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The Lost Messiah: In Search of the Mystical Rabbi Sabbatai Sevi Hardcover – January 27, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Historian and travel writer Freely retraces the 17th-century rabbi Sabbatai Sevi's steps from his birth in Izmir (in Turkey) to his exile and death in Dulcigno (in northern Albania) in this plodding and workmanlike account-part travelogue, part detective story and part religious history.. Sevi traveled through the Ottoman Empire declaring himself to be the Messiah; he claimed to be born on the Ninth of Ab, the traditional birthdate of the Messiah, and fervently studied the mystical texts of the Kabbalah. Although he gathered some followers, most thought he was a madman and a fool. When he began to declare that fast days should become feast days, that women could read from the Torah and that Jews could pronounce the sacred name of God (YHWH), the rabbis in Istanbul drove him out of the country. Sevi became the target of even greater animosity when he converted to Islam. After his conversion he maintained a syncretistic religious lifestyle, trying to convert his followers to Islam, yet still proclaiming himself the Jewish Messiah. After his death, many of his followers declared that he had not died but that his presence was hidden, and that he would appear again at the end of time. Drawing upon the writings of Gershom Scholem and others, Freely offers a fascinating glimpse into a little-known chapter of Jewish religious history. However, he depends too heavily on secondary source material, encumbering his own writing with lengthy quotations that fail to illuminate Sevi's exciting story.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The idea of a messiah who will come to offer salvation and heal the world remains one of Judaism's most enduring yearnings. Freely focuses on one who assumed the mantle of Messiah. In the mid-seventeenth century a messiah appeared, a rabbi named Sabbatai Sevi. As Freely describes him, Sabbatai would be described in modern terms as manic-depressive. In his own time, his "illuminations" (which alternated with moods of deep despair) and his knowledge of the Torah and kabbalah allowed Sabbatai to attract followers. When the respected Nathan of Gaza, serving as Sabbatai's John the Baptist, proclaimed him the Messiah, his fame grew throughout the Jewish world. Freely, quoting extensively from primary sources, follows Sabbatai's movements up to his shocking conversion to Islam, which, perhaps even more shockingly, did not dissolve all of his support. Freely paints a portrait of the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire that brings time and place alive. He is less successful in describing Sabbatai the man. Although Freely makes us understand the circumstances that made the masses long for a messiah, he fails to show how Sabbatai, a not particularly appealing figure, could have successively assumed that role. Still, this volume gathers the threads of many sources into one fabric, providing a valuable interweaving of history and biography. Ilene Cooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
Sabbatai meditated and studied mystic Judaic religious texts, his behavior was becoming more and more erratic and eventually he declared himself Messiah, first - to his close friends and family, and then, around 1665 - publicly. There were different factions in the Jewish community of Smyrna regarding his messianic pretensions, but eventually orthodox party won.
John Freely describes intellectual development of Sabbatai, his travels around Ottoman Empire, his personal life, and - most importantly - how a circle of faithful supporters and believers emerged around him, most notably - Nathan of Gaza, who became his prophet and who spent many years with Sabbatai, writing about him and about his messianic role for the Jews.
John Freely's book is Sevi's biography, but at the same time it's a historical book, presenting a broad picture of life in many parts of the world as Sevi's fame and his messianic teachings reached all Jewish communities in all European countries. Since Sevi was a kabbalah scholar, the book also covers some philosophical aspects of Judaism. It also describes many aspects of everyday life not just of the Jews, but also - of other people, neighboring them.
The book offers a lot of insight into the origins of religion in general, allowing to see how religious beliefs are born and how they spread among different populations. It shows very clearly how many personal stories of different people intertwine to create a single religious narrative. While John Freely is able to maintain evenhanded approach, at the same time the book is full of emphatic understanding of all people and events described.
The book is a pleasure to read. I read it twice, actually. It's very enlightening for everyone interested in history, ethnography, the nature of human beliefs, human nature - and human folly.
Sabbatai Sevi was a manic-depressive person, alternating periods of `great illumination' with times of deep depression. His Messianic call was heard mainly by the downcast, the poor, the distressed and the troubled, which had in any case nothing to loose. By following the new Messiah, they could consider themselves as an elected (and selected) group of people who were chosen by the representative of God on earth and who would receive in the shortest of times eternal bliss.
Sabbatai Sevi called for an overthrow of all religious laws and of all human behavior (sexual taboos). He liberated women (who could read the Torah) and organized sexual orgies (`God permitted that which is forbidden'). But, his revolutionary ardor undermined the established power of the orthodox rabbis, who became his most ferocious enemies and who ultimately could organize (bribe) his downfall.
Confronted with a death penalty proclaimed by the reigning Sultan, Sabbatai Sevi converted to Islam (!) under the condition that he would persuade his followers to do the same. A big part of these followers didn't believe and couldn't accept his apostasy and their own downfall. They pretended that this apostasy was a disguise or that not the rabbi, but his shadow, had converted to Islam. Another part followed him and observed the Islamic laws in public, but they couldn't marry true Muslims. They were called the Dönme (the Turncoats). Some descendants of the Dönme became later members of the Young Turks.
John Freely delved deeply into the archives and did meticulous field work in order to evocate the life and times of an apostate Messiah, of his prophet and his staunch followers.
Not to be missed.