To understand the hostility of Christians to Jews, we must go back into the mind of the medieval Catholic and the Reformation Protestant. They remembered the Crucifixion, but they did not remember the large crowds of Jews that had heard Christ gladly and had welcomed him into Jerusalem. They thought of Jesus as the Anointed One, the Son of God; but the Jews could not see in Christ the Messiah promised by their prophets, the savior who would free them from bondage and make them again a nation erect and free. It was difficult for Christians to look with brotherly tolerance upon a minority whose monotheism was no distant rivalry like that of Mohammedanism, but a passionate cry, heard from synagogues multiplying in Christendom itself—“Hear, O Israel! Adonai, our God, is One!” That proud Semitic creed was felt as an ever present challenge to the fundamental Christian belief that the Son of Man who had died on the Cross was in full truth the Son of God, whose infinite sacrifice had atoned for man’s sins, and had opened the gates of Paradise. Could anything in life be more precious and sustaining than that faith?
To protect that faith the Christians of Europe sought to isolate the Jews with geographical barriers, political disabilities, intellectual censorship, and economic restraints. Nowhere in Christian Europe before the French Revolution—not even in Amsterdam—were they allowed full citizenship and its rights. They were shut out from public office, the army, the schools and universities, and the practice of law in Christian courts. They were heavily taxed, they were subject to forced loans, they might at any time suffer confiscation of their property. They were excluded from agriculture by restrictions on the ownership of land, and by the haunting insecurity that forced them to put their savings in currency or movable goods. They were ineligible to the guilds, for these were partly religious in form and purpose, and required Christian oaths and rituals. Limited to petty industry, to commerce and finance, they found themselves harassed even in these occupations by special prohibitions varying in place and changeable at any time: in one district they could not be peddlers, in another they could not be shopkeepers, in another they must not deal in leather or wool. 50 So most Jews lived as small tradesmen, peddlers, dealers in secondhand goods or old clothes, tailors, servants of their richer fellow men, craftsmen making goods for Jews. From these occupations, and the humiliations of the ghetto, the poorer Jews developed those habits of dress and speech, those tricks of trade and qualities of mind, that were so distasteful to other peoples and higher ranks.
Above this lowly majority were the rabbis, physicians, merchants, and financiers. The activity of Jewish exporters and importers played a significant part in the prosperity of Hamburg and Amsterdam. One twelfth of England’s foreign trade passed through Jewish hands in the first half of the seventeenth century. 51 Jews predominated in the import of gems and textiles from the East. The Jews profited, in international commerce, from their family relations in divers states, and their superior knowledge of languages; they had their own channels of information, which guided them, occasionally, to anticipations profitable on the bourse. 52 These foreign connections enabled them to develop letters of credit and bills of exchange. 53 The Jews, of course, were not the inventors of modern capitalism; we have seen that system grow quite independently of them, and rather in manufacturing than in finance; and even in finance they played a minor role as compared with the Medici of Florence, the Grimaldi of Genoa, or the Fuggers of Augsburg. Jewish moneylenders charged high rates of interest, but no higher than Christian bankers facing equal risks.
The Jewish mind, sharpened by hardship, oppression, and study, developed in trade and finance an acquisitive subtlety never forgiven by their competitors. The ethics of the Jews, like those of the Puritans, placed no stigma upon wealth; the rabbis recognized it as the support of charity, the sinews of the synagogue, and the last resort to buy off persecuting kings or populace. Nevertheless it is true that in the Jewish communities of Holland, Germany, Poland and Turkey there were men who made the making of money not only their tribe’s protection but their soul’s delight, who used more craft than conscience in amassing it, who gave to their fellow men the corrosive spectacle of great wealth tarnished with conspicuous luxury, and only partly redeemed by substantial charities. Around them, in the ghetto, a third of their fellows lived in a poverty that only charity kept this side of starvation. 54
The religion of the Jews, like their character, suffered from the poverty, introversion, and contumely of ghetto life. The rabbis, who in the Middle Ages had been men of courage and wisdom, became in this age devotees of a mysticism that fled from the hell of persecution and penury into a heaven of compensatory dreams. The Talmud in the Middle Ages had replaced the Bible as the soul of Judaism; now the Cabala replaced the Talmud. A Frankfurt author of the seventeenth century alleged that in his day there were many rabbis who had never seen a Bible. 55 Solomon Luria (1510–72) marked the transition; he began with the Talmud, and based upon it his Yam shel Shelomo (Sea of Solomon), but even his subtle mind finally succumbed to the Cabala. This was the “Secret Tradition” of medieval Jewish mystics who believed that they had found a divine revelation concealed in the symbolism of numbers, letters, and words, above all in the letters composing Yahveh’s ineffable name. Scholar after scholar in the ghetto lost himself in such fancies, until one of them declared that he who neglects the esoteric wisdom of the Cabal deserves excommunication. 56 In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, says the chief of modern Jewish historians, “the parasitic Kabbala choked the whole religious life of the Jews. Almost all rabbis and leaders of Jewish communities . . . were ensnared” by it, from Amsterdam to Poland to Palestine. 57
To the Jews so dispersed, and so often destitute and maligned, the prop of life was the faith that someday soon the real Messiah would come to raise them out of misery and ignominy to power and glory. It is pitiful to see how, in century after century, some impostor or fanatic was accepted by the Jews as this long-awaited savior. We have seen elsewhere how, in 1524, David Reubeni of Arabia was hailed by Mediterranean Hebrews as the Messiah, though he himself made no such pretense. Now, in 1648, a Jew of Smyrna, Sabbatai Zevi, announced that he was the promised Redeemer.
Physically he seemed to be an admirable choice: tall, shapely, handsome, with the fine black hair and beard of a Sephardic youth. 58 Drawn to the Cabala by the writings of Solomon Luria, he subjected himself to an ascetic regimen in the hope that this would make him worthy of the Secret Tradition in its fullest revelation. He mortified his body, bathed frequently in the sea at all seasons, and kept himself so clean that his followers celebrated the fragrance of his flesh. He felt no attraction to women; he married early in obedience to Jewish custom, but his wife soon divorced him for his failure to perform his marital duties. He married again, with the same result. Young men gathered about him, admiring the melodious voice in which he sang Cabalistic songs, and wondering was he not a heaven-sent saint. His father was one of a group who believed that the Messiah was coming soon—not later than 1666. Sabbatai heard them predicting that the great redemption would be effected by a man of pure soul and profound piety, initiated in the Cabala, and capable of drawing together all good men into the millennium. The thought came to Sabbatai that he, purified by asceticism, was this divine Redeemer. The Zohar, the thirteenth-century text of Cabala, had specified the Jewish year 5408 (A.D.1648) as inaugurating the era of redemption. In that year Sabbatai, aged twenty-two, proclaimed himself the Messiah.
A little band of disciples took him at his word. The rabbinate of Smyrna condemned them as blasphemers; they persisted, and were banished. Moving to Salonika, Sabbatai performed a Cabalistic ceremony marrying himself to the Torah; the rabbis of Salonika expelled him. He passed to Athens; then to Cairo, where he gained a rich adherent, Raphael Chelebi; then to Jerusalem, where his ascetic practices impressed even the rabbis. Impoverished by the cessation of alms from the stricken Jews of the Ukraine, the Jerusalem community sent Sabbatai to seek aid in Cairo. He returned to Jerusalem not only with funds but with a third wife, Sarah, whose beauty shed luster on his claims. At Gaza, on the way, he received another rich recruit, Nathan Ghazati, who announced that he himself was Elijah, reborn to make straight the way for the Messiah, and that within a year the Messiah would overthrow the Sultan and establish the Kingdom of Heaven. Believing him, thousands of Jews mortified their bodies to atone for their sins and be worthy of the earthly paradise. Back in Smyrna, Sabbatai in 1665 entered the synagogue on the Jewish New Year, and again declared himself the Messiah. Now he was accepted by a multitude delirious with joy. When an old rabbi denounced him as an impostor Sabbatai had him banished from Smyrna.
Throughout western Asia the news that the Messiah had come electrified the Jewish communities. Merchants from Egypt, Italy, Holland, Germany, and Poland brought the glad tidings back to their lands, and told of the miracles that in rising number were ascribed to Sabbatai. A few Jews were skeptical, but thousands, prepared by Cabalistic prophecies and ardent hopes, believed. Even some Christians shared in the exultation, saying that the Smyrna Messiah was really the reborn Christ. Henry Oldenburg, writing to Spinoza from London (December, 1665) reported: “All the world here is talking of a rumor of the return of the Israelites, dispersed for more than two thousand years, to their own country. Few believe it, but many wish it. . . . Should the news be confirmed, it may bring about a revolution in all things.” 59 In Amsterdam prominent rabbis declared for Sabbatai; the coming of the Kingdom was celebrated in the synagogue with music and dance; prayer books were printed to teach believers the penances and chants preparatory to entering the Promised Land. In the Hamburg synagogue Jewish worshipers of all ages hopped, jumped, and danced with the scroll of the Law in their hands. In Poland many Jews abandoned their homes and property and refused to work, saying that the Messiah would soon come in person and lead them in triumph to Jerusalem. 60 Thousands of Jews—sometimes whole communities, like that of Avignon—made ready to move to Palestine. At Smyrna some enthusiasts, excited by the world-wide homage to their leader, proposed that Jewish prayers henceforth be addressed not to Yahveh, but to “the first-begotten Son of God, Sabbatai Zevi, Messiah and Redeemer” (so Christians prayed more often to Christ or the Virgin than to God). Word was sent out from Smyrna that the Jewish holydays of mourning were hereafter to be celebrated as feasts of joy, and that soon all the laborious prescriptions of the Law were to be abrogated in the security and happiness of the Kingdom.
Apparently Sabbatai had himself come to believe in his miraculous powers. He announced that he was going to Constantinople, presumably to fulfill the prophecy of Ghazati that the Messiah would peacefully take the crown of the Ottoman Empire (including Palestine) from the Sultan. (Some said, however, that the cadi, or Turkish magistrate, in Smyrna had ordered him to present himself before high officials in the capital.) Before leaving Smyrna, Sabbatai divided the world and its government among his most faithful aides. With a band of disciples in his train, he set out on January 1, 1666. He had predicted the day of his arrival, but a tempest delayed his vessel; his companions turned the miscalculation into an added proof of his divinity by telling how, with a divine word, he had stilled the storm.
When he landed on the shore of the Dardanelles he was arrested, was brought in fetters to Constantinople, and was put in prison. Two months later he was transferred to a milder confinement at Abydos. His wife was allowed to join him; his friends came from all quarters to comfort him, to do him homage, and to bring him funds. His followers did not lose faith in him; they pointed out that according to the best predictions the Messiah would be at first rejected by the secular authorities, who would subject him to sufferings and indignities. Throughout Europe the Jews expected that at any moment he would be released, and would realize happier prophecies. His initials, S and Z, were posted in synagogues. In Amsterdam, Leghorn, and Hamburg Jewish business came almost to a standstill, so warm was the belief that soon all Jews would be returned to the Holy Land. Jews who expressed doubt that Sabbatai was the Messiah were in daily peril of their lives.
Puzzled by the excitement that was disturbing the economic life of many Ottoman communities, and yet afraid that the execution of Sabbatai as a rebel and impostor would sanctify him as a martyr and turn his movement into a costly rebellion, the Turkish authorities decided to try a peaceful solution. Sabbatai was taken to Adrianople. There he was told that a decree condemned him to be dragged through the streets and scourged with burning torches; this, however, he could avoid, and he would acquire high honors in Islam, by accepting conversion to the Mohammedan faith. He agreed. On September 14, 1666, he appeared before the Sultan, and confirmed his apostasy by removing his Jewish garments and donning Turkish dress. The Sultan gave him the name Mehmed Effendi, and appointed him his doorkeeper, with a handsome salary. Sarah, also converted, received rich gifts from the Sultana.
The news of this apostasy was greeted with incredulity by the Jews of Asia, Europe, and Africa; but when at last it was established it almost broke the heart of Jewry. The leading rabbi of Smyrna, who after much doubt had accepted Sabbatai, nearly died of shame. Jews became everywhere the butt of Moslem and Christian ridicule. Sabbatai’s aides sought to comfort his followers by explaining that the conversion was part of his subtle plan to win Mohammedans to Judaism, and that soon he would reappear as a Jew, with all Islam in his train. Sabbatai obtained permission to preach to the Jews of Adrianople, assuring the Turkish authorities that he would convert his auditors to Islam; at the same time he issued secret messages to the Jews that he was still the Messiah, and that they must not lose faith in him. But neither at Adrianople nor elsewhere did the Jews give any sign of accepting Mohammed. Disappointed, the Ottoman government deported Sabbatai to Ulcinj in Albania, where no Jews dwelt. There in 1676 the broken Messiah died. For half a century believers continued his movement, affirming his sanctity, and promising his resurrection from the dead.