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From Sabbateanism to Hassidism

An extract from Prof. Harris Lenowitz's The Jewish Messiahs (Oxford University Press), available from, pages 200-1.

"There are two major schools of thought concerning the affiliation of Hasidism with Shabbateanism -- one holding that Hasidism, in revulsion, moved away from messianic fervor; the other viewing tzaddikism as one of a number of strong links between Hasidism and Shabbateanism. In my view, Hasidism lowered the tone, and scattered the messianic focus of Shabbateanism, and thereby made it legitimate. No longer was attention concentrated exclusively on a single figure, nor was the apocalyptic passion so inflamed. Hasidism localized Shabbateanism, affording each shtetl (Jewish village or quarter) a messiah of its own, the tzaddik. This localism was erected on the Shabbatean deemphasis of what had been the prime goal of messianism: the return of the Jews to the land of Israel and the reestablishment of the messianic movement there. The shtetle locale became the Jerusalem of the Hasidic following, the primary pilgrimage site; there, the faithful brought their offerings, heard prophecies, gazed upon, ate at the table with, and actually had audiences with, the rebbe or tzaddik.

"Hasidism was not that far removed from some forms of ShabbateanismFrankism, which was the movement most proximate in time and territory to the rise of Hasidism, replaced Jerusalem with Poland as ‘the place of the Ascent.' [YAKOV LEIB: I submit that the United States today replaces Poland -- and even Israel -- as the Messianic ‘place of Ascent.' But more about that in future posts.] Judaism had not seen such an bundance of messiahs as Shabbateanism produced since the messianic flare-up during the struggles against Rome, and Hasidism continued this plurality in its maintenance, ultimately, of dozens of tzaddikim. Shabbateanism itself may be seen as an extension of Luria's theology and of the practices that emerged from the overheated mystic groups and atmosphere of Safed. Both Shabbateanism and Hasidism continued to emphasize the miracle-working that was so characteristic of the conduct of Luria and Vital. Lurianic society also promoted multiple messiah candidates by positing world salvation through the intermediation of whoever was most spiritually qualified for it. The chain that joins Lurianism to Shabbateanism and then to Hasidism includes, in particular, a somewhat disreputable belief in various forms of metensomatosis: reincarnation, metempsychosis, polypsychism, soul-wandering. The Shabbatean candidates after Zvi were, for the most part, alleged reincarnations of his soul.  Zvi's third wife, Yocheved, was responsible for electing her brother, Yakov Querido (Filosof), as the new possessor of Zvi's soul. Furthermore, the dynasticism and internal political struggles in Hasidism find their roots in Shabbateanism, as does one of its common solutions to the (less disastrous in Hasidism than in more typical messianic cults) lack of a direct descendant -- turning to the family of the wife of the messiah for a messianic heir."

originally posted on Donmeh mail list
        Sun, 14 Mar 1999

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page uploaded 15 March 1999