Gad Nassi

In the Footsteps of Sabbatean Redemption: The Polish Experience / From Mickiewicz to Young Turks

Posted on January 1, 2012
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HALAPID, XVI, 4, CA, Fall 2009, pp. 28-38.

Relations between the Ottoman Empire and Poland are extensively recorded in history. However, their Jewish-mystical counterparts, which appear to have carried out a meaningful function, remains as a less explored and even feebly recorded feature.

Historical background

Ottoman rule in Podolia (1672-99), the proximity of Poland to territories under Ottoman rule and the commercial relations between Polish Jews and their coreligionists in the Balkans and Turkey, created a close relationship between the Jewish communities of each country.

It is in this contingency that the evolvement of Sabbatean messianism and its aftermath spread to Poland. As a matter of fact, the Frankist movement, which had sprouted, developed and was propagated from Poland, was molded on the Sabbatean model of the apostate messiah and the subsequent redemption.

Jacob Frank: eccentricity with charisma

Born in Podolia as Jacob Ben Judah Leib, Jacob Frank (c.1726–1791) was the founder of Frankism, a crypto-Jewish sect that had developed out of the Sabbatean movement. While still a schoolboy, Frank began to reject the Talmud. Later, as a traveling merchant in textile and precious stones, he often visited Ottoman territories and lived in the centers of contemporary Sabbateanism: Salonica and Smyrna.

He became intimate with Sabbateans and joined the sect. He returned to Podolia, where posing as the reincarnation of Sabbetai Sevi, he proclaimed himself the Messiah and gathered many supporters. Attacking the Talmud and corroborating the alleged crime of ritual murder by Jews, he professed to find in the Cabbala the evidence for the doctrine of Christian Trinitarianism. Feigning conversion to Roman Catholicism, he and the Frankists were baptized in 1759.

Convicted on a charge of heresy by the Church, he was arrested in Warsaw, and exiled to the fortress of Czestochowa, from which he was freed thirteen years later by invading Russians. He then lived in Moravia until 1786.

Accompanied by his daughter Eva, he used to travel to Vienna. Supported by the archduchess Maria Theresa, who made him a baron, he stayed there for several years in wealth until he established his residence in Offenbach, Germany.

The sect continued to survive through secret gatherings with separate rites. The Frankist believers endeavored to marry among themselves by creating a wide network of inter-family relationships, even among those who had remained within the Jewish fold.

Frankists like Sabbateans were accused of heresy for having broken fundamental Jewish laws by perpetrating orgiastic rites and, by accepting the sanctity of the Christian Bible.

As a sociological-religious phenomenon, Frankism has been credited with influencing later developments in Jewish thought, including the rise of Hasidism and the Enlightenment.

Initially, Frankists circumcised their sons, observed the Sabbath, had separate burials, and only married within the sect. By the mid-19th century, the number of mixed marriages increased and many of their descendants became prominent members of the Polish elite. Polish spiritual and political life would later also be deeply impregnated with messianic ideation. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Poland: a legacy of glory, servitude and resurrection

In 1382, Poland became closely associated with the powerful state of Lithuania. The dynasty, which was founded in the 14th century, ruled Poland for the next two centuries. By the mid-16th century, Poland and Lithuania merged into one state. Its territories stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, determining Poland as the largest country in Europe and one of its most powerful states.

However, during the last quarter of the century, Poland began to decline as a great power. In the mid-17th century, a Swedish invasion and the Cossack Chmielnicki uprising ravaged the country and marked the end of its golden age. Russia had also emerged to threaten Polish territory. Gradually, Poland lost many of its possessions, and by the early 18th century, had become the helpless battleground for foreign enemies. After having defeated Sweden in war for mastery of the Baltic region, Russia became Poland's main enemy. However, Russia was not the only power to have grown in ambition when Poland declined. Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria also had designs on their neighbor. The three powers descended on Poland in 1772 and stripped it of a quarter of its territory. In 1793, swallowed up entirely in a partition between Russia, Prussia and Austria, Poland vanished from the map of Europe.

The Poles rebelled several times against the partitioners. For a few brief years during the Napoleonic Wars, Poland seemed to be regaining some freedom. Many of the Frankists regarded Napoleon Bonaparte as a potential Messiah. When Napoleon attacked Russia in 1812, he recreated a Polish state, the Duchy of Warsaw. However, after his final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Poland was again divided between the same three powers.

Late in 1830, a military revolt in Warsaw developed into a national crusade against Russia. However, the Polish army was soon defeated. So was an insurrection of ill-armed peasants in 1863. Prussia too, attacked Polish patriotism by restricting the use of the Polish language, and by encouraging thousands of Germans to settle in Polish territories.

For a century and a quarter, from the last decade of the 18th century until Poland regained its independence in 1918 after World War, the free Polish nation lived only in the hearts and minds of its people. (6 ,7)

National redemption: a leading value in Polish consciousness

The French Revolution in 1789, with the 25 years of agitation that followed, deeply impressed Europe. Its legacy gave birth to new concepts in policy, philosophy, literature and the arts. The first half of the 19 th century in Europe is marked by the arousal of nationalism impregnated with the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity.

The emotional appeal of nationalism was stronger than any political force yet known. Loyalty was no longer given to king or lord, to class or creed or Church, but to the nation and to territory.

Besides nationalism and political freedom, the Romantic Movement also flourished in literature and the arts. It set a high value on emotions and the imagination by enhancing the freedom of expression and by breaking the restraints of existing ruling systems. The aspiration for freedom and for an independent state impelled the philosophic and mystical inclinations of Poland and molded its literary and artistic creativity.

Following the Russian victory over the revolt of the Polish army in 1832, many Polish intellectuals settled in Paris, playing a significant and decisive role on the development of Polish nationalistic aspirations. Politically humiliated and without any achievable hope of restoring Poland's independence, their cravings for national redemption were switched towards mystical deliberations.

The mission of philosophy was apprehended not only as the search for truth but also as the reformation of life and the salvation of mankind. It was permeated with the persuasion that the vocation of man was to determine the salvation of mankind and that nations and more particularly the Polish nation had been assigned the role of Messiah to the nations. (8 ,9)

Adam Mickiewicz: the impact on Messianic redemption

Mickiewicz portraitMickiewicz was born in Lithuania in 1798, three years after the final partition of Poland. He died in Constantinople in 1853, during the outbreak of the Crimean War.

Even though he never set a foot in Warsaw or in Krakow, Mickiewicz stands out in the consciousness of Poles as a political leader. He is revered as a man of letters and the moral leader of the nation during the dark years after the Partitions. He animated the Polish national spirit through his poetic, dramatic and political writings, providing hope and spiritual sustenance to Poles under Russian, Prussian and Austrian rule.

He had been brought up in the culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a multicultural state that had encompassed most of what today are the separate countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. His most famous poem, Pan Tadeusz, begins with the invocation "Oh, Lithuania, my fatherland, thou art like good health". It is generally accepted that in Mickiewicz's time the term "Lithuania" still carried a strong association with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and that Mickiewicz used it in a political rather than an ethnic sense.

Mickiewicz anticipated in his mystical visions the idea of a free and united Europe. Beyond becoming the voice and the inspiration of the Polish people, he was also perceived as one of the leading figures in the struggle for the rights of oppressed nations.

On his biography

After being involved in student nationalist politics at Vilna University, Mickiewicz was expelled to Russia. Later, he was given permission to go abroad. He then began his journeying from one European city to another that was to last for the rest of his life.

In 1832, he settled in Paris, and there he wrote in biblical style, the "Books of the Polish Nation and its Pilgrimage" and his great poetic epic "Pan Tadeusz". He taught Slavonic literature at the Collège de France. He remained in this post until he lost his chair in the third year for having expanded into philosophical and religious ideas.

Envisioning a great regeneration of peoples brought about by revolution, he went to Rome in 1848 to persuade the new pope to support the cause of Polish national freedom. At the outbreak of the Italian revolution, he created the Polish legion to fight for Italy against Austria and to become the nucleus of a Polish army of liberation.

When the Crimean War broke out, Mickiewicz went to Constantinople in 1852 to help raise a Polish regiment to fight against the Russians. The Poles had great hopes that France and Britain would crush Russia, and that Poland would thus regain independence. He hoped to include a Jewish legion and was prepared to assure its soldiers the right to observe the Sabbath and all other religious duties. It was presumed that he believed that the creation of a Jewish armed unit would be a first step towards the revival of the Jewish nation in its own land. He suddenly died in Constantinople before his mission was completed.

The Jewish roots

Mickiewicz's mother, Barbara Majewska, is believed to have been a descendant of a Frankist family. The use by Mickiewicz himself of the phrase "[born] from a foreign mother" in the autobiographical section of his drama Dziady, "The Forefathers Eve", was considered as a clue to the Jewish origins of his mother.

Other facts also seem to verify this assumption. Mickiewicz had married a Polish lady, Celina Szymanowska, also born to parents from Jewish Frankist families. The idealized Jew, Jankiel, in Mickiewicz's masterpiece, the great epic Pan Tadeusz, is an ardent Polish patriot. In his political writings, Mickiewicz repeatedly referred to the Jewish Bible – a rather rare habit among Catholic writers – and compared Poland's martyrdom and the dispersion of Poles after the November 1830 uprising to the suffering of the Jews and the Jewish Diaspora. His work, "Books of the Polish Nation and the Polish Pilgrimage", was influenced by the Jewish Bible.

In the lectures, he gave in Paris (1840–44), Mickiewicz was at pains to praise the Jews and defend them against their detractors. In a sermon delivered in a Paris synagogue on the Fast of the Ninth of Av, 1845, he expressed his sympathy for Jewish suffering and yearning for Eretz Israel. He was greatly disappointed at the assimilationist tendencies of French Jews. In one of the statutes of the Polish legion in Italy, he wrote: "To Israel, our elder brother: honor, fraternity, and help in striving towards his eternal and temporal goal. Equal rights in all things".

As recorded before, towards the end of his life Mickiewicz was actively involved in organizing the Jewish legion to fight against Russia.

Mickiewicz's patriotism and nationalism were inextricably linked with his mysticism and spirituality. He developed a concept of Israel as a fellow sufferer of Poland, and of Poland as a Christ of nations. Mickiewicz believed that in the middle of the 19 th century the Kingdom of God would prevail and the chosen nations of the epoch would be the Poles, the French and the Jews. (10 ,11 ,12 ,13)

A singular phenomenon:
Jewish Battalion in Ottoman revolutionary army

On April 1909, an Ottoman army supported by Young Turks– known as 'Action Army' – marched from Salonica to Istanbul to repress the bloody pro-Islamic rebellion perpetrated against the Constitution and calling for the restoration of the Sharia, the holy law of Islam. Created by regular forces and voluntaries recruited from different ethnic and religious groups from the Balkans, this army incorporated many Sabbatean Believers and a Jewish battalion formed of around 700 volunteers. The battalion took an active part in the combat. The rebellion was put down, the Islamist Sultan Abdulhamid II was deposed, and the progressist Committee of Union and Progress retained power.

Action armyThe existence of a separate and operative Jewish military unit in the Ottoman army seems at first sight as a singular phenomenon and even an oddity. In order to understand it, we need to survey the prevalent political ideology and its interaction within the peculiar socio-cultural position of Salonica.

In 1876, Sultan Abdulhamid II was forced by reformers to establish a democratic constitution. However, he soon restored despotic power. In 1890, the Committee of Union and Progress was set up by youthful reformers who became popularly known as the 'Young Turks'. Mustafa Kemal, who later became the founder of the Turkish Republic and its president, joined the Committee. In 1908, troops revolted in Macedonia and the Sultan had to restore the Constitution. It is through the intervention of the 'Action Army' that the attempt of a counter-rebellion to dissolve the parliament once again failed.

The first government that followed the Young Turks Revolution included three Sabbatean ministers with a Sabbatean deputy minister and a Jewish minister. The number of Jews among Young Turks was relatively large. Several Jews occupied important positions as undersecretaries and as high-ranking functionaries in key ministries. In the reconvened 300-seat Ottoman Parliament, there were four Jews with one Jew in the Senate. (14 ,15)

Salonica: a legacy of Jewishness, pluralism, enlightenment and coexistence

With the conquest of Salonica by the Ottomans, Jews enjoyed security. Throughout history, Ottoman Salonica continued to be a secure and flourishing hub for Jews in search of a fortunate environment. The arrival of Sephardic Jews and Portuguese Marranos had a positive impact on its cultural and economic development. The Rabbinate of Salonica issued a special haskamah – religious decree – regarding Marranos as Jews.

Constituting a key point on the international trade route between East and West and the fact of being a port, largely contributed to the financial development of Salonica. Its Jewish community prospered and waves of Jewish immigrants from many European and Mediterranean countries continued to settle in the city.

Aside being renowned as a of Jewish religious studies center, Salonica was also a center of Cabbala. In addition to Jewish studies, humanities, Latin and Arabic, as well as medicine, the natural sciences and astronomy were taught. Rabbinical courts were known for their justness. Many Muslims and Greeks preferred to try the cases they had with Jews in these courts instead of the Turkish ones.

In 1873 the Alliance Israelite Universelle established a school, and additional schools in accordance with Western standards were also founded. A new port built in 1889 helped to develop trade. European culture and technology also began to flow into Salonica. Signs of 'westernization' became apparent. This marked a general opening of the Ottoman Balkans to Western modernists who imported to the Ottoman world new techniques and ideas.

Until the beginnings of the 20 th century, Salonica was a prosperous Jewish city, with Jews representing, a majority of around forty-five to sixty percent of a total multiethnic population of 120.000 to 170.000, depending upon periods. Aside almost every profession, the stevedores of Salonica were mainly Jews. On Sabbath days the town and the port came to a standstill since the Jews did not work. (16 ,17)

Towards political activism: Jewish-Sabbatean connection

Following the conversion of Sabbetai Sevi to Islam, some 300 Jewish families followed his example in 1683 by forming a crypto-Jewish sect. Popularly called Doenmeh – apostate in Turkish – its members chose Salonica as their spiritual center.

This choice was due to the very peculiar nature of the city. As long as they lived in Salonica, Sabbatean believers enjoyed an indulgent attitude from the environment, allowing them to carry on safely with their way of life as a separate community and to maintain their autochthonous features.

The sect attracted other proselytes belonging to different ethnic groups, among them Polish Jews, who were integrated into the Sabbatean community. The Frankists in Poland continued to maintain contacts with Sabbateans in Salonica.

Although maintaining their traditions, Sabbateans did not break of their ties with Judaism. They used to consult rabbis in religious issues and to settle their disputes instead of bringing them to Turkish courts. Preservation of their Jewish character was feasible because of their proximity and steady contact with the large and bustling Jewish population.

Sabbateans, as Jews, had enjoyed in Salonica the advantage of being directly involved in the process of westernization and composing the intellectual elite of the city. However, being officially Muslims, they had as first class citizens, the privilege of being instrumental in political matters.

If modernization entered Salonica by the intermediary of Jews, Sabbateans constituted the vector that transmitted it to the Ottoman Muslim population of Macedonia and made possible its integration and implementation into military and political developments.

As a matter of fact, Sabbateans constituted the leading and operative agent during the Young Turks revolution in 1908 and the subsequent achievements of the 'Action Army'.

This revolution was ideologically rooted in the principle of the right to freedom of expression, the equality among the peoples of the Empire, and the aspiration to unity through affiliation to the Ottoman nation. It is on those basic concepts of equality and liberty that the ideology of 'Ottomanism', proclaiming a common national fate irrespective of religious and ethnic affiliation, emerged in this period.

The adhesiveness of Sabbatean Believers to the process leading to the Revolution stemmed most likely from the messianic hope that promised a new social order similar to that of religious reformation. The desire of being free of antiquated dogmas found a welcome substitute in revolutionary values such as secularism, freedom of expression and social equity.

The Young Turk movement built a rich tradition that shaped the intellectual and political life of the late Ottoman period and laid the foundation of the Republic. The Revolution also served as a source of inspiration to Asian peoples aspiring to national emancipation. (15, 18, 19, 20, 21)

Retrospect and conclusions

Many common, similar and parallel features exist between the birth, ideology, evolution, results and consequences of the Polish national resurrection and the Young Turks Revolution.

The process that had started with Sabbatean messianism in the Ottoman Empire was linked with and perpetuated by Frankist messianism. In their case political reform was substituted for a religious one.

Each one of them has their roots in the messianic metaphor of apostasy, leading to liberation by the abolition of the existing order.

Each of them was motivated by insurrection against an oppressive power, was revived by the disappointment of a recent liberation experience and, developed in a distinctive milieu of leniency.

The ideology of each one of them was based on the principle of equal rights and union among nations.

Each of them served as a model to other nations seeking redemption.

During a ceremony organized in 1909 by Young Turks to pay homage to Adam Mickiewicz, a plaque with the inscription: "Adam Mickiewicz, The Great Polish Poet and Patriot –Friend of Turkey, The Committee of Union and Progress, July 10, 1909" was affixed to the door of Mickiewicz's house in Istanbul. (22)

Even though the project of Polish nationalists led by Mickiewicz to form a Jewish armed unit to fight against the Russian oppressor and the aspiration of its participants to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine was not implemented, a Jewish battalion took an active part in the 'Action Army' which brought freedom to the Ottoman people.

Let us remember that Zionist leaders such as David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi were so favorably impressed with the reformative and unionist ideology of the Young Turks Revolution that on the eve of the First World War, they advocated the idea of defending the land of Israel on the side of the Ottomans and of establishing a Jewish settlement there under Ottoman auspices.

Concerning the Jewish Battalion that had fought for the cause of the Young Turks, Yitzhak Ben Zvi referred to it by these words:

" ... the fact of founding a warrior Jewish unit deserves by itself to be specially pointed out as one of the precedents for the foundation of the Israeli army, to which we are at present indebted. It deserves also to be pointed out that the majority of the enrollees in the battalion were ardent and nationalist Zionists and believed that the Ottoman revolution will open new horizons to the Jews of Turkey, in general, and to Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel and to Zionism, in particular." (23)

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  2. "Frank Jacob and the Frankists", Jewish Encyclopedia.
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  4. Mandel, Arthur, The Militant Messiah or The Flight from the Ghetto, The Story of Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, Peter Bergman, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, 1979.
  5. Kraushnar, Alexander, Jacob Frank: The End to the Sabbatain Heresy, University Press of America, Inc, Cumnor Hill, Oxford, 2001.
  6. The Nations of the World, in The Last Two Million Years, The Reader's Digest Association, 2nd ed., 1986, article on Poland, pp. 436-8.
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  13. Segel, Harold B., "Polish Romantic Drama in Perspective" in Romantic Drama, in: Comparative History of Literatures in European Languages, edited by Gerald Gillespie, Manfred Engel, and Bernard Dieterle. John Benjamins Publishing Co (Dec 1993), pp. 264-7.
  14. Nassi, Gad, "El Batalyon Djudio en la Revolusion de los Djovenes Turkos", Aki Yerushalayim, XX, 60, Jerusalem, May, 1999, pp. 9-12.
  15. Nassi, Gad, "The Young Turks Revolution, Sabbateans and the Zionist Connection". A lecture presented at the "Congress on the Idea of Nationhood in the Sephardi Diaspora", Yad Tabenkin, Israel, December 21-23, 1992. Also published in Los Muestros, 12, Brussels, 1993, pp. 20-21.
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  18. Ehrlich, M. Avrum, "Sabbatean Messianism as Proto Secularism" , in Turkish-Jewish Encounters, Mehmet T ütüncü ( e d.), Haarlem, 2001, pp . 273-305.
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  23. Ben Zvi, Yitzhak, Gdud Yehudi beMaapehat "haTurkim haTzeirim" (Jewish Battalion in the "Young Turks" Revolution) in Zihron Saloniki, Gdulata veHurbana shel Yerushalayim deBalkan, Kerah II (The Rise and Destruction of Yerushalayim of Balkan, Tome II) David A Recanati (Redactor), Committee for the Edition of the Book on the Community of Salonica, Tel-Aviv, 5746 (1986).
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