(Originally published January 24, 2014, on my www.davidhalperin.net website.)
We talked about William Blake, a little bit. We talked a little bit about Jacob Frank, the 18th-century Polish-Jewish cult leader who carried the faith of the long-dead and even longer-discredited Messiah Sabbatai Zevi into previously undreamed of territories of weirdness and erotic kinkiness.
We talked about a subject that a few weeks earlier I’d known nothing whatsoever about: the Moravian church of the 18th century, and the “sexualized spirituality” (as Craig Atwood calls it) that it advocated.
Mostly, though, we talked about Jonathan Eibeschuetz (1695-1764), the famed rabbi of Prague and later of Hamburg, whose enemies accused him of being a secret follower of Sabbatai Zevi, out to sabotage and overthrow everything that had been known as religion. And how those enemies were at least partly right.
The occasion was a session of the North Carolina Jewish Studies Seminar in Durham, NC, last November 24 . It was a Sunday evening. Outside it was bitter cold, or at least what in North Carolina passes for bitter cold. Even the seminar room wasn’t that well heated; I think you can get some sense of that from watching the video, posted in four segments to the bottom of this post. But once the discussion got going, I don’t think any of us noticed that.
I was one of the two speakers. The other was Pawel Maciejko, lecturer in the Department of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Pawel’s a fascinating guy. Born and raised in Warsaw, trained at Oxford, he published in 2011 an award-winning book called The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816, in which he explored as never before the amazing religious movement–first Jewish, then nominally Catholic–which Frank led.
Here’s what he had to say that November evening, about Frank and Eibeschuetz:
“I spent seven years working on Frankism, on Jacob Frank, and more or less after five years I could say that I understand Jacob Frank, that I knew who he was, what kind of person he was. … Now I’ve been working on Eibeschuetz … for ten years, intensively working on Eibeschuetz for the past four years, and the more I work on him the less I understand. … Knowing much more, I’m much more puzzled than I was at the beginning.”
I could grok that, as old Robert Heinlein used to say.
To me also, Eibeschuetz is a mystery. What does one make of a prominent rabbi–probably the leading scholar and preacher of Central Europe–who writes a book like Va-avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin, “I Came This Day to the Spring”? This is a book that expresses belief in a Messiah who converted to Islam, that sets forth a Kabbalistic system whose eroticism verges on pornography, in which a multiplicity of divine beings copulate in gay and heterosexual pairings, crawl periodically into one another’s wombs. That declares, in symbolic language, Christianity to have been superior to Judaism.
Pawel and I each submitted a paper on “I Came This Day to the Spring,” in advance of the seminar. You can read mine by clicking here. In my introductory remarks to our discussion, I referred to one of Pawel’s many insights concerning Eibeschuetz’s extraordinary book. “Pawel has pointed out … that the first people who read it didn’t exactly identify it as Sabbatian. They didn’t know what to make of it. It was a book like nobody had ever seen before.”
A few minutes after that–and you can watch this in the first of the video segments below–I expressed my own opinions:
“This book has seemed to me to have been intended as a charter of the world religion of the future, rooted in Kabbalistic Judaism but unlike any religion previously known, which would bring all humanity together into a freedom until then unimaginable. …
“Pawel believes, and I believe, that Christianity is pivotal to this text. What is yet more remarkable is that Christianity comes out as being superior to Judaism. With one hitch: that Christianity is so exalted, so sublime, that it cannot function as a practical religion for human beings, and within relatively recent history has reduced Europe to blood and ashes. …
“I tried to reconstruct some of the outlines of the new religion. One is universal brotherhood. A second is gender equality. A third is what we would call ‘marriage equality,’ that gay and straight sex are both legitimate forms of sexual expression, worthy of respect.
“And here I begin to wonder: am I importing into this text the liberal pieties of the early 21st century? You must judge that from the arguments in my paper … “
In the second of the video segments, Pawel speaks. In the third, our discussion begins, with Professor Yaakov Ariel of the University of North Carolina as moderator. And for the first time the word “Moravian” comes up.
By coincidence, or synchronicity if you prefer, I was at the time reading a mind-blowing book called William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision, by Marsha Keith Schuchard. It was Schuchard whose archival research–with Keri Davies, about 15 years ago–revealed for the first time that William Blake’s mother had belonged to a Moravian church in London. She shows in her book how much of the sexuality that saturates Blake’s art and poetry can be traced back to the radical, wildly creative theology of the mid-18th century Moravians. (Later on the Moravian church became a lot more buttoned-up, but that’s another story.)
It sounded a lot like the Kabbalah of “I Came This Day to the Spring.”
Eibeschuetz had spent his teen years in Moravia. In an earlier paper, Pawel had given evidence Eibeschuetz studied Moravian theological writings. I took a leap. Perhaps Eibeschuetz had learned at least some of his stuff from the Moravians? Perhaps he saw them as a persecuted minority like himself, “brothers under the skin, and would have been open to some sort of a synthesis with them”?
I was enormously excited by Yaakov’s response to this suggestion, which you can watch on the third segment of the video.
I was even more excited when, a couple of weeks after our session in Durham, I wrote to my former student Craig D. Atwood, now a professor at Moravian Theological Seminary and a leading authority on Moravian history, and learned from him how his research complements and extends that of Schuchard. He sent me a copy of his article on “Christ and the Bridal Bed,” in which he calls the Moravian theology of Blake’s time “a rare example of sexualized spirituality in Christianity.”
A parallel to Eibeschuetz’s Kabbalah? An influence on it? It’s not the way we normally think of the Moravians. Or of orthodox rabbis of the 18th century.
“The historian is a logician of contradictions,” says Duke professor Malachi Hacohen early in the fourth segment of the video. Our conversation had come around, as it needed to, to the contradictions within the human enigma that was Eibeschuetz.
How much consistency, Yaakov asked Pawel and me, can be expected of a human being?
“I think Eibeschuetz was an extraordinary man,” I replied. “In his containing contradictions within himself, I don’t think he’s unique. I think that’s part of the mystery of who we are. And I think that mysteries can be best explored in the most extreme presentations of them. And I think Eibeschuetz within himself was that extreme case of the contradiction.”
“Of course you can say that Eibeschuetz was sui generis. But everyone’s sui generis–you’re sui generis, I’m sui generis. … It’s a formula which is always true, and therefore it doesn’t explain much. It’s not only about contradictions. … My problem with Eibeschuetz is, that I cannot understand the kind of contradictions he is dealing with.”
It was an amazing evening. Even, in some ways, a thrilling one.
Did we solve the mystery of Jonathan Eibeschuetz? Of course not. Nor did we solve the greater mystery he exemplifies, of who we are as human beings. But mysteries of this sort are not to be solved. They’re to be contemplated, explored. And wondered at.
by David Halperin
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