An excerpt from a book by Gershom Scholem on Sabbatai Zevi and his followers.
Since its original appearance in Hebrew in the mid-30’s under the title “Mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-Averah,” Gershom Scholem’s study of those Jews of the 18th and 19th centuries who clung to their belief in the Messiahship of Sabbatai Zevi even after his conversion to Islam, has been widely regarded as one of the classics of modern Jewish scholarship and one of the great works of the historical imagination in our time. What follows is the first translation of that essay into English, done by Hillel Halkin; the text has not been cut or altered in any way except for the elimination of certain footnote references.
No chapter in the history of the Jewish people during the last several hundred years has been as shrouded in mystery as that of the Sabbatian movement. On one point, at least, there is no longer any disagreement: the dramatic events and widespread religious revival that preceded the apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi in 1666 form an important and integral part of Jewish history and deserve to be studied objectively, to the exclusion of moralistic condemnations of the historical figures involved. It has come increasingly to be realized that a true understanding of the rise of Sabbatianism will never be possible as long as scholars continue to appraise it by inappropriate standards, whether these be the conventional beliefs of their own age or the values of traditional Judaism itself. Today indeed one rarely encounters the baseless assumptions of “charlatanry” and “imposture” which occupy so prominent a place in earlier historical literature on the subject. On the contrary: in these times of Jewish national rebirth it is only natural that the deep though ultimately tragic yearning for national redemption to which the initial stages of Sabbatianism gave expression should meet with greater comprehension than in the past.
In turning to consider the Sabbatian movement after Sabbatai Zevi’s conversion to Islam, however, we are faced with an entirely different situation. Here we find ourselves still standing before a blank wall, not only of misunderstanding, but often of an actual refusal to understand. Even in recent times there has been a definite tendency among scholars to minimize at all costs the significance of this “heretical” Sabbatianism, with the result that no adequate investigation yet exists of its spiritual foundations, its overall impact on 18th-century Jewry, or its ultimate fate. It is impossible, in fact, to read any of the studies that have been done in these areas without being astounded by the amount of invective directed against the leaders and adherents of the various Sabbatian sects. Typical of this approach is David Kahana’s A History of the Kabbalists, Sabbatians, and Hasidim (in Hebrew), but the angry moralizing that characterizes this volume has not been confined to any one historical school; rather, it has been shared by writers of widely differing points of view, secular as well as religious. The problem itself, meanwhile, remains as recondite as ever.
Two enormous difficulties, therefore, confront the student of the Sabbatian “heresies”: on the one hand, there are the obstacles posed by the sources themselves, and on the other, those created by the attitude generally taken toward them. To a great extent, moreover, these two sets of difficulties have always been related.
Why should this be so?
The Sabbatian movement in its various shadings and configurations persisted with remarkable obstinacy among certain sectors of the Jewish people for approximately one hundred and fifty years after Sabbatai Zevi’s conversion. In a number of countries it grew to be powerful, but for various reasons, internal as well as external, its affairs were deliberately hidden from the public eye. In particular, its spokesmen refrained from committing their beliefs to print, and the few books that they actually published concealed twice what they revealed. They did, however, produce a rich literature, which circulated only among groups of “believers” (ma’aminim) —the term by which Sabbatian sectarians generally chose to refer to themselves, down to the last of the Dönmeh in Salonika and the last Frankists in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As long as Sabbatianism remained a vital force within the Jewish ghetto, threatening to undermine the very existence of rabbinic Judaism, its opponents labored ceaselessly to root it out and systematically destroyed whatever of its writings came into their possession, “including [even] the sacred names of God [azkarot] which they contain,” as the bans upon them read. As a result many of their writings were lost without a trace, and had it been left solely up to the rabbinical authorities nothing would have come down to us at all except for certain tendentiously chosen fragments quoted in anti-Sabbatian polemics. In addition, although an extensive religious literature was still to be found in the hands of Frankists in Moravia and Bohemia at the beginning of the 19th century, the children and grandchildren of these “believers” in Prague and other Jewish centers themselves attempted to obliterate every shred of evidence bearing on their ancestors’ beliefs and practices. The well-known philosopher and historian of atheism Fritz Mauthner has preserved the following interesting story in his memoirs: in the declining days of the movement in Bohemia, Frankist “emissaries” came to his grandfather (and undoubtedly to other members of the sect as well) and requested that he surrender to them a picture of “the Lady” and “all kinds of writings” which he had in his possession. The emissaries took them and left. The incident took place sometime during the 1820’s or 1830’s. In spite of all this, at least two large manuscripts from these circles have survived.
One must therefore bear in mind in dealing with the history of Sabbatianism that powerful interests and emotions have often been at stake. Each for reasons of his own, all those who have written on the subject in the past shared one belief: the less importance attributed to the Sabbatian movement, the better.
Authors and historians of the Orthodox camp, for their part, have been anxious to belittle and even distort the overall role of Sabbatianism in order to safeguard the reputations, as they have conceived of them, of certain honored religious figures of the past. Such apologetics have had their inevitable effect upon the writing of history, as has the fundamental outlook of their proponents, tending as it does to idealize religious life in the ghetto at the expense of completely ignoring the deep inner conflicts and divisions to which not even the rabbis were necessarily immune. To acknowledge the Sabbatianism of eminent rabbis in Jerusalem, Adrianople, Constantinople, or Izmir, Prague, Hamburg, or Berlin, has been in the eyes of such authors openly to impeach the integrity of an entire body of men who were never supposed to be other than learned and virtuous defenders of Jewish tradition. Given such an attitude, it is hardly to be wondered at that one should instinctively avoid the kinds of inquiry that might lead to the discovery of heretical opinion, to say nothing of actual licentiousness, in the most unlikely places. One might cite endless examples of this kind of mentality in historical literature dealing with rabbinical and congregational life in the 18th century, and in at least one case, A. L. Frumkin’s A Historical Account of the Scholars of Jerusalem (in Hebrew), the author goes so far as to “acquit” some of the most dedicated Sabbatians of the “scandal” of heterodoxy!
Secularist historians, on the other hand, have been at pains to deemphasize the role of Sabbatianism for a different reason. Not only did most of the families once associated with the Sabbatian movement in Western and Central Europe continue to remain afterward within the Jewish fold, but many of their descendants, particularly in Austria, rose to positions of importance during the 19th century as prominent intellectuals, great financiers, and men of high political connections. Such persons, needless to say, could scarcely have been expected to approve of attempts to “expose” their “tainted” lineage, and in view of their stature in the Jewish community it is not surprising that their wishes should have carried weight. Furthermore, in an age when Jewish scholarship itself was considered to be in part an extension of the struggle for political emancipation, the climate for research in so sensitive an area was by no means generally favorable. In consequence, those Jewish scholars who had access to the wealth of Sabbatian documents and eyewitness reports that were still to be found early in the century failed to take advantage of the opportunity, while by the time a later generation arrived on the scene the sources had been destroyed and were no longer available even to anyone who might have desired to make use of them.
The survivors of the Frankists in Poland and of Dönmeh or “apostates” in Salonika formed yet a third group having a direct interest in disguising the historical facts. These two Sabbatian sects, both of which formally renounced the Jewish religion (the Dönmeh converting to Islam in 1683, the Frankists to Catholicism in 1759), continued to adhere to their secret identities long after their defection from their mother faith; the Dönmeh, in fact, did not disappear until the present generation, while in the case of the Frankists, whose history in the course of the 19th century is obscure, it is impossible to determine at exactly what point in time they were finally swallowed up by the rest of Polish society. There is reason to suspect that until the eve of World War I many original manuscripts and documents were preserved by both these groups, particularly by a number of Frankist families in Warsaw; but how much of this material may yet be uncovered, and how much has been purposely destroyed by its owners in order to conceal forever the secret of their descent, is in no way ascertainable.
Nevertheless, the total picture is not as dark as it may seem to have been painted: despite the many efforts at suppression, which supplemented, as it were, the inevitable “selective” process of time itself, a considerable amount of valuable material has been saved. Many of the accusations made against the “believers” by their opponents can now be weighed (and more often than not confirmed!) on the basis of a number of the “believers’” own books which were not allowed to perish. Little by little our knowledge has grown, and although many of the historical details we would like to know will undoubtedly never come to light at all, there is reason to hope that this important chapter in Jewish history will yet be fully written. In any event, it is clear that a correct understanding of the Sabbatian movement after the apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi will provide a new clue toward understanding the history of the Jews in the 18th century as a whole, and in particular, the beginnings of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement in a number of countries.
I do not propose in this essay to trace the outward history of Sabbatianism in its several manifestations over the century and a half in which it retained its vitality, nor (although I can hardly conceal my opinion that the entire movement was far more widespread than is generally conceded even today) do I mean to debate the question of whether this or that particular individual was or was not a Sabbatian himself. Suffice it to say that the sources in our possession, meager as they are, make it perfectly clear that the number of Sabbatian rabbis was far greater than has been commonly estimated, greater even than was believed by that anti-Sabbatian zealot Rabbi Jacob Emden, who has almost always been accused of exaggeration. In the present essay, however, I shall put such questions aside and limit myself to the area that has been the most sadly neglected in the entire field, namely, the origins and development of Sabbatian thought per se.
If one accepts what Heinrich Graetz and David Kahana have to say on the subject of Sabbatian theology, it is impossible to understand what its essential attraction ever was; indeed, if it is true, as both these writers claim, that the entire movement was a colossal hoax perpetrated by degenerates and frauds, one might well ask why a serious historian should bother to waste his time on it in the first place. And if this is the case with Sabbatianism in general, how much more so when one ventures to consider what is undoubtedly the most tragic episode in the entire drama, that of the Frankists, the psychological barriers to the understanding of which are incomparably greater. How, for instance, can one get around the historical fact that in the course of their public disputation with Jewish rabbis in Lvov in 1759 the members of this sect did not even shrink from resorting to the notorious blood libel, an accusation far more painful to Jewish sensitivities than any of their actual beliefs? A great deal has been written about this incident, particularly by the eminent historian Meir Balaban, in whose book, On the History of the Frankist Movement (in Hebrew), it is dealt with exhaustively. Balaban, who makes the Lvov libel a starting point for his overall inquiry, reaches the significant conclusion that there was no organic connection between it and the Frankist “articles of faith” presented at the disputation. The members of the sect, in fact, were reluctant to make the accusation at all, and did so only at the instigation of the Catholic clergy, which was interested in using them for purposes of its own, having nothing to do with their Sabbatian background. That they finally agreed to collaborate in the scheme can be explained by their desire to wreak vengeance on their rabbinical persecutors.
Thus, though the behavior of the Frankists at Lvov must certainly be judged harshly from both a universal-ethical and a Jewish-national point of view, it is important to keep in mind that the blood libels against the Jews (the indications are that there was more than one) do not in themselves tell us anything about the inner spiritual world of the sect, in all of whose literature (written one and two generations after the Lvov disputation) not a single allusion to such a belief is to be found. The truly astonishing thing is that although several important texts of Frankist teachings actually do exist, not a single serious attempt has so far been made to analyze their contents. The reason for this is simple. Graetz and A. Kraushar, two reputable scholars, one of whom wrote a full-length study of Jacob Frank and his Polish followers, were both of the opinion that there was no such thing as a Frankist “creed,” and that The Sayings of the Lord, which has come down to us in a Polish version alone, was incoherent nonsense. According to Kraushar, Frank’s sayings are “grotesque, comical, and incomprehensible,” while Graetz, whose attitude toward all forms of mysticism is well known, could hardly have been expected to show much insight into the religious motivations of the sect. Balaban, on the other hand, is mainly concerned with the outward history of the Frankists up to the time of their mass conversion, and his reconstruction of their theology is based solely on the positions publicly taken by them in their disputations with the rabbis. It is his reliance on these “articles of faith,” in fact, which were actually far from accurate reflections of the Frankists’ true beliefs, that leads him to conclude that after 1759 the history of the sect was “determined more by the personalities of Jacob Frank and his disciples than by any intrinsic religious relationship to Judaism.”
I myself cannot agree with Balaban on this point, and in the following pages I shall attempt to show, at least summarily, that Sabbatianism must be regarded not only as a single continuous development which retained its identity in the eyes of its adherents regardless of whether they themselves remained Jews or not, but also, paradoxical though it may seem, as a specifically Jewish phenomenon to the end. I shall endeavor to show that the nihilism of the Sabbatian and Frankist movements, with its doctrine—so profoundly shocking to the Jewish conception of things—that the violation of the Torah could become its true fulfillment (bittulah shel torah zehu kiyyumah), was a dialectical outgrowth of the belief in the Messiahship of Sabbatai Zevi, and that this nihilism, in turn, helped pave the way for the Haskalah and the Reform movement of the 19th century, once its original religious impulse was exhausted. Beyond this, I hope to make the reader see how within the spiritual world of the Sabbatian sects, within the very sanctum sanctorum of Kabbalistic mysticism, as it were, the crisis of faith which overtook the Jewish people as a whole upon its emergence from its medieval isolation was first anticipated, and how groups of Jews within the walls of the ghetto, while still outwardly adhering to the practices of their forefathers, had begun to embark on a radically new inner life of their own. Prior to the French Revolution the historical conditions were lacking which might have caused this upheaval to break forth in the form of an open struggle for social change, with the result that it turned further inward upon itself to act upon the hidden recesses of the Jewish psyche; but it would be mistaken to conclude from this that Sabbatianism did not permanently affect the outward course of Jewish history. The desire for total liberation which played so tragic a role in the development of Sabbatian nihilism was by no means a purely self-destructive force; on the contrary, beneath the surface of lawlessness, antinomianism, and catastrophic negation, powerful constructive impulses were at work, and these, I maintain, it is the duty of the historian to uncover.
Undeniably, the difficulties in the face of this are great, and it is not to be wondered at that Jewish historians until now have not had the inner freedom to attempt the task. In our own times we owe much to the experience of Zionism for enabling us to detect in Sabbatianism’s throes those gropings toward a healthier national existence which must have seemed like an undiluted nightmare to the peaceable Jewish bourgeois of the 19th century. Even today, however, the writing of Jewish history suffers unduly from the influence of 19th-century Jewish historiography. To be sure, as Jewish historians we have clearly advanced beyond the vantage point of our predecessors, having learned to insist, and rightly so, that Jewish history is a process that can only be understood when viewed from within; but in spite of all this, our progress in applying this truth to concrete historical situations, as opposed to general historiosophical theories, has been slow. Up to the present [1935—Ed.] only two men, Siegmund Hurwitz in his From Whither to Where (in Hebrew) and Zalman Rubashov (Shazar) in his essay “Upon the Ruins of Frankism” (in Hebrew), have shown any true appreciation of the complexities of Sabbatian psychology, and their work has by and large failed to attract the attention it deserves.
And now, one last introductory comment. In dismissing the need for objective research on the Sabbatian and Frankist movements, it has often been asserted that since the phenomena are essentially pathological, they belong more properly to the study of medicine than to the study of history. Indeed, an article on “Frank and His Sect in the Light of Psychiatry” (Bychowski, Ha-Tekufah, Vol. XIV) has actually been published, but it only succeeds in demonstrating how incapable such an approach is of dealing satisfactorily with the problem. From the standpoint of sexual pathology it can hardly be doubted that Frank himself was a diseased individual, just as there can be no question that at the center and among the ranks of the Sabbatian movement (as in all radical movements that spring from certain particular tensions, some of which are not so far removed from those of “ordinary” life) it would be possible to find cases of marked mental aberrance. But what is the significance of all this? We are not, after all, so much concerned with this or that prominent Sabbatian personality as with the question of why such people were able to attract the following that they did. The diagnosis of a neurologist would be of little value in determining why thousands of human beings were able to find a spiritual home in the labyrinth of Sabbatian theology. We must refuse to be deluded by such convenient tags as “hysteria” or “mass psychosis,” which only confuse the issue at the same time that they provide an excuse for avoiding it and comfortably reassure one of one’s own comparative “normality.” It is undoubtedly true that Jacob Frank was every bit the depraved and unscrupulous person he is supposed to have been, and yet the moment we seriously ponder his “teachings,” or attempt to understand why masses of men should have regarded him as their leader and prophet, this same individual becomes highly problematic. Even more than the psychology of the leader, however, it is the psychology of the led that demands to be understood, and in the case of Sabbatianism, a movement built entirely upon paradoxes, this question is crucial indeed. Whatever we may think of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank, the fact is: their followers, while they were certainly not “innocents”—if there was one thing lacking in the paradoxical religion of the Sabbatians, it was innocence!—were sincere in their faith, and it is the nature of this faith, which penetrated to the hidden depths and abysses of the human spirit, that we wish to understand.
As a mystical heterodoxy Sabbatianism assumed different and changing forms: it splintered into many sects, so that even from the polemical writings against it we learn that the “heretics” quarreled among themselves over practically everything. The word “practically,” however, must be stressed, for on one essential, the underlying ground of their “holy faith,” as they called it, the “believers” all agreed. Let us proceed then to examine this common ground of faith as it manifested itself both psychologically and dogmatically.
By all accounts, the messianic revival of 1665-66 spread to every sector of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora. Among the believers and penitents a new emotion, which was not restricted to the traditional expectation of a political deliverance of Israel alone, began to make itself felt. This is not to say that hope for a divine liberation from the bondage and degradation of exile was not an important element in the general contagion, but rather that various psychological reactions which accompanied it soon took on an independent existence of their own. Prior to Sabbatai Zevi’s apostasy, great masses of people were able to believe in perfect simplicity that a new era of history was being ushered in and that they themselves had already begun to inhabit a new and redeemed world. Such a belief could not but have a profound effect on those who held it: their innermost feelings, which assured them of the presence of a messianic reality, seemed entirely in harmony with the outward course of events, those climactic developments in a historico-political realm that Sabbatai Zevi was soon to overthrow by means of his miraculous journey to the Turkish sultan, whom he would depose from his throne and strip of all his powers.
In the generation preceding Sabbatai Zevi’s advent the rapid spread of the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his school had resulted in a grafting of the theories of the Kabbalists, the de facto theologians of the Jewish people in the 17th century, onto the traditional Jewish view of the role and personality of the Messiah. Mystical Lurianic speculations about the nature of the redemption and “the restored world” (olam ha-tikkun) which was to follow upon its heels added new contents and dimensions to the popular messianic folk-myth of a conquering national hero, raising it to the level of a supreme cosmic drama: the redemptive process was now no longer conceived of as simply a working-out of Israel’s temporal emancipation from the yoke of the Gentiles, but rather as a fundamental transformation of the entire Creation, affecting material and spiritual worlds alike and leading to a rectification of the primordial catastrophe of the “breaking of the vessels” (shevirat ha-kelim), in the course of which the divine worlds would be returned to their original unity and perfection. By stressing the spiritual side of the redemption far more than its outward aspect, the Kabbalists of the Lurianic school, though by no means overlooking the latter, gradually converted it into a symbol of purely spiritual processes and ends. As long as the messianic expectancies they encouraged were not put to the test in the actual crucible of history, the dangers inherent in this shift of emphasis went unnoticed, for the Kabbalists themselves never once imagined that a conflict might arise between the symbol and the reality it was intended to represent. To be sure, Lurianic Kabbalah had openly educated its followers to prepare themselves more for an inner than for an outer renewal; but inasmuch as it was commonly assumed that the one could not take place without the other, the procedure seemed in no way questionable. On the contrary: the spread of Lurianic teachings, so it was thought, was in itself bound to hasten the coming of the historical Redeemer.
The appearance of Sabbatai Zevi and the growth of popular faith in his mission caused this inner sense of freedom, of “a world made pure again,” to become an immediate reality for thousands. This did not of course mean that Sabbatai Zevi himself was no longer expected to fulfill the various messianic tasks assigned him by Jewish tradition, but in the meantime an irreversible change had taken place in the souls of the faithful. Who could deny that the Shekhinah, the earthly presence of God, had risen from the dust?
“Heretical” Sabbatianism was born at the moment of Sabbatai Zevi’s totally unexpected conversion, when for the first time a contradiction appeared between the two levels of the drama of redemption, that of the subjective experience of the individual on the one hand, and that of the objective historical facts on the other. The conflict was no less intense than unforeseen. One had to choose: either one heard the voice of God in the decree of history, or else one heard it in the newly revealed reality within. “Heretical” Sabbatianism was the result of the refusal of large sections of the Jewish people to submit to the sentence of history by admitting that their own personal experience had been false and untrustworthy.
Thus, the various attempts to construct a Sabbatian theology were all motivated by a similar purpose, namely, to rationalize the abyss that had suddenly opened between the objective order of things and that inward certainty which it could no longer serve to symbolize, and to render the tension between the two more endurable for those who continued to live with it. The sense of contradiction from which Sabbatianism sprung became a lasting characteristic of the movement: following upon the initial paradox of an apostate Messiah, paradox engendered paradox. Above all, the “believers,” those who remained loyal to their inward experience, were compelled to find an answer to the simple question: what could be the value of a historical reality that had proved to be so bitterly disappointing, and how might it be related to the hopes it had betrayed?
The essence of the Sabbatian’s conviction, in other words, can be summarized in a sentence: it is inconceivable that all of God’s people should inwardly err, and so, if their vital experience is contradicted in the facts, it is the facts which stand in need of explanation. In the words of a Sabbatian “moderate” writing thirty years after Sabbatai Zevi’s apostasy: “The Holy One, blessed be He, does not ensnare even the animals of the righteous, much less the righteous themselves, to say nothing of so terribly deceiving an entire people. . . . And how is it possible that all of Israel be deceived unless this be part of some great divine plan?” This line of argument, which was adopted by many persons from the very beginning of the Sabbatian movement, is known to have impressed even the movement’s opponents, who were equally disinclined to find fault with the entire Jewish people and sought instead some other explanation for what had happened.
During the century and a half of its existence Sabbatianism was embraced by those Jewish circles which desired to prolong the novel sensation of living in a “restored world” by developing attitudes and institutions that seemed commensurate with a new divine order. Inasmuch as this deliberately maintained state of consciousness was directly opposed to the outlook of ghetto Jewry as a whole, of which the “believers” themselves formed a part, the latter of necessity tended to become innovators and rebels, particularly the radicals among them. Herein lay the psychological basis of that spirit of revolt which so infuriated the champions of Orthodoxy, who, though they may at first have had no inkling of the lengths to which it would be ultimately carried, rightly suspected it from the outset of striving to subvert the authority of rabbinic Judaism. Herein, too, lay the basis of all future efforts to construct a Sabbatian theology, to the consideration of which we must now turn our attention.
In the history of religion we frequently encounter types of individuals known as “pneumatics” (pneumatikoi) or “spiritualists” (spirituales) . Such persons, who played a major role in the development of Sabbatianism, were known in Jewish tradition as “spiritual” or “extra-spirited” men or, in the language of the Zohar, as “masters of a holy soul.” These terms did not refer to just anyone who may have had occasion in the course of his life to be “moved by the spirit”; rather, they applied only to those few who abode in the “palace of the king” (hekhal ha-melekh), that is, who lived in continual communion with a spiritual realm through whose gates they had passed, whether by actually dwelling within it to the point of abandoning their previous existence, or by appropriating from it a “spark” or “holy soul,” as only the elect were privileged to do. One so favored was in certain respects no longer considered to be subject to the laws of everyday reality, having realized within himself the hidden world of divine light. Naturally, spiritualistic types of this sort have always regarded themselves as forming a group apart, and hence the special sense of their own “superiority” by which they are characterized: from their lofty perspective the world of material affairs tends to look lowly indeed. Here, then, we have all the prerequisites for the sectarian disposition, for the sect serves the illuminati as both a rallying point for their own kind and a refuge from the incomprehension of the carnal and unenlightened masses. The sectarians regard themselves as the vanguard of a new world, but they do not therefore need to renounce the parent religion which inspired them, for they can always reinterpret it in the light of the supreme reality to which they owe their newly discovered allegiance.
For a number of reasons, which cannot be gone into here, such spiritualists were rarely allowed to develop within the Jewish community after the period of the Second Temple. In part this was a consequence of Christianity, to which many of them ultimately passed; but even when they continued to exist within Judaism itself, it was always as isolated and unorganized individuals. It is a well-known fact, for instance, that spiritualism particularly abounds in the domain of religious mysticism; and yet, as the history of Kabbalism amply demonstrates, despite the opposition between conventional religion and the ecstasy, at times even abandon, of the pneumatic, medieval Judaism was capable of absorbing the latter into its orbit. Such was not the case, however, with either Christianity or Islam: here the conflict broke out openly and fiercely on numerous occasions, and the spiritualist sects which it produced went on to play important roles in the development of new social and religious institutions, often giving birth, albeit in religious guise, to the most revolutionary ideas. To take but one example, historical research during the last several decades has clearly shown the direct connection between Christian sectarianism in Europe and the growth of the Enlightenment and the ideal of toleration in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The existence of similar forces in Jewish history, on the other hand, has been all but neglected by the historians, an oversight facilitated by the fact that Jewish spiritualism has either long been outwardly dormant or else, as in the case of Kabbalism, has always preferred to work invisibly and unsystematically beneath the surface. Indeed, as long as Jewish historiography was dominated by a spirit of assimilation, no one so much as suspected that positivism and religious reform were the progeny not only of the rational mind, but of an entirely different sort of psychology as well, that of the Kabbalah and the Sabbatian crisis—in other words, of that very “lawless heresy” which was so soundly excoriated in their name!
In the Sabbatian movement, which was the first clear manifestation (one might better say explosion) of spiritualistic sectarianism in Judaism since the days of the Second Temple, the type of the radical spiritualist found its perfect expression. To be sure, illuminati of the same class were later prevalent in Hasidism too, particularly during the golden age of the movement; but Hasidism, rather than allow itself to be taken over by such types, forced them after a period of initial equivocation to curb their unruly spirituality, and did so with such success that it was able to overcome the most difficult and hazardous challenge of all, that of safely incorporating them into its own collective body. Unlike Sabbatianism, whose followers were determined to carry their doctrine to its ultimate conclusion, it was the genius of Hasidism that it knew where to set itself limits. But the Sabbatians pressed on to the end, into the abyss of the mythical “gates of impurity” (sha’are tum’ah), where the pure spiritual awareness of a world made new became a pitfall fraught with peril for the moral life.
Here, then, were all the materials necessary to cause a true conflagration in the heart of Jewry. A new type of Jew had appeared for whom the world of exile and Diaspora Judaism was partly or wholly abolished and who uncompromisingly believed that a “restored world,” whose laws and practices he was commanded to obey, was in the process of coming into being. The great historical disappointment experienced by the Sabbatian had instilled in him the paradoxical conviction that he and his like were privy to a secret whose time had not yet come to be generally revealed, and it was this certainty which, in Hebrew literature of the period, imparted a special meaning to his use of the terms “believer” and “holy faith,” the peculiar shadings of which immediately inform us that we are dealing with a Sabbatian document even when there is not the slightest allusion there in to Sabbatai Zevi himself: by virtue of his “holy faith” in the mysterious realignment of the divine worlds and in the special relationship to them of the Creator during the transitional period of cosmic restitution (tikkun), the “believer,” he who trusted in the mission of Sabbatai Zevi, was exalted above all other men. Hidden in the “believer’s” soul was a precious jewel, the pearl of messianic freedom, which shone forth from its chamber of chambers to pierce the opaqueness of evil and materiality; he who possessed it was a free man by power of his own personal experience, and to this inner sense of freedom, whether gotten during the mass revival that preceded Sabbatai Zevi’s apostasy, or afterward, in the ranks of “holy faith,” he would continue to cling no matter how much he knew it to be contradicted by the outward facts.
All Sabbatian doctrine had as its aim the resolution of this contradition. The conflict was bitterly clear. Those who were disillusioned by Sabbatai Zevi’s apostasy were able to claim that nothing had really changed: the world was the same as ever, the exile was no different than before; therefore the Torah was the same Torah and the familiar Kabbalistic teachings about the nature of the Godhead and the divine worlds remained in force. A great opportunity had perhaps existed, but it had been missed: henceforth the one recourse was a return to Israel’s traditional faith in its God. The “believers,” on the other hand, could say, in paraphrase of Job, “our eyes have beheld and not another’s”: the redemption had begun indeed, only its ways were mysterious and its outward aspect was still incomplete. Externals might seem the same, but inwardly all was in the process of renewal. Both the Torah and the exile had been fundamentally altered, as had the nature of the Godhead, but for the time being all these transformations bore “inward faces” alone.
The Sabbatian movement soon developed all the psychological characteristics of a spiritual sect, and before long many of its followers proceeded to organize themselves along such lines. The persecutions against them on the part of various rabbinical and congregational authorities, their own special feeling of apartness and the need to preserve their secret, and the novel practices which their beliefs eventually compelled them to pursue, were all factors in bringing this about. I do not propose to dwell at length on the history of any of these groups, but I do wish to emphasize briefly at this point that large numbers of Jews, especially among the Sephardim, continued to remain faithful to Sabbatai Zevi after his conversion. Even such opponents of Sabbatianism as Jacob Sasportas, who claimed that the followers of the movement were now an “insubstantial minority,” was forced to admit on other occasions that the minority in question was considerable indeed, particularly in Morocco, Palestine, Egypt, and most of Turkey and the Balkans. Most of the Sabbatian groups in these areas maintained constant contact with each other and kept up a running battle over the correct interpretation of their “holy faith.” From these regions came the first theoreticians of the movement, men such as Nathan of Gaza, Samuel Primo, Abraham Miguel Cardozo, and Nehemiah Hayon as well as the believers in “voluntary Marranism,” who went on to form the sect of the Dönmeh in Salonika. In Italy the number of Sabbatians was smaller, though it included some of the country’s most important Kabbalists; within a generation after its appearance there, Sabbatianism had dwindled into the concern of a few rabbis and scholars (chief among them Rabbi Benjamin Cohen of Reggio and Rabbi Abraham Rovigo of Modena), in whose hands it remained for a century without ever penetrating into wider circles.
In Northern Europe Sabbatianism was also restricted at first to small groups of adherents, devotees of such “prophets” as Heshel Zoref of Vilna and Mordecai of Eisenstadt in Hungary, but after 1700, following the commencement of a “Palestinian period” during which organized Sabbatian emigrations to the Holy Land took place from several countries, the movement spread rapidly through Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Lithuania it failed to take root, but in Podolia and Moravia it became so entrenched that it was soon able to claim the allegiance of many ordinary Jewish burghers and small businessmen (according to Jacob Emden, the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in the verse in Psalms 14, “There is none that doeth good, not even one,” was equivalent to the numerical value of the letters in the Hebrew word for Moravial). In Prague and Mannheim Sabbatian-oriented centers of learning came into being. The influence of the “graduates” of these institutions was great; one of them, in fact, was the author of the heretical treatise Va-Avo ha-Yom El ha-Ayin (“And I Came This Day unto the Fountain”) which provoked so much furor at the time of the controversy surrounding Jonathan Eibeschütz (1751) and led to a polemical “battle of the books” which has enabled us to trace the identities of many Sabbatians of whom otherwise we would have known nothing at all. In the middle of the 18th century many of the Sabbatians in Podolia converted to Christianity after the example of their leader Jacob Frank, but still others remained within the Jewish fold. Finally, a Sabbatian stronghold sprang up again in Prague, where Frankism was propagated in a Jewish form. After 1815, however, the movement fell apart and its members were absorbed into secular Jewish society, like the Frankist ancestors of Louis Brandeis.
It is now time to turn our attention to the actual content of the spiritualism of these Sabbatian groups, for although the details of their theosophical teachings cannot be understood by anyone not already familiar with the intricacies of Kabbalistic speculation in both the Zohar and the writings of the Lurianic school, other vital questions which concerned them, as well as their doctrine of the Godhead in its more general form, can be rendered intelligible even to those who are not fully versed in the esoteric side of Jewish mystical thought.
The question which first confronted the “believers” after the apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi, and one to which they never ceased returning, was of the following order: since by all external tokens the redemption had already been at hand, and since the Messiah, the authenticity of whose mission was beyond doubt, had actually revealed himself to his people, why had he forsaken them and his religion, and why had the historical and political deliverance from bondage which was to have naturally accompanied the cosmic process of tikkun been delayed? To this a paradoxically compelling answer was quickly offered: the apostasy of the Messiah was itself a religious mystery of the most crucial importance! No less an authority than Maimonides himself, it was argued, had stated that the actual details of the redemptive process were not to be known in advance; and although the truth of the matter was that everything that had happened was fully alluded to in the Holy Scriptures, these allusions themselves could not be correctly understood until the events they foretold had come to pass. All might be found to have been predicted in the relevant prophecies and legends which Nathan of Gaza, and even more so Abraham. Cardozo, now proceeded to expound in the form of a new doctrine to which Sabbatai Zevi himself apparently subscribed.
As long as the last divine sparks (nitzotzot) of holiness and good which fell at the time of Adam’s primordial sin into the impure realm of the kelipot (the hylic forces of evil whose hold in the world is particularly strong among the Gentiles) have not been gathered back again to their source—so the explanation ran—the process of redemption is incomplete. It is therefore left to the Redeemer, the holiest of men, to accomplish what not even the most righteous souls in the past have been able to do: to descend through the gates of impurity into the realm of the kelipot and to rescue the divine sparks still imprisoned there. As soon as this task is performed the Kingdom of Evil will collapse of itself, for its existence is made possible only by the divine sparks in its midst. The Messiah is constrained to commit “strange acts” (ma’asim zarim; a concept hereafter to occupy a central place in Sabbatian theology), of which his apostasy is the most startling; all of these, however, are necessary for the fulfillment of his mission. In the formulation of Cardozo: “It is ordained that the King Messiah don the garments of a Marrano and so go unrecognized by his fellow Jews. In a word, it is ordained that he become a Marrano like me.”
Before proceeding to take a closer look at this bold and heretical doctrine, one might well dwell for a moment on Cardozo’s own words, which provide in my opinion an invaluable clue to the motivation behind it, as they do in fact to nearly every other feature of the Sabbatian movement as well. Underlying the novelty of Sabbatian thought more than anything else was the deeply paradoxical religious sensibility of the Marranos and their descendants, who constituted a large portion of Sephardic Jewry. Had it not been for the unique psychology of these re-converts to Judaism, the new theology would never have found the fertile ground to flourish in that it did. Regardless of what the actual backgrounds of its first disseminators may have been, the Sabbatian doctrine of the Messiah was perfectly tailored to the needs of the Marranic mentality. Indeed, we know for a fact that Abraham Cardozo, one of the movement’s most successful proselytizers, was of definite Marrano origin—he was born in Spain in 1627—a particular which goes far to explain the remarkable zeal and sincerity with which he defended the new doctrine. Historians in our own day have pointed out at length the degree of contradiction, of duplicity and duality, which was involved in the religious consciousness of the Marranos. For these undercover Jews “to don the garments of a Marrano” was by no means an unjustifiable act; in its defense they were fond of citing the story of Queen Esther, as well as various other biblical fragments and verses. Formal apostasy had never been considered by them to represent an irreconcilable break with their mother faith. And now along came a religious metaphysic which exalted just such a form of life to the highest possible level by attributing it to the person of the Redeemer himself! Certainly all kinds of implications, which we shall deal with later on, were contained in this original idea. Let us examine it more closely.
To begin with, the new doctrine could no longer be harmonized with the traditional messianic folk-myth held to by the Jewish masses unless room could be found in the latter for such a “contradiction in terms” as the apostasy of the Redeemer. At first it was no doubt believed that the Messiah’s descent into the realm of the kelipot was but an incidental aspect of his mission, “as happened to King David [when he sojourned] with Achish King of Gath,” but it soon came to be realized that such an extraordinary event must occupy the center of any messianic schema, which if necessary would have to be rebuilt around it: if the Messiah’s task indeed contained a tragic element, as was now being proposed, support for this belief would have to be found in the sources and attitudes of Jewish tradition. What now took place in Sabbatianism was similar to what happened in Christianity at the time of the apostles, the chief difference being the shifting of the tragic moment in the Messiah’s destiny from his crucifixion to his apostasy, a change which rendered the paradox in question even more severe. And to this novel conception another was soon added, one which indeed had a basis in aggadic literature, but whose hidden implications had gone unnoticed as long as no pressing reality had existed to force its application outside of the domain of pure theory and imagination; this was the notion that the King Messiah was to give “a new Torah” and that the commandments of the Law (mitzvot) were to be abrogated in messianic times. Speculations of this nature could be found in various Midrashim and Aggadot, but possessed no particular authority and were easily challenged by means of other exegetical passages to the opposite effect, with the consequence that, in Jewish tradition, the entire question had hitherto been allowed to remain in abeyance. Even those visionaries who dreamt through the ages of a new Word of God in a redeemed world did not, in fact, particularly connect this idea with the activities of the Messiah himself, and it was not until it was seized upon by the new “Marranic” doctrine that its latent explosive power was revealed.
The doctrine of the necessary apostasy of the Messiah did not originate in the realm of literature, but was rather rooted in new religious feelings that had come to exist. It was only after the initial manifestation of these that the effort to justify them on the basis of authoritative sources began, and with truly remarkable results, for practically overnight a new religious language was born. From bits and pieces of Scripture, from scattered paradoxes and sayings in the writings of the Kabbalah, from all the remotest corners of Jewish religious literature, an unprecedented theology of Judaism was brought into being. The cynicism of most Jewish historians toward these “inanities” does not reveal any great understanding of what actually took place. Suddenly we find ourselves confronted by an original Jewish terminology, far removed from that of Christianity, yet equally determined to express the contradictions inherent in the life of the Redeemer and in redemption itself. Striking as it did a hidden wellspring of deep religious emotion, one can hardly deny that this gospel must have possessed a powerful attraction, nor that it often managed to inject new meanings into familiar phrases and figures of speech with a fascinating profundity. Such a dialectical eruption of new forces in the midst of old concepts is rare indeed. Because Graetz and other historians insisted on regarding its articulation as being nothing more than a pretext for a monstrous debauchment of moral and spiritual values, they completely overlooked its true significance. To be sure, the doctrine of an apostate Messiah did serve as a pretext too, but it was also a great deal more; and had it not appealed (and by virtue of its very paradoxically!) to vital components in the spiritual makeup of the Jew, and above all to his sense of spiritual mission, it would never have succeeded in attracting a following in the first place. This missionary ideology reached a peak in the writings of the Lurianic Kabbalah, which strove to inculcate in every Jew a sense of duty to “elevate the sparks” and so help bring about the ultimate tikkun of the Creation.
Here the 53rd chapter of Isaiah played a key role, for as it was now reinterpreted the verse, “But he was wounded because of our transgressions” was taken to be an allusion not only to the Messiah ben Joseph, the legendary forerunner of the Redeemer who according to tradition was to suffer death at the hands of the Gentiles, but to the Messiah ben David as well, who “would be forcibly prevented from observing the Torah.” By a play on words, the Hebrew ve-hu meholal, “but he was wounded,” was interpreted as meaning “from sacred he [the Messiah] will be made profane [hol].” Thus,
all Gentiles are referred to as profane [hol] and kelipah, and whereas Israel alone is called sacred, all the other nations are profane. And even though a Jew commit a transgression, as long as he remains a Jew among Jews he is called sacred and an Israelite, for as the rabbis have said, “Even though he has sinned, he is still an Israelite.” It follows that there is no way for the King Messiah to be made profane except he be removed from the Community of Israel into another domain.
Many similar homilies were written on the rest of the chapter, especially on the verse, “And he made his grave with the wicked.” Yet another favorite verse was Deuteronomy 33:7 (“And this for Judah, and he said: Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah, and bring him unto his people”), which was assumed to allude to the Davidic Messiah of the House of Judah, whose destiny it was to be taken from his people (hence Moses’s prayer that God bring him back to them). Endless biblical verses were cited to prove that the Messiah was fated to be condemned as an outcast and criminal by his own people. Clothed in Messianic radiance, all the typical arguments of the Marranos were applied to Sabbatai Zevi:
And similar to this [the apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi] is what happened to Esther, who was the cause of great salvation to Israel; for although most of the people, being ignorant, most certainly despised her for having given herself to an idol-worshiper and a Gentile in clear violation of the bidding of the Torah, the sages of old, who knew the secret [of her action], did not regard her as a sinner, for it is said of her in the Talmud: “Esther was the ground of the entire world.”
In the same vein, the familiar aggadic saying that “the last Redeemer will be as the first” was taken to mean that just as Moses lived for many years at the court of Pharaoh, so the Messiah must live with “the Turk,” for as the exile draws to a close the Messiah himself must be exiled to atone for Israel’s sins.
Next came the turn of the Zohar, and here too, with the help of major or minor distortions, a world of new symbols was made to emerge, such as the figure of “the king who is good within but clothed in evil garments.” In vain it was argued against this interpretation that the passage does not refer in this context to a king at all, much less to the Messiah; the image, so expressive in its obscurity, penetrated deep into the Sabbatian consciousness where it remained for generations to come. Two other writers whose works were mined in this fashion were Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague and Rabbi Joseph Taitatsak of Salonika, one of the emigrés from Spain in 1492: the former was found to have cryptically predicted that the Messiah would be bound to the world of Islam, while the latter was supposed to have stated, “when the rabbis said that the Son of David would not come until the kingdom was entirely given over to unbelief [Sanhedrin 97a], they were thinking of the Kingdom of Heaven, for the Shekhinah is destined to don the garments of Ishmael.” In a word, the attempt to justify the belief that the fall and apostasy of the Messiah were necessary actions was carried out assiduously and successfully and led to the composition of many homilies, treatises, and books, some of which have not yet been recovered from their resting places. Endless vindications and defenses of the new doctrine were brought from practically every corner of Jewish literature. At first the tendency was to assert that although the Messiah’s conversion had been forced upon him, it was qualitatively to be considered as a deliberate act; gradually, however, this motif disappeared, and the emphasis came to be placed squarely on the paradox that the Messiah should convert of his own free will. The descent into the kelipot was, indeed had to be, a voluntary one.
It was at this point that a radically new content was bestowed upon the old rabbinic concept of mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-averah, literally, “a commandment which is fulfilled by means of a transgression.” Once it could be claimed that the Messiah’s apostasy was in no way a transgression, but was rather a fulfillment of the commandment of God, “for it is known throughout Israel that the prophets can do and command things which are not in accord with the Torah and its laws,” the entire question of the continued validity of the Law had reached a critical stage. We know that even before his apostasy Sabbatai Zevi violated several of the commandments by eating the fat of animals and administering it to others, directing that the paschal sacrifice be performed outside of the Land of Israel, and cancelling the fast days. His followers soon began to seek explanations for these acts, and here began a division which was to lead eventually to an open split in the movement.
The new doctrine of the necessary apostasy of the Messiah was accepted by all the “believers.” In fact, it proved to be symbolically richer than was at first assumed, for it expertly expressed the contradiction between the outward reality of history and the inward reality of the “believers’” lives. It was now no longer to be wondered at that the outward deliverance had been delayed, for this could be explained by the mystic principle of “good within but clothed in evil garments.” In turn, however, other questions arose which the doctrine of necessary apostasy was in itself insufficient to answer.
First of all, it was asked, what was the nature of the Messiah’s act? Was it intended to be an exemplar for others? Were all Jews enjoined to follow suit? Or was it essentially inimitable and to be looked upon as a theoretical model only?
Second, what was the nature of the transitional period during which the Messiah was in the clutches of the kelipot? Could it properly be called the redemption or not? Since it was agreed by all that the Shekhinah had “risen from the dust,” where was the Shekhinah now? Did it still make sense to speak of her “exile” and to mourn for her? What exactly was the relationship of inwardness to outwardness in the present age?
Third, what was the status of the Torah during this period? Had a new aspect of it been revealed? How was the principle of mitzvah ha-ba’ah baaverah to be understood? Could it not be argued that the change which had taken place in the relationship of the divine worlds necessitated a corresponding change in the performance of the commandments, the purpose of which had been to restore the harmony of the old, unredeemed cosmos that had been shattered by the primordial sin? Was not the Lurianic Kabbalah in its traditional form now outdated?
These were the principal dilemmas which were to shape the development of Sabbatianism in the course of the following hundred years, and in several countries to transform it from a messianic movement into a nihilistic movement operating within a religious framework. And just as these questions were themselves mutually related, so the nihilism which resulted from them was to be characterized by its internal unity and consistency.
Here, then, it is necessary to distinguish between two opposing Sabbatian factions which emerged from the clashes of opinion surrounding these disputed points, as well as from differing interpretations of the theosophical “mystery of the Godhead” (sod ha-elohut) revealed by Sabbatai Zevi to his disciples: a moderate and rather piously inclined wing of the movement on the one hand, and a radical, antinomian, and nihilistic wing on the other. (Both of these factions, in turn, contained many subdivisions, but here we are concerned only with the more general features of each.) In the case of some Sabbatians, who have left us no completely candid record of their feelings, it is difficult to determine to which of these two camps they belonged.1 As might naturally be expected, in face of the persecutions against them the “believers” were not often in a position to expound their beliefs undisguisedly, and certainly not to permit them to appear in print. This was particularly true of the nihilists, who had good and compelling reasons for concealing their doctrines.
Moderate Sabbatianism, which we shall consider first, was a view shared by many rabbis and was represented by men like Nathan of Gaza, Abraham Cardozo, and Abraham Rovigo. Of these three, Cardozo and Rovigo are the more valuable sources, especially the former, a large number of whose many treatises have survived thanks to the refusal of his disciples in London, Turkey, and Morocco to burn them in compliance with the injunctions of the rabbinical courts.
According to the “moderates,” the apostasy of the Messiah was not intended to serve as an example for others. To be sure, Sabbatai Zevi had done what was necessary, but to attempt to follow in his footsteps was to belie the significance of his act, which was performed in behalf of everybody. In the words of Isaiah 53: “The Lord hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all.” Strictly speaking, “all were [originally] under the obligation to convert,” but God in His mercy permitted the apostasy of the Messiah to atone for the sins of His people. Besides being strange and scandalous in its nature, Sabbatai Zevi’s conversion was in a class by itself and was not an object of imitation. The Jew was expected to remain a Jew. True, a new world-era had undoubtedly been ushered in, the spiritual worlds had undergone tikkun, and their structure was now permanently altered; nonetheless, as long as the redemption did not manifest itself outwardly in the realm of objective events in history, as long as the external bondage continued and the phenomenal world remained unchanged, no aspect or commandment of the Torah was to be openly tampered with except for the small number of innovations, such as the cancellation of the fast of Tish’ah be-Av (the day of the destruction of the Temple), which had been proclaimed by the Messiah and his prophets as symbolic tokens of the redemption’s commencement. Even on this point, however, there was disagreement, for several Sabbatians, including Abraham Rovigo himself, decided to reinstate the fast after a period of hesitation lasting a number of years during which they had disregarded it—not because they had “gone back” on their beliefs, but because of the questionable nature of the practice itself, as witnessed by the fact that Rovigo’s disciple, Mordecai Ashkenazi, had been bidden by a maggid or “spiritual intelligence” to desist from it. On the whole, it was the view of the “moderates” that during the transitional period under way the kelipot still retained a good deal of their power, which could only be eliminated by continued performance of the mitzvot: the “façade” of rabbinic Judaism must be allowed to remain temporarily standing, although great changes had already taken place within the edifice. One unmistakable testimony to this inner transformation was the abandonment by many of the “moderates” of the mystical meditations (kavvanot) of Isaac Luria. The first to discontinue their use was Nathan of Gaza, whose reasons for doing so were as follows:
The kavvanot of the Lurianic Kabbalists were inward actions of thought designed to relate the performance of given commandments or prayers to specific stages in the dynamic chain of the divine worlds and thereby to reintegrate the latter by helping to restore them to the places they had occupied before their catastrophic fall. Thus, each kavvanah was a spiritual act demonstrating that the outward undertaking which occasioned it harmonized invisibly with the overall structure of the cosmos. Now, however, with the advent of the Messiah, this structure had changed. The sense of inner freedom possessed by the “believers” was not a subjective illusion, but was caused by a real reorganization of the worlds illuminating the soul, as a result of which the Lurianic kavvanot had become obsolete. This in turn led to a revaluation of the entire Lurianic Kabbalah, and on occasion both Nathan of Gaza and Abraham Cardozo went so far as to direct veiled criticisms at Isaac Luria himself. Nathan, for example, writes: “In the present age it is no longer in order to read the tikkunim composed by Rabbi Isaac Luria of blessed memory and his disciples, nor to meditate according to their kavvanot, for the times have changed. The kavvanot of Rabbi Isaac Luria were meant for his own age, which was [like] an ordinary day of the week, whereas now it is the eve of the Sabbath, and it is not proper to treat the Sabbath as though it were a weekday.” Elsewhere he writes: “My meaning is that the kavvanot discovered by our teacher Rabbi Isaac Luria, may his saintly and righteous memory be blessed, are no longer appropriate to our own time, because the raising up [of the divine worlds] has entered a new phase, so that it would be like employing kavvanot intended for a weekday on the Sabbath. Therefore, let everyone beware of using them, and likewise let none of the kavvanot or homilies or writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria be read henceforward, for they are abstruse and no living man has understood them except Rabbi Hayyim Vital, who was a disciple of the master [Isaac Luria] for several years, at the end of which he surpassed him in knowledge.”
In a similar vein: “It is no longer in order to perform the midnight vigil, that is, to weep and mourn for the exile of the Shekhinah, for she has already begun to rise from the earth, so that whoever mourns for her is a blunderer and attracts the company of that guilty [demon] Lilith, since it is she now who weeps and wails.” Many other passages like these could be cited. As a matter of course Cardozo hastened to compose a new series of updated kavvanot, but these were never to prove popular with his fellow Sabbatians, who either gave up the practice of mystical meditations entirely, or else, like many of the Hasidim who came after them, took to composing their own as they individually saw fit.
It was generally held by all the Sabbatians that now, on the “eve of the Sabbath,” the mystery of the Godhead that had eluded the rabbis, philosophers, and Kabbalists throughout the ages was finally to be revealed. This was not to say that the secret had not been hinted at by the last of the Gnostics living in the Tannaitic period, who cryptically concealed it in the pages of the Zohar and in several Aggadot, particularly those known as the aggadot shel dofi, or “offensive Aggadot,” which had served as milestones for the contemplation of the mystics and as obscure hints at the mysteries during the dark night of exile. But the true meaning of these had been overlooked; nor could it be fully comprehended until the End of Days. On the other hand, although the “mystery of the Godhead” was yet to be revealed in its entirety, a part of it had now been made known. Here again a rejection of Lurianism and the substitution of a new Sabbatian Kabbalah in its place were involved. The first written exposition of the new system, which was to be subject to a great many different inferences and interpretations, was the small tract Raza de-Mehemanuta (“The Secret of the Faith”) which was orally dictated by Sabbatai Zevi to a disciple after his apostasy. Its effect was to prefix yet another stage to the theogonic speculations of the Kabbalists, for it treated (and quite remarkably) of the mysterious inner life of the Godhead before its tzimtzum or primordial contraction, whereas Lurianic Kabbalah had dealt only with the counter-expansion of the deity once the tzimtzum had taken place.
We have already seen in connection with their doctrine of the apostate Messiah that the Sabbatians were not in the least bit chary of paradoxes, and indeed, their theological reflections on the true nature of “the Faith” and its history in Israel reveal a dialectical daring that cannot but be respected. Here we are given our deepest glimpse yet into the souls of these revolutionaries who regarded themselves as loyal Jews while at the same time completely overturning the traditional religious categories of Judaism. I am not of course speaking of a feeling of “loyalty” to the Jewish religion as it was defined by rabbinical authority. For many, if not for most Sabbatians, the Judaism of the rabbis, which they identified with the Judaism of the exile, had come to assume an entirely dubious character. Even when they continued to live within its jurisdiction it was not out of any sense of positive commitment; no doubt it had been suited to its time, but in the light of the soul-shaking truth of the redemption that time had passed. Taking into account all that has been said here, it is hardly surprising that this attitude should have existed. What is surprising, however, indeed astoundingly so, is the nature of the spiritual world that the Sabbatians should have stumbled upon in the course of their search through the Bible for “the mystery of the Godhead” which exilic Judaism had allowed to perish, for here we are confronted with nothing less than the totally unexpected revival of the religious beliefs of the ancient Gnostics, albeit in a transvalued form.
The Gnostics, who were the contemporaries of the Jewish Tannaim of the 2nd century, believed that it was necessary to distinguish between a good but hidden God who alone was worthy of being worshiped by the elect, and a Demiurge or creator of the physical universe, whom they identified with the “just” God of the Old Testament. In effect they did not so much reject the Jewish Scriptures, whose account of events they conceded to be at least partly true, as they denied the superiority of the Jewish God, for whom they reserved the most pejorative terms. Salvation was brought to mankind by messengers sent by the hidden God to rescue the soul from the cruel law or “justice” of the Demiurge, whose dominion over the evil material world, as testified to by the Bible, was but an indication of his lowly status. The hidden God Himself was unknown, but He had entrusted Jesus and the gnostic faithful with the task of overthrowing the “God of the Jews.” As for the claim of both Jews and orthodox Christians that the God of Israel who created the world and the transcendent God of goodness were one and the same, this was a great falsehood which stood in the way of true gnosis. This kind of “metaphysical anti-Semitism,” as is well known, did not vanish from history with the disappearance of the gnostic sects, but continued to reassert itself within the Catholic Church and its heretical offshoots throughout the Middle Ages.
“The mystery of the Godhead” which Sabbatianism now “discovered,” and which it believed to be identical with “the mystery of the God of Israel” and “the faith of Father Abraham,” was founded entirely on a new formulation of this ancient gnostic paradox. In the version made current by Cardozo it was expounded as follows:
All nations and philosophers have been led by irrefutable laws of the intellect to acknowledge the existence of a First Cause responsible for setting all else in motion. Given the fact, therefore, that anyone capable of logical reasoning can demonstrate to his own satisfaction that such a Cause exists, what need is there for it to be specially revealed to mankind? What possible religious difference can such a revelation make when we are no less the wiser without it? The answer is, none at all. The First Cause, which was worshiped by Pharaoh and Nimrod and the wise men of India alike, is not the concern of religion at all, for it has nothing to do with the affairs of this world or its creation and exerts no influence on it for good or for bad. The purpose of a divine revelation must be to make something known which cannot be grasped by the intellect on its own, something which has specifically religious value and content. And indeed, this is precisely the case with the Jewish Torah, which does not dwell at all on that Hidden Principle whose existence can be adequately proven by the intellect, but speaks only of the God of Israel, Elohei Yisrael, who is the creator of the world and the first emanation to proceed from the First Cause. This God, in turn, has two aspects, or “countenances” (partzufim), one male and one female, the latter being known as the Shekhinah; He alone it is who creates and reveals Himself and redeems, and to Him alone are prayer and worship to be rendered. It is this paradox of a God of religion who is distinct from the First Cause that is the essence of true Judaism, that “faith of our fathers” which is concealed in the books of the Bible and in the dark sayings of Aggadot and the Kabbalah. In the course of the confusion and demoralization brought on by the exile this mystery (of which even Christianity was nothing but a distorted expression) was forgotten and the Jewish People was mistakenly led to identify the impersonal First Cause with the personal God of the Bible, a spiritual disaster for which Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, and the other philosophers will yet be held accountable. It was thus that the words of the prophet Hosea, “For the Children of Israel shall sit solitary many days without a king” (3:4), came to be fulfilled. At the exile’s end, however, Israel’s God will reveal Himself once more, and this secret is a source of precious comfort to the “believers.”
Here we have a typically gnostic scheme, only inverted: the good God is no longer the dens absconditus, who has now become the deity of the philosophers for whom there is no room in religion proper, but rather the God of Israel who created the world and presented it with His Torah. What daring labyrinths of the spirit are revealed in this new creed! What yearnings for a regeneration of faith and what disdainful negation of the exile! Like true spiritual revolutionaries, with an unfeigned enthusiasm which even today cannot fail to impress the reader of Cardozo’s books, the “believers” unflinchingly proclaimed their belief that all during the exile the Jewish people had worshiped a powerless divinity and had clung to a way of life that was fundamentally in need of reform. When one considers how wildly extravagant all this may appear even now, it is easy enough to appreciate the wrath and indignation with which such a theology was greeted by the Orthodox camp in its own day. Determined to avoid a full-scale revolution within the heart of Jewry, the rabbinical traditionalists and their supporters did all they could to drive the “believers” beyond the pale. And yet in spite of all this, one can hardly deny that a great deal that is authentically Jewish was embodied in these paradoxical individuals too, in their desire to start afresh and in their realization of the fact that negating the exile meant negating its religious and institutional forms as well and returning to the original fountainheads of the Jewish faith. This last practice—a tendency to rely in matters of belief upon the Bible and the Aggadah—grew to be particularly strong among the nihilists in the movement. Here, too, faith in paradox reigned supreme: the stranger the Aggadah, the more offensive to reason and common sense, the more likely it was to be seized upon as a symbol of that “mystery of faith” which naturally tended to conceal itself in the most frightful and fanciful tales.
I have alluded to the fierce discussions that broke out among the Sabbatians over the issue of how “the mystery of the Godhead” was to be interpreted. Several of the elucidations of the doctrine that are known to us differ substantially from the version given by Cardozo, who devoted his very best speculative powers to the question. All of these treatises employ the terminology of the Zohar and the Lurianic Kabbalah, but proceed to attribute to them meanings that are entirely their own. Among the speculations on the subject that have come down to us in detail are those of Nehemiah Hayon, Samuel Primo, and Jonathan Eibeschütz. Despite their division of the Godhead into three hypostases (partzufim)—the First Cause or “Holy Ancient One” (atika kadisha), the God of Israel or “Holy King” (malka kadisha), and the Shekhinah— all of these writers sought to uphold the essential dynamic unity of the divinity. The central problems as they saw them—problems, be it said, which did not exist for non-Sabbatian Kabbalah at all—were first of all to determine the nature of the relationship, the “three knots of faith” as they called it, between the First Cause, the God of Israel, and the Shekhinah, and secondly to establish the exact content of the new revelation concerning the essence of the God of Israel. Characteristic of the approach of these Sabbatian “moderates” was their stubborn refusal to leave any room in their gnostic theories for a doctrine of divine incarnation. Indeed, the literature of “moderate” Sabbatianism is in general filled with violent denunciations of Christianity and of the Christian dogma of the Trinity.
According to several of the “moderates,” “the mystery of the Godhead” had not yet been fully revealed: during the original messianic revival period of 1665-66, they argued, there had been an initial revelation which it was permitted to make known freely, but now, during the period of transition, eclipse, and uncertainty, the situation was no longer the same. The Shekhinah had indeed “begun to rise,” but “she has still not returned to her place entirely, for had she returned we would no longer be in exile.” These words were written by Abraham Rovigo more than thirty years after Sabbatai Zevi’s apostasy, of the mystic meaning of which he had absolutely no doubt, and they illustrate in a nutshell the psychology of “moderate” Sabbatianism while at the same time solving the riddle of how so many rabbis who were confirmed “believers” nevertheless managed to remain in their rabbinical posts. The redemption had truly begun, but it was a gradual process: “[It proceeds] step by step. In the End the Holy One, blessed be He, will raise her from the dust.” This was not to say that the Shekhinah had not already begun to rise of her own accord, but “as long as He does not lift her up Himself it is said that she is still in exile.” It goes without saying that those who subscribed to this view were obliged to keep up all the traditional practices of exilic, i.e., historic, Judaism. Even the midnight vigil for the Shekhinah was ultimately reintroduced.
In a word, at the same time that it was completely transforming the historic inner world of Judaism in its own unique manner, “moderate” Sabbatianism continued to adhere to traditional Jewish observance not for the sake of mere camouflage, but as a matter of principle. The inward crisis which every “moderate” underwent was permitted little or no outward expression, and inasmuch as such an objectification of his feelings was barred by either the exigencies of the situation or the compunctions of his own religious consciousness, he was forced to retreat even further into himself. But although the new sense of inner freedom bore purely inner consequences, we can nevertheless rely on the judgment of those anti-Sabbatian polemicists who saw perfectly clearly that the inward devastation of old values was no less dangerous or far-reaching than its outward manifestation. Whoever reads such a volume as Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschütz’s The Book of the Eternal Name, a treatise on “the mystery of the Godhead” composed in the traditional style of Talmudic dialectics, will readily see what abysses had opened up in the very heart of Judaism. From these were to come the deluge: pure founts of salvation and spiritual rebirth to the one camp, gross waters of corruption and shameless sacrilege to the other.
We have seen how the principal feature of “moderate” Sabbatian doctrine was the belief that the apostasy of the Messiah was sui generis. The Messiah must go his lonely way into the kingdom of impurity and “the other side” (sitra ahra) and dwell there in the realm of a “strange god” whom he would yet refuse to worship. The enormous tension between the subjective and the objective which had developed in the ranks of his followers had so far found a legitimate expression in this one act alone. Whereas Sabbatai Zevi had actually done strange and objectionable things in the name of the holy, the celebration of this paradox among the “believers” was restricted to the domain of faith. “Moderate” Sabbatianism drew a circle around the concept of “strange holiness” and forbade itself to enter: it was indeed the Messiah’s fate to scandalize Israel by his deeds, but it was decidedly his fate alone.
Once drawn, however, the line was clearly difficult to maintain. The more ardent “believer” found himself becoming increasingly restive. Was he to abandon the Messiah entirely just when the latter was engaged in the most bitter phase of his struggle with the power of evil? If the spark of the redemption had been experienced by all, why should not all do as the Redeemer? How could one refuse to go to his aid? And soon the cry was heard: Let us surrender ourselves as he did! Let us descend together to the abyss before it shuts again! Let us cram the maw of impurity with the power of holiness until it bursts from within.
Feelings such as these formed the psychological background for the great nihilistic conflagration that was to break out in the “radical” wing of the Sabbatian movement. The fire was fed by powerful religious emotions, but in the crucial moment these were to join forces with passions of an entirely different sort, namely, with the instincts of anarchy and lawlessness that lie deeply buried in every human soul. Traditionally Judaism had always sought to suppress such impulses, but now that they were allowed to emerge in the revolutionary exhilaration brought on by the experience of redemption and its freedom, they burst forth more violently than ever. An aura of holiness seemed to surround them. They too would be granted their tikkun, if only in the “hindparts of holiness.”
Ultimately, too, the disappointing course of external events had a telling effect. Though he possessed the heroic soul of the warrior Bar Kokhba, Sabbatai Zevi had not gone forth to do battle on the Day of the Lord. A yawning chasm had appeared between inner and outer realities, and once it was decided that the former was the truer of the two, it was only to be expected that the value of the latter would increasingly come to be rejected. It was precisely at this point that messianism was transformed into nihilism. Having been denied the political and historical outlets it had originally anticipated, the new sense of freedom now sought to express itself in the sphere of human morality. The psychology of the “radical” Sabbatians was utterly paradoxical and “Marranic.” Essentially its guiding principle was: Whoever is as he appears to be cannot be a true “believer.” In practice this meant the following:
The “true faith” cannot be a faith which men publicly profess. On the contrary, the “true faith” must always be concealed. In fact, it is one’s duty to deny it outwardly, for it is like a seed that has been planted in the bed of the soul and it cannot grow unless it is first covered over. For this reason every Jew is obliged to become a Marrano.
Again: a “true act” cannot be an act committed publicly, before the eyes of the world. Like the “true faith,” the “true act” is concealed, for only through concealment can it negate the falsehood of what is explicit. Through a revolution of values, what was formerly sacred has become profane and what was formerly profane has become sacred. It is no longer enough to invent new mystical meditations (kavvanot) to suit the changed times. New forms of action are needed. Prior to the advent of the Redeemer the inward and the outward were in harmony, and this is why it was possible to effect great tikkunim by means of outwardly performing the commandments. Now that the Redeemer has arrived, however, the two spheres are in opposition: the inward commandment, which alone can effect a tikkun, has become synonymous with the outward transgression. Bittulah shel torah zehu kiyyumah: the violation of the Torah is now its true fulfillment.
More than anything else, it was this insistence of the “radicals” on the potential holiness of sin—a belief which they attempted to justify by citing out of context the Talmudic dictum (Nazir 23b), “A transgression committed for its own sake is greater than a commandment not committed for its own sake”—which alienated and offended the average Jew and caused even the “believers” themselves to undergo the severest of conflicts.
In the history of religion, whenever we come across the doctrine of the holiness of sin it is always in conjunction with one or another spiritualistic sect. The type of the pneumatic, which I have previously discussed, is particularly susceptible to such a teaching and it is hardly necessary to point out the connections that exist between the theories of nihilism and those of the more extravagant forms of spiritualism. To the pneumatic, the spiritual universe which he inhabits is of an entirely different order from the world of ordinary flesh and blood, whose opinion of the new laws he has chosen to live by is therefore irrelevant; insofar as he is above sin (an idea, common to many sectarian groups, which occasionally occurs in the literature of Hasidism as well) he may do as the spirit dictates without needing to take into account the moral standards of the society around him. Indeed he is, if anything, duty-bound to violate and subvert this “ordinary” morality in the name of the higher principles that have been revealed to him.
Although individuals with inclinations in this direction existed in Judaism also, particularly among the Kabbalists, up to the time of the Sabbatians their activities were confined entirely to the level of pure theory. The most outstanding example of such speculative or virtual “spiritualism” to be found in Kabbalistic literature is the Sefer ha-Temunah (“The Book of the Image”), a mystical treatise written in early 13th-century Spain, in which it is stated that the Torah consists of a body of spiritual letters which, though they remain essentially unchanged, present different appearances to the reader in different cosmic aeons (shemitot) . In effect, therefore, each aeon, or shemitah, possesses a Torah of its own. In the current shemitah, which is ruled by the divine quality of din, stern judgment or rigor, the Torah is read in terms of prohibitions and commandments and even its most mystic allusions must be interpreted in this light. In the coming aeon, however, which will be that of rahamim, divine mercy, the Torah will be read differently, so that in all probability “what is prohibited now will be permitted then.” Everything depends on the particular aeon and the divine quality (or attribute) presiding over it. Sensing the dangers inherent in such a doctrine, certain Kabbalists, such as Moses Cordovero, attempted to dismiss it as entirely unworthy of consideration. But it was precisely those works that propounded it, such as the Sefer ha-Temunah and the Sefer ha-Kanah, which influenced the Sabbatians tremendously.
To the theory of the cosmic aeons the Sabbatians assimilated a second, originally unrelated concept. The Zohar itself does not recognize or, more exactly, does not utilize the idea of the shemitot at all (a fact that was instrumental in making it suspect in the eyes of later Kabbalists), but in two later additions to the Zoharic corpus, the Tikkunei ha-Zohar and the Ra’ya Mehemna, a great deal is said on the subject of four emanated worlds, the World of atzilut or “Emanation,” the World of beriah or “Creation,” the World of yetzirah or “Formation,” and the World of asiyah or “Making,” which together comprise the different levels of spiritual reality. In connection with these we also occasionally hear of a “Torah of atzilut” and a “Torah of beriah,” the meanings of which are not entirely clear. By the time of the Kabbalists of the School of Safed, however, we find these latter terms employed in a definite sense to indicate that there are two aspects of the one essential Torah, i.e., the Torah as it is understood in the supernal World of atzilut and the Torah as it is understood in the lower World of beriah. What the Sabbatians now did was to seize this idea and expound it in the light of the theory of cosmic aeons. The Torah of beriah, they argued, borrowing a metaphor from the Zohar (I, 23) is the Torah of the unredeemed world of exile, whose purpose it was to serve as a garment for the Shekhinah in her exile, so that whoever observed its commandments and prohibitions was like one who helped clothe the Shekhinah in her state of distress. The Torah of atzilut, on the other hand, is the “true” Torah which, like “the mystery of the Godhead” it makes manifest, has been in a state of concealment for the entire period of the exile. Now that the redemption has commenced it is about to be revealed, and although in essence it is identical with the Torah of beriah, its way of being read will be different; thus, all the commandments and prohibitions of the Torah of beriah will now be reinterpreted by the light of the World of atzilut, in which (to take but one example), as is stated in several Kabbalistic sources, there is no such thing as forbidden sexual practices. It was in this manner that assertions made in a completely different spirit and in terms of a wholly different understanding of the concepts “World of atzilut “and”Torah of atzilut” were pressed into service by the “radical” Sabbatians as slogans for their new morality.2
The concept of the two Torahs was an extremely important one for Sabbatian nihilism, not least because it corresponded so perfectly to the “Marranic” mentality. In accordance with its purely mystical nature the Torah of atzilut was to be observed strictly in secret; the Torah of beriah, on the other hand, was to be actively and deliberately violated. As to how this was to be done, however, the “radicals” could not agree and differing schools of thought evolved among them. It is important to keep in mind that we are dealing here with an eruption of the most diverse sorts of emotion. The Gordian knot binding the soul of the exilic Jew had been cut and a vertigo that ultimately was to be his undoing seized the newly liberated individual: genuine desires for a reconsecration of life mingled indiscriminately with all kinds of destructive and libidinal forces tossed up from the depths by an irrepressible groundswell that undulated wildly between the earthly and the divine.
The psychological factors at work were particularly various in regard to the doctrine of the holiness of sin, which though restricted at first by some of the “believers” to the performance of certain specified acts alone, tended by virtue of its own inner logic to embrace more and more of the Mosaic Law, especially the biblical prohibitions. Among the leaders of the Dönmeh the antinomian blessing composed by Sabbatai Zevi, “Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the universe, who permittest the forbidden [mattir isurim] ,”3 became a byword. In fact, two somewhat contradictory rationalizations of antinomi-an behavior existed side by side. On the one hand there were those who said: in the world of redemption there can be no such thing as sin, therefore all is holy and everything is permitted. To this it was retorted: not at all! what is needed rather is totally to deny the beriah, “Creation” (a word that had by now come to denote every aspect of the old life and its institutions), to trample its values underfoot, for only by casting off the last vestiges of these can we truly become free. To state the matter in Kabbalistic terms, the one side proposed to withhold the sparks of holiness from the kelipot until they perished from lack of nourishment, whereas the other insisted that the kelipot be positively filled with holiness until they disintegrated from the pressure. But in either case, and despite the many psychological nuances which entered into the “transgression committed for its own sake” and the sacred sin, all the “radicals” were united in their belief in the sanctifying power of sin itself “that dwelleth with them in the midst of their uncleannesses,” as they interpreted the phrase in Leviticus 16:6.
It would be pointless to deny that the sexual element in this outburst was very strong: a primitive abandon such as the Jewish people would scarcely have thought itself capable of after so many centuries of discipline in the Law joined hands with perversely pathological drives to seek a common ideological rehabilitation. In the light of what happened there is little to wonder at when we read in the texts of rabbinical excommunications dating from the 18th century that the children of the “believers” were automatically to be considered bastards, just as it is perfectly understandable that these children and grandchildren themselves should have done everything in their power to obscure the history of their descent. One may readily grant, of course, as Zalman Rubashov justly observes in his study of the Frankists, that “every sectarian movement is suspected by the church against which it rebels of the most infamous misconduct and immorality,” a conclusion which has led to the hypothesis that such accusations invariably tell us more about the depraved fantasies of the accusers than they do about the actual behavior of the accused. It is Rubakhov’s opinion, indeed, that although the conduct of the Frankists was “in itself adequate cause for indignation and amazement,” there is also “every reason to assume that as a matter of course it was greatly exaggerated.” As valid as the general rule may be, however, the plain facts of the matter are that in the case of the “radical” Sabbatians there was hardly any need for exaggeration. As Nahum Sokolow has pointed out in a note to Kraushar’s history of Frankism, no matter how thoroughly fantastic and partisan the allegations of the anti-Sabbatians may seem to us, we have not the slightest justification for doubting their accuracy, inasmuch as in every case we can rely for evidence on the “confessions” of the “believers” themselves, as well as on a number of their apologias which have come down to us in both theoretical and homiletical form.
All this has recently been confirmed by an unexpected discovery. For many years—well into the present age, in fact—the Sabbatians in Salonika, the Dönmeh, regularly held a celebration on the twenty-second day of the Hebrew month of Adar known as “the Festival of the Lamb,” the exact nature of which was kept a carefully guarded secret until some of the younger members of the sect were finally prevailed upon to reveal it to outsiders. According to their account the festival included an orgiastic rite called “the extinguishing of the lights.” From what we know of this rite it probably came to Salonika from Izmir, for both its name and its contents were evidently borrowed from the pagan cult of “the Great Mother” which flourished in antiquity and continued to be practiced after its general demise by a small sect of “Light Extinguishers” in Asia Minor under the cover of Islam. There can be no question that the Dönmeh took over this ancient bacchanalia based on immemorial myths and adapted it to conform to their mystical belief in the sacramental value of exchanging wives, a custom that was undoubtedly observed by other “radicals” in the movement as well.
The history of Sabbatian nihilism as a mass movement rather than as the concern of a few isolated Jewish scholars who “donned the fez” like Sabbatai Zevi, began in 1683, when several hundred Jewish families in Salonika converted to Islam “so as to conquer the kelipah from within.” From this point on organized Sabbatian nihilism appeared in four main forms:
- That of the “believers” who chose “voluntary Marranism” in the form of Islam. The research that has been done on the subject of the Dönmeh, particularly the studies of Abraham Danon and Solomon Rosanes, definitely establishes that the sect was purely Jewish in its internal character, not, of course, in the accepted rabbinical sense, but rather in the sense of a mystical heresy. The apostasy of the Dönmeh aroused violent opposition among the “moderates,” for reasons which I have already made clear.
- That of the “believers” who remained traditional Jews in outward life while inwardly adhering to the “Torah of atzilut.” Several groups of such individuals existed in the Balkans and Palestine (beginning with the arrival there of Hayyim Malakh), and afterward, in the 18th century, in Northern and Eastern Europe, where they were concentrated particularly in Podolia and in such nearby towns as Buczacz, Busk, Gliniany, Horodenka, Zhólkiew, Zloczow, Tysmenieca, Nadworna, Podhaice, Rohatyn, and Satanow, but also in other countries, especially Rumania, Hungary, and Moravia.
- That of the Frankists who “Marranized themselves” by converting to Catholicism.
- That of the Frankists in Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, and Rumania, who chose to remain Jewish.
Despite the differences among these groups, all of them were part of a single larger entity. Inasmuch as it was believed by all the “radicals” that externals were no indication of true faith, apostasy was not a factor to come between them. A Jew in the ghetto of Prague, for example, who went on publicly observing the commandments of the “Torah of beriah” while at the same time violating them in private, knew perfectly well that the “believer” in Warsaw or, say, Offenbach who had recently been baptized “for mystical reasons” was still his brother, just as fifty years earlier Sab-batians in Northern Europe had continued to remain in close touch with the Dönmeh in Salonika even after their conversion to Islam. Essentially, the “radicals” all inhabited the same intellectual world. Their attitudes toward the Torah, the Messiah, and “the mystery of the Godhead” were identical, for all that they assumed new and unusual forms among the Frankists.
The systematic violation of the Torah of beriah was considered by the “radical” Sabbatians to be the principal attestation of the new epoch ushered in by Sabbatai Zevi. But exactly how was one to distinguish between what belonged to the lower World of beriah and its Torah, and what belonged to the higher World of atzilut and its Torah? Here opinion was divided. Baruchya Russo, better known as Berahya or Berochia, the leader of the radical wing of the Dönmeh in the beginning of the 18th century, preached to his followers that even the thirty-six transgressions deemed worthy by the Torah of the ultimate punishment of karet, i.e., being “cut off” from Israel and from God (a category that included all the forbidden sexual practices), were aspects of the Torah of beriah only. By the same token it was decreed permissible to eat of the sinew of the thigh-vein, for with the advent of the Messiah “Jacob’s thigh has been restored.”4 In the opinion of some, who based their argument on a passage from the Zohar, refraining from the sinew of the thigh-vein and fasting on Tish’ah be-Av were mutually connected observances: “As long as it is forbidden to eat on Tish’ah be-Av it is forbidden to eat the sinew of the thigh-vein, and when it is permitted to eat on Tish’ah be-Av it is permitted to eat the sinew of the thigh-vein.” Others went still further: “It is widely known that belonging to these sects are those who believe that [with the advent of the Messiah] the Torah has been nullified [betelah] and that in the future it will be [read] without [reference to] the commandments, for they say that the violation of the Torah has become its fulfillment, which they illustrate by the example of a grain of wheat that rots in the earth.” In other words, just as a grain of wheat must rot in the earth before it can sprout, so the deeds of the “believers” must be truly “rotten” before they can germinate the redemption. This metaphor, which appears to have been extremely popular, conveys the whole of sectarian Sabbatian psychology in a nutshell: in the period of transition, while the redemption is still in a state of concealment, the Torah in its explicit form must be denied, for only thus can it too become “concealed” and ultimately renewed.
There were, however, even more extreme cases than these. Jacob Emden relates how he was told by a rabbinical associate of great learning, the Rabbi of the Amsterdam Ashkenazim, that
when he was in Zhó1kiew he became involved with one of these heretics, a man named Fishl Zloczow, who was expertly versed in the entire Talmud, which he knew practically by heart, for he was in the habit of shutting himself up in his room in order to pore over it, never ceasing from his studies (for he was a wealthy man) nor engaging in idle conversation. He would linger over his prayers twice as long as the Hasidim of olden times and was considered by all to be a most pious and ascetic individual. Once he came to him [i.e., to Emden’s informant] in order to confess his sins and revealed that he belonged to the sect of Sabbatai Zevi, that he had eaten leavened bread on the Passover, and so forth, carrying on contritely all the while as though he had truly repented of his deeds. Soon afterward, however, he was caught in the act of committing grave transgressions of the Law and was excommunicated by the rabbis of Lithuania and Volhynia. When asked why he had not continued his hidden sins in private instead of [committing acts that led to his exposure] in public . . . he replied that on the contrary, the more shame he was forced to suffer for his faith, the better it was.
Here we are confronted with the type of the “believer” in its most paradoxical form, and, significantly, the individual in question was no ordinary Jew, but was rather conceded to be an excellent rabbinic scholar by an eminent authority who was in a position to know. One could hardly wish for a more perfect example of the nihilistic rejection of the Torah of beriah, which in this case was studied for the sole purpose that it might be better violated in spirit! The Jewish world was indeed showing signs of inner decay if types such as these were able to make themselves so easily at home in its midst. And yet underneath all these vagaries there was obviously a deep-seated desire for something positive which for lack of suitable conditions under which to function had come to nought.
Illustrative parables and homilies were also brought to bear on the doctrine of the sacred sin itself, and the reader cannot fail to notice that they are more than just paradoxical and highly offensive sayings. They breathe an entirely new spirit. “The patriarchs came into the world to restore [le-takken] the senses and this they did to four of them. Then came Sabbatai Zevi and restored the fifth, the sense of touch, which according to Aristotle and Maimonides is a source of shame to us, but which now has been raised by him to a place of honor and glory.” As late as the beginning of the 19th century we find a fervent “believer” in Prague commenting in connection with the verse in Psalm 68, “Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive,” that the captive in question is the spiritual Torah of atzilut, which is called a “prisoner” because it was captured by Moses and forced to dwell in the prison cell of the material Torah of beriah:
Such is the case with the inner Torah, for the outer is in opposition to the inner . . . and must be annihilated before the inner can be freed. And just as a woman from Ishmael [i.e., from a Moslem country] feels as though she has been freed from her confinement when she comes to Edom [i.e., a Christian country] . . . so continuing [to live] in Israel under the Torah of beriah is called “captivity,” nor can she be given in marriage under the Torah of beriah but only in Edom, whereas in Israel one must remain a virgin—and [he who is able to, let him] understand.
The cryptic Frankist allusions at the end of this passage to Christianity and to “remaining a virgin” are rather obscure, but it is evident from the whole how strongly the rejection of the lower, or material, Torah of beriah continued to be upheld by Sabbatian Jews right down to the movement’s last years. Elsewhere the author of the above, a thoughtful and deeply religious individual, explains that the commonly expressed belief that “no mischief can befall the righteous man [Prov. 12:21] nor can he be a cause of sin” must be understood in the light of the Torah of atzilut to mean that no matter how sinful the acts of the righteous may appear to others they are in fact always fully justified in themselves. He then adduces a number of astute mystical reasons for the necessity of certain transgressions, such as eating on the fast days, which he defends by arguing that fasting is a kind of spiritual “bribe” given to the kelipot and as such is not in keeping with the pure spiritual nature of the Torah of atzilut.
As to the ultimate step of apostasy, the arguments presented by the “radicals” in its behalf closely resemble those brought forward by the “moderates” to vindicate the apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi himself. We happen to have in our possession an illuminating document bearing on the disputes that arose over this question among the “believers” in the form of a homily by the well-known Sabbatian Nehemiah Hayon on the verse (Deut. 29:17), “Lest there be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the Lord our God, to go serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood.” The paradoxical solution arrived at by Hayon toward the close of his long discourse, which I quote here in abbreviated form, is an invaluable reflection of the perplexity and deep inner conflict experienced by those Sabbatians who were unable to choose between the “radical” and “moderate” positions:
It is supposed among those versed in esoteric lore that the redemption can be brought about in either one of two ways: either Israel will have the power to withdraw all the sparks of holiness from [the realm of] the kelipah so that the kelipah will wither into nothing, or else the kelipah will become so filled with holiness that because of this repletion it must be spewn forth. . . . And this [fact], that the coming of the redemption can be prompted in one of two ways, was what the rabbis of blessed memory had in mind when they said that the Son of David would come either in a generation that was entirely guiltless (meaning when Israel by virtue of its good deeds had withdrawn all the sparks of holiness from the kelipah), or else in a generation that was entirely guilty (meaning when the kelipah had become so filled with holiness that it split its maw and perished). . . . And it is in consequence of this thesis that many, though their intentions are good, have mistakenly said, “Let us go worship other gods that we may fill the kelipah to bursting that it die.” . . . Nay, do not reason with yourself, “Since it is impossible for all to become guiltless so as to withdraw the holiness from the kelipah, it is better that I become a sinner and so hasten the doom of the kelipah in that way that it might die and salvation might come,” but rather, “Wait for the Lord and keep His way” [Ps. 37:34]: it is better that you endure the length of the exile and look to salvation than that you sin by worshiping other gods in order to bring on the redemption. This brings us to the meaning of the verse, “Lest there be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood [29:17], and it come to pass when he heareth the words of this curse” [etc.; 29:18]. In other words, when he hears the words of the curse that is threatened . . . he turns away his heart from God and blesses himself in his heart [29:18], saying: “What Moses has written is true” . . . but [he thinks that] if he does not turn away his heart from God and if his intentions are good, that is, if he means to quench the kelipah by giving it holiness to drink, then certainly no evil will befall him, but on the contrary, God will turn the curse into a blessing. And this is the meaning of the words “and he blesses himself in his heart,” for he says to himself, “I am sure that no harm will befall me . . . because I did not turn my heart [from God] . . . and because my intentions are good . . . [namely] to water the kelipah, the thirsty one, with the holiness that I extend to her that she may partake of it and die. It is of such a one that Moses said, “The Lord will not be willing to pardon him” [29:19]. . . . Even though his intentions were good and he only desired to hasten the redemption, he cannot be forgiven. . . . Nor does [the principle of] “A transgression committed for its own sake” [is greater than a commandment not committed for its own sake] apply here, since there [in its original context] it refers to an ordinary sin, as in the case of Jael [in killing Sisera; Judg. 4], whereas here, where it is a question of worshiping other gods, the Lord will not be willing to pardon him. . . . They [who act on this mistaken assumption] are powerless to destroy the kelipah; on the contrary, he [who attempts to fill the kelipah with holiness] will remain stuck in its midst, and this is why it is said that the Lord will not be willing to pardon him. . . . There is also another possible explanation [of the verse], namely, that when Moses said that the Lord would not be willing to pardon him he was not pronouncing a curse . . . but was thinking the following: . . . since he [the deliberate sinner] believes in his heart that God will not account his actions as sins, but will rather reward them . . . it is inconceivable that he should ever repent for he does not believe he has done wrong. . . How then can the Holy One, blessed be He, forgive him? On the contrary, each time [he sins] he only angers Him the more . . . by thinking that he has done good instead of evil . . . and by saying that the greater a sinner he is the more he hastens the coming of the redemption. Such a one undoubtedly incurs the full power of the curse, since he deliberately violates all its injunctions. . . . “And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel” [29:20]. . . . But perhaps one can interpret the meaning of the text as follows: since such a person intends his deeds to redound to the benefit of all Israel . . . if after sinning and passing through the kelipah he reconsiders and repents completely, he undoubtedly succeeds in raising up many sparks from the kelipah, just as in the case of the human body when one is administered an emetic he does not simply vomit up the drug itself, but rather having opened his mouth proceeds to spew forth both the drug and everything that was near it. And so it is with the kelipah: sometimes it gains power over a man whose soul is great and does him harm, but as soon as he repents he spews forth all that was within him. And this is what Solomon meant when he said [Eccl. 8:9] there is a time when one man rules another to do him harm. [But since] There is a time [for such things] and miracles do not happen every hour, therefore Moses warns that one should not place himself in this peril. . . . “And the Lord shall separate him unto evil”; in other words, if he [the deliberate sinner] has been a cause of evil he is singled out [for judgment] from the tribes of Israel, for [it is a halakhic principle that] one cannot commit a transgression for another by proxy even if one has been authorized to do so, much less if one has not been, so that having gone [and committed evil] of his own accord, there is no doubt that the evil which results [from his actions] will not be imputed to Israel as a whole. But if he does good—that is, if he repents wholeheartedly and raises up sparks from Israel by virtue of his repentance—then all the tribes of Israel have a part in this good; it is only in the evil that they do not have a part.
Likely as not, this entire passage has an autobiographical basis. In any event, it is clear that the attitude of its author toward the “voluntary Marranos” whose conversion he decries yet understands so well is far from being hostile or vindictive.
One of the strongest factors in the development of a nihilistic mentality among the “radicals” was their desire to negate an objective historical order in which the exile continued in full force and the beginnings of the redemption went unnoticed by all but the “believers” themselves. Understandably, during the period now in question this antipathy toward outward reality remained confined to the area of religion alone, the world of ghetto Jewry still being sufficiently stable to preclude its active politicalization. Prior to the French Revolution, indeed, there was no connection between the ideas of Sabbatianism and the growing undercurrent of discontent with the ancien régime in Europe. It was only when changing times had widened the “believers’” horizons and revealed to them the existence of more tangible ways of affecting the course of history than the violation of the Torah of beriah that they too began to dream of revolutionizing the structure of society itself. In a sense this was to mean the restoration to Jewish Messianism of its traditional political content, which, as I have shown, the Sabbatian movement transformed beyond recognition. As long as external conditions were not conducive to this, even the “radicals” remained politically unaware, nor were they able to conceive of any other method of revitalizing Jewish life than the subversion of its most sacred values; but it is not surprising that once the opportune moment arose the essentially this-worldly emphasis of Jewish Messianism which Sabbatianism had striven to suppress should have come to be stressed again. I shall have more to say on this important subject; first, however, I would like to comment on a related matter, one which will serve as yet another example of the uniquely paradoxical dialectic of Sabbatian thought: its attitude toward Palestine.
Immediately after the collapse of the initial messianic expectations aroused by Sabbatai Zevi, scattered groups of Sabbatians began to express their opposition to the idea of emigration to the Holy Land. As has now been established, Nathan of Gaza himself was of the opinion that “for the time being it is best not to go to the Land of Israel.” But this point of view did not go unchallenged. A number of “believers,” especially after 1700, attempted to demonstrate by mystical reasons that in the light of Sabbatian doctrine emigration was indeed desirable after all. Individuals from both the circle of Abraham Rovigo and the whole band of “Hasidim” centered around Rabbi Judah Hasid actually settled in Palestine as a result of specifically Sabbatian aspirations. One belief that was current at the time was that on the occasion of Sabbatai Zevi’s second advent, which would take place forty years after his “concealment,” a true mystical knowledge of his nature would be revealed to those of his followers, and only to those, who were living in the Holy Land. Sabbatian nihilists like Hayyim Malakh, who were contemporaries of such groups, also were in favor of going to the Land of Israel, from which they too undoubtedly expected special revelation to come; in addition, they may have felt that there was an advantage to violating the Torah of beriah on the most consecrated ground of all, on the analogy of “conquering the queen in her own home.” As late as the middle of the 18th century Sabbatian nihilists in Podolia still had contacts and acquaintances in Palestine, while a number of the emissaries sent by the Palestinian Jewish community to raise funds in the Diaspora were Sabbatian scholars who acted on the side both as secret propagators of the faith and as contacts between “believers” in different localities. Many of these, such as the author of the The Book of the Adornment of Days, a beautiful and detailed description (in Hebrew) of the life of a Kabbalist devotee all through the year, were undoubtedly “moderates,” but regarding many others we will probably never know exactly where they stood.
Toward the middle of the 18th century, however, a reaction took place, so that we find a distinct anti-Palestinian bias setting in throughout the movement. Whether or not the anti-Palestinian sermon cited by Jacob Emden in his Edut be-Ya’akov (44b) is really the handiwork of Jonathan Eibeschütz is uncertain, but in any case there can be no question of its being a total fabrication, inasmuch as similar ideas to those expressed in it can be found in other Sabbatian documents which Emden could not possibly have seen. Among the Frankists an astonishing and clear-cut ideology of Jewish territorialism (as distinct from Palestine-centered tendencies) developed at about this time, apparently as a result of Frank’s own personal ambitions. In a word, on the very eve of its absorption of new political ideas Sabbatian nihilism completely reversed its previously positive evaluation of the role of the Land of Israel, so that when shortly afterward it began to speak the language of a revived political Messianism and to prophesy the rebirth of the Jewish nation as one outcome of an impending world revolution, there was no longer any real interest on its part in the idea of the Land of Israel as a national center. As stated by the Frankist writer in Prague whom we have already had occasion to quote, Israel’s exile is not a consequence of its sins at all, but is rather part of a plan designed to bring about the destruction of the kelipot all over the world, so that “even if several thousands or tens-of-thousands of Jews are enabled to return to the Land of Israel, nothing has been completed.” According to the same author this new doctrine of the exile is “a secret mystical principle which was hidden from all the sages until it was [recently] revealed in Poland.” And thus we see how in the final stages of Sabbatianism the intrinsic nature of the exile came to be reconsidered in an entirely new light
The figure of Sabbatai Zevi himself was also recast by the passage of time, becoming entirely mythical: gradually the element of historical truth was diminished until nothing was left but a legendary hero who had inaugurated a new epoch of world history. Even in Sabbatai Zevi’s lifetime one of his first disciples, Abraham Yakhini, could write of him (in his book Vavei ha-Amudim): “Just as one of the seventy faces of the Torah is concerned entirely with the resurrection of the dead, as is to be seen in [the commentaries of] the Zohar on several chapters [of the Pentateuch], [the allusions to the resurrection in] the other chapters being inaccessible to us because of the limitations of our intellects, so one of the seventy faces of the Torah is concerned entirely with the Messiah, our lord and master, may his majesty increase, and shortly, when he reveals himself to us [completely], we shall be privileged to understand the entire Torah in this way.” It is little wonder that the concrete historical figure of Sabbatai Zevi came to be transformed by his followers in much the same manner as Jesus’s was by his, if not more so, since his conversion into a mythological figure was even more complete. Like the early Christians, in fact, the “radicals” eventually came to believe that the Messiah had not been a mere superior human being, but an incarnation of God Himself in human form. This new interpretation of “the mystery of the Godhead” was accepted by all the “radical” groups down to the last of the Frankists and was considered by them to be the most profound mystic truth in their entire body of doctrine. Whence it came cannot yet be determined: perhaps from the collective memory of thousands of Marranos, perhaps from Christian books or anti-Christian polemics, or perhaps from the “believers’” own inner conflict, the paradoxical cause of which—an apostate Messiah—may have led them to adopt the same paradoxical solution that a like contradiction—a crucified Messiah—produced in yet another group of Jews caught in the toils of religious turmoil. And perhaps, too, all of these factors combined to work together.
The doctrine of an incarnate God, which immediately became a bone of contention between the “radicals” and the “moderates” in the Sabbatian camp, was limited at first to the figure of Sabbatai Zevi himself. According to one view, when the redemption began, “the Holy One, blessed be He, removed Himself upward and Sabbatai Zevi ascended to be God in His place.” Since in the Sabbatian faith “the Holy One, blessed be He,” was synonymous, as we have seen, with “the God of Israel,” this meant that Sabbatai Zevi had now assumed the latter’s title and become “the Holy King.” Before long, however, the “believers” in Salonika replaced this teaching with another: “the Holy King” had Himself been incarnated in the person of the Messiah in order to restore the world and nullify the Torah of beriah. It was in this form that the doctrine was accepted by the Sabbatian nihilists in Podolia. A prayer of theirs that has come into our possession reads: “May it be Thy will that we prosper in Thy Torah and cling to Thy commandments, and mayst Thou purify my thoughts to worship Thee in truth . . . and may all our deeds in the Torah of alzilut [meaning: transgressions!] be only for the sake of Thy great name, O Señor Santo,5 that we may recognize Thy greatness, for Thou art the true God and King of the universe, our living Messiah who wast in this earthly world and didst nullify the Torah of beriah and didst reascend to Thy place to conduct all the worlds.”
But this doctrine of a single incarnation did not long remain unaltered in turn. Apparently among the Sephardic converts to Islam the belief developed that the leaders of the “believers” in every age were reincarnations of Sabbatai Zevi. Whether this actually meant that these leaders—particularly Baruchya, who was one of the foremost promulgators of the new belief—were thought to be, or considered themselves, divine incarnations no less than the Messiah himself is not entirely clear, but there are good reasons for believing that the gospel preached by facob Frank at the beginning of his career was nothing but this Sephardic teaching with a number of modifications to suit his own personality, and Frank himself, though he never said so in so many words, was correctly understood by his disciples to imply that he personally was the living God once again incarnated on earth. Not without a certain “consistency” the Frankists held that each of the three hypostases of the Godhead had its individual incarnation in a separate Messiah: Sabbatai Zevi, whom Frank was in the habit of referring to simply as “the First One,” had been the embodiment of “the Ancient Holy One,” Frank himself was the personification of “the Holy King,” and the third hypostasis, the Shekhinah, variously known in the writings of the Kabbalah as “the Kingdom” (malkhut), “the Lady” (matronita), “the Maiden,” and “the Doe,” was to appear in the form of a woman. It is hard not to associate this novelty—a female Messiah, referred to by Frank as “the Virgin,” who was yet to be revealed and whose task it would be to complete the work of the redemption—with the influence of certain mystical Christian sects prevalent at about this time in Eastern Europe that believed in a triad of saviors corresponding to the threefold nature of God and in a feminine incarnation of the Sophia, the Divine Wisdom or Holy Spirit. With one of these groups, in fact, the “Philipovicites” in Rumania and the Ukraine, the Frankists were in such close contact that one of its former leaders publicly defended them before the Catholic authorities of Poland.
Interpreted in this manner the redemption was a process filled with incarnations of the divinity. Even the “radicals” in Prague who clung to their Jewish identity and strove to defend their beliefs by means of Jewish concepts and sources were won over to this view, and although their hostility to Christianity as an institution knew no bounds, references to “the mystery of the incarnation” can be found throughout their literature. The anti-Sabbatian polemicists who accused the “believers” of corporealizing the idea of God were perfectly right in their assertions, but this fact, which seemed to them a damning admission of weakness, was in reality their opponents’ greatest source of pride! “Because the Godhead has a body the sting of death is gone,” wrote one “believer.” On the surface it would seem that the exaggerated spirituality of the World of atzilut and the yearning to see God in the flesh that was evidenced by the doctrine of a messianic incarnation were two mutually opposed tendencies, and yet, after all that has been said here, it should not be difficult to see that underlying both was the struggle of a new sensibility toward life to express itself by means of a religious vocabulary inherited from the old. In such cases the paradox is always the only solution.
In summary, the five distinguishing beliefs of “radical” Sabbatianism are:
- The belief in the necessary apostasy of the Messiah and in the sacramental nature of the descent into the realm of the kelipot.
- The belief that the “believer” must not appear to be as he really is.
- The belief that the Torah of atzilut must be observed through the violation of the Torah of beriah.
- The belief that the First Cause and the God of Israel are not the same, the former being the God of rational philosophy, the latter the God of religion.
- The belief in three hypostases of the Godhead, all of which have been or will be incarnated in human form.
These theses amply demonstrate, in my opinion, that in the onward course of the Sabbatian movement the world of traditional Judaism was shattered beyond repair. In the minds of those who took part in this revolutionary destruction of old values a special susceptibility to new ideas inevitably came to exist. Well might the “believers” have asked how long their newly released energies and emotions were to go on being aimlessly squandered. Were their lives required to be dominated by paradoxes forever?
But just as the character of the Sabbatian movement was dictated by the circumstances of the movement’s birth, so, in turn, it was to dictate the circumstances of the movement’s disintegration and death. For as the “believers” had meant to fire the sparks of holiness with the kelipot, so they were to wander in the blackest of blind alleys; and as they had wished to “play” with “the other side,” the dark side of life, so they were to dance in the devil’s own arms. And last and most ironically of all: as they had hastened to come to the aid of the Redeemer—“to do as he did for strange are his deeds, to worship as he worships for his worship is alien” (Isa. 28:21)—so they were to be induced in the end to play into the hands of a man like Jacob Frank.
Jacob Frank (1726-91) will always be remembered as one of the most frightening phenomena in the whole of Jewish history: a religious leader who, whether for purely self-interested motives or otherwise, was in all his actions a truly corrupt and degenerate individual. Indeed, it might plausibly be argued that in order to exhaust completely its seemingly endless potential for the contradictory and the unexpected, the Sabbatian movement was in need of just such a strongman, a man who could snuff out its last inner lights and pervert whatever will to truth and goodness was still to be found in the mazelike ruins of the “believers’” souls. Even if one is willing to concede that the doctrine of the sacred sin, the mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-averah, was not lacking in certain insights, there can be no question but that these were thoroughly debased upon coming in contact with the person of Frank. But just as the “believers” had deliberately chosen to follow that dangerous path along which nothing is impossible, so it was perhaps precisely this that attracted them to Frank, for here was a man who was not afraid to push on to the very end, to take the final step into the abyss, to drain the cup of desolation and destruction to the lees until the last bit of holiness had been made into a mockery. His admirers, who themselves fell far short of him in respect of this ability, were won over by his intrepidness, which neither the fear of God nor the terrors of the bottomless pit were able to daunt, and saw in him the type of the true saint, a new Sabbatai Zevi and an incarnate God.
If the full truth be told, however, even after one has taken into account Frank’s unscrupulous opportunism, his calculated deceits, and his personal ambitions, none of which really concern us here, he remains a figure of tremendous if satanic power. True, neither the promises and pledges with which he lured his disciples, nor his visionary schemes for the future that was to follow the general cataclysm of the times seem particularly impressive today, although of his territorialist program it may at least be said that besides revealing his own lust for power it expressed in a bizarre yet unmistakable manner the desire of his followers for a reconstruction of Jewish national and even economic existence; and yet for all the negativism of his teachings, they nonetheless contained a genuine creed of life.
Frank was a nihilist, and his nihilism possessed a rare authenticity. Certainly, its primitive ferocity is frightening to behold. Certainly, too, Frank himself was not only an unlettered man, but boasted continually of his own lack of culture. But in spite of all this—and here is the significant point—we are confronted in his person with the extraordinary spectacle of a powerful and tyrannical soul living in the middle of the 18th century and yet immersed entirely in a mythological world of its own making. Out of the ideas of radical Sabbatianism, a movement in which he was apparently raised and educated, Frank was able to weave a complete myth of religious nihilism. This, surely, is worthy of attention.
Frank was not an original speculative thinker, but he did have a decided talent for the pithy, the strikingly illustrative, and the concretely symbolic expression. Despite their nihilistic content, his sayings in The Sayings of the Lord (Slawa Pa?skie) are not very different in form from those of many famous Hasidic Zaddikim, and for all his despotic nature he possessed a hidden poetic impulse which appears all the more surprising in the light of his customary savagery. Even Kraushar, who like his predecessors was intent on emphasizing everything that seemed incoherent or grotesque in Frank’s recorded sayings, was forced to admit that on occasion they show vigor and imagination. For my own part, I fail to see how any sensitive individual who reads the many excerpts published by Kraushar from The Sayings of the Lord with a degree of understanding—something which it is far from impossible to do—can contemplate them without emotion. But how many have even troubled to make the effort?6
Frank was particularly gifted at the creation of new images and symbols, and in spite of its popular coloration his language is full of mystical overtones. Of the terminology of the Kabbalah he rarely made use, at times even criticizing the Sabbatian sectarians in Podolia for their continuing absorption in Kabbalistic ideas, which he called “madness.” Anyone familiar with “radical” Sabbatian thought, however, can readily detect its continued presence beneath the new verbal façade. Thus, in place of the familiar Sabbatian “three knots of the faith” we now have “the Good God,” “the Big Brother who stands before the Lord,” and “the Virgin,” terms which are highly suggestive for all their earthy quality. The kelipah, the Torahs of beriah and atzilut, the sparks of holiness, indeed all the conceptual usages that are basic to Sabbatian theological discourse, have disappeared entirely, to be replaced by a completely exoteric vocabulary. Even the figure of Sabbatai Zevi has greatly declined in importance. The world of Sabbatianism itself, on the other hand, remains intact, or rather, has reached that ultimate stage of its development where it verges on self-annihilation.
In the following pages I will attempt to present an overall view of Frank’s religious teachings, to the extent, that is, that they can be fully reconstructed from his many sayings, and in a form that they apparently did not completely attain until after his conversion to Catholicism. Although they will occasionally seem to contradict one another, they are for the most part mutually consistent. The somberness of their world or, more accurately, world-ruin, did not in fact encourage a great deal of variety, although this did not prevent the “believers,” including even the traditionalists among them in Prague, from finding a dark fascination in its tidings, which Frank himself brutally summed up in a single brusque remark: “It is one thing to worship God—and quite another to follow the path that I have taken.”
According to Frank, the “cosmos” (tevel), or “earthly world” (tevel ha-gashmi) as it was called by the sectarians in Salonika, is not the creation of the Good or Living God, for if it were it would be external and man would be immortal, whereas as we see from the presence of death in the world this is not at all the case. To be sure, there are “worlds” which belong to “the Good God” too, but these are hidden from all but the “believers.” In them are divine powers, one of whom is “the King of Kings,” who is also known as “the Big Brother” and “He who stands before the Lord.” The evil power that created the cosmos and introduced death into the world, on the other hand, is connected with the feminine, and is most probably composed of three “gods” or “Rulers of the World,” one of whom is the Angel of Death. In any case, it is these “Rulers,” all of whom have been incarnated on earth in human form, who block the path leading to “the Good God,” who is unknown to men, for mystic knowledge of Him has as yet been revealed to no one, nor has the holy soul (nishmata) that emanates from Him been in any creature, not even in Sabbatai Zevi. In the current aeon there are three “Rulers of the World,” “Life,” “Wealth,” and “Death,” the last of which must be replaced by “Wisdom” -a task, however, that is not easily accomplished, for although “Wisdom” is in some mysterious manner connected to “the Good God,” the latter is still not able to reveal Himself to mankind, “for the world is in the thrall of laws that are no good.”
Hence it is necessary to cast off the domination of these laws, which are laws of death and harmful to mankind. To bring this about, the Good God has sent messengers such as the patriarchs “who dug wells,” Moses, Jesus, and others, into the world. Moses pointed out the true way, but it was found to be too difficult, whereupon he resorted to “another religion” and presented men with “the Law of Moses,” whose commandments are injurious and useless. “The Law of the Lord,” on the other hand—the spiritual Torah of the Sabbatians—“is perfect” (Ps. 19:8), only no man has yet been able to attain it. Finally, the Good God sent Sabbatai Zevi into the world, but he too was powerless to achieve anything, because he was unable to find the true way. “But my desire is to lead you toward Life.” Nevertheless, the way to Life is not easy, for it is the way of nihilism and it means to free oneself of all laws, conventions, and religions, to adopt every conceivable attitude and to reject it, and to follow one’s leader step for step into the abyss. Baptism is a necessity, as Frank said prior to his conversion, “because Christianity has paved the way for us.” Thirty years afterward this same “Christian” observed: “This much I tell you: Christ, as you know, said that he had come to redeem the world from the hands of the devil, but I have come to redeem it from all the laws and customs that have ever existed. It is my task to annihilate all this so that the Good God can reveal Himself.”
The annihilation of every religion and positive system of belief—this was the “true way” the “believers” were expected to follow. Concerning the redemptive powers of havoc and destruction Frank’s imagination knew no limits. “Wherever Adam trod a city was built but wherever I set foot all will be destroyed, for I came into this world only to destroy and to annihilate. But what I build, will last forever.” Mankind is engaged in a war without quarter with the “no-good” laws that are in power—“and I say to you, all who would be warriors must be without religion, which means that they must reach freedom under their own power and seize hold of the Tree of Life.” No region of the human soul can remain untouched by this struggle. In order to ascend one must first descend. “No man can climb a mountain until he has first descended to its foot. Therefore we must descend and be cast down to the bottom rung, for only then can we climb to the infinite. This is the mystic principle of Jacob’s Ladder, which I have seen and which is shaped like a V.” Again, “I did not come into this world to lift you up but rather to cast you down to the bottom of the abyss. Further than this it is impossible to descend, nor can one ascend again by virtue of one’s own strength, for only the Lord can raise one up from the depths by the power of His hand.” The descent into the abyss requires not only the rejection of all religions and conventions, but also the commission of “strange acts,” and this in turn demands the voluntary abasement of one’s own sense of self, so that libertinism and the achievement of that state of utter shamelessness which leads to a tikkun of the soul are one and the same thing.
“We are all now obliged to enter the abyss” in which all laws and religions are annihilated. But the way is perilous, for there are powers and “gods”—these being none other than the three “Rulers of the World”—that do not let one pass. It is necessary to elude them and continue onward, and this none of the ancients was able to do, neither Solomon, nor Jesus, nor even Sabbatai Zevi. To accomplish this, that is, to overcome the opposing powers, which are the gods of other religions, it is imperative that one be “perfectly silent,” even deceitful. This is the mystic principle of “the burden of silence” (masa’ dumah; Isa. 21:11), i.e., of maintaining the great reserve that is becoming to the “believer” (a new version of the original Sabbatian injunction against appearing as one really is!). Indeed, this is the principle of the “true way” itself: “Just as a man who wishes to conquer a fortress does not do it by means of making a speech, but must go there himself with all his forces, so we too must go our way in silence.” “It is better to see than to speak, for the heart must not reveal what it knows to the mouth.” “Here there is no need for scholars because here belongs the burden of silence.” “When I was baptized in Lvov I said to you: so far, so good! But from here on: a burden of silence! Muzzle your mouths!” “Our forefathers were always talking, only what good did it do them and what did they accomplish? But we are under the burden of silence: here we must be quiet and bear what is needful, and that is why it is a burden.” “When a man goes from one place to another he should hold his tongue. It is the same as with a man drawing a bow: the longer he holds his breath, the further the arrow will fly.”
From the abyss, if only the “burden of silence” is borne, “holy knowledge” will emerge. The task, then, is “to acquire knowledge,” “and the passageway to knowledge is to combine with the nations” but not, of course, to intermingle with them. He who reaches the destination will lead a life of anarchic liberty as a free man. “The place that we are going to tolerates no laws, for all that comes from the side of Death, whereas we are bound for Life.” The name of this place is “Edom” or “Esau,” and the way to it, which must be followed by the light of “knowledge” (gnosis) and under the “burden of silence” through the depths of the abyss, is called “the way to Esau.” This was the road taken by Jacob the patriarch, “the first Jacob,” all of whose deeds prefigured those of “the last Jacob”—Jacob Frank. “Esau” too was foreshadowed by the Esau of the Bible, though only in a veiled way: “Esau the son of Jacob was but the curtain that hangs before the entrance to the king’s inner chambers.” Herein lies the mystical principle of the wells dug by the patriarchs, as well as the mystic content of the story (Gen. 29) of how Jacob came to a well that had already been dug, rolled the stone from its mouth, and encountered Rachel and her father Laban. Another who found the passage to “Esau” was the sorcerer Balaam. “Esau” belongs to the realm of the Good God where the power of death is made nought, and it is also the dwelling place of “the Virgin,” she who is called Rachel in the biblical stories about Jacob and is elsewhere known as “the beautiful maiden who has no eyes.” She it is who is the real Messiah (who cannot, contrary to traditional opinion, be a man) and to her “all the king’s weapons are surrendered,” for she is also the much sought-after “Divine Wisdom” or Sophia who is destined to take “Death’s” place as one of the three “Rulers of the World.” For the present, however, she is hidden in a castle and kept from the sight of all living creatures; all the “strange acts,” in comparison with which the “strange fire” offered before the Lord by Aaron’s two sons (Lev. 10) was but a trifle, are committed for the sole purpose of reaching her. Again, she is the “holy serpent” who guards the garden, and he who asked what the serpent was doing in Paradise was simply betraying his ignorance. As of yet, the place of “Esau,” the home of “the Virgin” and of true salvation, has not been attained by anyone, but its hidden light will first be revealed to the “believers,” who will have the distinction of being its soldiers and fighting on its behalf.
These are some of the main features of Frank’s teaching. It is a veritable myth of religious nihilism, the work of a man who did not live at all in the world of rational argument and discussion, but inhabited a realm entirely made up of mythological entities. Indeed, to anyone familiar with the history of religion it might seem far more likely that he was dealing here with an antinomian myth from the second century composed by such nihilistic Gnostics as Carpocrates and his followers than that all this was actually taught and believed by Polish Jews living on the eve of the French Revolution, among whom neither the “master” nor his “disciples” had the slightest inkling that they were engaged in resuscitating an ancient tradition! Not only the general train of thought, but even some of the symbols and terms are the same! And yet, none of this seems as surprising as it may appear to be at first glance when we reflect that no less than the Frankists, the Gnostics of antiquity developed their thought within a biblical framework, for all that they completely inverted the biblical values. They too believed that Esau and Balaam were worshipers of “the Good God,” they too converted the serpent in the Garden of Eden into a symbol of gnosis, salvation, and the true “Divine Wisdom” that guided men to freedom from the evil rule of the Demiurge by teaching them to disobey his laws and institutions, and they too held that the Law of the good and “alien” God, which enjoined the commission of “strange acts,” was directly opposed to the Law of Moses, which was largely the promulgation of the irascible Creator.
Frank’s ultimate vision of the future was based upon the still unrevealed laws of the Torah of atzilut which he promised his disciples would take effect once they had “come to Esau,” that is, when the passage through the “abyss” with its unmitigated destruction and negation was finally accomplished. In seeking to elucidate this gospel of libertinism I can do no better than to quote a passage from the excellent book on Gnosticism by the philosopher Hans Jonas in which he discusses the development of a libertinist ethic among the nihilistically minded pneumatics of the second century:7
The spiritualist morality of these pneumatics possessed a revolutionary character that did not stop short of actively implementing its beliefs. In this doctrine of immoralism we are confronted both with a total and overt rejection of all traditional norms of behavior, and with an exaggerated feeling of freedom that regards the license to do as it pleases as a proof of its own authenticity and as a favor bestowed upon it from above. . . . The entire doctrine rests on the concept of an “extra spirit” as a privilege conferred upon a new type of human being who from here on is no longer to be subject to the standards and obligations that have hitherto always been the rule. Unlike the ordinary, purely “psychic” individual, the pneumatic is a free man, free from the demands of the Law . . . and, inasmuch as it implies a positive realization of this freedom, his uninhibited behavior is far from being a purely negative reaction. Such moral nihilism fully reveals the crisis of a world in transition: by arbitrarily asserting its own complete freedom and pluming itself on its abandonment to the sacredness of sin, the self seeks to fill the vacuum created by the “interregnum” between two different and opposing periods of law. Especially characteristic of this over-all mood of anarchy are its hostility toward all established conventions, its need to define itself in terms that are clearly exclusive of the great majority of the human race, and its desire to flout that authority of the “divine” powers, that is, of the world-rulers who are the custodians of the old standards of morality. Over and above the rejection of the past for its own sake, therefore, we are faced here with an additional motive, namely, the desire to heap insult on its guardians and to revolt openly against them. Here we have revolution without the slightest speculative dissemblance and this is why the gospel of libertinism stands at the center of the gnostic revolution in religious thought. No doubt, too, there was in addition to all this an element of pure “daredeviltry” which the Gnostic could proudly point to as an indication of his reliance on his own “spiritual” nature. Indeed, in all periods of revolution human beings have been fond of the intoxicating power of big words.
All of this is fully applicable to both “radical” Sabbatianism in general and to the Frankist movement in particular; the mentality that Jonas describes could not possibly, indeed, assume a more radical form than Frank’s nihilistic myth. It goes without saying, of course, that in a given age myth and reality do not always coincide, and in the case of Frankists the former was undoubtedly the extremer of the two, even if Fran himself was not far from living up to it in actual practice, as emerged from the manuscript of The Chronicles of the Life of the Lord which one of the Frankist families permitted Kraushar to use and which afterward vanished. But in any event the significant point is the fact that the myth should have been born at all and that a considerable number of ghetto Jews should have come to regard it as a way to “political and spiritual liberation,” to quote the words used by the educated Frankist Gabriel Porges in Prague to describe the movement’s aims to his son after Frank himself was no longer alive. Clearly, for the Jew who saw in Frankism the solution to his personal problems and queries, the world of Judaism had been utterly dashed to pieces, although he himself may not have traveled the “true way” at all, may even, in fact, have continued to remain outwardly the most orthodox of observers.
We will apparently never know with any certainty why most of the Sabbatians in Podolia followed Frank’s lead and became Catholics while their counterparts in Western Europe, who for the most part also regarded Frank as their spiritual leader, chose to remain Jews. Our knowledge in this area, which is of such crucial importance to an understanding of Jewish history in the countries in question, is practically nil and we must content ourselves with mere speculation. Possibly the decisive factor was the differing social structures of the two groups. The majority of the Sabbatians in Podolia were members of the lower class and few (which is not to say none at all) of those who converted were educated individuals. The Sabbatians in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the other hand, were largely from a more wealthy background and many of them were men of considerable rabbinical learning. As is frequently the case with religious sects, Sabbatianism was transmitted by entire families and not just by isolated individuals. Even today records exist to prove that a number of families, some of them quite prominent, which were known for their Sabbatian allegiances about 1740, were still clinging to “the holy faith” over sixty years later. For such groups traditional Judaism had become a permanent outer cloak for their true beliefs, although there were undoubtedly different viewpoints among them as to the exact nature of the relationship. Not all were followers of Frank, albeit the Frankists in Prague were spiritually the strongest among them and were extremely active in disseminating their views. Most probably those Sabbatians who had once been disciples of Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschütz were also to be found in this category. In any case, the fact remains that among these groups the number of conversions was very small. Many of their adherents may have desired to reach “the holy gnosis of Edom,” but few were willing to pass through the gates of Christianity in order to do so.
On the whole, however, in the years following Frank’s death the various Sabbatian groups still in existence continued to develop along more or less parallel lines. Four principal documents bearing on this final phase of Sabbatianism have come down to us: The Book of the Prophecy of Isaiah written by an apostate “believer” in Offenbach; a long sermon on the Alenu prayer published by Wessely from a lengthy Frankist manuscript; several Frankist epistles as presented in substance by Peter Beer; and a commentary on the book En Ya’akov that came into the possession of Dr. H. Brody, when he was Chief Rabbi of Prague. All of these sources share the same world, differing only in that the first speaks in praise of baptism and heaps “prophetic” imprecations on the Jewish people, its rabbis and officials, whereas the others, written by Jews, preserve silence on these topics. Also found in the volume containing the commentary on the En Ya’akov was a Frankist commentary on the Hallel prayer, the joyous faith and emotion of which are genuinely moving. The man who wrote these few pages was a pure and immaculate spirit and his jubilant profession of “the redemption and deliverance of his soul” is obviously deeply felt. Like most of the Sabbatians in the West, he may never have met Frank face to face, but on the other hand, the author of The Prophecy of Isaiah, who did, also believed him to be the incarnation of the Living God, “the true Jacob who never dies,” and clung to this feeling of salvation throughout his life.
In all of these documents the Frankist myth has lost much of its radical wildness. Most of its component parts are still recognizable in the form of “profound mysteries” that are to be revealed only to the prudent, but these too have undergone considerable modification. In many places, for instance, Frank’s insistence that the “believers” were literally to become soldiers is so completely allegorized that it loses both its logic and its paradoxicality. The most striking change, however, is that while the doctrine of “strange acts” remains, and continues to be associated with the appearance of “the Virgin” or “the Lady,” there is no longer the slightest reference to any ethic of libertinism. Here radicalism has retraced its steps and returned from the moral sphere to the historical. Even if we suppose that the authors of these documents were careful not to reveal themselves entirely in their writings—an assumption that many of their cryptic allusions would indeed seem to bear out—it is nonetheless apparent that libertine behavior is no longer considered by them to be a binding religious obligation. Instead there is an increased effort to understand the “strange acts” of the religious heroes of the past, particularly of the characters in the Bible, a book which the “believers” no less than the orthodox regarded as the ultimate authority; here too, however, the emphasis falls on vindicating such cases in theory rather than on imitating them in practice. In Offenbach, it is true, certain scandalous acts continued to be performed on no less than the Day of Atonement itself, but this had degenerated into a mere semblance, whereas “in good faith” among themselves the “believers” were no longer in the habit of carrying on such practices. As for the mystic principle of the “conjugation” of masculine and feminine elements in the divine worlds that had played so large a role in the unorthodox Kabbalistic theories of the nihilists and the “radicals,” this too, to judge by the sources in our possession, was now “toned down.” All in all, while the idea of violating the Torah of beriah reminded a cardinal principle of “the holy faith,” its application was transferred to other areas, particularly to dreams of a general revolution that would sweep away the past in a single stroke so that the world might be rebuilt.
Toward the end of Frank’s life the hopes he had entertained of abolishing all laws and conventions took on a very real historical significance. As a result of the French Revolution the Sabbatian and Frankist subversion of the old morality and religion was suddenly placed in a new and relevant context, and perhaps not only in the abstract, for we know that Frank’s nephews, whether as “believers” or out of some other motive, were active in high revolutionary circles in Paris and Strasbourg. Seemingly, the Revolution had come to corroborate the fact that the nihilist outlook had been correct all along: now the pillars of the world were indeed being shaken, and all the old ways seemed about to be overturned. For the “believers” all this had a double significance. On the one hand, with the characteristic self-centeredness of a spiritualist sect, they saw in it a sign of special divine intervention in their favor, since in the general upheaval the inner renewal and their clandestine activities based on it would be more likely to go unnoticed. This opinion was expressed by Frank himself and was commonly repeated by his followers in Prague. At the same time that the Revolution served as a screen for the world of inwardness, however, it was also recognized as having a practical value in itself, namely, the undermining of all spiritual and secular authorities, the power of the priesthood most of all. The “believers” in the ghettos of Austria, whose admiration for certain doctrines of the Christian Church (such as Incarnation) went hand in hand with a deep hatred of its priests and institutions, were particularly alive to this last possibility. Here the fashionable anti-clericalism of the times found a ready reception. In great and enthusiastic detail the Frankist author of The Prophecy of Isaiah describes the coming apocalypse which is destined to take place solely that the Jewish people might be reborn, repudiate its rabbis and other false leaders, and embrace the faith of “the true Jacob” as befits “the People of the God of Jacob.” To the commentator on the Hallel prayer writing in Prague, the verse in Psalm 118, “The right hand of the Lord is exalted,” meant that “if the right hand of the Lord begins to emerge, the deceitful left hand of Esau and his priests and the deceitful sword will retire”—an allusion, of course, to the combined rule of the secular and ecclesiastical powers. Throughout this literature apocalyptic ideas mingle freely with the political theories of the Revolution, which were also intended, after all, to lead to a “political and spiritual liberation,” to cite that illuminating and undeservedly neglected phrase with which the Frankists in Prague, as we have seen, defined the aims of their movement.
All this culminated in the remarkable case of “The Red Epistle,” of 1799, a circular letter written in red ink and addressed by the Frankists in Offenbach, the last Mecca of the sect, to a large number of Jewish congregations, exhorting them to embrace “the holy religion of Edom.” The theoretical part of this document—approximately the last third of it—is highly interesting. Here, in a single page, the epistlers summarize their beliefs without a single overt reference to Christianity, the word “Edom,” as we have seen, possessing a more specialized meaning in their vocabulary. Besides bearing all the markings of the Frankist myth, the epistle contains the familiar ingredients of the Sabbatian homily as well, particularly in its audacious exegeses of biblical stories, Midra-shim and Aggadot, passages from the Zohar, and Kabbalistic texts. In sum, an entire mystical theory of revolution. The passage that I am going to quote exemplifies perfectly the thinking, style, and cryptic manner of expression of this type of Frankist literature:
Know that “it is time for the Lord to work, [for] they have made void Thy law” [Ps. 119:-226], and in this connection the rabbis of blessed memory have said [Sanhedrin 97a] [that the Messiah will not come] “until the kingdom is entirely given over to heresy” [this being the mystical meaning of the words in Leviticus 13: 13] “it is all turned white and then he is clean,” and as is explained in the book Zror ha-Mor, his servants are clean too. For the time has come that Jacob [was referring to when he] promised, “I will come unto my Lord unto Seir” [Gen. 33:14], for we know that until now he has not yet gone thither; and he [who will fulfill the verse] is our Holy Lord Jacob, “the most perfect of all” [Zohar, II, 23a] and the most excellent of the patriarchs, for he grasps both sides [Zohar, I, 147a], binding one extreme to the other until the last extreme of all. But although last, he who will rise upon earth and say, “Arise O Virgin of Israel,” is not least [i.e., he is more important and favored than the first Jacob]. Nay, he is certainly not dead, and it is he who leads us on the true way in the holy religion of Edom, so that whoever is of the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must follow in their path, for they have shown the way that their sons are to take at the End of Days, Abraham by descending to Egypt [Gen. 12], Isaac [by journey] to Abimelech [Gen. 26], and Jacob, the most excellent of the patriarchs, by leaving Beersheba and going to Haran [Gen. 28] [that is], by leaving the faith [of his fathers] and the Land of Israel for another realm of impurity, as is explained in the Zohar; for the Zohar explains that the redemption must be sought in the most evil place of all. Then he came to the mouth of the well [Gen. 29] and found Rachel and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well and came to Laban and worked for him [in the realm of evil] and brought out his own portion. And afterward he went to Esau [Gen. 32], but he was still not done [with his task], for although he rolled the stone [from the well] they rolled it back again [Gen. 29:3], and therefore he could not go to Seir [the place where there are no laws] and all this was but to prepare the way for the last Jacob [Frank], the most perfect of all, at the End of Days. For as the Zohar explains, the first Jacob is perfect but the last Jacob is perfect in everything, and he will complete [Jacob’s mission in] everything. And it is said [in allusion to this] in the Zohar: “Until a man comes in the form of Adam and a woman in the form of Eve and they circumvent him [i.e., the serpent] and outwit him,” and so forth. Therefore, we must follow in his path, for “the ways of the Lord are right, and the just do walk in them” [Hos. 14:10], and though there is a burden of silence [about this] and the heart must not reveal [what it knows] to the mouth, it is nonetheless written [Isa. 42:16], “And I will bring the blind by a way that they know not, in paths that they know not I will lead them, I will make darkness light before them and rugged places plain.” And here it was that Jacob “honored his Master,” and so forth [namely, by standing in the realm of evil]—and look in the Zohar [I, 161b, where these words are to be found]. And herein will be [found the mystical meaning of the verse] “Lord, when Thou didst go forth out of Seir, when Thou didst march out of the field of Edom” [Judg. 5:14] and “Who is this that cometh from Edom?” [Isa. 63:1], for as is [stated] in the Tanna debe Eliyahu, there will come a day when the angels will seek the Lord and the sea will say “He is not in me” and the abyss will say “He is not in me.” Where then will they find him? In Edom, for it is said, “Who is this that cometh from Edom?” And they who follow him into this holy religion and cling to the House of Jacob [Frank] and take shelter in its shadow—for it is said [Lam. 4:20], “Under his shadow we shall live among the nations” and [Mic. 4:2] “Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and the House of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths”—to them it will be granted to cling to the Lord, for they [the ways of the Lord] are a way of life to those who find them. And it is written [Deut. 4:29], “From thence ye will seek the Lord thy God and thou shalt find Him.” Why does the text emphasize “from thence”? Because light will be made known from darkness [Zohar, III, 47b], as it is written [Mic. 7:8], “Though I sit in darkness, the Lord is a light unto me.”
The government officials who intercepted copies of this epistle rightly suspected its authors of being hidden revolutionaries, but for the wrong reason. The many obscure references to an individual called “Jacob” led them to surmise that they were in reality dealing with—the Jacobins, who in this manner were supposed to spread their radical propaganda among the Jews of the ghetto. An investigation was ordered on the spot. The authorities who conducted it in Frankfurt and Offenbach, however, did not delve beneath the surface of the affair and were quickly satisfied that it involved nothing more than an intrigue to swindle and extort money from ignorant Jews. In our own day, a historian who has published their official report, rather naively concludes by remarking, “and so the ridiculous theories of a Frankist plot which had proved so alarming to these imperial bureaucrats were at last laid to rest,” thereby failing to realize himself that on a deeper level the authorities’ suspicions were fully if unwittingly justified! Had they bothered to read and understand not just the debtors’ notes of Frank’s children in Offenbach which were in possession of the town’s bankers and moneylenders, but also The Prophecy of Isaiah that had been composed within the four walls of the “court” itself, they would have been amazed to discover how ardently these Frankist “Jacobins” yearned for the overthrow of the existing regime.
The hopes and beliefs of these last Sabbatians caused them to be particularly susceptible to the “millennial” winds of the times. Even while still “believers”—in fact, precisely because they were “believers”—they had been drawing closer to the spirit of the Haskalah all along, so that when the flame of their faith finally flickered out they soon reappeared as leaders of Reform Judaism, secular intellectuals, or simply complete and indifferent skeptics. We have already noted how deeply rooted the Sabbatian apathy toward Orthodox observance and Jewish tradition in general was. Even the “moderates” tended to believe that the commandments were for the most part meant to be observed only in the Land of Israel and that “in the exile there is no punishment [for not observing them], even though there is still as always a reward [if they are kept]”—a doctrine that was ultimately to have a catastrophic effect on all traditional ties and to help prepare the way for the philosophy of assimilationism. A man such as Jonas Wehle, for example, the spiritual leader and educator of the Sabbatians in Prague after 1790, was equally appreciative of both Moses Mendelssohn and Sabbatai Zevi, and the fragments of his writings that have survived amply bear out the assertion of one of his opponents that “he took the teachings of the philosopher Kant and dressed them up in the costume of the Zohar and the Lurianic Kabbalah.” It is evident from the commentary on the En Ya’akov and from the letters that were in Peter Beer’s possession that men like Wehle intended to use the Haskalah for their own Sabbatian ends, but in the meanwhile the Haskalah went its way and proceeded to make use of them.
Indeed, even for those “believers” who remained faithful to their own religious world and did not share the enthusiasm of the Prague Frankists for the “School of Mendelssohn,” the way to the Haskalah was easily traveled. It was surely no accident that a city like Prossnitz, which served as a center for the Haskalah in Moravia upon the movement’s spread there one generation earlier, was also a bastion of Sabbatianism in that country. The leaders of the “School of Mendelssohn,” who were neither Sabbatians themselves, of course, nor under the influence of mysticism at all, to say nothing of mystical heresy, found ready recruits for their cause in Sabbatian circles, where the world of rabbinic Judaism had already been completely destroyed from within, quite independently of the efforts of secularist criticism. Those who had survived the ruin were now open to any alternative or wind of change; and so, their “mad visions” behind them, they turned their energies and hidden desires for a more positive life to assimilation and the Haskalah, two forces that accomplished without paradoxes, indeed without religion at all, what they, the members of “the accursed sect,” had earnestly striven for in a stormy contention with truth, carried on in the half-light of a faith pregnant with paradoxes.
1 One might particularly cite in this connection the puzzling case of the great Talmudic scholar Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschütz, a psychological enigma that still needs badly to be unraveled, although here is not the place to do so. I cannot conceal the fact, however, that after thoroughly examining both Eibeschütz’s own Kabbalistic writings and all the polemical works that they engendered I have been forced to conclude that he was indeed a Sabbatian, as both Jacob Emden and, in a later age, Heinrich Graetz insisted.
2 Among anti-Sabbatian Kabbalists there were a number of attempts to explain this monstrous perversion, as it seemed, of sacred writings. In his Divrei Sofrim (, p. 32d), for example, R. Zadok Hacohen of Lublin cites an unidentified “book written by a saintly man” as his authority for asserting that the Sabbatians “came to the end that they came to because they engaged in the study of the Kabbalah with their hearts full of lust and therefore materialized much [of its spiritual meaning]; and in consequence of the fact that they saw references to copulation. kissing, embracing, and so forth [in what they read], they yielded to lascivious passions, may God preserve us from the same, and committed great evil.” In much the same vein, Rabbi Zevi of Zydaczow, one of the great Kabbalists of the Hasidic movement and possibly none other than Rabbi Zadok Hacohen’s “saintly man” himself, writes in his Sur me-Ra va-Aseh Tov: “I once heard my teacher [the Seer of Lublin] comment on certain students by mentioning the case of that well-known sect. . . . It [i.e., Sabbatian antinomianism] happened because they desired to achieve the revelation of Elijah and to prophesy by the Holy Spirit . . . without troubling to discipline their nature or their material selves. . . .”
3 A pun on the blessing in the morning prayer, “Blessed art Thou O Lord our God, King of the universe, who freest those who are in bondage [mattir asurim].” [Translator’s note]
4 The prohibition against eating the sinew of the thighvein is to be found in Genesis 32, which tells of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel: “Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein” (32:33). [Translator’s Note]
5 The Spanish term used to denote Baruchya of Salonika in the sect of his followers who saw in him the reborn Sabbatai Zevi and God incarnate.
6 Frank’s sayings were never published in Hebrew because the Hebrew translation of the second volume of Kraushar’s history, in which they appear, was prevented from going to press at the last minute by the news of Kraushar’s conversion to Catholicism, which shocked the Jewish public. I am deeply indebted to my friend Miss Hadassah Goldgart for furnishing me with an exact version of the original Polish text.
7 Hans Jonas, Gnosis und spätuntiker Geist (1934), I, 234.
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The Holiness of Sin
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
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Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
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Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
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When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
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He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
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In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.