Physicist turned travel writer Freely (Inside the Seraglio, not reviewed) counts three decades spent tracking down a 17th-century rabbi who became one of the most curious figures in the history of Judaism.
Figuratively walking the length and breadth of the Levant, the author initially neglects to ground his readers, preferring to mete out history piecemeal as he unfolds the story. But the essential facts congeal: hounded from Catholic Spain for a century, murdered in Catholic Poland, Jews from all over Europe found tolerance, security, and even comfort in the seats of power of the Turks’ Ottoman Empire, the mightiest Islamic kingdom ever known. Thus, in Izmir (Smyrna), a charismatic rabbinical student named Sabbatai Sevi proclaimed in 1648 that he had been anointed as Messiah, Redeemer, King of the Jews who would lead them back to the Holy Land. Given to both spiritual visions and unholy depressions, Sevi apparently had a riveting gaze and a melodious singing voice, and seems to have been regarded as something between a rock star and Bonnie Prince Charlie by Jews, Muslims, and gentiles alike. He rapidly gained both fanatic followers and powerful enemies, the latter primarily in the conservative orthodoxy, and no wonder: He constantly tinkered with the liturgy, flip-flopped feast days and fast days, blew away the Torah’s sexual prohibitions, and even encouraged women to peruse the holy writ, forbidden to them by tradition. As an ultimate outrage, Sevi readily embraced the Islamic faith under a sultan’s death threat, then blithely convinced members of his cult, known thereafter by the Turkish word for “turncoats,” that it was all part of God’s great plan for him. Remarkably, direct descendants of those Islamic, crypto-Jewish believers, ostracized and persecuted over three centuries, remain in a few distinct Levantine communities to the present day, and the author has visited several.
Lacks critical perspective, but patient readers will be fascinated.