Jacob Frank will always be remembered as one of the most frightening phenomena in 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.
So wrote one of the greatest Jewish scholars of our time, Gershom Scholem—and it can be stated with certainty that one anniversary in 1991 which Jews will not commemorate is the bicentenary of the death of the pseudo-Messiah Jacob Frank. Born in Podolia in 1726 as Yaakov ben Yehuda Leib, Frank was educated within the traditional confines of Orthodoxy. His teacher, however, was a closet Sabbatean and a supporter of one of Shabetai Zevi’s most radical followers, Baruchya Russo. Frank, for example, did not study Talmud but instead absorbed the mysteries of the Zohar.
The Ashkenazi Frank spent many years in Turkey under the tutelage of his Sephardi teachers. When he later revealed himself as a successor and perhaps a spiritual reincarnation of Shabetai Zevi to Polish Jewry, they labelled him “Frank” in recognition of his Sephardi acculturation. Frank developed Sabbatean thought—”Praised be He who permits the forbidden”—to an inevitable nihilistic conclusion. He stripped Sabbateanism of its Kabbalistic symbolism and while upholding the figure of Shabetai Zevi as Messiah and Teacher, he substantially revised his teachings. Frank proclaimed a greater, almost evangelical openness which many of his Sabbatean contemporaries had been reluctant to espouse. Such an approach led in due course to a theological confrontation with the rabbinical authorities, but there was one area which aroused great bitterness amongst traditional Jews.
Frank’s sense of public relations lifted the veil on Sabbatean attitudes to sexual morality. The unloading of sexual taboos was regarded as the gateway to messianic freedom. The eternal curse on Eve, it was argued, after the Garden of Eden, lost its potency in the Messianic world. Eve, indeed, may have belonged to several men in Paradise. Orgiastic rituals and widespread promiscuity became a mainstay of the Sabbatean philosophy by the end of the seventeenth century. The early Sabbateans introduced the festival of “Purim” where wife-swapping was part and parcel of the ritual. Baruchya Russo even abrogated the prohibition on incest.
This struck centrally at the strict code of sexual conduct which Judaism had defended down the centuries and this sense of intense hostility fuelled the vitriolic attacks on Frank and his followers, the “contra-talmudists”. Frank retaliated by approaching the local clergy and enlisted their support. The Polish bishops listened attentively because Frank was able to colour his presentation of Messiahship with a neo-Christian veneer. During a disputation at Kamieniec in 1757, he invoked the blood libel by claiming that the Talmud teaches that Jews need Christian blood. As a result, the Talmud was publicly burned in a number of Polish cities.
Frank’s conversion to Christianity came as almost a relief to his opponents. Revealing himself as “the true Jacob”, he convinced his followers of the necessity to maintain an inner “burden of silence” whilst publicly parading as Christians. He informed the Polish authorities of his intention to convert, but demanded to lead a separate existence. This meant retaining traditional Jewish names and garments, maintaining a prohibition on the eating of pork, continuing to wear peot (sidelocks), observing sab-bath on both Saturday and Sunday and keeping the holy book of the Zohar. Whilst some followed Frank into Catholicism, others remained loyal to him but continued within the Jewish fold.
Frank advocated the annihilation of religion as religious dogma, yet his sect effectively died with him. The characterization of Frank as the man who believed that “the violation of the Torah could become its fulfillment” led Gershom Scholem to see him as part of the chain of events leading to the Haskalah and the birth of the Reform Movement in the nineteenth century. The charismatic yet satanic power of Frank entrapped many who perhaps were searching for a path to embrace modernity and paradoxically to climb over the ghetto walls. Ironically, the onset of the French Revolution instilled a sense of vindication into the dwindling band of Frankists. Scholem termed them Frankist “Jacobins”.
The fate of the Frankists in the nineteenth century is shrouded in mystery. Their disappearance was accelerated by a concerted effort to disguise their ritual and to hide their documents, to conceal their inner world from the eyes of outsiders. Yet he network of contacts between the crypto-Islamic Donmeh Sabbatean sect in Turkey and the crypto-Christian Frankists in Poland probably persisted until the early part of this century Whether any adherents of Shabetai Zevi and Jacob Frank still pay homage to the faith of their immediate forebears is doubtful. Modernity, assimilation and mass destruction have almost certainly taken their toll and finally closed a fascinating but dark chapter in Jewish history.
Jewish Quarterly Spring 1991