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Jacob Frank

He rejected the Torah. He converted to both Islam and Catholicism. His sect engaged in secret sexual rituals. This was not a cult leader from Texas, Fiji, or Jonestown -- it was Jacob Frank, the great Jewish heretic of the 18th century.

Jacob 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, Frank was the most infamous (ex-)Jew of this day, a man who had been caught engaging in orgiastic sexual ritual, and turned over by the rabbinic establishment to the Christian authorities for prosecution as a heretic (the Church had jurisdiction over all heretics in that day, not just Christian ones). To avoid the gallows, Frank led a mass conversion in which hundreds of his followers publicly renounced Judaism and became Christians. At the height of his popularity, up to 30,000 Jews or ex-Jews considered themselves his disciples -- an enormous number even in those days.

Born in 1726, Frank spent his formative years as a European expatriate in present-day 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. 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 and who never quite renounced their old faith. In fact, the sect remained loyal to Frank, believing he would lead them to power and wealth. The Church threw him in jail, and so Frank sat imprisoned 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. 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. In Frank's later worldview, religion is superstitious nonsense; only the material is real. But the world is filled with magic, if you know how to use its technology.

Interestingly, Frank is not as much of a Sabbatean as some scholars have suggested. 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. On the contrary, belief in such 'spiritual' realities gets in the way of immortality, power, and strength.

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.

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. 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.