eva Frank, situating this no less thoughtfully within a wider interpretation of the status of women in Hasidism. The different perspectives of these two books are complementary rather than competitive, and together they raise the study of eighteenth-century Jewish messianism to an entirely new plane.
The theme that most strongly emerges from Maciejko's work is the extent to which the Frankist movement blurred and destabilized the boundary between Judaism and Christianity. In the 1750s, the leading German rabbi Jacob Emden was so horrified by the erotic antinomianism of the Frankist circle and other Sabbatians that he argued that the Christian authorities should be persuaded to burn them at the stake in response to the common threat this universal heresy posed to both legitimate religions (54-57). This strategy backfired catastrophically; in 1759, shortly before their mass conversion to Catholicism, leading Frankists approached the Polish ecclesiastical authorities offering to demonstrate, in a disputation with rabbis, that the Talmud did indeed endorse and require the Jewish ritual use of Christian...