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 was suspected of being a Sabbatian was the A-list rabbinic luminary, R. Yonason Eybeschutz of Prague. Although initially he successfully dismissed the allegations, when he was appointed Chief Rabbi of the illustrious triple-community Hamburg-Altona-Wandsbeck in 1750, the suspicions came back to haunt him and then developed into a full blown controversy over his suitability as a rabbi. His principle opponent was R. Yaakov Emden, a distinguished rabbi with strong influence within and beyond the triple-community, who claimed that Kabbalistic amulets written by R. Yonason he had examined contained secret references to Shabbetai Tzvi. The community leadership sided with R. Yonason, and R. Yaakov was forced to flee to Amsterdam. A number of prominent rabbis came to R. Yaakov’s defense, including R. Yaakov Yehoshua Falk of Frankfurt, and R. Shmuel Hilman of Metz, but it was to no avail; R. Yonason’s seemed unassailable. But as violence between the opposing factions began to escalate in Hamburg and Altona, the gentile authorities became involved, and the tide began to shift against R. Yonason.
As a result of unrest created by the amulet controversy and the regular outbreaks of violence on the streets of the triple community, as well as the regular imposition of one-sided communal sanctions against supporters of R. Yaakov, the gentile authorities in both Hamburg and Altona were drawn into the affair. The Hamburg City Council came down on R. Yonason’s side. Altona was legally a province of Denmark, and Altona City Council, wary of wrong-footing this complex situation, decided to bring the dispute to the attention of the King of Denmark, Frederick V. Shocked by the violence and complete breakdown of law-and-order in the Jewish community, the King ruled in favor of R. Yaakov and his supporters, and ordered that R. Yaakov be permitted to return home without delay.
R. Yaakov’s supporters informed him of the good news, but at first he was reluctant to march back into the eye of the storm and instead hesitated in Amsterdam. Only after receiving an emotional letter from his wife requesting that he come home did R. Yaakov finally return to Altona, on August 3, 1752, having spent over fourteen months in exile.
Notwithstanding this triumph, R. Yaakov’s situation remained thoroughly unpleasant. R. Yonason was still the Chief Rabbi, and his defenders were defiant. As if this was not enough, R. Yaakov’s financial situation was a complete mess due to his prolonged absence, and with each passing month, as more rabbis across the Jewish world declared their solidarity with R. Yonason, R. Yaakov’s prospects seemed bleaker than ever. Despite all this R. Yaakov persisted with his unrelenting campaign against R. Yonason, whom he saw as epitomizing the dangers posed by Sabbatians, whom he believed were intent on insidiously inserting themselves and their perverse doctrines into mainstream Jewish life. R. Yaakov was petrified that unless he highlighted the threat, the uneducated Jewish masses, led by rabbis who dismissed the dangers of Sabbatianism as phantom nonsense, would sleepwalk into heretical oblivion, and particularly with someone like R. Yonason as a Sabbatian, this danger was heightened exponentially.
So rather than forcing him to reconsider his position, the more rabbis who declared their support for R. Yonason, the more R. Yaakov became convinced of the grave Sabbatian threat he represented; and the more that people ridiculed the idea that someone of R. Yonason’s caliber could believe in a long-dead messianic pretender, the more R. Yaakov’s mission to undermine R. Yonason in any way possible became his urgent priority.
Meanwhile King Frederick V of Denmark demanded that R. Yonason appear before him in Copenhagen, and explain the controversial amulets. There was also official concern in the Royal Court about R. Yonason’s position as Chief Rabbi. The King had been informed of a claim that R. Yonason’s election to the coveted and much contested Chief Rabbi position had been an absolute sham, with R. Yaakov’s supporters arguing that the number of people reported to have voted in his favor simply didn’t make any sense.
R. Yonason was deeply disheartened by this latest turn of events, and wrote to friends and colleagues across Europe describing how disgusted he was that his opponents had resorted to the gentile court system, a tactic contrary to Jewish law. But although in isolation this may have been true, in reality the gentile courts had only intervened as a result of tactical moves made against R. Yaakov’s supporters by R. Yonason’s allies, leading to repercussions that also affected local gentile businesses. And once the courts were involved, it was inevitable that each side would try to gain the upper hand. That being the case, R. Yonason’s protestations, while not without foundation, were probably an expression of his disappointment that things had turned against him. The protestations were also slightly disingenuous, as R. Yonason had consistently refused to appear before a beit din and be thoroughly cross-examined by his accusers. In the final analysis, if there was no way to resolve the dispute equitably in a Jewish setting, surely the option of the gentile court, while regrettable, was the only other alternative.
In anticipation of his upcoming court case, R. Yonason engaged the services of his former student, Karl Anton. Anton was born Gershon Moshe Cohen, but after studying in R. Yonason’s yeshiva he inexplicably converted to Christianity, changed his name, and eventually became the Professor of Hebrew at Helmstadt University, in Wurzburg, Bavaria. R. Yaakov poured scorn on R. Yonason for hiring this outcast to assist him with his defense, although R. Yonason countered that he had no choice, as Anton was the only person he knew – perhaps the only person alive at that time – who was thoroughly familiar with rabbinic knowledge and who could also conduct himself in formal German with ease, therefore allowing him to be comfortable in the official setting of the Royal Court while representing a rabbinic client accused of religious offenses.
Before approaching Anton, R. Yonason tried to hire a gentile called Neuendahl, an advocate with ties to the Danish judiciary. For whatever reason Neuendahl refused the brief, and Anton was the second choice. Months later Neuendahl agreed to discuss the case with R. Yaakov, and he revealed that Karl Anton’s spirited defense of his former teacher – a defense R. Yaakov repudiated as a web of lies and evasion – had been entirely composed by none other than R. Yonason himself. Neuendahl knew this to be the case because he had seen the defense arguments before anyone else, when R. Yonason went through the file with him before hiring Anton.
After the court case was over Anton published his defense of R. Yonason, which revolved entirely around one particular amulet – an amulet R. Yonason accepted he had authored and had not been tampered with – in a German-language book titled “Kurze Nachricht von dem Falschen Messias Sabbathai Zebhi und den neulich seinetwegen in Hamburg and Altona entstandenen bewegungen” (A short account concerning the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, and the events connected to him that recently took place in Hamburg and Altona).
Second choice or not, Anton performed fantastically in the courtroom. As a Hebrew professor at a gentile college he was completely comfortable explaining arcane rabbinic material to the uninitiated, and, after being tutored by R. Yonason in the technicalities of mystical word formations of Kabbalistic amulets, he totally mastered his brief before presenting the case. The trial attracted the attention of numerous journalists, religious scholars and jurists from far and wide, all eager to find out more about the secretive world of Jewish mysticism and the details of its practical applications. Anton was undeterred by the packed courtroom. He took the obscure Kabbalistic background that underpinned amulet authorship, and the detailed specifics of the particular amulet under examination, and submitted a compelling case on behalf of his client.
Words in the amulet that R. Yaakov had claimed were coded references to Shabbetai Tzvi and his messianic mission, said Anton, were in reality coded acronyms for verses in the Bible, or were letter combinations that had appeared in Kabbalistic works that were published long before Shabbetai Tzvi was born. It was simply preposterous, Anton claimed, to suggest that his esteemed client had meant Shabbetai Tzvi when he inscribed these letter formations if there was any other plausible explanation for the words and letters used in the amulet. After all, he said, there were so many different cyphers and cryptographs one could apply to the Hebrew alphabet, that anyone who wanted to could easily force a Sabbatian connotation onto any text anywhere.
In a rousing closing speech Anton declared to the mesmerized courtroom that he had amply demonstrated, despite all the heated accusations, that his client had absolutely no case to answer.
“Everybody knows that Rabbi Jacob of Emden, despite his eminent lineage, is a sworn enemy of the Chief Rabbi. This is simply an undeniable fact. Moreover, Rabbi Jacob’s knowledge of Kabbalah is completely inferior to my client’s familiarity with this ancient wisdom. All Rabbi Jacob knows are a few methods by which the Hebrew alphabet can be manipulated to mean this or that, or, indeed, anything. And the fact that he has rather cleverly insinuated heresy into the amulet that was composed by my client – the very same amulet we have studied so closely these past few days – has absolutely no bearing on my client’s innocence or guilt. His spurious interpretations can be dismissed as the jealous rantings of a spiteful competitor, while my client’s sterling reputation, and the love and devotion he is afforded by thousands of Jews both in his own community, and in every European city, town and village where a Jewish communities exist, offers incontrovertible proof, beyond any reasonable doubt whatsoever, of my client’s piety, his integrity, and his irrefutable dedication to the faith of his forefathers.”
Anton now turned to the King, and unflinchingly looked him in the eye: “Your Royal Majesty: it is my view that these proceedings have been a shameful waste of His Majesty’s time. My client has on more than one occasion repudiated the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, along with any person or doctrine associated with that evil charlatan. May I respectfully request of His Majesty on my client’s behalf – please do not permit this travesty against him to continue any longer. I implore His Majesty to declare my client innocent of all the charges so that he may be allowed to proceed with his duties as Chief Rabbi unhindered by unfounded rumors, lurid speculation and groundless innuendo. Your Royal Majesty – surely enough is enough!”
With that final exclamation Anton bowed low and returned to his seat, as the court erupted in excited conversation, overwhelmed by the fantastic drama that had played out in front of them for day after day over a tiny scrap of parchment inscribed with a few Hebrew letters. Never before had the Royal Court of Denmark been witness to such proceedings. This was, after all, just a parochial dispute concerning an obscure religious matter – and yet it had been deliberated by the highest court of the land, and presided over by the King himself.
The King retired with his advisors to consider the evidence. When they returned to the courtroom the verdict was unequivocal. In the first instance R. Yonason was completely exonerated of all the charges. Never again would anyone be allowed to cast any aspersions – neither spoken nor published – on the Chief Rabbi or his amulets. And secondly, so that R. Yonason’s position as Chief Rabbi would no longer be in any doubt, the King ordered a new election to take place for the Chief Rabbinate position at the first available opportunity.
The election took place in December 1752, and R. Yonason was overwhelmingly reelected. But the unexpected victory and vindication were quickly diminished by other events. Almost immediately after his reelection as Chief Rabbi, the Hamburg City Council – Hamburg was a ‘free’ city not under the rule of the Danish King – rejected both the King’s verdict and the election result, and a long, complex battle began to unfold over the formal definition of the chief-rabbinate for the triple-community, and about the powers he was legally entitled to. Simultaneous to this latest twist, the battle between rabbis across Europe over how to deal with R. Yonason’s alleged Sabbatianism began to escalate, as positions hardened and enmity increased.
R. Yonason’s strategy vis-à-vis his rabbinic accusers had been consistent throughout. He was only willing to present his version of what the amulets meant in a setting that did not include anyone who would challenge him or disrespect him. This was his position throughout the controversy, and he resorted to numerous tactics to ensure that he would not be forced into any kind of hostile rabbinic hearing. As far as R. Yaakov was concerned, this evasive attitude alone proved R. Yonason’s guilt. Why would he not agree to a harsh cross-examination if he was innocent? Why was he so frightened of coming face-to-face with his opponents? R. Yaakov believed he knew the answer. R. Yonason was acutely aware that if he was ever subjected to penetrating questions that he might be unable to answer, as opposed to the soft, respectful questions of deferential rabbis who held him in high esteem, his Sabbatianism would immediately be revealed for all to see. It was R. Yonason’s unwillingness to appear before his accusers and the consequent presumption of guilt that underlined R. Yaakov’s ferocious attempts to destroy R. Yonason’s reputation and see him unseated from his position.
It was inevitable that two distinct camps would emerge among the European rabbinate – one group that presumed R. Yonason’s guilt but could not formulate an effective strategy to deal with it, and the other group that presumed R. Yonason’s innocence but were seemingly unable to find any way to silence his critics. It was at this point that R. Yechezkel Landau stepped into the picture. Much later in his career R. Landau would become famous as Chief Rabbi of Prague and as author of the scholarly work Noda BiYehuda, but in 1752 he was the relatively unknown 39-year-old rabbi of Yampol, a small town in Ukraine 1,000 miles from Hamburg, who had never met R. Yonason Eybeschutz or R. Yaakov Emden. For some unknown reason R. Landau felt compelled to resolve the epic dispute that had erupted between these two rabbinic titans, both of whom were old enough to be his father. To that end he sat down and wrote a long ‘letter of reconciliation’ suggesting a compromise solution where both R. Yonason and R. Yaakov, along with all their supporters, could walk away with their pride and reputations intact.
The letter was diplomatically worded and cleverly constructed. It painted R. Yonason as one of the greatest rabbis of the time whose understandable but misplaced mistreatment of R. Yaakov had stained an otherwise unblemished reputation. It was a wrong that had to be put right, especially as R. Yaakov had clearly had grounds to behave as he did. To have publicly embarrassed R. Yaakov by banning anyone from communicating with him and to then have him hounded out of town was simply not an appropriate way to behave towards a distinguished rabbi, and particularly R. Yaakov, whose dedication to the most stringent Torah-observant life and whose positive influence on those around him were beyond question. Only rabbis who lead people astray can be placed under any kind of ban, said R. Landau, and R. Yaakov was certainly not in that category.
“R. Yonason might propose that R. Yaakov did lead people astray by suggesting he was a fraud, and I can see why he would say that. R. Yonason has been an exemplary teacher of Torah to thousands of students across the Jewish world, many of whom have their own students, making him the teacher of virtually every Torah scholar in Europe. If doubts are raised about him it would put the credentials of all those scholars into doubt and R. Yonason might understand that as someone leading people astray. But in my opinion this would only be the case if R. Yaakov deliberately led them astray, and this was not the case. On the contrary! We know that his intentions were to prevent people from going astray! That being the case he should never have been excommunicated, and never been expelled.”
R. Landau had clearly examined the notarized amulets from Metz, and was convinced they contained letter formations that referred to Shabbetai Tzvi. But he had two superb observations to make – one that was a face-saving device for R. Yonason, the other a wise insight into the potential threat posed by the author of the amulets. In the first instance he questioned whether any notarized document that condemned a third party was valid under Jewish law if that third party was not present when the document was notarized. He noted that none of the amulets were signed by R. Yonason, and that it was therefore impossible to establish with any halachic certainty that he had written them. In other words, he was providing R. Yonason with a graceful avenue to deny the authorship of any amulet that had a Sabbatian link. His second point was even more astute:
“Although there is no way of deciphering these amulets in any way that would eliminate their Sabbatian contents, to be perfectly honest I do not regard them as heresy – because heresy is only heresy if it encourages heresy.”
With this remarkable proposition R. Landau completely deflated the suggestion that R. Yonason posed any kind of threat to the future of Judaism, even if it was irrefutably true that the amulets attributed to him contained references to the false messiah. As long as R. Yonason visibly behaved in accordance with Jewish law, and conducted himself according to the standards expected of a great rabbi, what difference did it make if he had surreptitiously inserted incomprehensible Sabbatian word puzzles into amulets that influenced nobody to believe in the messianic mission of the long dead Shabbetai Tzvi?
To resolve the dispute R. Landau proposed that all the amulets that had ever been attributed to R. Yonason should be handed over to the Jewish authorities and never be used again. He also proposed that R. Yonason publicly declare that he would never write another amulet, so that no Sabbatian heretic would ever again be able to claim that he was partial to their cause. R. Landau concluded his proposal by forcefully warning against any further mistreatment or criticism of R. Yaakov for his campaign against R. Yonason.
R. Landau’s letter was widely circulated, and although it clearly implied that R. Yonason was the author of the amulets, the suggested compromise solution was nonetheless warmly welcomed by R. Yonason and his supporters, who clearly understood how R. Landau’s proposal offered a workable exit strategy that wiped the slate clean, and offered a way forward devoid of controversy, just as long as no further associations between R. Yonason and Sabbatian heresy were ever discovered. But R. Yaakov was in absolutely no mood for a compromise of any kind. As far as he was concerned this was a holy war, and as such it was a zero-sum game. R. Yonason had to be defrocked, and humiliated. No other end to the dispute was acceptable. In a viciously worded pamphlet against the ‘letter of reconciliation’ R. Yaakov called R. Landau every name imaginable, and even accused him of being a closet Sabbatian who desired R. Yonason’s exoneration and rehabilitation.
The controversy had essentially reached a stalemate. Although R. Yonason remained Chief Rabbi of Altona, in Hamburg his powers were stripped away by the City Council, and by the time they were reinstated some years later, the issue had become largely irrelevant. In the rabbinic world R. Yonason’s opponents were unyielding in their antipathy towards him, and they continued to insist that he was an unrepentant heretic. Meanwhile, R. Yonason’s supporters rallied to his cause and hundreds of rabbis responded to his request for letters of support, that he published in 1755 as part of a book called ‘Luchot Edut’ which also recorded his version of events. R. Yaakov continued to publish regular attacks against his nemesis, and in 1760 the controversy gained a new lease of life when R. Yonason’s younger son, Wolf Eybeschutz, declared himself a Sabbatian prophet, and was then exposed as a close friend to a number of known heretics. As a result of this incident R. Yonason’s yeshiva was closed down, never to be reopened.
Even R. Yonason’s death in 1764 did not end the controversy. R. Yaakov continued to publish his attacks, and to maintain that Sabbatian heresy remained a very real threat to every Jewish community. R. Yaakov’s death in 1776, and subsequent burial in close proximity to R. Yonason as a result of R. Landau’s halachic ruling, finally brought the personal dispute to an end. Ultimately it was R. Landau’s resolution that was the blueprint for future generations. R. Yonason’s incredible scholarship, as recorded in the numerous works that were mainly published after his death, are mainstays of Jewish learning to this day, principally as a result of R. Landau’s suggestion that if someone is in every sense a devout Jew and an exemplary rabbi, unverifiable aberrations ascribed to him must be completely disregarded. R. Yaakov is equally venerated as an exemplary rabbi who fought a valiant battle against a man he regarded as a dangerous heretic, and his works on Talmud, halacha, and prayer continue to be widely used and respected.
Before concluding this series we must address the questions that have hovered in the background throughout this dramatic saga: In the final analysis, was R. Yaakov right? Was R. Yonason really a Sabbatian? If he was a Sabbatian, did he actually pose a danger to normative Judaism? There are multiple answers to all these questions, but nothing conclusive or definitive. What is absolutely clear is that R. Yaakov truly believed R. Yonason was a Sabbatian, and he believed R. Yonason was a subversive who needed to be ousted from his job, and from Jewish life. And R. Yaakov was not alone. Even among those who supported R. Yonason there were rabbis, like R. Landau, who were not convinced of his innocence, although they offered their support because they believed that the campaign against him was very damaging to Jewish life, and therefore supporting him was the lesser of two evils.
Throughout the saga R. Yonason was tactically very smart, bettering R. Yaakov and his supporters at every stage, but his camp’s overall strategy was ill considered and often counter-productive. In the belief that his reputation far outweighed any attempt to malign him, R. Yonason refused to take his interlocutors seriously, and he constantly sought to neutralize them without engaging them directly, which only infuriated them more. Of course hubris is not proof of guilt, nor can some of R. Yonason’s more ridiculous claims vis-à-vis the amulets be used to condemn him. And yet it is a sad fact that he died without having conclusively shaken off the cloud of suspicion that hung over him. But ultimately whether or not he was a Sabbatian sympathizer is a question that has no relevance today. Both he and R. Yaakov Emden, despite the vicious polemic that so scarred their lives, are considered two of the most prominent rabbinic scholars to have graced us with their presence and scholarship in the early modern era.
Comments, questions welcome – email@example.com