Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills
THE STORY SO FAR: Despite the conversion to Islam of false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi in 1666, and his death in 1676, secret societies of Sabbatians who still believed in his messianic mission thrived in communities across Europe, and continued to be active well into the eighteenth century. One prominent rabbi who fell under suspicion early in his career was R. Yonason Eybeschutz, whose name emerged during a campaign to root out Sabbatians in 1725. R. Yonason successfully dismissed the allegations and signed his name on a toughly worded ban against Sabbatianism and its adherents. But when he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the illustrious triple-community Hamburg-Altona-Wandsbeck twenty-five years later the accusations resurfaced. Kabbalistic amulets he had given pregnant women for their protection were opened up, and one of them was brought to R. Yaakov Emden for his evaluation by a concerned group of local community members. At first R. Yaakov refused to look at it, but after being reassured that his name would not be mentioned, he reluctantly agreed to examine the amulet. He quickly spotted a coded reference to Shabbetai Tzvi and showed it to his visitors. The scene was now set for an explosive showdown between the Chief Rabbi and his detractors.
Despite R. Yaakov’s request that his name be kept out of the matter, his involvement soon became an open secret. It seemed as if everyone in the community had expected his negative verdict on the amulet, and notwithstanding his reluctance to be associated with the investigation, particularly because he felt that his opinion would be immediately dismissed as biased, the talk in the triple-community was that R. Yaakov had uncovered R. Yonason’s darkest secret and was ready to go public with what he knew.
It was only a matter of time before R. Yonason himself was informed of the rumors, and after discussing strategy with his closest advisors, he decided to send a messenger to R. Yaakov in an attempt to try and put a lid on the matter before it spiraled out of control. The messenger arrived at R. Yaakov’s home bearing a friendly letter asking R. Yaakov to disclose his views on the amulet, so that R. Yonason could offer an explanation. A rather surprised R. Yaakov told the messenger that he was not quite sure why the Chief Rabbi was approaching him, as he had never expressed any opinion as to who the author of the amulet was, and had certainly never suggested that it was the Chief Rabbi who had written it. He had simply expressed his view that the formulation of the amulet was Sabbatian in origin, and whoever had written it was a dangerous heretic.
When this message came back to R. Yonason, he immediately called a meeting at his home of the community’s most prominent lay-leaders and informed them of the behind-the-scenes dialogue with R. Yaakov, and his insistence that the amulet contained Sabbatian heresy. The gathered dignitaries listened as R. Yonason recalled how he had battled accusations of Sabbatianism in the past, without anyone ever presenting a shred of evidence to prove anything against him. And now, once again, he was in the frame. R. Yonason’s voice quivered with emotion as he passionately denied that his amulets were Sabbatian or heretical in any way, and he requested for the community board to intervene in order to prevent his authority from being compromised by R. Yaakov and others who were spreading rumors across the community.
The following morning there was a knock at R. Yaakov’s door. It was Tuesday, February 2nd, 1751. When R. Yaakov came a came to the door he was shocked to find a full-sized horse-drawn carriage standing on the street outside his house. The man at the door informed him that he worked for the Jewish community, and was there to bring R. Yaakov to the community’s headquarters for an emergency meeting. R. Yaakov was astonished. This was no ordinary invitation, and he realized this was not going to be an ordinary meeting. He asked the community employee if the Chief Rabbi was expected to be there, but was informed that only the executive committee of the lay leadership would be in attendance.
R. Yaakov arrived at the meeting fearing the worst, but his apprehension was quickly dispelled. The three members of the executive committee – all personal friends for many years – were extremely respectful, and the atmosphere was amiable and benign. He sat at the head of the table and they explained apologetically how circumstances had forced them to act in this abrupt manner, but only because of the sensitivity of the matter at hand. After all, one of them said, it is not every day that the Chief Rabbi is accused of being a heinous heretic by another senior rabbi in the community. They all laughed heartily. But R. Yaakov didn’t even smile.
“Let me make one thing very clear,” he began, “I have never made any public pronouncement suggesting that R. Yonason Eybeschutz is a heretic and nor do I want to. On the contrary, I have made it abundantly clear to the handful of people I have spoken to that I want to stay completely out of this matter, and not be involved in any way whatsoever. Frankly, I have no interest in getting into a fight with the Chief Rabbi and his supporters, nor do I wish to involve myself with sordid communal politics. In fact, as you well know, I despise community politics. So, unless you can give me a good reason to be here, I would like to leave immediately.”
The atmosphere in the room shifted; suddenly no one was smiling. R. Yaakov gazed at each member of the executive committee individually, looking to each one for a response, but they were all silent. So he reached for his hat and coat and began to leave.
“Hold on, hold on.” It was the president of the community speaking. “R. Yaakov, hold on, I’m begging you, please don’t leave. We are in a crisis, and you are a part of that crisis, whatever you say.” R. Yaakov eyed him intently. The president gulped, and continued: “The Chief Rabbi is flatly denying the accusations of heresy, and yet we have heard from a number of people that you believe the author of the amulet – allegedly his amulet – is a heretic who believes in Shabbetai Tzvi. The entire community is in a total frenzy. You can’t just walk away from this! We need to know why you said the amulet is heretical. And if you believe it is a Sabbatian amulet, you need to explain why we should be concerned. Rabbi, if we don’t know the answers to these questions how do you expect us to deal with this matter adequately and properly? At the very least, we need you to help us navigate this emergency situation. After all, this is your community as much as it is ours. Who else besides for you can we turn to? Surely you do not want to see our community destroyed?”
R. Yaakov slowly sat down. The president’s plea had made a strong impact. It suddenly dawned on R. Yaakov that he was in too deep to walk away. But at the same time he realized that whatever he said there would be terrible repercussions for him. If he belittled the Sabbatian nature of the amulet, and then at a later date R. Yonason would be exposed as an insidious Sabbatian infiltrator with a mission to theologically destroy Judaism, how would he ever live that down? How would he forgive himself for having missed the opportunity to stop him in his tracks? The alternative was no less scary. Everyone knew that R. Yonason had countless defenders who would never believe anything remotely bad about their hero. For them R. Yonason was the paradigmatic rabbi – learned, pious, and charismatic; a brilliant teacher, a gifted orator, a decisive halachist, and a source of wisdom and advice. If R. Yaakov went public with what he believed to be true, or his name became associated with an attack on R. Yonason’s credibility, all hell would break loose.
R. Yaakov made one last attempt to avoid the inevitable storm. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you are making a big mistake. I am not the appropriate person to offer guidance. This problem needs to be brought to the attention of the greatest rabbis of our generation. Go and show them the amulets, and let them decide what to do. You know me – I want to lead a private, undisturbed life. That is why I chose to leave the rabbinate. Please leave me out of this, and use the appropriate channels to sort it out.”
The president of the community looked at his colleagues, and then back at R. Yaakov. “Rabbi, if only it was so simple. Unfortunately your name is already associated with the exposition of the amulet. You can’t avoid that reality, and you cannot ignore our plea for help. We desperately need to understand why you believe the amulet to be Sabbatian so that we can take things further. And we really need to know from you how bad the amulet is.”
R. Yaakov looked at them, sighed, and reached into his pocket. He took out the letter received from R. Yonason only days earlier and passed it to the president, who immediately began to read it. R. Yaakov then took out the amulet he had been shown. The amulet – now covered with R. Yaakov’s handwritten notes – was passed around in complete silence. After a few minutes R. Yaakov spoke softly to the three lay-leaders.
“My friends – I wish it wasn’t true, but as you can from my notes, this amulet is a sick and twisted example of Sabbatian heresy. Before I received the Chief Rabbi’s letter I never told anyone the amulet was his, only that it was Sabbatian. So why did he write to me? What is he so nervous about? Draw your own conclusions, but one thing I can tell you for certain: the author of this amulet, and any amulets like it, is a highly dangerous man, a heretic of the worst kind. If it is R. Yonason, then his powerful influence over so many people across the Jewish world, not just in our community, presents the gravest danger to our faith since Shabbetai Tzvi himself, and maybe worse.”
“But,” said R. Yaakov, “I don’t expect you to believe me . . . go to other experts, as many as you like, and check it out for yourselves. You need to, so that this controversy does not become framed as a personal battle between me and him.”
The president stood up, shook R. Yaakov’s hand, and thanked him for coming. “Perhaps we can meet again on Thursday once we have discussed this with the whole community board.” R. Yaakov smiled and nodded, and the meeting was over.
The following morning the three members of the executive committee called the rest of the board for a full emergency meeting. Without embellishment they repeated what they had heard from R. Yaakov and passed around the amulet and R. Yonason’s letter. A discussion began, but there was no consensus. Several members of the board simply dismissed R. Yaakov as a troublemaker, jealous of R. Yonason for having taken the rabbinic position he felt belonged to him. Others were furious that anyone was accusing their spiritual leader of being a heretic. And then there were those who felt that the mere hint of suspicion against the Chief Rabbi was a disgrace to their community, and the Chief Rabbi would have to go. The meeting descended into a screaming match, and despite hours of heated debate nothing was agreed or resolved.
Meanwhile R. Yonason was informed of the secret meeting between R. Yaakov and the executive committee and the emergency board meeting, and others whispered to him that there were plans afoot to see him deposed from his post. In a panic, he called an urgent meeting of his closest supporters, to form a strategy to defend himself against the emerging storm. His supporters promised him a phased strategy to deal with the threat. First they would deal with R. Yaakov. He would have to be neutralized. Then they would deal with the executive committee and the board. It wasn’t going to be easy, but he had nothing to fear. The meeting ended with every one of R. Yonason’s devotees pledging their full and unwavering support, and an assurance that they would work tirelessly and ceaselessly to ensure his name was not tarnished by this witch-hunt.
That evening, as maariv services began at R. Yaakov’s private synagogue, Shmuel Hecksher, a longstanding friend of R. Yaakov, rushed in, breathless and pale, and ran up to the rabbi. “It’s all over town,” he gasped, “they are planning to come and kill you.”
R. Yaakov pulled him outside. “Shmuel, what are you talking about? What’s going on?”
“It’s true, absolutely true. R. Yonason’s supporters have let it be known that you are a ‘rodef’, intent on destroying the Chief Rabbi’s reputation by spreading malicious rumors. It is a sin punishable by death, they claim, and they are therefore permitted to kill you.”
Now it was R. Yaakov’s turn to go pale.
Hecksher continued to talk, the words tumbling out of him in a torrent. “These guys are very powerful. They have friends among the gentiles. You will be murdered, money will change hands, and no one will be arrested.” Tears were flowing down his cheeks. “Rabbi, I’m begging you, run away while you still can. This whole thing is way out of control.”
A crowd had gathered at the door of the synagogue. R. Yaakov spoke, his voice shaky but resolute. “I’m not running anywhere. I was born here and have lived here for the past eighteen years. My home is here. My family is here. My friends are here. My library is here. My life is here. I have done nothing wrong, and everyone knows I am a man of integrity.” He turned to Shmuel Hecksher, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Thank you, Shmuel, for your concern. But don’t worry, I am at peace. G-d will protect me, and all of us, from all those who wish us any harm.”
That night R. Yaakov was unable to sleep, his mind at work weighing up his options. He still had the scheduled meeting with the executive committee the following day. Perhaps they would protect him, even though R. Yonason’s supporters seemed to have the upper hand. Maybe he could work out a compromise solution with them. There had to be a way to avoid a full-scale communal war – especially if his life was in danger. But suddenly R. Yaakov say bolt upright in his bed. What was he thinking? This wasn’t about him! What was his own paltry life worth compared with the thousands of spiritual lives snuffed out as a result of some disreputable compromise? There was a Sabbatian heretic loose in the community! This was no time to worry about himself! The discussion needed to refocus on the amulet, and the dangers its’ author posed, a danger made infinitely greater if the author was in fact the Chief Rabbi. Hadn’t his own father, Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi, sacrificed everything in the battle with Nechemia Chayyun? Now it was his turn to do the same. He would show them all how he was his father’s true son, ready to risk everything to expose a Sabbatian infiltrator.
At shacharit the following morning, R. Yaakov’s private synagogue was packed with people. Everyone had heard about the incident the previous evening, and people were there from across the community, to show their support and to find out what R. Yaakov intended to do. There were also supporters of R. Yonason there, including the messenger who had only recently brought the Chief Rabbi’s letter. The service concluded and R. Yaakov walked up to the bimah. He raised his hand for everyone to be silent, and everyone stopped what they were doing to hear him speak. Usually at this point R. Yaakov would share some Torah thoughts, but not today.
“Last night,” he began, “I was informed that my life is in danger. But rather then run away, as I was advised to do, I have decided to let you know what has been going on behind closed doors for the past few weeks. It had not been my intention to do this, but I feel I am left with no choice.”
“Some time ago I was approached by a group of people who asked me to examine an amulet, and to give my assessment of its contents. After studying it carefully I confirmed that the amulet contained Sabbatian heresy. However, neither then nor since have I ever suggested that the author of the amulet was our community’s Chief Rabbi, R. Yonason Eybeschutz. Just to be clear, I am not currently in a fight with R. Yonason, nor have I ever fought with him. The person I have a fight with is the author of the amulet, whoever he may be.”
“And let me state for the record, so that no one can be in any doubt: the amulet that was shown to me, and that I was asked about, is entirely heretical, and the person who wrote it and gave it out for the purposes of healing, is without question a heretic. Yes, you heard correctly, and I will say it again. There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that the man who wrote the amulet is an Apikoros, and has no share in the world to come. If that person or any person can prove me wrong, I am ready to be proven wrong.”
“I have one last thing to say, and this is very important. Although I have no idea if it was R. Yonason who wrote the amulet, many people believe that he was the one who wrote it. That being the case I think he is obligated to vindicate himself, and to save himself from suspicion. He has my word that if he explains himself properly, I will personally be his first defender. I will battle relentlessly to counteract the false rumors, and I will shut the mouths of those who are attacking him. What is more I will go to the Great Synagogue and – in front of the whole community – publicly beg for his forgiveness, even though I never meant him harm. Truthfully, I wish things had been different. I wish R. Yonason would have immediately and publicly explained the contents of all his amulets when this saga began. But that is now in the past. The facts are as they are, and we are where we are. All that matters now is that I am ready, with all my heart, to put this behind us – if it is proven that I have made a terrible mistake. But for that to happen R. Yonason needs to do what he needs to do.”
With that R. Yaakov stepped down from the bimah and disappeared into his house. The synagogue was quiet for a moment and then erupted in heated conversation as the magnitude of what had just happened came into focus. Without saying it explicitly, R. Yaakov Emden had accused the Chief Rabbi of being a Sabbatian heretic. The genie was out of the bottle, and what had until then been an unofficial rumor now had the backing of none other than R. Yaakov Emden.
NEXT TIME: R. Yaakov Emden’s public statement meant that the community leaders had to react. But how would they react? Would they side with R. Yaakov, and challenge their Chief Rabbi to come clean? Or would they stand by R. Yonason, whose honor was at stake, and dismiss R. Yaakov’s accusation out of hand? The Emden-Eybeschutz controversy was about to enter its most contentious stage, and the lives of both protagonists was about to be thrown into complete turmoil.
Questions, comments welcome – firstname.lastname@example.org