Dis­si­dent Rab­bi: The Life of Jacob Sasportas

Yaa­cob Dweck

January 1, 2013

In 1665, Sab­be­tai Zevi, a self-pro­claimed Mes­si­ah with a mass fol­low­ing through­out the Ottoman Empire and Europe, announced that the redemp­tion of the world was at hand. As Jews every­where reject­ed the tra­di­tion­al laws of Judaism in favor of new norms estab­lished by Sab­be­tai Zevi, and aban­doned rea­son for the ecsta­sy of mes­sian­ic enthu­si­asm, one man watched in hor­ror. Dis­si­dent Rab­bi tells the sto­ry of Jacob Sas­portas, the Sephardic rab­bi who alone chal­lenged Sab­be­tai Zevi’s improb­a­ble claims and warned his fel­low Jews that their Mes­si­ah was not the answer to their prayers.

Yaa­cob Dweck­’s absorb­ing and rich­ly detailed biog­ra­phy brings to life the tumul­tuous cen­tu­ry in which Sas­portas lived, an age torn apart by war, migra­tion, and famine. He describes the mes­sian­ic fren­zy that gripped the Jew­ish Dias­po­ra, and Sas­portas’s attempts to make sense of a world that Sab­be­tai Zevi claimed was end­ing. As Jews danced in the streets, Sas­portas com­piled The Fad­ing Flower of the Zevi, a metic­u­lous and elo­quent record of Sab­ba­tian­ism as it hap­pened. In 1666, bare­ly a year after Sab­be­tai Zevi her­ald­ed the redemp­tion, the Mes­si­ah con­vert­ed to Islam at the behest of the Ottoman sul­tan, and Sas­portas’s book slipped into obscurity.

Dis­si­dent Rab­bi is the rev­e­la­to­ry account of a spir­i­tu­al leader who dared to artic­u­late the val­ue of rab­binic doubt in the face of mes­sian­ic cer­tain­ty, and a reveal­ing exam­i­na­tion of how his life and lega­cy were redis­cov­ered and appro­pri­at­ed by lat­er gen­er­a­tions of Jew­ish thinkers.

Discussion Questions

In Dis­si­dent Rab­bi: The Life of Jacob Sas­portas, Yaa­cob Dweck offers a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait of both pop­u­lar and rab­binic reac­tions to the mes­sian­ic fer­vor of the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry. He sit­u­ates Sas­portas’ tren­chant cri­tique of Sab­bateanism with­in a defense of Sephardic cul­ture, read­ing his own skep­ti­cism as part of a long­stand­ing tra­di­tion of philo­soph­i­cal ratio­nal­ism and asser­tions of Sephardic cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty. With the con­ver­sion of Shab­be­tai Sevi, Sas­portas’ writ­ings lapsed into obscu­ri­ty, but were lat­er recov­ered and used as the basis for a series of oth­er for­ma­tive debates with­in mod­ern Judaism. In trac­ing the after­life of Sas­portas’ ideas, Dis­si­dent Rab­bi also pro­vides us with a med­i­ta­tion on how the very bor­ders of Judaism can be chal­lenged, defend­ed, recov­ered, and redi­rect­ed over large expans­es of time and space. By illu­mi­nat­ing the var­i­ous lives” of Sas­portas’ writ­ing, Dweck has added his own read­ing of Sephardic cul­ture and Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry to yet anoth­er set of audiences.