Mavericks, Mystics, False Messiahs, and Mishpacha
My friend Rabbi Pini Dunner recently published a fascinating book, Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs. This slim and mesmerizing volume discusses a variety of colorful episodes from Jewish history. Some of them are well-known stories of considerable significance, such as Shabbtai Zvi, and the fight between Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Yonasan Eybeschutz. Others are lesser-known stories of mavericks, such as Samuel Falk and Lord George Gordon. The book is not intended as an academic work, but rather as a popularization of accounts that are usually only known by history buffs.
The Shabbtai Tzvi story is astounding. Among his bizarre escapades was dressing up a fish as a baby, celebrating all the chagim in a single week, innovating a blessing to be pronounced upon committing a sin (Baruch matir assurim), and eating pork in public, after reciting that blessing! How on earth did he bring so many people under his spell? Particular astonishing is the account of how Rabbi Chaim Beneviste, one of the outstanding halachists of his era, was initially skeptical of Shabbtai Tzvi, had a fierce confrontation with him, and then was converted to being a staunch believer!
The topic of Shabbtai Tzvi, and even more so the Emden-Eybeshutz controversy, are generally not considered suitable topics for discussion in the charedi world. They are embarrassing and contradict the notion of the great rabbis of the past being near-infallible Gedolim. (Perhaps this is why the book is selling very well in Boro Park and Lakewood!)
I recall about twenty years ago asking my Rosh Yeshivah how to understand the Emden-Eybeshutz controversy. He was clearly uncomfortable with the question. After all, either Rav Yaakov Emden was badly wrong, or Rav Yonasan Eybeshutz was an apikores! The latter was the more unpalatable option, and so it had to be Rav Emden who was wrong. But, my Rosh Yeshivah claimed in his defense, this happened because when a very important power of holiness arises, such as Rav Eybeschutz, then the Satan is given extra-strong powers to counter it, which is how the Satan managed to lead Rav Yaakov Emden astray in his campaign.
Rabbi Dunner's conclusion in the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy is that Rav Eybeschutz might indeed have been a Sabbatean, but it cannot be conclusively determined either way. (But see Prof. Shnayer Leiman's article here.) Yet, as Rabbi Dunner points out, it is no longer relevant today, since both of them are now renowned for their contributions to Torah literature. This is very similar to the verdict reached at the time by Rav Yechezkel Landau, who was largely convinced that Rav Eybeschutz was indeed a secret Sabbatean, but basically said that it didn't matter, because it was secret!
As Rabbi Dunner describes Rav Landau's position: "As long as the amulets were destroyed, and Rabbi Yonatan visibly behaved in accordance with Jewish law and conducted himself according to the standards expected of a great rabbi, what difference did it make if he had surreptitiously inserted incomprehensible Sabbatian word puzzles into amulets that influenced nobody to believe in the messianic vision of the long-dead Shabbetai Tzvi?" (I think that there is support here for Prof. Menachem Kellner's claim that being a Jew in good standing does not require adherence to a certain code of dogma, and his observations about Chabad being accepted despite Rabbi Dr. David Berger's pointing out their problematic beliefs - but note my disagreement with him at this link.)
Given the discomfort with these topics in the yeshiva world, I was intrigued to see that Rabbi Dunner and his book were the feature story in a recent issue of Mishpacha magazine. How would Mishpachah cover these disturbing controversies? Perhaps wisely, they didn't; there was just a passing reference to their existence. But Mishpacha doubtless gave a tremendous boost to Rabbi Dunner and his book. Hopefully there will be no negative consequences to giving him a high profile in the charedi world, and it won't lead to any unwanted attention from zealots. As the late Rabbi Nissan Wolpin said to me thirteen years ago, "As soon as I saw you on the cover of Mishpacha magazine, I knew they'd come after you!"