Shabbtai Tzvi Would Be Proud

May 24, 1999
The Jerusalem Report

They secretively practice a strange form of Judaism, but are not recognized as Jews. At least one of Turkey's Doenmeh would like to change this.

Moshe Temkin Istanbul

Ilgaz Zorlu is something of an expert on the markets of Istanbul and Turkish cuisine. As he strolls down lesser known streets, pointing out this gem of a restaurant and that great leather shop, dozens of people greet him. But although the 30-year-old accountant has lived in this enormous city all his life, and knows most of it practically by heart, he claims he doesn't feel quite at home here.

There is one place where Zorlu finds peace: a secluded cemetery in the Uskudar district, across the Bosphorus on the Asian side of the city. At first, it looks like an ordinary Muslim cemetery, but Zorlu and his companions begin to point out the small differences. Many of the tombs are covered by a concrete surface, not earth, and have pictures of the deceased on them. These are not Islamic customs, and many of those buried here, he explains, are not Muslims - well, not exactly. Rather, they're Sabbateans - members of a community descended from Jewish followers of the 17th-century self-proclaimed messiah Shabbtai Tzvi. To avoid execution by the sultan, Tzvi converted to Islam in 1666; the most extreme of his followers did so as well, practicing Islam outwardly and a strange form of Judaism in secret - a Judaism that supposedly included ritual adulterous orgies. Until this century, the sect was concentrated in the city of Saloniki; today most Sabbateans live in Istanbul.

And everyone in Istanbul, so it seems, knows about the Sabbateans, or, as they are known here, the Doenmeh ("converts" or "apostates" in Turkish; the Sabbateans themselves dislike this title, and seldom use it.) They are perhaps Turkey's best-known secret. No Sabbatean, with the exception of Ilgaz Zorlu himself, will ever publicly admit to being one, and they are rarely talked about. Even the Sabbateans themselves learn their real identities only when they turn 18, when the secret is finally revealed to them by their parents. This tradition of zealously maintaining a double identity in Muslim society has been passed on for generations.

They're Muslims, as their identity cards attest, but, as Zorlu puts it, "all the Muslims know we're different." Their elders speak Turkish in an accent heavily flavored by Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish of Sephardi Jews. Their beliefs and rituals are largely unknown to outsiders. They rarely go to mosques. They marry mainly among themselves and live in the neighborhoods on the European side - Nisantasi, Sisli and Haskoy - where most of the city's Jews also reside. But they are not Jews either. The Jewish community wants nothing to do with them. "As far as we're concerned," says Rabbi Yitzhak Haleva, deputy chief rabbi of Istanbul, "there are only Jews and Muslims. There's nothing in between."

So who are the Sabbateans? This is what Zorlu set out to explain in his book, "Yes, I Am a Salonikan," which has been through six printings since its publication earlier this year and which has made its author persona non grata in the Sabbatean community. After centuries of secrecy and denial, Zorlu is determined to break the silence, to put the issue on the public agenda, and to prove that the Sabbateans are actually crypto-Jews, that their Muslim appearances are nothing more than a sham.

Sabbatean leaders are convinced that Zorlu's disclosure has put the community in jeopardy, and have washed their hands of him. Some critics argue that he is only after publicity. Zorlu rejects the criticism and stresses that he wants only one thing: official recognition on the part of the Jewish rabbinical establishment, that the Sabbateans are Jews, albeit with a difference.

So far, he's been turned down. Three years ago, he spent time in Israel, at the religious kibbutz, Yavneh. He met with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Rafael Bakshi-Doron, who hadn't even heard of the Sabbateans. Zorlu told Bakshi-Doron that if the Sabbateans were recognized as Jews, many would settle in Israel. Bakshi-Doron replied that they would have to undergo full Orthodox conversion. This was unacceptable to Zorlu; he feels they are already Jewish.

About five years ago he had a Jewish girlfriend, whom he wanted to marry. He claims her family forced her to leave him because they discovered he is a Sabbatean.

Yet he hasn't given up. "We're only asking for the kind of recognition given to the Karaites in Israel," he told The Report, referring to the small community that believes only in the Torah and not the Oral Law. "I want us to be recognized for what we are. We are not Muslims. We are Sabbateans. Our families are all of Jewish origin, but we have our own separate identities."

The Doenmeh roots go back to the immense messianic crisis of the 1660s. Across the Jewish world, Shabbtai Tzvi, an Izmir-born kabbalist, was accepted as the promised redeemer of Israel. It was a turbulent time for Europe's Jews, who were looking for deliverance in the wake of the devastating massacres in Ukraine and elsewhere. Tzvi declared himself the messiah in 1665, and prepared to lead the Jewish people to the Holy Land. He also told his followers that the Ottoman sultan would become his slave.

In response, the Ottomans arrested Tzvi and gave him the choice of conversion or death. The messiah chose apostasy, and converted to Islam the next year. While the great majority of Jews subsequently renounced him, some - the ma'aminim, or "believers" - secretly kept their faith in him. About 200 families of believers - the original Doenmeh - followed Tzvi into Islam. In secret, they practiced their own form of Judaism, based on the "18 precepts" supposedly left by Tzvi - essentially the Ten Commandments (with a very ambiguous replacement for No. 7), along with a ban on intermarriage with true Muslims.

Within a few years, the Sabbateans congregated in Saloniki, a center of the Sephardi world. Like the Spanish conversos who'd remained secret Jews, they led double lives - but the Doenmeh were voluntary Marranos. They never integrated into Muslim society, and continued to believe that Shabbtai Tzvi would one day return and lead them to redemption.

In 1924, when Saloniki became part of Greece and ethnic Turks left the city in a forced population exchange, almost all the Sabbateans were deported to Istanbul. Many, seeking to stay in their city, sought recognition from the local rabbis as Jews, which would have exempted them from the expulsion of Turks. The rabbis refused - and, inadvertently, rescued them from the Nazi extermination that struck Greece's Jews a few years later. The Doenmeh themselves estimate that 15,000-20,000 Sabbateans live in Turkey today.

The community is divided into three subgroups, who have little interaction with each other: the Karakas, Kapanci and Yacobis. Each group has its own agon (rabbi) and synagogue. The synagogues are kept secret - usually just rooms in private apartments or basements - and constantly change location; no outsider has ever been allowed to see one, and not even all the Sabbateans know where they are.

Zorlu's two companions, who will identify themselves only by their first initials - S., his 25-year-old cousin and a student of business administration, and Y., a 23-year-old student of graphic design - trace their genealogy to the early 18th century. Zorlu gives his Hebrew name as Shimon Tzvi and claims he is a descendant of Shabbtai Tzvi's brother, on his mother's side.

Zorlu, S. and Y., Kapanci members, go to their synagogue as often as they can. Zorlu has recently been told by community leaders that he is no longer welcome there, and Sabbatean youths are warned not to come into social contact with him.

Many of the younger Sabbateans, he says, don't settle for just the traditional Sabbatean prayers; they want the "real thing." S., who spent most of his childhood in Michigan, where his father did business, tried twice to pray in local Jewish synagogues, but was kicked out both times.

"The last time I tried was a few years ago," he recalls. "I really wanted to see what it was like. I took a yarmulke with me and put it on as soon as I got inside. Most of the people there were very old. After a minute or two somebody came up to me and asked me who I was. I told him my name, and he demanded to see my ID. When he saw that I'm a Muslim, he told me to leave immediately. I felt humiliated and upset. That's more or less what happened the first time I tried to get into a synagogue, and I was hoping that the attitude would change. I guess I was wrong."

S. and Y. are secular but want to retain their separate Sabbatean identity. Y. remembers growing up differently from his friends, and not knowing why. "I only discovered who I was when I was 18," he says. "That's the Sabbatean tradition, to wait until you're at marriageable age before telling you, whether your family is devout or secular. But I always felt a little different from the other Muslims around me. For example, there's a Turkish dish that combines kebab and a kind of yogurt. I was never allowed to eat it, and I never knew why."

"We've always lived near Jews," adds S., "and my father always knew a lot of Jewish jokes. Even now most of my friends don't know that I'm a Sabbatean. I don't know why I haven't told them. They probably just assume I'm a Muslim, because we're all secular and atheists."

Zorlu asserts that the Israeli rabbinate refuses to recognize the Sabbateans as "special Jews" for political reasons. "There are good relations between Turkey and Israel right now," he says, "and the rabbis in Israel are under pressure not to stir things up. They fear that if the Sabbateans are recognized as Jews, it would cause problems in Turkey and hurt relations with Israel.

"What the rabbis don't understand," he continues, "is that we are a case similar to the Ethiopian Jews. It's unfair to demand that we convert. We're already Jews. True, we're not ordinary Jews. We're Sabbateans." Like the Ethiopian Jews, he insists, members of his community should need only gi'ur lehumrah (a technical conversion for those whose Judaism is in doubt).

Turkish muslim society tolerates Jews as long as they are out in the open and do not attempt to convert Muslims. Hidden Jews, claiming to be Muslims, are something else entirely. This is one of the reasons Zorlu's book caused such a commotion. Fundamentalist Islamic groups question the loyalty of these "secret Jews" to the faith, and Zorlu, who publicly exposed the Sabbatean separateness and stressed that they have an undying connection to Judaism, provided the fundamentalists with ammunition.

Jews and other minorities can advance only so far in Turkish society; because they keep their identity secret, Sabbateans, on the other hand, can and do enjoy high positions in almost every field. The Sabbatean cemetery, which is ostensibly Muslim, offers ample evidence: The tomb of a Supreme Court judge lies next to that of an ex-leader of the Communist party, and near them stand the graves of a general and a famous educator. Zorlu freely adds more big names to the list of prominent Sabbateans, including Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, who, claims Zorlu, used to have a Sabbatean surname (Cem has denied being a Sabbatean). Zorlu also claims that former prime minister Tanso Ciler is a Sabbatean, as is the wife of the current prime minister, Bulent Ecevit.

Many of the Sabbateans tend to be left-wing, academics and journalists - members of the cultural elite. They're also quite affluent. All this puts them at odds with Islamic extremists, traditional opponents of Turkey's democratic political heritage. One of the leaders of the Young Turks, the late 19th-century reform movement, was a Sabbatean, and the fundamentalists also hold that the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who had some Saloniki roots, was part-Sabbatean. "My great grandfather," Zorlu says proudly, "was Ataturk's teacher in grade school."

Rifat Bali, a Jewish businessman and writer, who is well acquainted with the Sabbateans, used to be Zorlu's friend and patron. They've since stopped speaking; Bali wrote a scathing review of Zorlu's book in an academic newsletter, accusing him of willingly playing into the hands of the fundamentalists, and Zorlu wrote an equally aggressive reply.

"Ilgaz is like a missionary," says Bali. "If he really wanted to be a Jew, that wouldn't be a problem. He could go to Israel and live as a Jew. But that's not his real purpose. He wants to spread the word of Sabbateanism. He knows that there isn't a solution to the problem, that the Sabbateans will never convert and that the Jews will never accept them as they are.

"Ilgaz knows that the Sabbateans are in a very sensitive position," Bali continues. "They're prominent, they're part of the elite, and that's why the fundamentalists target them. Even the word Doenmeh has very negative connotations. Obviously they don't want the issue of Sabbateanism to be out in the open. So why is Ilgaz doing it? He wants the topic to be in people's consciousness."

"Rifat said I'm cooperating with the fundamentalists," responds Zorlu, "but he himself wrote in an Islamic fundamentalist journal."

Rabbi Haleva denies any political considerations regarding the Sabbateans. "Ilgaz feels he's Jewish," he says, "but there's no way he can be accepted by the rabbinate without an Orthodox conversion. The problem isn't their beliefs, whether or not they think Shabbtai Tzvi is the messiah. The relations between Israel and Turkey aren't the issue either. The problem is that the Sabbateans have assimilated among the Muslims."

Haleva has repeatedly run into signs of the Sabbateans' sense of connection to the Jews. "No one will ever say that he is a Sabbatean," he says, "but I've had Muslims approach me for all kinds of reasons. One asked me to look for a Jewish mohel, and when I asked why he needed one, he told me that they're more knowledgeable than doctors. Another Muslim used to greet me with 'Shabbat shalom' on Saturdays. When his mother was dying, he asked me to visit her at the hospital. He said that she wanted to die as a Jew."

Says Zorlu: "Our community has tried to stay pure, and not marry Muslims, but the Jewish rabbinate has pushed our people toward assimilation. That's what happens when you get ignored for so many years. But some things haven't changed. A Sabbatean who marries a Jew or a Muslim is excommunicated. There are many Sabbateans who don't even know who they are; they're the assimilated ones. The ones who identify as Sabbateans don't have that problem at all."

The younger generation of Sabbateans may be secular, but ancient customs still persist. Every morning, one of the elders of the community, a 92-year-old agon, ventures to the shores of the Bosphorus, shortly before dawn, and recites a short chant in Ladino: "Sabetai, Sabetai, esperamos a ti" (Shabbtai, Shabbtai, we wait for you). He is one of the last to practice this 300-year-old messianic tradition, and it is slowly dying out.

Some scholars say that the Sabbateans of Istanbul continue to practice many other of their own peculiar rituals - of which the most bizarre is probably "the festival of the lamb." Once a year, on the night between Adar 21 and 22 (usually sometime in March), they say, Sabbatean married couples gather to eat that spring's newly born lambs for the first time. After the meal, the lights are put out and couples have sex without distinguishing between their partners. Children born as a result of these encounters are considered sacred.

This ritual is probably the biggest problem the Jewish rabbinical establishment has with the community. Because of the sanctioned adultery in the community's past, any member could well be a mamzer - a product of an adulterous relationship, or the descendant of such a person, and therefore barred from marrying other Jews.

Even the renowned scholar Gershom Scholem, among others, insisted that the Doenmeh continued for centuries to practice promiscuous sex. But the younger Sabbateans just scoff at what they call the "lamb story." S. says that "the question is not whether the Sabbateans continue to practice that tradition, but whether they ever did. Sabbateans have sex just like everybody else."

Do they believe that Shabbtai Tzvi is the messiah? S. and Y. say that for them the question isn't relevant, because they're atheists. Zorlu, who is not, refuses to commit himself one way or the other. "Sabbateanism is a Jewish mystical tradition," he says. "Many in the community still believe in him. Just like there are messianic Jews, there are messianic Sabbateans. We may have different rituals, but we are all Jews."

False Messiahs and Whirling Dervishes: A Scholar's Fresh Take on an Old Topic; The Sabbatean Prophets
Allan Nadler, Forward, NY
Jul 9, 2004

Allan Nadler is the director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University and senior academic adviser to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is currently completing a book on the influence of Spinoza in modern Jewish culture.

The following dire, revolutionary proclamation issues forth from a charismatic provocateur in Gaza:

"None will be saved from these tribulations except those dwelling in this place. The [very] name of the place [connoting strength] expresses her nature. And with the advent of her redemption, strength will spread and the people of Gaza will act in this strength."

The response of the leader of the Gazans' enemy, both to this message and to those Jews residing in Gaza, is to remind them that Gaza is a place unworthy of triggering apocalyptic violence, since it is "technically outside the borders of the [biblical] Land of Israel."

At the same time, in a nearby Arab country, classified information, laden with potentially devastating secrets, is conveyed via a shady Middle Eastern businessman named Chelebi.

The latest news from Israel and Iraq? Hardly!

The proclamation from Gaza was issued not by a leader of Hamas, but rather by the 17th-century Jewish kabbalist Nathan of Gaza, who in 1665 became the major prophet of the infamous false messiah from Izmir, Shabbetai Zevi. The proclamation's rebuke was not part of Ariel Sharon's argument for evacuating Jewish settlers from Gaza, but of a ruling by Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, the most outspoken and tireless opponent of the Sabbatean messianic outbreak. And the Chelebi in question was not the now-disgraced White House confidant, Ahmed Chalabi, but rather Raphael Chelebi, an Egyptian Jewish businessman who was the first outsider to whom Nathan of Gaza revealed the "secret" that the messiah had arrived.

Matt Goldish traces these tidbits and many other riveting developments in his new book, "The Sabbatean Prophets," a fresh scholarly re-evaluation of the events that led to the wildfire-rapid spread across the Jewish world of belief in Shabbetai Zevi as the Jews' long-awaited king and savior.

It is natural to approach a new, rather thin, volume about Sabbateanism with a certain degree of skepticism. How much more can be revealed about a subject to which the great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, devoted a monumental 950-page study -- a work that has itself spawned decades of critical commentary and re-evaluation on the part of Scholem's colleagues and disciples?

As it turns out, however, Goldish, who is the Melton associate professor of Jewish history at The Ohio State University, succeeds in going well beyond the foundational work of previous scholars. He achieves this not by uncovering hitherto unknown Sabbatean texts, but by significantly widening the lens through which the Sabbatean messianic phenomenon is viewed, taking his readers on a fascinating voyage through the turbulent worlds of 17th-century religious enthusiasm and prophetic millenarian thought -- Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Goldish contends that it is in the broader context of religious thought in Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire that the startling outbreak and rapid spread of Sabbateanism can be best appreciated. Moreover, pace Scholem, Goldish argues that it was not the dissemination of an esoteric Sabbatean version of Lurianic Kabbalah that best accounts for the extent of Shabbetai Zevi's popularity, but the parallel outbreak of widespread ecstatic prophecies on the part of simple Jews, young women in particular.

The intellectual and spiritual turbulence of the early modern period, particularly in Western Europe, gave rise to a dizzying array of novel religious ideas and mystical enthusiasm, most notably a variety of what Goldish broadly defines as new forms of "prophecy." There were many, widely divergent factors that led to this spiritual outbreak, all ably described by Goldish. The Reformation's challenge to the Roman Catholic Church's monopoly on religious truth in the 16th-century eventually led to the rise of a variety of charismatic sects whose leaders relied on direct personal access to the word of God in the 17th century.

Goldish pays particular attention to the probable impact on Jewish thought of the millenarian enthusiasm of Quaker missionaries, rapidly spreading from England to present-day Turkey at precisely the same time that Sabbateanism erupted. But he also notes a host of other small English millenarian religious sects that cropped up in the wake of the end of the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution. They were part of the larger continental atmosphere of millenarian thinking fostered by such groups as the Collegiants, French prophets, Spanish beatas and even the alchemists that pervaded Europe in the mid-17th century.

More surprisingly, Goldish makes the counterintuitive argument that the scientific revolution -- far from leading to estrangement from religion -- was deeply and inextricably wound up with a particularly messianic form of spirituality. His discussions of the prophetic postures and messianic expectations of noted scientists such as Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon complicate accepted wisdom about the place of the scientific revolution in the trajectory of early modern intellectual history.

They also contribute richly to Goldish's portrayal of the degree to which 17th-century Christian Europe was rife with expectations of the Second Coming. Additionally, the daring voyages of the great 16th- and 17th-century European explorers led many to imagine that the fabled 10 Lost Tribes of Israel had been discovered, further fueling millenarian excitement and sparking a renewed Christian interest in the secret teachings of kabbalah. This often brought together in a weirdly shared apocalyptism rabbis and churchmen whose only real differences were their respective imaginings of precisely how the imminently expected scenario of salvation would end.

Critics of Goldish's approach almost certainly will argue that while he may have stumbled upon a coincidence of parallel messianic excitement during the same historical moment in both the Christian and Jewish worlds, he has not proved any direct connection between them. Goldish anticipates this problem by appealing to the theory, best articulated in the work of the French historian Jean-Michel Oughourlian, of "universal mimesis," or what non-scholars simply would call, "something in the air."

With the help of his copious translations of documents describing the prophetic experiences of Nathan of Gaza, the lay Sabbatean prophets as well as their Christian contemporaries, Goldish shows just how similar -- at times almost identical -- these bizarre phenomena were. The dramatic fainting, the convulsions, the losses of pulse, etc. -- all inevitably followed by apocalyptic illuminations -- were being experienced at precisely the same time by Jews, Christians and Muslims around the globe. Goldish insists that during this period of feverish worldwide travel, it is simply naive, even myopic, to rule out mutual influences:

In such merchant centers as Aleppo and Izmir, filled with Europeans, it is hardly credible that news of the Quakers, various Italian and French ecstatics and other European prophetic groups would not have reached the ears of the Jews. It is even more certain that Sepharadi exiles and escaped conversos, whose culture was Iberian through and through, knew a great deal about similar phenomena among beatas and nuns in Spain and Portugal. In their own environs, they had the models of the Sufis and dervishes. Even if they had not seen such possessions and visions in person, they could hardly have helped knowing about them. For this reason it is probable that the model of Nathan [of Gaza] struck a particular chord.

Aside from vividly describing, and explaining the widespread belief in, Sabbatean messianic prophecies, this book refines both the timeline of Sabbateanism's spread and the exact nature of its heresy. Scholem located that heresy in the convoluted kabbalistic rationalizations by his believers that followed Shabbetai Zevi's conversion to Islam in 1666. Goldish counters that the real heresy began earlier, exemplified by the very existence and growing influence of charismatic figures such as Nathan of Gaza and the lay Sabbatean prophets. It was the shifting of power from rabbis (whose authority was based on sound Talmudic scholarship) to charismatics (whose authority emerged from supernatural prophetic abilities) that represented the real heresy against traditional Judaism. In that sense, the "Sabbatean Prophets" were anti-establishment heretics well before Shabbetai Zevi's total defection from Judaism. That latter catastrophe led to the deeper, antinomian apostasy of the later Jewish Sabbateans, as well as to the Donmeh, the school of Muslim believers in Shabbetai Zevi, which persists, very secretly, in Turkey today.

Even in contemporary America, though limited to rather marginal Jewish circles, the Sabbatean and Donmeh madness continues. It has been argued, and I would agree, that many aspects of the new-age "Jewish Renewal Movement" betray Sabbatean influences. More significantly, today there are Sabbateans active mostly in (where else?) California. The origins of strange religious syncretism -- incorporating Christianity and Islam and embracing all the messiahs of the Jewish past, Jesus included -- that characterize latter-day Sabbateanism now can be better understood, thanks to the synthetic approach of this new book.

Throughout his work, Goldish reflects the influence of his two great teachers: the giant of early modern European intellectual history, Richard Popkin, and the leading Israeli scholar of kabbalah, Moshe Idel. Not only does Goldish build upon their body of work, but he also brings a unique combination of their talents to the table. Unlike Popkin, Goldish can ably decipher the most arcane Hebrew and Aramaic mystical sources; and unlike the famously imaginative and anti-historicist Idel, Goldish brings the sensibilities of the sober historian to his finely nuanced readings of them. The Rabbinical Sages always have insisted that the wisdom of successive generations of Judaic scholars is in perpetual decline. This exciting new book suggests quite the contrary.