Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century “false messiah,” remains one of the most enigmatic and seductive figures in the whole of Jewish tradition. He has had no better contemporary exegete than the great philologist and historian Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), a towering figure in in his own right. Scholem, who emigrated from Germany to pre-Israel Palestine in the early 1920’s and taught thereafter at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, more or less singlehandedly created the academic study of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), an area of Jewish religious thought and experience long overlooked or repressed by Jewish historians.
“The Holiness of Sin,” Scholem’s landmark essay on the later followers of Sabbatai Zevi and the implications of their catastrophic turn toward antinomianism, appeared in English for the first time in COMMENTARY in 1971. To mark the 25th anniversary of Scholem’s death in February 1982, we offer this monumental work of modern intellectual history, along with Robert Alter’s sensitive and incisive introduction to Scholem’s life and works, “The Achievement of Gershom Scholem.” Enjoy.