Departmental Bulletin Paper Sabbatianism:The Ruin of Purity

Mark N.  Zion

(Vol.24)  , pp.1 - 34 , 2016-03-03
“Sabbatianism” is a movement named after Sabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), a Jew of the Ottoman Empire. This movement, for all exposed to it, turned the world upside down. Scholars have called it a “transvaluation” within Jewish culture (Scholem 1973:685), meaning it spun accepted norms on their heads in ways that ultimately led to extreme expressions: A place where the violation of the sacred became a sacred duty. Sabbatianism repels as much as it attracts because it speaks to something deep within the human psyche: that fine line in consciousness between the sacred and profane, the moral and immoral, religious devotion and antinomianism, truth and imagination, meaning and nihilism. Sabbatianism developed independently of other messianic movements in Western monotheism, all of which tend to follow remarkably similar patters: Populace movements that forge revolutionary ideas destructive of the religious status quo. For Sabbatians vitality became sacred (Alter 1987:25), so the movement is only different in kind from certain social, artistic, and aesthetic movements, even without Messiahs, that teach the world to see through new eyes, however much the world may squirm over this. All messianic movements attempt to bridge the gap between humanity and the Divine (Davies 1987:80) and while Sabbatianism has also attempted this, it still presents riddles that have yet to be deciphered. I will touch here on a few of its revolutionary features.

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