How 1666 helps explain 2017


Sept. 16, 1666, was a dark day for the tens of thousands of Jews who considered Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) to be their Messiah; for on that day, in order to avoid the death sentence imposed upon him by the Turkish sultan, the Jewish Messiah converted to Islam. One would presume that at that moment his Jewish followers en masse would have abandoned him, casting him off as a charlatan who had cruelly preyed upon their emotional vulnerabilities. Despite his conversion, many thousands continued to consider Sabbatai Zevi to be their Messiah. Indeed, for 150 years or so following his conversion, groups of Sabbateans flourished in such far-flung Jewish communities as Palestine, Morocco, Egypt, most of Turkey and the Balkans, and later spread rapidly through Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), the pre-eminent scholar of  Jewish mysticism in the 20th century, wrote in his 1935 essay (originally in Hebrew), “Redemption Through Sin”: “‘Heretical’ Sabbatianism was born at the moment of Sabbatai Zevi’s totally unexpected conversion, when for the first time  a contradiction opened between two levels in 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…‘Heretical’ Sabbatianism was the result of the refusal of large segments of the Jewish people to submit to the sentence of history by admitting that their own personal experience had been false and untrustworthy.”

That is to say, despite his conversion, many Jews remained inwardly certain that Sabbatai Zevi was indeed their Messiah; as a result, they had to reshape the historical facts to conform to the certainty of their inner experience.  Many of these Sabbateans adopted the paradoxical notion of the necessary apostasy of the Messiah.  Their “reasoning” – if you could call it that – is that only the Jewish Messiah could demonstrate his spiritual superiority by becoming a Muslim and thereby rescuing the “divine sparks” trapped within the husks of Islamic belief and practice; despite his descent into Islam, Sabbatai Zevi still maintains his Messianic Jewish integrity.  Such are the intellectual contortions demanded of those whose inner certainty stands in opposition to external reality. 

As Scholem puts it, “The essence of the Sabbatean’s conviction… 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 by the facts, it is the facts that stand in need of explanation.”

For the past several months I have been trying to demonstrate to myself that the confusion within a large segment of the collective soul of the Jewish people 350 years ago sheds light upon the divided soul of America today.  In 1666, those who abandoned Sabbatai Zevi after his conversion to Islam could not comprehend how thousands upon thousands of their fellow Jews could still maintain that he was their long-awaited Messiah.  Today, those of us who do not support our current president, who see in his actions and hear in his words clear evidence of a failed leader, find it almost impossible to fathom the depths of allegiance that our president still enjoys from tens of millions of our fellow Americans.

In attempting to understand those who maintained that Sabbatai Zevi was their Messiah after his conversion, Scholem writes, “Even more than the psychology of the leader, however, it’s the psychology of the led that demands to be understood.”  In a similar vein, it is not particularly fruitful to try to “explain” our president.  What is essential is to try to understand the inner world of his supporters.  Our president continues to affirm in his supporters a painful-but-hopeful aspect of their inner lives that cannot be touched by external “facts;” he knows how to validate their dreams and to assuage their fears – giving them permission to think what they think, to feel what they feel.  He has done nothing less than to liberate them, to enable them to become their true selves, to see themselves as great again.

America today is a divided self.  To argue that those millions of men and women who continue to support the president are suffering from a collective delusion is both simplistic and antithetical to the prospect of bringing us together again.  If we continue to view our current socio-political conflict as a war between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness,” we will never again become what truly makes America great: a unity that celebrates our diversity.  E pluribus unum.  Out of many, one!

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at