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Jacob Frank


He rejected the Torah. He converted to both Islam and Catholicism. He slept with his followers -- and maybe even his daughter. He preached a nihilistic doctrine that saw this world as intrinsically corrupt, and believed that the best way to imitate God was to cross every boundary, transgress every taboo, and mix, as God did, the sacred with the profane. This was not a cult leader from Texas, Fiji, or Jonestown -- it was Jacob Frank, the great Jewish heretic of the 18th century.

Frank's name is little-known today. His recorded oral teachings, a disorganized, thousand-page jumble called the Words of the Lord, have never been published in English -- and were only printed in their original Polish a few years ago. He's a footnote -- the great scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem called him a "degenerate," a cheap imitation of the antinomian messiah Sabbetai Tzvi.

But in 1760, if you asked any Jew on the street who Jacob Frank was, you can bet that they knew exactly. Frank was the most infamous (ex-)Jew of this day, a man who had been caught engaging in orgiastic sexual ritual, turned over to the Christian authorities for prosecution as a heretic (the Church had jurisdiction over all heretics in that day, not just Christian ones), and then, to avoid the gallows, led a mass conversion in which hundreds of his followers publicly renounced Judaism and became Christians. At the height of his popularity, approximately 50,000 Jews or ex-Jews considered themselves his disciples -- an enormous number even in those days. By contrast, if you asked the same Jew if he knew about the Baal Shem Tov, the future founder of Hasidism who was a contemporary of Frank -- you'd probably get a blank stare.

Born in 1726, Frank spent his formative years as a European expatriate in Turkey, consorting with the underground communities of believers in the messiah Sabbetai Tzvi, who had died thirty years prior but who still had thousands of followers. Some of these followers were Muslims who were secretly Jews; others were Jews who were secretly Sabbateans. Initially, Frank was just another heretic among heretics -- but all that changed in 1756, when he was (allegedly) caught performing a heretical ritual (admit it, you want to know: it involved having a young maiden, either naked or topless, embody the Shechinah, or Divine Feminine, and stand in the center of a circle of men who kissed her breasts the way we kiss the Torah today). A huge public disputation followed.

At first, Frank's party -- known as the Contra-Talmudists, because they rejected the Talmud and followed only Kabbalah -- was victorious. But then, in late 1757, the pro-Frank (and anti-semitic) bishop in charge of the disputation suddenly dropped dead. Quickly Frank's fortunes reversed, and he was more or less forced to either convert to Catholicism, or admit that he was a heretic, in which case he would probably be killed. On September 17, 1759, Frank converted.

But something was strange about these "New Christians," who insisted on maintaining their old customs (including -- I kid you not; this is my field -- the eating of kugel) and who never quite renounced their old faith. Indeed, for Frank, the conversion to Christianity was actually just another transgression of a boundary. He never really accepted Christ as his savior -- because he was the savior. Not quite the messiah; Frank never promised redemption. More like the anti-Messiah, the leader of a new sect that would transcend all the dichotomies between sacred and sinful, beautiful and ugly, sanctified and degraded. These ideas did grow out of Sabbateanism, which had to negotiate the huge gap between the world of truth, in which Sabbetai Tzvi was the messiah, and the apparent world, in which he was a dead apostate, and which, as a consequence, also came to regard the visible world as illusory, fallen, and evil. But they were also Frank's own: a radical new anti-religion that saw law and order as the problems, and antinomianism as the only holy solution.

The Church threw him in jail, and so Frank sat in a monastery for thirteen years, until the Russians conquered that part of Poland and set him free. From 1772 until his death in 1791, Frank had an astonishing career as cult leader, confidante of Emperor Joseph II, and pseudo-Russian nobility who set himself up with a small court and soldiers who paraded around his estate with guns and flags.

And throughout, Frank maintained, with his followers, a secret, heretical religion of transgression, antinomianism, and inversion. It really was the stuff of folk legends: a sinister leader, secret sexual orgies, and a rejection of every standard of decency. Frank parodied the Zohar, the Talmud, the Torah; he boasted about his sexual prowess and told dirty jokes; and, he created an original theology that was innovative, if sinister.

Concepts of boundary and transgression are problematized within the Frankist theology -- and for a figure working within a religious context, they are crucial concepts; demarcations of boundary are among the most crucial aspects of religion in general, and certainly of Judaism in particular. As a moral-ethical order, religion sets boundaries upon human behavior -- beginning, as Freud theorized, with the incest taboo, but extending, in the Jewish religion, to every aspect of life, cultural demarcations (which in the Kabbalah are imbued with cosmological symbolic significance) of forbidden or permitted, pure or impure, inside or outside, central or marginal. Frankism deliberately sets about crossing every boundary available to it, and undermining the very notion of boundary. As such, it problematizes the question of "religion" itself, creating a religion of anti-religion, a paradoxical cult of the profane. Frank himself is a boundary-crosser, a Ladino-speaking Turk active in Moravia (itself a liminal, lawless "Interzone,", Germany, and Poland. He is said to speak all languages, and none of them well. His sexual practices transgressed the most fundamental of human taboos, including perhaps the incest taboo. And Frank's ideology, in Divrei HaAdon, is one in which the crossing of boundaries is the most important religious-personal obligation.

Frank's rereading of the myth of Jacob and Esau is a focal point for these ideas. Frank, who naturally saw himself as connected to his Biblical namesake, regarded Jacob as the great hero of the Bible. However, he parted company with that tradition (which he scorns on a number of occasions in the Divrei HaAdon) to regard Jacob as a failed hero rather than a successful one. Understanding Frank's revisionist reading of Jacob's quest is a useful entry point to understanding his theology in general. For Frank, the central theological move is the garbing of the holy in the unholy. In his neo-gnostic ontology, the world, wholly evil, is a creation not of YHVH but of an evil creator god. And yet, God has become manifest and present in the world, thus transgressing the boundary between pure and impure. Human beings, to imitate God, likewise must enter into the realm of the profane, like Jacob wearing the "skins" of Esau to receive the blessing from his father, a blessing that, Frank delights in recalling, is obtained through theft -- that is to say, through the individual and antinomian action of the mystic hero, a motif which recurs over and over in the Divrei HaAdon.

However, Jacob, the hero of the Jews, never understood this, and constantly worked to patrol boundaries and maintain separateness. For example, Frank notes, Jacob refuses to allow Rachel to bring the idols of her father Laban with her. This, Frank says, was a tragic mistake, because instead of joining together the Divinity incarnate in the idols (like that incarnate in the "Black Virgin" of Czestochowa, where Frank was imprisoned for twelve years), Jacob maintained the separation between the material world and the spiritual one. Only Rachel, who Frank identifies with his daughter Eva, understood that there is holiness even within the idolatrous -- the very secret of the Divine Incarnation.

Now, if we continue to view Frankism from within Scholem's dialectical theory, then it is natural to link such myths with the "uplifting of the sparks" as understood within the Sabbatean Kabbalah. However, I believe this is a projection of a conceptual framework absent in the Divrei HaAdon and scorned by Frank himself. Nowhere does Frank suggest that Jacob should have uplifted the fallen sparks of Divinity hidden within Rachel's idols. On the contrary, unlike the Sabbatean readings of "descent for the sake of ascent," Frank never proposes an eschatology in which the "liberated" sparks reunite in a cosmic tikkun or Messianic event. His cosmology is more radical: it is that the notion of liberating sparks, which entails a kind of ontological sifting of good and evil, is the problem, not the solution. Jacob's mistake was not in forgoing an opportunity to lift sparks fallen in Rachel's idols, but to recognize the thorough intermixing of Divinity with idolatry, and the transgression of boundaries that it represents -- not unlike Frank's veneration of the Cult of the Black Virgin ("all that we are seeking is a portrait," he remarks at one point).

Where conventional Sabbatean theology understood that the truthful Torah of Atzilut had already supplanted the Torah of Asiyah, the Divrei HaAdon effaces the distinction between the two, because it is the mixing of the two that is the quintessential Divine act. The dichotomy is the same, but the relationship to the dichotomy is quite different. Rather than moving from one to the other, and hoping to bring about the supplanting of one by the other, the Divrei HaAdon mixes the two together.

Amazingly, some of Frank's followers went on to become leaders of the Prague Enlightenment, prominent attorneys in Poland, and shape-shifters of every kind. Adam Mickiewicz, considered Poland's greatest poet, used Frankist themes in his work and was almost certainly part of a Frankist family. Even Justice Louis Brandeis had a portrait of Frank's daughter Eva on his desk in the Supreme Court -- an heirloom he received from his Dembitz relatives, whose ancestors were followers of Frank. The Supreme Court! Oh, and that Jewish-Masonic conspiracy the antisemies talk about? Not entirely fiction -- one follower of Frank, Moses Dobruska, was in fact a prominent Jacobin and powerful Freemason who went under the name of Junius Frey. He ran arms during the French Revolution, and may have spied for Austria. He was executed by guillotine.

Indeed, it is sexuality which most obviously marks the site of transgression for Frank and the Frankists. Notorious for their sexual transgressions, and heirs to a Sabbatean tradition which held that the disjuncture between the world of atzilut and that of asiyah was most clearly manifest in the abrogation of sexual norms, the Frankists, if the Kronika and contemporary sources shed any light on their actual practices, were sexual antinomians for whom erotic practice was simultaneously a transgression of social and religious norms and an actualization of the Kabbalistically-defined Divine eroticism. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that Frankist sexuality was simply a matter of defying convention in its starkest form. Rather, sexuality is that which enacts the phallocentrically defined empowerment of man -- the Lord, Adon, is a euphemism for the phallus and it is neither exaggeration nor vulgarization to translate Divrei HaAdon as "the matters of the cock." Indeed, this study will apply the methodology of queer theory to understand Frank's transgressive sexuality as an intentional, radical disorder of notions of gender as part of his epic quest to assert his own (phallic) power against the manifest world.

Whether these sexual practices included actual incest with his daughter Eva or not, it is clear that sexual potency is, for Frank, a symbol of power in general -- and it is for Frank the individual's power, in rebellion against norms and the limitations of the manifest world, that will enable him to attain godliness. Clearly, Frank was no saint; he abused his disciples, including sexually, and was a deliberately vulgar man. But like the followers of "left-hand" Tantrism, it might just be the case that Frank did it all to shake free of illusion and truly embrace the knowledge (gnosis, or das, in Frank's words) of the true God as he saw it.

In the academy, these ideas are rarely studied; and outside the academy, knowledge of Frank is quite limited. This neglect may at first seem surprising, given the uniqueness of Frank as a figure, but it can be understood in light of three facts: first, the paucity and unreliability of authentic Frankist sources; second, the belief by many scholars that a boorish or perhaps insane Frank never elucidated a theology, and the fact that Divrei HaAdon often more closely resembles the rantings of a madman or the rationales of a power-hungry deviant than any kind of theological, mystical, or religious treatise; and third, the fact that Frankism as a religious ideology, to the extent it can be called such, had far less impact on European Jewish history than Frankism as a sociological-religious phenomenon, which at its zenith affected over 30,000 people, and which has been credited with influencing the rise of Hasidism, the Haskalah in Prague, and other later developments in Jewish thought. Even today, as the redaction of Frankist sources makes them more available to scholars, the tendency to treat Frankism historically, rather than with the methodologies of religious studies, has continued.

Because of this focus on Frankism as history rather than as ideology, the prevailing scholarly understanding of what Frank and the Frankists actually believed (at least as recorded in the textual sources available to us) is greatly attenuated, and often incorrect. Generally, when scholars have remarked on the core ideas of Frankism, they have done so heavily influenced by Gershom Scholem's contextualization of Frankism as a late, extreme manifestation of Sabbateanism -- perhaps the reductio ad absurdum of "redemption through sin" (a doctrine which never appears in the Frankist corpus). Scholem, who regarded Frank as a "corrupt and degenerate individual," saw Frankist antinomianism and Christianization as a mere extension of Sabbateanism, and a poor derivative of it. Thus Frank's original contributions tend to be minimized -- notwithstanding Frank's own contempt for Sabbetai Tzvi and his strikingly post-Sabbatean, and even anti-Sabbatean, doctrines. And while it is commonly understood that Frank was an antinomian, the theological justifications for, and the cosmology underling, that antinomianism have rarely (if ever) been subjected to rigorous textual analysis. Yet Scholem's conceptions of Frankism, and the tendency of many scholars to accept them, are not borne out by Frankist texts. In fact, a study of those texts reveals Frankism to be a strikingly original, radically gnostic, nihilistic, constantly shifting, yet theoretically cognizable enterprise of boundary-crossing -- so much so that Frankism becomes almost a carnivalesque satire of religion itself.