The strange story of Sabbatai Sevi, the 17th-century Jewish mystic who claimed to be the Messiah but instead became an apparently committed convert to Islam, is not merely an embarrassing incident in Jewish history, but is one of several religious attempts to come to terms with the drastic changes of an emergent modernity. John Freely has written a careful account of Sabbatai's life, making the findings of scholarship accessible to the general reader.
Sabbatai was born in 1626 to a Jewish family in Izmir in the Ottoman empire. He was a quietly charming, studious young man who was inducted into the mystical disciplines of the Kabbalah and had a small following of devoted disciples. But when he was about 20, he began to show the symptoms of what we might now call manic depression. He used to hide away for days, sunk in misery, but would then enjoy what he called periods of "illumination", when he was restless, febrile and given to performing "strange acts" in which he flagrantly violated Jewish law. He would utter the forbidden Name of God or publicly eat non-kosher food. In 1650, he heard a voice announcing that he was the long-awaited Messiah and destined to inaugurate a wholly new Torah.
Nothing might have come of this had Sabbatai not met the brilliant young Kabbalist known as Nathan of Gaza, who gave Sabbatai's pathological behaviour a mystical significance and, in September 1665, proclaimed that he was indeed the Messiah. Messianic fervour erupted from one end of the Jewish world to the other. Not everybody succumbed to the frenzy, but in Europe, Egypt, Iran, the Balkans, Italy, Amsterdam, Poland and France, thousands of Jews fasted and performed special penances to hasten the End. Jews sold all their possessions, convinced that the Messiah would soon lead them back to the Holy Land. Business came to a standstill.
Meanwhile, Sabbatai himself was journeying towards the sultan's court in Istanbul in a triumphal progress. Whenever he visited a synagogue wearing the royal robes of the House of David, ate forbidden food, abolished a fast day or called women to read the scriptures in the synagogue, the people were enraptured. But it ended in tears. Fearing, with good reason, an imminent Jewish uprising, the Ottoman authorities offered Sabbatai the choice of death or conversion to Islam. To the horror of his supporters, Sabbatai chose Islam and, until his death in 1676, lived as a devout Muslim, seeing no contradiction between Islam and his Jewish faith.
Not surprisingly, most of Sabbatai's supporters recoiled in horror and tried to put this disgraceful episode behind them. But a significant minority could not abandon the dream of liberation that Sabbatai had offered. During the heady months of his mission, they had experienced a new freedom, and many had shown a striking alacrity to jettison the law of Moses, even though that would mean the end of religious life as they knew it. They had glimpsed new possibilities and could not go back to their old circumscribed lives. They were able to accommodate the scandal of an apostate Messiah as the first Christians had managed to accept the equally scandalous idea of a Messiah who had died the death of a common criminal.
Many adopted Nathan's interpretation of the apostasy: just as the Messiah had wrestled with demons during his periods of depression, so now, in order to bring redemption, he had been forced to descend still further into the realm of impurity. Some radicals even followed Sabbatai into apostasy, converting to Islam but practising Judaism secretly. This sect of domneh ("converts") persisted in Ottoman Turkey well into the 20th century, at one point numbering around 115,000 souls.
Freely's narrative is clear, lively and sympathetic. He does not delve at sufficient depth into the religious dynamic of Sabbatianism, nor fully explore its significance. The Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem, who wrote the definitive study of Sabbatai, argued that many of these closet Sabbatians would become pioneers of the Jewish Enlightenment or Reform Judaism. The movement had been a dress rehearsal, as it were, for modernisation. The flouting of the Torah and the dream of a new law had enabled Jews to envisage changes that would once have seemed impossible. The Sabbatians had anticipated several of the attitudes that religious people would adopt in the modern secular world: assimilation with the dominant culture, pluralism and the privatisation of faith.
Sabbatianism can be compared with other populist religious movements on the brink of modernity, such as the Great Awakening in the American colonies (1734-40), which prepared many of the colonists for the war of independence; it is also uncannily similar to the Babi revolution in Iran (1848-50), many of whose participants became secularists and nationalists, and which foreshadowed the Islamic revolution in 1978-79. A deeper study of such movements could tell us a great deal about the way in which people use religion to make the painful rite of passage to modernity, and throw light on some of the more apparently bizarre movements of our own day, which may well be fulfilling the same function.
Karen Armstrong's most recent book is Islam: a short history (Phoenix Press, £7.99)