Jewish Religious Movements


          Shabbeteanism was a messianic movement.  Shabbetai Zevi (1626-1676) was a mystic, born in Smyrna, who proclaimed himself the Messiah.  Considered mentally ill by Smyrna's rabbis, he was ousted from his home town and wandered widely.  In the Holy Land, he found a champion in Rabbi Nathan of Gaza, who believed in and publicized his claims widely, sparking irrational acts on the part of many Lithuanian Jews who expected the imminent establishment of Heaven on Earth.   Arrested eventually by Turkish authorities, Shabbetai Zevi faced execution but was given the alternative of converting to Islam.  He chose Islam over death, earning a royal pension but incurring even more rabbinic displeasure.

The Frankist Movement

          Like Shabbeteanism, the Frankist Movement was messianic.  It was founded by Jacob Frank (1726-1791).  Born in Podolia, Frank was an ecstatic who had steeped himself in the medieval mysticism of the Zohar.  And, as Zevi had done before him, Frank proclaimed himself the Messiah.  Central to Frank's doctrine was the notion that salvation could be attained through sexual ecstasy.  Frank eventually accepted Christianity, as did many of his followers.  But the Catholic Church didn't accept Frank!  He was imprisoned for more than a dozen years before gaining his release and moving to Austria.  There he finally secured royal favor and once again set up shop as Messiah and proselytizer of the Jews.

         The Frankist Ecstatics of the 18th Century

The Haskalah

           The Haskalah, or Jewish "Enlightenment," was a movement fathered by Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786?), a German Jewish writer and philosopher.  The approach to religion devised by Mendelssohn was basically rationalist, assimilationist, and pragmatic.  Although Mendelssohn stressed the importance of adhering to traditional Jewish values, he advocated greater participation of Jews in non-Jewish secular life and in the cultural and intellectual milieu of European society.  Devotees of the Haskalah were called maskilim.

           Moses Mendelssohn

           The Haskalah

          The Haskalah was slow to spread to Lithuania and didn't become a significant movement there until the 19th century.


            As Lithuania entered the 18th century, an important religious movement was making inroads in the Jewish communities of neighboring Poland.  This was Hasidism.  Hasidism had been established by the charismatic Ba'al Shem Tov, Israel ben Eliezer (c. 1698-1760).  The Hasidim believed that worship could best be accomplished through celebration and encouraged singing, dancing, and enjoyment of the fruit of the vine.  At the heart of the doctrine promulgated by the Ba'al Shem Tov also was the idea that a person who keeps God in his heart at all times is superior to someone who steeps himself in Talmudic learning in order to enhance his reputation.
            Hasidism appealed to the common man, since it was a  populist doctrine in which prayer replaced scholarship as the path to communion with God.  In Lithuania, although Hasidism was able to thrive primarily in the town of Lubavitch, pockets of it survived elsewhere as well.

           The Ba'al Shem Tov and Hasidism

            The failure of Hasidism to make greater inroads than it did in Lithuanian Jewish communities, however, was due primarily to the influence of the Vilna Gaon.

The Vilna Gaon

           Into the milieu in which Hasidism was beginning to flourish in Poland was born one of the most influential Jewish religious leaders in Lithuania:  Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shelomo Zalman, later known as the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797).  Legend had it that by age 5, he knew the first five books of the Bible (the Torah) by heart.  Later, he was to write that the universe and each thing in it was embodied in the Torah, and he became famous for his resolutions of apparent contradictions in the Talmud.  He was also a talented mathematician.

          The Vilna Gaon

          The Gaon's followers, the mitnagdim ("opponents"), were Orthodox Jews opposed to Hasidism because of its then-revolutionary anti-intellectual stance, which ran counter to the mitnagdim's emphasis on traditional scholarship.  The Gaon was particularly alarmed, furthermore, by the Hasidim's hereditary rabbinic dynasties.  Last, the mitnagdim accused the Hasidim of incorporating some of the teachings of the two false messiahs, Shabbtai Zevi and Jacob Frank.  In 1784, the Gaon declared Hasidism heretical.

           Hasidism and Mitnagdim

           In addition to opposing the Hasidim, the Vilna Gaon was opposed to the Haskalah and supported the burning of books about it--although, in a particularly odd twist, the maskilim of the Haskalah later claimed that the Gaon had favored their movement.  In point of fact, though, the Hasidim and the mitnagdim would eventually become allies in opposing the Haskalah.


Copyright 2000 M S Rosenfeld