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Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy in the 1689London Sermons of akham
The late seventeenth century was a period of extreme religious turmoilin Western Europe. Challenges to traditional faith were spreading amongcommon people, philosophers, scientists, and, perhaps mostsurprisingly, among established religious clergy. Sometimes theboundaries between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, or the conflicting beliefsystems within individuals, could be very complex, even paradoxical.The Jewish community of England, though not concerned with thesame set of doctrines as its Christian counterpart, was also deeplyaffected by challenges of faith. And, as in the case of the EnglishChristians, heterodoxy among the Jews was found among clergy aswell as laymen. Here I will discuss the place of one London rabbi inthis dynamic miasma of religious transformation. After describing hisbackground, I will analyze certain orthodox and heterodox elementsfound in his sermons, and then place him in the context of his clericalpeers (if they may be called that) in the English church.
akham Solomon Aailion and the Jews of LondonIn 1689, the new rabbi of Londons Spanish and Portuguese Jewishcommunity, akham Solomon Aailion (ca. 1660-1728),1 took up hispost and delivered a series of sermons which are the focus of thisstudy. Three pieces of background information are important for an
1 The family name was apparently originally Hillion, but at some point the akhambegan adding extra letters to it out of the kabbalistic and messianic reasonsdescribed here. This is why I have attempted to render the name phonetically asAailion, reflecting the extra aleph at the beginning. Some Sabbateans made itElion (most high), reflecting their view of his messianic standing. See M.Benayahu, Sefunot 14 (1971-1978), pp. 147-149.
understanding of Aailions place and of these sermons: the origins of
the London community, the messianic movement of Shabbatai evi,and Aailions personal history.
The Congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews Shaar Ha-Shamayim in London was essentially a satellite of the community inAmsterdam, but its origins were distinctly tied to the English situation.In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, at the time whenLondon was becoming a central trade entrepot, a number of Portugueserefugees found their way to the city. These were mainly conversos Catholics descended from Jews who had converted under pressure inSpain or Portugal during the fifteenth century. Many were merchantswith significant trading networks and contacts around both theMediterranean and Atlantic worlds. Their utility caused them to betolerated despite the fact that they were foreign Catholics.
There was some question about whether they would continue to betolerated after 1656, when the poorly kept secret that a number ofthem had privately reverted to their ancestral Judaism was broughtinto the open. This revelation was a result of two events. One was thevisit of Amsterdams akham Menasseh ben Israel, who arrived toplead before Cromwell for the readmission of the Jews to Englandafter almost 400 years of exclusion. The second was the war of theEnglish against Spain, which forced the conversos to explain why theyshould not be regarded as hostile foreign nationals. They were notformally readmitted during this entire period, but their continuedpresence and open practice of Judaism was tacitly allowed, despite ameasure of pressure from opponents.2
Like the Spanish and Portuguese former conversos of Amsterdam,this Sephardic community in London suffered from a certain elementthat was unwilling to accept the authority of the rabbis and the rabbinictradition. For some this may have been a reaction to their expectationsof a biblically-based Judaism without the authoritarian attitude of theCatholic persecution they had just escaped. For others it was undoubtedly
2 See A. M. Hyamson, The Sephardim of England, London 1951; D. S. Katz,Philo-Semitism and the Readmission of the Jews to England, 1603-1655, Oxford1982; D. S. Katz and Y. Kaplan eds., Exile and Return: Anglo-Jewry Throughthe Ages (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1993; D. S. Katz, The Jews in the History ofEngland, 1485-1850, Oxford 1994.
a lack of any real religious commitment to Judaism. The synagogue
The 1689 London Sermons of akham Solomon Aailion
may have been more of a social and cultural center than a religiousone for many congregants. Elsewhere I have written about akhamAailions struggles with former Portuguese conversos living at theedges of the community and challenging his clerical authority.3 This,of course, is closely analogous to the anticlericalism of the period inChristian England and Europe.4 So Londons Sephardic communitysuffered from popular heterodoxy in several forms.
Sabbatean HeresyAnother form of heterodoxy in London was common not only tocommunities of former conversos, but across the Jewish world of thelate seventeenth century. This was the continued adherence of manyJews to the belief in the messianic pretender Shabbatai evi (1626-1676).Shabbatai was a kabbalist scholar from Izmir who lived for decadeswith the conviction that he was destined to be the messiah and saviorof Israel. He did not act openly on this impulse until, in the spring of1665, he came in contact with the brilliant seer Nathan of Gaza in theSpring of 1665, who claimed to know prophetically that Shabbataiwas indeed the messiah. Nathan became the prophet and driving forcebehind the Sabbatean movement, which spread rapidly through almostthe entire Jewish world and convinced many Jews, perhaps the majority,to believe in Shabbatai. This was the largest Jewish messianic movementsince Christianity. In 1666, Shabbatai was hauled before the GrandVizier and chose to apostatize to Islam rather than be executed forrebellion.5
Shabbatais apostasy did not put an end to the movement. Histheologians, Nathan of Gaza and Abraham Miguel Cardoso, as well asShabbatai himself, wrote complex kabbalistic treatises to explain why
3 Jews, Christians and Conversos: Rabbi Solomon Aailions Struggles in thePortuguese Community of London, Journal of Jewish Studies 45 (1994), pp.227-257.
4 See, e.g., J. A. I. Champion, The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken: The Church ofEngland and Its Enemies, 1660-1730, Cambridge 1992.
5 On the exoteric stage of the Sabbatean movement see M. Goldish, The SabbateanProphets, Cambridge, MA 2004; G. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah(1626-1676), Princeton 1973.
the messiah had to convert, or enter the realm of the unclean husks (as
they put it), in order to complete his mission of redemption. Even afterShabbatais death in 1676 the movement did not disappear, though ithad been driven underground in most places after 1666 by anembarrassed rabbinic leadership. A group of believers in Saloniki inthe 1680s converted to Islam in imitation of Shabbatai, and becameknown as the Dnme, or converts. They continued to believe andpractice Sabbatean rituals until at least World War I. A much largergroup of believers, including Nathan of Gaza and Cardoso, remainedwithin the Jewish camp and taught their faith to a new generation.6
The nature of the Sabbatean faith is critical to the present inquiry.Shabbatai himself, who appears to have suffered from bipolar personalitydisorder, was well known for his sudden public desecrations of Jewishcommandments and changes in the liturgy or calendar. So great washis magnetism that these transgressions were alpha-switched intopositively valued ritual acts, rather than causing Shabbatais immediaterejection by the rabbis. This penchant for ritualized antinomian actswas carried on by Shabbatais followers, and was explained by histheologians. Nathan, Cardoso, and other Sabbatean ideologues alsointroduced complex mystical interpretations about the nature of God,the messiah, and the future of the world. Some of these explanationswere distinctly heterodox, crossing the line into such doctrines as thedeification of the messiah and the multiplication of essences in theinfinite Godhead. However, these writings were so abstruse, and usedsuch a complex set of symbols, that even learned rabbis were often
6 On Sabbateanism after Shabbatai evis apostasy, see M. Benayahu, in: Sefunot3-4 (1959-60), 14 (1971-1978); I. Tishby, Paths of Faith and Heresy: Essays inKabbalah and Sabbateanism (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1982; I. Tisbhy, Studies inKabbalah and its Branches: Researches and Sources (Hebrew), vol. 2, Jerusalem1993; G. Scholem, Studies and Texts Concerning the History of Sabbatianismand Its Metamorphoses (Hebrew), Jerusalem 1982; G. Scholem, Researches inSabbateanism (Hebrew), Y. Liebes ed., Tel-Aviv 1991; E. Carlebach, The Pursuitof Heresy: Rabbi Moses agiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, New York,1990; Y. Liebes, On Sabbateanism and its Kabbalah: Collected Essays (Hebrew),Jerusalem 1995; B. Naor, Post Sabbatian Sabbatianism, Spring Valley, NewYork 1999; D. L. Halperin ed. and trans., A. M. Cardozo, Selected Writings,New York 2001; R. Elior ed., The Sabbatian Movement and Its Aftermath:Messianism, Sabbatianism and Frankism, 2 volumes, Jerusalem 2001; Kabbalah8 (2003) and 9 (2003).
unable to spot the heretical meanings in them. This lack of clarity led
The 1689 London Sermons of akham Solomon Aailion
to the birth of several enormous rabbinic controversies in the eighteenthcentury.7
Meanwhile, antinomianism among the Dnme was reputed to havegone much further. By the early eighteenth century one sect amongthe Dnme, led by Barukhiah Russo (called Osman Baba), wasapparently practicing prohibited sexual unions, incest, and other gravesins as part of a new, kabalistically justified theology of reversenomianism.8
Aailion among the Sabbat