Bezalel Naor

‘What is a kohen doing in the graveyard?’ Rav Kook and Jacob Frank? (Part Two)

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tocarczuk. Translated by Jennifer Croft. New York: Riverhead Books, 2022.

Frank viewed himself as the third “Messiah” in a chain reaching back to Shabbetai Tsevi. Though Frank’s origins are obscure, the consensus among historians is that as a young man, he was exposed in Salonika to the radical teachings of Baruchiah (Russo) and familiarized with the orgiastic rites of that cult. (The Frankists would refer to Shabbetai as “the First”; to Señor Santo, i.e. Baruchiah as “the Second”; and to Jacob as “the Third.”)[1] These dogmas and practices Frank brought back to Poland. His notoriety first came to the awareness of the Polish rabbis when an orgy over which he presided in Lanckoronie in January of 1756 was inadvertently discovered.

Sabbatians believed that it was necessary for the Messiah to descend to the depths of the kelipot (“husks” or “shells”) in order to redeem mankind. Just as Shabbetai and his followers converted to the religion of Ishmael (Islam), so Frank and his followers would infiltrate the religion of Edom (Christianity). Besides a mass baptism of Polish Jews, Frank’s antics resulted in the burning of the Talmud on the pyre in Kamieniec-Podolski (October, 1757) and accusing the Jews of the blood libel at the disputation in Lwów (August-September, 1759).

In Wojslawice, where Frank’s wife and followers took up residence, friction between the local Jews and the Frankists prompted the latter to perpetrate the blood libel (April, 1761). In the aftermath, the leaders of the Jewish community were unjustly sentenced to death in the cruelest manner (quartering alive).[2]

Eventually, Frank’s lies and intrigues caught up with him. Having seen through the insincerity of his conversion to Catholicism, the Churchmen imprisoned him in Częstochowa fortress. There, he languished for thirteen years before being released by the invading Russians (August, 1772).

Given Frank’s heinous crimes against Polish Jewry, it is not difficult to understand why not many Jews root for him. An exception to this rule was Aharon Zeitlin. Responding to an earlier article by the Warsaw psychiatrist Dr. Zygmunt Bychowski, who found Frank to be a degenerate psychopath and this entire chapter in history a tragicomedy, surprisingly, Zeitlin rose to Frank’s defense.[3] Zeitlin, himself a poet, saw in Frank a poetic soul, and first compared Frank to Nietzsche, then to Ibsen’s character, Peer Gynt. Most perspicacious is Zeitlin’s comparison of Baron Frank to his contemporary Baron Wolf Eibeschuetz (son of Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz), a Sabbatian “fellow traveler.”[4]

What does the saintly Rav Kook have to say about Sabbatians in general and Frank in particular?[5] In a personal letter, Rav Kook admonished the recipient for mistaking the present world order for a perfect world. The halcyon “Days of Messiah” cannot be projected onto a corrupt state of affairs. This rashness was exemplified by the Sabbatians, “sunk in the depth of wickedness.”[6]

In the essay “Derekh ha-Tehiyah” (“The Way of Renascence”)[7] Jacob Frank shows up as a blip on Rav Kook’s radar. In brilliant broad strokes, Rav Kook navigates through the shoals of Jewish history, which to his thinking is a dialectic movement between the poles of refined book-learning on the one hand, and raw charisma on the other. While one extreme tends to flatten the dimensions of pneumatic experience, the other extreme is in danger of blowing up the borders of morality and propriety.

After the unsuccessful attempt of the latest false Messiah, Shabbetai Tsevi, who reduced the psychic current to a level of mental instability and wicked intoxication, culminating later in the apostasy of the semi-official pseudo-Messiah Frank and his followers—after all these episodes, there was great apprehension lest the nation totally revile any vestige remaining to it of the hidden power of living soul currents, and revert to repetition of the letters and observance of the commandments and customs with a bent back and a broken heart. [If that were the case] eventually, the nation, lacking freshness and upliftment of the soul, would cease to exist.[8]

Rav Kook goes on to expound that the Ba‘al Shem Tov’s Hasidism saved the day by appearing at precisely this critical nexus. Hasidism provided a spirituality in which the antinomian element was absent (due in part to the stiff opposition of the Vilna Gaon and his disciples).

The essay, “The Way of Renascence,” deals with the clash of Talmudism and Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, in abstract terms. As time goes by, and more of Rav Kook’s spiritual journals fall into the public domain, we become increasingly aware of how painful was the tension between the paternal Mitnagdic and the maternal Hasidic sides of Rav Kook’s personality.[9] “Merhavim” and “Tsameti”—which unfortunately were collapsed into one poem by Habermann, Bokser, and now Tocarczuk—represent the two antipodes of Rav Kook’s soul: the Kabbalist, whose soul would soar beyond the leaden letters; and the Talmudist, who, as a fish out of water, cannot breathe without—words.

To answer our initial question of what Rav Kook is doing in this graveyard of Jewish history, let Rav Kook speak for himself:

The great of soul, who recognize the pulse beat of the entire nation as a whole…the exalted masters of the foundation…will raise up all the descents, whether their own, those of Israel, or those of all the Nephilim (fallen giants) who stood to be Messiahs but fell, were trapped and broken. Their sparks were scattered and seek a living and enduring tikkun (correction) in the foundation of David, King of Israel, “the breath of our nostrils, the Messiah of the Lord.”[10]

It appears that author Olga Tocarczuk too is intent on raising up the “sparks of holiness.” By placing on the lips of Frank’s faithful follower, Nahman of Busk, this “very old prayer, the author of which cannot now be known,” Tocarczuk would intimate that deep down in the heart of an otherwise debauched, degenerate movement was a spiritual longing—however misguided and distorted.

It is also not coincidental that before his entanglement with Frank, Nahman had been a follower of the Besht (short for Ba‘al Shem Tov) and forever retained a fondness for his former master.[11] (So in Tocarczuk’s fanciful portrayal.) This is another way of saying that though from a remove of several centuries the demarcation between Beshtian Hasidism and Frankism is clear-cut, at the time, a young seeker might easily have gravitated to one or the other. (Thus, Tocarczuk writes: “[Jacob Frank] never concealed the satisfaction it gave him to win people away from the Besht. And there were quite a few of them.”)[12] For at the root, as Rav Kook wrote in his essay, both charismatic movements held out the promise of respirating a suffocating soul and prying free a Jew caught in a thicket of letters. The crucial difference being that Frank represented the dark side of personal charisma, while the Besht represented the light side of that phenomenon.

In Shivhei ha-Besht (the hagiography of the Ba‘al Shem Tov) there is told the story that once the soul of Shabbetai Tsevi came to the Besht for a tikkun (correction of the soul). The tikkun required that the soul of the Besht connect to the soul of Shabbetai Tsevi. The Besht slowly started the process of “uploading” the soul of Shabbetai Tsevi until he felt that his own soul was endangered (by the enticement of apostasy), at which point the Besht was forced to cast him all the way down to She’ol, where he resides on the same rung together with Jesus. The Besht confided that there was in Shabbetai Tsevi a spark of the Messiah but Samael snared him in his trap.[13]

Perhaps Rav Kook continues the process of Tikkun—of fixing the broken souls of fallen Messiahs—where the Besht left off.

[1] See Bezalel Naor, Post-Sabbatian Sabbatianism (Spring Valley, NY: Orot, 1999), chap. 2 (“Three Themes from the Frankist Commentary to ‘Eyn Ya‘akov”), especially p. 29.

[2] Tocarczuk dates the blood libel to Spring of 1762 (Ksiegi Jakubowe, p. 275; Sifrei Ya‘akov, p. 504; The Books of Jacob, p. 279), however Maciejko dates it to the previous year (April, 1761). See Pawel Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011), p. 124.

[3] Z. Bychowski, “Frank ve-kitato le-’or ha-psychiatria,” Ha-Tekufah, vols. 14-15 (Warsaw, 1923), pp. 703-720; Aharon Zeitlin, “Sefihei Shabta’ut,” Ha-Tekufah, vol. 20 (Warsaw, 1924), pp. 500-506. Ha-Tekufah was a Hebrew literary journal. Both Bichowski and Zeitlin referenced Aleksander Kraushar’s Frank i Frankisci Polscy, 1726-1816 (Kraków, 1895). An English translation of Kraushar’s work is available: Herbert Levey, Jacob Frank: The End to the Sabbataian Heresy (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2001).

Today, Kraushar’s account must be supplemented by the Lublin manuscript of the Kronika published by Hillel Levine. See Ha-Kronika: Te‘udah le-Toledot Ya‘akov Frank u-Tenu‘ato (The Kronika: On Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement), ed. and transl. Hillel Levine (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1984).

For a survey of the various Frankist manuscripts, see Pawel Maciejko, “The Literary Character and Doctrine of Jacob Frank’s The Words of the Lord,” Kabbalah 9 (2003), pp. 175-210.

[4] See now Maciejko, The Mixed Multitude, pp. 199-222.

[5] See at length Bezalel Naor, Post-Sabbatian Sabbatianism (Spring Valley, NY: Orot, 1999), chap. 14 (“Rav Kook on Sabbatianism”), pp. 109-113.

[6] Iggerot ha-RAYaH, vol. 1, p. 174 (Letter 140, datelined “Jaffa, 27 Iyyar, 5668 [i.e. 1908]” to Samuel Aleksandrov). A good translation is found in Tzvi Feldman’s Rav A.Y. Kook: Selected Letters (New York, NY: Ma‘aliot, 1986), pp. 128-129 (Letter Eighteen).

Though some today view Rav Kook as a starry-eyed Messianist, we have on the authority of his disciple Rabbi Yitzhak Arieli that even when confronted with Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer’s testimony, Rav Kook refused to accept that the Hafets Hayyim had predicted that the Messiah would arrive within so many years.

[7] “Derekh ha-Tehiyah” first appeared in Ha-Nir, Year One, no. 2 (1906). It was reprinted in Ma’amrei ha-RAYaH, vol. 1, ed. Langenauer and Landau (Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 1-9. An English translation is available in Bezalel Naor, When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (New York, NY: Kodesh, 2016), pp. 63-77. Earlier, Ben Zion Bokser included the essay in his anthology under the title, “The Road to Renewal” (pp. 287-302).

[8] When God Becomes History, pp. 72-73.

[9] Rav Kook’s father’s family, the Kooks and the Yaffes, were alumni of the Volozhin Yeshiva, founded by the Vilna Gaon’s eminent disciple, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin; his mother’s family, the Felmans, were Kopyster Hasidim, a branch of HaBaD.

[10] Lamentations 4:20; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Orot (Jerusalem, 1920), Orot ha-Tehiyah (Lights of Renascence), chap. 70. Translation by Bezalel Naor in Maggid bilingual edition of Orot (Jerusalem, 2015), p. 417. Rav Kook employed the term Nephilim in regard to the Sabbatians in his letter to Aleksandrov; see Iggerot ha-RAYaH, vol. 1, p. 175 (Feldman translation, p. 130, n. 12).

[11] Tocarczuk places in the mouth of the Besht the famous saying of his great-grandson Rabbi Nahman of Breslov: “If you believe that it is possible to ruin, believe that it is possible to fix” (Likkutei MOHaRaN II, 112). See Ksiegi Jakubowe, p. 552; Sifrei Ya‘akov, p. 287; The Books of Jacob, p. 580.

[12] The Books of Jacob, p. 284; Ksiegi Jakubowe, p. 280; Sifrei Ya‘akov, p. 500.

[13] Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Ba‘al Shem Tov), ed. Avraham Rubinstein (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass, 2005), pp. 133-134.

Though on the surface the tikkun would have been of the soul of the deceased Shabbetai Tsevi (1626-1676), there is some speculation in academic circles that the story is a veiled reference to the Besht’s attempt to rectify the Frankists, or at least, prevent their apostasy. See Tsippi Kauffmann, Huledet ha-Av: Rabbi Nahman mi-Braslav ve-ha-Besht: Hashpa‘ah ve-Habnayah (The Reborn Father: Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav and the Baal Shem Tov: Influence and Construction) (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2020), pp. 185-188.

To Kauffmann’s thinking, this tale is cut from the same cloth as Rabbi Nahman of Breslov’s report that the Besht attributed his death to two holes in his heart brought about by the episode of Shabbetai Tsevi. See Likkutei MOHaRaN I, 207. The reference is clearly to the Frankists’ calumniation of the Talmud and subsequent apostasy (as spelled out earlier in the chapter in Likkutei MOHaRaN). See Kauffmann, pp. 188-195. The report in Likkutei MoHaRaN is the source of Tokarczuk’s statement: “They are saying that the Besht died because his heart broke at the news of hundreds of Jews converting. That his heart broke, in other words, because of Jacob Frank” (The Books of Jacob, p. 284; Ksiegi Jakubowe, p. 280; Sifrei Ya‘akov, p. 501).

In the Rabbinic literature of the day, the Frankists were referred to as the sectarians of Shabbetai Tsevi (Kauffmann, p. 181, n. 12). See e.g. Rabbi Israel Harif of Satanów, ‘Ateret Tif‘eret Yisrael, ed. Mordechai Fleischman (New York, 2022), beginning Be-Hukkotai (432 col. a).

About the Author
Bezalel Naor is an author, teacher, and public speaker. He is recognized as a scholar in the thought of Rav Kook, Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, and Hasidism, as well as many other areas of Jewish Thought. Recent publications include a bilingual edition of Rav Kook's seminal work, Orot (Maggid, 2015); When God Becomes History: Historical Essays of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (Kodesh, 2016); The Koren Rav Kook Siddur (2017); Navigating Worlds: Collected Essays (Kodesh, 2021); and The Souls of the World of Chaos (Kodesh, 2023).
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