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Studies in Sabbatian Kabbalah: On "Manic-Depression"

Yakov Leib haKohain

Time and again, the issue of Sabbatai Zevi's alleged "manic-depression" is raised by his modern critics and anyone else looking for a way to dismiss or minimize him. In what follows, I propose to discuss this problem. But first, by way of background, I think it appropriate to describe my credentials for doing so. To begin with, I took my doctorate in Jungian Psychology and Comparative Religion under my mentor, James Kirsch, M.D. -- at the time, the last surviving member of C.G. Jung's original inner circle and a founder, by Jung's personal mandate, of the first Jungian Center (Los Angeles) in the United States, where I did post-doctoral work for three years. I've also published several papers on religion and psychology, particularly Kabbalah, in several journals and anthologies. For example, my paper "For The Sake of God: An Answer to Jung" was published in the Library Journal of the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco; and I contributed the chapter, "Kabbalah and the (Jungian) Interpretation of Dreams" in the Jungian anthology, MODERN JEW IN SEARCH OF A SOUL, published by Falcon Press and still available, I believe, through

Having laid bare my "credentials," so to speak, in my characteristically immodest and self-serving manner, I'd like to discuss briefly the question of Sabbatai Zevi's so-called "mannic-depression." Ever since Gershom Scholem borrowed this phrase from modern clinical psychiatry it has been used repeatedly by scholars and historians to describe the cause of Sabbatai's "strange actions," as they were called at the time -- his swings between religious exaltation and inert despair -- and the antinomian behaviors attendant on them. As Scholem points out, "His [hostile] contemporaries speak of him as a madman, a lunatic or a fool, and even his followers admitted that his behavior, at least from puberty onward, provided ample reasons for these appelations." (SS: TMM p. 125)

To begin with, such seemingly bizzare behavior is rather typical of religious figures. According to the Gospels (John 10:20) Jesus's own contemporaries said, "He is possessed . . . raving," and his relatives worried over his sanity. There is a Sutra (I forget which at the moment) in which Buddha's followers discuss whether or not he is "insane." Sri Ramakrishna's family, according to THE GOSPEL OF RAMAKRISHNA, also worried for his sanity and came to fetch him home from the temple where he was dressing and living as a woman. Meher Baba went through a prolonged period of what contemporary psychiatrists would call "psychosis." And St. Paul complained, "I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me." (2 Corinthians 12:7)

The Prophet Jeremiah best describes such "manic-depressive" religious episodes, and the perceptions of them by others, when he exclaimed, "You have seduced me, Yawheh, and I have let myself be seduced; you have overpowered me: you were the stronger. I am a laughingstock, the butt of everybody's derisionn. Each time I speak the Word, I have to howl and proclaim: 'Violence! Ruin!'   . . . I used to say, 'I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name any more.' Then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. The effort to restrain it wearied me, I could not bear it . . . 'Denounce him! Let us denounce him! all those who used to be my friends [would say]." (Jeremiah 20:7-13)

Clearly, modern psychiatry would describe the Prophet Jeremiah (and others, such as Elijah) as "manic-depressive" or, at least, suffering from some form or another of "psychosis." The problem with the science of modern psychyiatry, however, is that it mistakes LABELING a particular behavior for an EXPLANATION of it. Describing Sabbatai Zevi's religious states as "manic-depression" tells us no more about them, or their causes, than calling them "uppsey-downies" or "innie-outies." All it does is provides us with a scientific "explanation" of a non-scientific event which sciences hesitates to explain in religious terms. Even the arguement that manic-depression is "caused" by an imbalance in brain chemistry (treatable by the use of the medication Lithium) is no explanation at all: is the biochemical imbalance a "cause" or a SYMPTOM of the seemingly erratic behavior? The fact that Lithium stabalizes the brain's biochemistry in "manic-depression" no more proves that the imbalance is a cause, rather than an effect, of the condition than aspirin treatment of a muscle-ache proves that it was "caused" by sore muscles.

I'm not arguing here against the use of medication in the treatment of psychological conditions. I'm simply arguing that finding a "cure" for something, or giving it a psychiatric label, does not explain its cause. For example, Victorian medical science would have described Sabbatai's condition as the "vapours," along with giving an elaborate explanation of their "causes" which modern psychiatry now lables as "pseudo-scientific." I submit that such labels are not really created to "explain" or "describe" religious phenomena, but to dismiss them. Yet today's "science" is tomorrow's "hokum" -- ad infinitum in proportion to the capacity of the human ego to expand.

Another explanation for Sabbatai's condition can be found in Jung's statement, "The indwelling of the Holy Ghost, the third Divine Person, in man, brings about a Christification of many." (Answer to Job, par. 758) Here, Jung uses religious rather than medical metaphors to "explain" the non-medical, transpersonal condition of "God possession," as complained about by Jeremiah and experienced by Jesus, Buddha, Sabbatai Zevi, Ramakrishna Meher Baba and other great Avatars and Tzaddikim. To attribute their religious ecstasies to an "imbalanced brain chemistry" is no more accurate or useful than attributing them to "the indwelling of the Holy Ghost." it's only more comforting to those who don't understand them.

From the Donmeh Mail list
Tue, 20 Apr 1999
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