Mav­er­icks, Mys­tics & False Mes­si­ahs: Episodes from the Mar­gins of Jew­ish History

Pini Dun­ner

December 18, 2018

We tend to look at the his­to­ry of Jew­ish life in a lin­ear way, ignor­ing or dis­miss­ing the influ­ences and the stim­u­la­tors from beyond the com­fort zone of tra­di­tion­al Judaism. But we must ask our­selves: What were the out­side fac­tors that influ­enced what hap­pened on the inside? How did the Shab­be­tai Tzvi and Emden-Eybeschutz con­tro­ver­sies affect how we live our lives as Jews in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry? How did the Get of Cleves con­tro­ver­sy influ­ence Jew­ish law going for­ward, so that rul­ings arrived at today are deter­mined by this seem­ing­ly mar­gin­al episode? The unit­ing theme of Mav­er­icks, Mys­tics & False Mes­si­ahs is the very indi­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties of these mar­gin­al char­ac­ters and the impact they had dur­ing the time in which they lived. All the mav­er­icks whose lives are explored in this book some­how rep­re­sent in their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and their unique sto­ries aspects of the broad­er nar­ra­tive of their eras. What they prove, in all their fas­ci­nat­ing odd­i­ty, is how aspects of Jew­ish his­to­ry which occur out­side of the spot­light have a resid­ual effect on what is hap­pen­ing in today’s world.

Discussion Questions

Rab­bi Pini Dun­ner is a mas­ter­ful sto­ry­teller, and the book is a com­pi­la­tion of sto — ries he is eager to tell. Some of the char­ac­ters who appear in the book are unknown indi­vid­u­als. Oth­ers were revered rab­bis, and some were indi­vid­u­als who changed the course of Jew­ish his­to­ry. In many ways, each of the indi­vid­u­als who we meet is a prod­uct of his time and reflects ele­ments of its polit­i­cal, reli­gious, and eco­nom­ic ethos.

Each episode in Dunner’s book is fas­ci­nat­ing. He has the rare abil­i­ty to recount his­to­ry in a bal­anced, non-judg­men­tal way. He allows his sto­ries to unfold, enables the key indi­vid­u­als to cap­ti­vate us, and then leaves it to the read­er to respond to and reflect on the char­ac­ters. The book pro­vides insight into inter­est­ing peo­ple and con­tro­ver­sies, offer­ing the read­er greater under­stand­ing of dif­fer­ent peri­ods in Jew­ish his­to­ry from an insu­lar reli­gious per­spec­tive, as in the dis­cus­sion of the Eybeschütz – Emden con­tro­ver­sy and the Get of Cleves — or against the back — ground of world his­to­ry, as in the cas­es of Shab­batai Zevi and Ignatius Tim­o­thy Trebitsch-Lin­coln. These and the oth­er sto­ries in Dunner’s’ book are high­ly enter­tain­ing and engaging.