Conspiracy Theories Revisited – The Strange Case of Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz (Part 1)

(Originally published October 22, 2013 on my website.)

“By this time it is quite obvious that Shloimele was a secret disciple of Sabbatai Zevi.  For even though the False Messiah was long dead, secret cults of his followers remained in many lands.  They met at fairs and markets, recognized each other through secret signs and thus remained safe from the wrath of the other Jews who would excommunicate them.  Many rabbis, teachers, ritual slaughterers and other ostensibly respectable folk were included in this sect.  Some of them posed as miracle workers, wandering from town to town passing out amulets into which they had introduced not the sacred name of God but unclean names of dogs and evil spirits, Lilith and Asmodeus as well as the name of Sabbatai Zevi himself.  All this they managed with such cunning that only the members of the brotherhood could appreciate their handiwork.  … [E]ach of them in his own fashion paid homage to the forces of evil–and Shloimele was one of them.
— Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Destruction of Kreshev”

It’s a scary scenario.  Your neighbor, your rabbi, your husband or son-in-law might be secretly a servant of evil.  Devotee of a false Messiah who’d deceived the world and then abandoned his faith.

It’s the kind of nightmare fantasy that Jesse Walker, in his new book on conspiracy theories, classifies under the rubric of “The Enemy Within” or “The Devil Next Door.”  The kind of thing that the late Isaac Bashevis Singer’s exuberant, demon-swarming imagination might have been expected to come up with.

Jonathan Eibeschuetz (1690-1764), the "heretic rabbi" ...
Jonathan Eibeschuetz (1690-1764), the “heretic rabbi” …

But the backdrop of “The Destruction of Kreshev”–one of Singer’s most powerful stories–comes not from his imagination but from history.   The network of secret Sabbatian (= Sabbatai-an) cultists that he writes about really did exist.

Who knows?  If I’d lived in Poland around the year 1700, when Singer’s story is set, I might have been one of them.

To their enemies the Sabbatians seemed perverted servants of evil, much akin to the witches who not long before were being burned and hanged all over Europe.  In their own eyes they were pioneers of a new kind of faith, prophets of humanity’s future.

The background:

In 1666, the would-be Messiah Sabbatai Zevi had shocked his many thousands of followers by converting to Islam.  Most of those who’d believed in him–the vast majority of the Jews of his time–came to the natural conclusion, Well, we were wrong.  But many drew a different conclusion, not so natural but far more interesting.

If the Messiah betrayed and abandoned his faith, then that act, awful as it seems, has to be a messianic act.  The true meaning of religion, of life itself, can’t be what we always thought.  It’s something deeper and darker, something that dissolves boundaries between Jew and Gentile, permitted and forbidden, right and wrong.

The fences within which we’ve always constructed our lives–they’re now broken down.

We must live accordingly.

When Singer writes about “amulets,” into which these sectarians “had introduced … the name of Sabbatai Zevi himself,” he isn’t making that up.  He’s thinking of a scandal that rocked the Jewish world in the middle of the 18th century, that sucked the Jewish communities of eastern and central Europe–plus some distinguished outsiders, like the royal court of Denmark–into bitter controversy.  It remains controversial to this day.

The time: February 1751.  The place: the triple community of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek.  (Nowadays Altona and Wandsbek are part of the city of Hamburg, securely within Germany; in 1751 they were under Danish rule.)  Jonathan Eibeschuetz, then about 60 and at the zenith of his illustrious career as Europe’s leading rabbinic preacher and scholar, had just arrived to take up his new position as chief rabbi of the Triple Community.

... and Jacob Emden (1697-1776), the man who blew the whistle.
… and Jacob Emden (1697-1776), the man who blew the whistle.

There’d been a rash of deaths in the Triple Community, of women in childbirth.  How to keep such tragedies from recurring?  The new chief rabbi, who had a formidable reputation as a Kabbalist, distributed his hand-made amulets to pregnant women, to protect them from harm.

Then the scandal broke out.

Another rabbi in Altona, named Jacob Emden, went to the trouble of decoding the cryptic Kabbalistic phrases in the Eibeschuetz’s amulets.  In them, he found invocations of Sabbatai Zevi.  And he raised the hue and cry: the devil is among us!!!

Does this remind you of the contemporary brouhaha over “backward Satanic messages in rock ‘n roll” (about which Jesse Walker has recently blogged)?  It should.  The issue is basically the same.  The rock bands deny any devilish intent; so did Eibeschuetz.  He was able to point to a personal motive behind Emden’s attacks.  The two had been competitors for the job of rabbi in the Triple Community; Emden had lost out.  He was jealous, bitter.  And, I would add, a little bit crazy.

Which didn’t prevent him from being right.

Emden remembered, and others couldn’t help remembering too: this wasn’t the first time Jonathan Eibeschuetz had been linked to the secret Sabbatians.

26 years earlier, in 1725–when the young and brilliant Eibeschuetz was head of the Prague academy of higher Jewish learning–manuscript copies of a strange book had been found in the luggage of travelers from that city.  The book was called Va-avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin, “I Came This Day to the Spring.”  (The title is taken from Genesis 24:42.)  It contained heresies, its readers said, that would make your hair stand on end.  That not even the pagans of antiquity would have dared to utter.

Rumor had it that Eibeschuetz had written the book.  Eibeschuetz denied it.  On Yom Kippur of 1725, he took an oath before the opened Ark of the Torah in the synagogue that he had nothing to do with any kind of Sabbatian belief.  For good measure, he added his signature to a proclamation excommunicating all believers in Sabbatai Zevi.

Yet his enemies were almost certainly right.  Eibeschuetz was indeed the author of Va-avo ha-Yom el ha-Ayin–which I’m currently engaged in translating into English.

What does the book contain?  Invocations of the forces of evil?  Black magic?  Not at all.

As I read it, it’s a charter for the world religion of the future, rooted in Kabbalistic Judaism but unlike any religion ever known.  A religion that would draw all humanity together, into a freedom barely imaginable.

To be continued.

by David Halperin
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The gravestones of Jonathan Eibeschuetz (right) and his wife Elkele, in Altona (Hamburg).
The gravestones of Jonathan Eibeschuetz (right) and his wife Elkele, in Altona (Hamburg). From a site, apparently no longer active, called