The Heresy of Jacob Frank: From Jew­ish Mes­sian­ism to Eso­teric Myth

January 3, 2022

The Heresy of Jacob Frank is the first mono­graph length study on the reli­gious phi­los­o­phy of Jacob Frank (17261791), who, in the wake of false mes­si­ah Sab­be­tai Zevi, led the largest mass apos­ta­sy in Jew­ish his­to­ry. Based on close read­ings of Frank’s late teach­ings, record­ed in 1784 and 1790, this book chal­lenges schol­ar­ly pre­sen­ta­tions of Frank that depict him as a sex-crazed degen­er­ate,” and presents Frank as an orig­i­nal and pre­scient fig­ure at the cross­roads of tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty, rea­son and mag­ic, Kab­bal­ah and West­ern Esotericism.

Frank’s world­view com­bines a skep­ti­cal rejec­tion of reli­gious law as inef­fec­tu­al and repres­sive with a super­nat­ur­al, eso­teric myth of immor­tal beings, mate­r­i­al mag­ic, and world­ly pow­er. With close read­ings of the the­o­log­i­cal and nar­ra­tive pas­sages of Frank’s teach­ings, Michael­son shows how the Frankist sect evolved from its Sab­batean roots and the infa­mous 1757 – 59 dis­pu­ta­tions before the Catholic Church, into a West­ern Eso­teric soci­ety based on alche­my, secre­cy, and sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion. Sex­u­al rit­u­al, appar­ent­ly tight­ly lim­it­ed and con­trolled by the sect, was not a lib­er­tine bac­cha­nal but an enact­ment of the mes­sian­ic real­i­ty, a cor­po­re­al­iza­tion of what would lat­er become known as spirituality.

While Frank was undoubt­ed­ly a manip­u­la­tive, even abu­sive leader whose sect most­ly dis­ap­peared from his­to­ry, Michael­son sug­gests that his ide­ol­o­gy antic­i­pat­ed themes that would become pre­dom­i­nant in the Haskalah, Ear­ly Hasidism, and even con­tem­po­rary New Age’ Judaism. In an inver­sion of tra­di­tion­al reli­gious val­ues, Frank’s antin­o­mi­an the­ol­o­gy held per­son­al flour­ish­ing to be a reli­gious virtue, affirmed only the mate­r­i­al, and trans­ferred mes­sian­ic eros into social, sex­u­al, and polit­i­cal reality.

Discussion Questions

Jay Michaelson’s The Heresy of Jacob Frank is a ground­break­ing work that exam­ines the reli­gious phi­los­o­phy of one of the strangest —and least under­stood — fig­ures of Jew­ish his­to­ry, the icon­o­clast Jacob Frank (17261791). Bril­liant­ly unpack­ing thou­sands of Frank’s lat­er oral teach­ings sur­viv­ing in Pol­ish (known as Words of the Lord), Michael­son shows that Frank was not sim­ply a sec­ond Sab­batai Zevi, or a con­niv­ing sex-crazed oppor­tunist, as many pri­or schol­ars have thought, but a seri­ous and com­plex thinker who stood at the precipice of tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty. While Frank embraced skep­ti­cism, a ratio­nal antin­o­mi­an­ism, and a this-world­ly mate­ri­al­ism (i.e., the cel­e­bra­tion of sen­su­al and sex­u­al plea­sure) — and thus in these respects can be said to have antic­i­pat­ed the Haskalah, Reform Judaism, and even some aspects of Hasidism — Michael­son deft­ly demon­strates that Frank con­tin­ued to frame these mod­ern” ideas using tra­di­tion­al myth­ic imagery, old­er mes­sian­ic and Kab­bal­is­tic tropes, and an unusu­al blend of Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian syncretism.