Jacob Frank (יעקב פרנק Ya'akov Frank, Jakob Frank) (1726 - 1791) was an eighteenth century Jewish religious leader who claimed to be the successor or reincarnation of the self-proclaimed Messiah Sabbatai Zevi and eventually led his followers into the ranks of Christianity.
Born into a family of Sabbateans—followers of Sabbatai Zevi—in the Ukraine, Frank traveled as a merchant to the Ottoman Empire, where he became acquainted with radical Sabbateans in Smyrna and Salonica. He returned to the Ukraine in 1755, and attracted a following among the Sabbateans of that area. He and his followers were excommunicated by rabbinical authorities on account of his rejection of traditional Jewish law and acceptance of an extreme form of kabbalism which affirmed a trinitarian view of God. He was also accused of a radical antinomianism and practicing free sex, although these charges are difficult to confirm. Under persecution by conservative Talmudists, Frank turned to the Catholic Church for protection and eventually led his followers to accept baptism, an act which severed their ties with the Jewish community.
Frank arguably created a new religion, now referred to as Frankism, which combined some aspects of Christianity and Judaism, and was eventually absorbed by Catholicism. Among observant Jews, he is seen as perhaps the greatest heretic in the history of Judaism.
Frank saw himself as the successor of Sabbatai Zevi, the mystical Jewish leader who, in the mid-seventeenth century, succeeded in gaining the support of a large portion of world Jewry for his claim to be the Messiah. After Sabbatai's apparent apostasy to Islam, a substantial number of Jews accepted the claim that this act was an act of tikkun, the kabbalistic notion of restoration, which would enable many Muslims to accept Sabbatai's teachings and pave the way for the establishment of an independent Israel. Sabbatai himself established a Jewish-Islamic sect in Turkey that survived his death, known as Donmeh.
Messianism at the end of the seventeenth century assumed mystical colorings, possibly under the influence of the Rosicrucian movement in Germany. In Polish-owned Ukraine—particularly in Podolia and Galicia—numerous secret societies of Sabbateans had continued to exist even after Sabbatai's death.
The members of these societies discarded some aspects of Jewish religious laws and custom. The mystical sect of the later Sabbateans reportedly included both asceticism and sensuality: Some did penance for their sins, subjected themselves to self-inflicted pain, and "mourned for Zion;" others disregarded the strict rules of modesty required by Judaism, and at times were accused of being licentious. The Polish rabbis repressed the movement and attempted to ban the "Sabbatean heresy" at the assembly at Lemberg in 1722, but could not fully succeed, as it was still widely popular among the nascent Jewish middle class.
The heyday of Frank's movement occurred during a period of the loss of relative social and economic stability among European Jews in the late 1770s, resulting from the Koliyivshchyna rebellion, an uprising of Ukrainian peasantry that resulted in many Polish and Jewish casualties. At the same time it capitalized on the modernizing tendencies of the Enlightenment Era among the Jewish middle class, which rejected strict Talmudism and sought an accommodation with Christian Europe.
Jacob Frank is believed to have been born as Jacob ben Leiba (or Leibowitz) in Koroliwka, Podolia (Ukraine) around 1726. His father was a Sabbatean, possibly a rabbi, who moved to Czernowitz in Austro-Hungarian Bucovina, in 1730, where the movement of the Sabbateans was still strong. While still a schoolboy, Frank rejected the Talmud, and afterward often referred to himself as "a plain" or "untutored man."
In the capacity of a traveling merchant in textiles and precious stones, he often visited Ottoman territories. There he earned the nickname "Frank," a name generally given in the East to Europeans. However, the name "Jacob Frank" would come to take on mystical connotations as well, combining the name of the great patriarch Jacob with that of a predominant Gentile people. While in Asia Minor, he lived in the centers of contemporary Sabbateanism—Salonica and Smyrna—where Sabbatai himself had been most successful. In the early 1750s, Frank became intimate with the leaders of the radical Sabbateans. Two followers of the antinomian teacher Osman Baba were witnesses at his wedding in 1752.
In 1755, Frank reappeared in Podolia in the Ukraine. There, he gathered a group of local adherents and began to preach the "revelations" which were communicated to him by the Sabbateans in Salonica. "I came to free the world from the laws and the regulations which have hitherto existed," Frank reportedly declared. Exactly how far he and his followers were willing to go in that regard is hard to say, as the reports of his movement's activities come largely from its opponents.
One of Franks' gatherings in Landskron ended in a scandal, and the rabbis' attention was drawn to the new teachings. Frank was forced to leave Podolia, while his followers were hounded and denounced to the local authorities by the rabbis. At the rabbinical court held in the village of Satanov, Sabbateans were accused of having broken fundamental Jewish laws of morality and modesty, and of accepting of sanctity of the Christian Bible.
As a result of these disclosures, the congress of rabbis in Brody proclaimed a universal cherem (excommunication) against all "impenitent heretics," and made it obligatory upon every pious Jew to seek them out and expose them. The Frankists informed the Catholic bishop of Kamenetz-Podolsk that they rejected the Talmud—a book that had come under severe criticism in some Christian quarters—and recognized only the sacred book of Kabbalah, namely the Zohar, which seemed to accept a trinitarian concept of the divinity. They reportedly stated that they regarded the Messiah as one of the embodiments of the three aspects of God.
The bishop took these "Zoharists," under his protection and in 1757, arranged a religious disputation between them and the orthodox rabbis. The Zoharists presented their theses, to which the rabbis gave a very lukewarm and unwilling reply, lest they offend the Church dignitaries who were present. The bishop decided that the Talmudists had been vanquished, and ordered them to pay a fine to their opponents and to burn all copies of the Talmud in the bishopric of Podolia.
After the death of the bishop, the rabbis severely punished the Sabbateans, in spite an edict from Augustus III of Poland guaranteeing them safety.
At this critical moment, Jacob Frank came again to Podolia and proclaimed himself as the direct successor to Sabbatai Zevi and Osman Baba, assuring his adherents that he had received new revelations from Heaven. These communications called for the conversion of Frank and his followers to the Christian religion, which was to be a visible transition stage to the future "Messianic religion." Frank also seems to have declared himself a reincarnation of Sabbatai and other important Jews, including even King David. However, these claims should be understood in light of the kabbalistic teachings of Isaac Luria, who held that the souls of the departed intermingled with people on earth toward the accomplishment of a mutual purpose, so the term "reincarnation" may not be meant in the traditional sense.
Meanwhile, Frank was considering a desperate measure, although it is not certain whether it was to protect his flock from persecution by the rabbis or in imitation of Sabbatai Zevi's conversion to Islam—or perhaps both. Indeed, there is evidence that the Frankists believed the step to a transformational one, which would have cosmic impact. A reputed saying of Jacob Frank states:
When you are fit to come to Esau [the Catholic Church], then the curse will be lifted from the earth and it will turn gold; and then there will be neither chill nor heat but temperate clime; and every day roses will bloom for 110 years; and the sun will shine indescribably; and it will always be day and never night, for night is the world's punishment.
In any case, in 1759, negotiations for the mass conversion of the Frankists to Roman Catholicism were being actively carried on with the higher representatives of the Polish Church. At the same time, the Frankists tried to secure another discussion with the rabbis. The Talmudists, however, energetically repulsed their opponents.
Meanwhile, Protestant missionaries also tried to attract the Frankists to Protestantism, and a handful did in fact join the Moravian church. The Polish primate Lubenski and the papal nuncio Nicholas Serra were suspicious of the aspirations of the Frankists, but at the insistence of the administrator of the bishopric of Lemberg, the canon Mikulski, the discussion was arranged.
After the dialog, the Frankists were requested to demonstrate, in practice, their adherence to Christianity. Frank, who had by then arrived in Lemberg, encouraged his followers to take the decisive step. The baptism of the Frankists was celebrated with great solemnity in the churches of Lvov, with members of the Polish szlachta (nobility) acting as god-parents. The neophytes adopted the names of their godfathers and godmothers, and ultimately joined their ranks. In the course of one year more than 500 Jews were converted to Christianity in Lvov. Frank himself was baptized there on September 17, 1759, and again in Warsaw the next day, with Augustus III as his godfather. Frank's baptismal name was "Joseph" (Józef).
However, the Frankists continued to be viewed with suspicion by Christians, on account of their unusual doctrine. Frank was arrested in Warsaw on February 6, 1760, and delivered to the Church's tribunal on the charge of heresy. The tribunal convicted Frank and imprisoned him in the monastery of Częstochowa.
Frank's imprisonment lasted 13 years, yet it only increased his influence with the sect by surrounding him with the aura of martyrdom. Many Frankists established themselves near Częstochowa, and kept up constant communication with their "holy master." Frank inspired his followers through mystical speeches and epistles, in which he stated that salvation could be gained only through the "religion of Edom," also called dat ("law"), a mixture of Christian and Sabbetean beliefs.
After the first partition of Poland, Frank was released by the Russian general Bibikov, who had occupied Częstochowa, in August 1772. Frank lived in the Moravian town of Brno until 1786, surrounded by a retinue of adherents and pilgrims who came from Poland. His daughter, Eve, began to play an important role in the organization of the sect at this time. Frank kept a force of 600 armed men at his "court" in Brünn. There, the future Tsar Paul I of Russia visited him.
Accompanied by his daughter, Frank repeatedly traveled to Vienna and succeeded in gaining the favor of the court. Maria Theresa regarded him as an apostle of Christianity among the Jews, and it is even said that Joseph II was favorably inclined to the young Eve Frank. Ultimately Frank was deemed unmanageable, however, and he was obliged to leave Austria. He moved with his daughter and his retinue to Offenbach, in Germany, where he assumed the title of "Baron of Offenbach" and lived as a wealthy nobleman, receiving financial support from his Polish and Moravian followers, who made frequent pilgrimages to his residence. On the death of Frank in 1791, Eve became the "holy mistress" and leader of the sect. Her fortunes dwindled in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, and she died in Offenbach, in 1816.
Some Frankists were active during the French Revolution, such as Frank's nephew Moses Dobruška. Many of the Frankists saw Napoleon Bonaparte as a potential Messiah. The Frankists scattered in Poland and Bohemia and eventually intermarried into the gentry and middle class.
Jacob Frank brought a final and tragic end to the Messianic movement that began with great hope under Sabbatai Zevi. The apostasy of the Frankists caused a wave of depression among the Jews of Eastern Europe, many of whom had once sympathized with the Sabbatean movement in its earlier days. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, was reportedly so distraught by the Frankists going over to Catholicism that he went into a depression from which he never fully recovered. At the same time, the baptism of the Frankists was a boost for conservative Talmudists and drove a final nail into the coffin of the era's Messianic naivety.
The Frankists scattered in Poland, and Bohemia was gradually transformed from feigned to real Catholics, and their descendants merged into the surrounding Christian population. The sect disappeared without leaving any traces in Judaism, as it had little nor positive religious-ethical foundation. Meanwhile kabbalistic studies, especially centered on the Zohar which the Frankists so treasured, suffered a major setback.
Having been declared "dead" to Judaism by rabbinical councils while he was still living, Jacob Frank is remembered by orthodox Jews only as a major heretic who led many of his people astray. The majority of Jews, to the extent that they are aware of his movement, view it with sadness and disdain.
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