Does Jacob Frank Hold the Key to Polish Culture?
How a Sabbatian sect from Podolia influenced the history of Polish culture and changed the face of Polish Romantic literature.
The figure of Jacob Frank, an 18th-century Sabbatian heretic from Podolia who led a few thousand Jews to the biggest conversion to Catholicism in Polish history, has long been part of a closed chapter of history, drawing attention only from specialists in Jewish mysticism. However, in recent years, this long-obscure and marginal figure has been gaining new significance in Poland.
After a low-key but philosophically pregnant movie, Daas, directed by Adrian Panek (2011), which portrayed Frank as a skilful politician and a possible religious charlatan, there followed a thick novel by Polish best-selling author Olga Tokarczuk.
Księgi Jakubowe (Jacob's Scriptures) premiered amid the media hype around the opening of the Polin Museum in Warsaw in October 2014, and within a couple of months sold over 70 thousand copies – an impressive result considering the book's content. This over 900-page-long novel comprises several protagonists and narrators, all of them mostly obscure figures from Poland's past, and incorporates lengthy and often complicated contemporary religious discourse, based around debates between the Orthodox Jewish rabbis and a little Sabbatian sect from Podolia. Still Tokarczuk's book has been praised as an attempt at writing an unorthodox history of Poland – and was definitely successful in drawing attention to different areas of Polish history – and showing them from a different perspective.
But the fascinating figure of Jacob Frank and his influence on Polish culture far surpasses what the popular opinions on this subject suggest. While he himself may be credited with creating the greatest breach in the history of Judaism, leading his followers to the biggest mass conversion to Christianity, the movement which he had created caused also a breach within the Polish national paradigm. Frankism inscribed itself in the very heart of Polish culture, provoking one of the most spectacular ideological clashes in Polish Romantic literature. Its repercussions are still visible today. How was it possible?
Jacob Frank was born in 1726 in Korolivka, Podolia (today, part of Ukraine) on the frontier of the Polish Commonwealth. But only one year later, upon the accusation of adhering to a Sabbatian sect, the whole family left Poland and settled in Vallachia, part of the Ottoman Empire.
Here – in Vallachia, Bukovina and Bucharest – Frank would spend most of his childhood and adolescence becoming acquainted with the local Cabbalistic traditions of Judaism and learning the languages of the area, that is Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jews in the Balkans) and Turkish (but he also knew some Hebrew). On arriving in Poland in 1755 as a Sabbatian Messiah, Frank probably didn't know Polish nor Yiddish, which was the language of the great majority of Polish Jews. Still, within a couple of years, he became the most influential figure of the rebellion against traditional Rabbinic Judaism in Poland.
Edom, that is, Poland
But why did Frank come to Poland in the first place? Frank believed that in order to fulfil the fate of the world, the people of Israel must take a new road. He called it 'walking to Esau', which was an allusion to the biblical story of Jacob and his brother Esau (Gen 33:14), in which Jacob promised that he would meet his brother in Seir... but he never got there. As some biblical commentators explained, the road was too difficult. Frank believed it was his task to fulfil Jacob's promise.
Drawing on Cabbalistic predecessors, Frank identified the land of Esau with Edom, the common general term in Jewish tradition for Christianity and Rome, and began to interpret Edom as Roman Catholic Poland. Thus, going to Esau or Edom would actually mean going to Poland.
Over time, Poland became one of the key elements in Frank's theology and historiosophy, he himself came to think that “Poland holds all that is good in this world”.
But the concept of “going to Esau”, in which Poland was made into some kind of a new Promised Land, had one more revolutionary side. As another Polish scholar Maria Janion suggests, its important element was the rejection of the ancient idea of returning to Palestine – a concept hardly acceptable in traditional Jewish culture.
Frank believed that the road to Esau should lead to “true life” – a central idea of Frank's teaching, which he connected with personal freedom and liberation from all earthly rules. According to Gershom Scholem, this was the road leading also to utmost religious anarchy. Esau and Edom – meant connecting with an unrelenting stream of life, a liberation from all laws – including God's Law.
Accordingly, one of the main ideas taught by Frank was defying the Torah, and many of his activities and rituals were about transgressing the traditional laws of the Talmud, that is the Hallacha. An expression of such unrestrained life can be seen in the sexual freedom of Frank's followers, which also surfaced in the famous incident in Lanckoroń from which Frank's Polish career started. There, in a private house, the gathered followers of Frank danced around a naked woman, kissing her breasts and worshipping her. According to one of the interpretations, the woman symbolized the Torah.
Frank's sect was notorious for sexual promiscuity, accused of adultery and engaging in orgies. However for Paweł Maciejko, author of the new study of Frankism The Mixed Multitude, the sexual promiscuity practised in the sect, rather than a sign of the deviant morality of its leader, may well have been a consequence of the radical emancipation of women in Frank's doctrine, something, as Maciejko claims, unparalleled in contemporary discourse.
Legitimizing the Blood Libel
Frank believed that in order to fulfil the ideal of the new Jacob, one had to take on the external form of Edom, and this meant Christianity. This was also in keeping with the Sabbatian idea that religions are only stages on the Road of the Messiah (Frank believed that all religion had a truth buried inside, like a nut in a shell – one only needed to break it loose)
In 1759 in Lviv, he led his followers on a mass conversion to Christianity, a thing unseen in Poland any time before or after. Still, even before this, in a brutal fight with the Orthodox rabbis, Frank had pulled what can be seen as his most successful trick, if also his most ruthless and controversial.
In 1757, during a dispute in Kamieniec Podolski, in an attempt to discredit the rabbis (or the Talmudists, as they were called), Frank and his followers accused them of engaging in a ritual involving the blood of Christians. This way, the Sabbatians confirmed and legitimized the centuries-old Christian phantasm of blood libel. This confirmation of the blood libel by inner Jewish sources, cynical as it was, had the expected consequences.
In the aftermath of the dispute, the Talmud was burnt on the main square in Kamieniec, and Orthodox Jews were widely persecuted, ending only with the unexpected death of the protector of the Sabbatians, Bishop Dembowski.
For Frankists, resorting to blood libel was a way of gaining the power and support of the Polish Catholic elite, but it also meant that they were now forever lost to Judaism – there was no return, all bridges were burnt.
The New Mount Zion
In 1760, at the peak of his influence, Frank and his followers entered Warsaw, only to be arrested a couple of months later and incarcerated at the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, one of the greatest sanctuaries of the Virgin Mary in the world. What was intended as a temporary detention designed by the Catholic Church to reduce Frank's influence among his followers turned out to be Frank's permanent place of residence for the next 13 years.
It is actually there – in the very heart of Polish Catholicism – that Frank developed the final version of his doctrine and theology, one which remained more or less unchanged until his death.
As Jan Doktór, another scholar specializing in Frankism, notes, at the time of his imprisonment Frank had little knowledge of Catholicism. Now, at Jasna Góra, he was about to have plenty of opportunities to get to know it better – as he was supposed to attend all Holy masses and Church festivities. At Jasna Góra, Frank was under the great influence of the passionate religious cult which surrounded the Virgin Mary, or rather, her image on the famous painting of the Black Madonna that attracted thousands of pilgrims from throughout the whole country.
According to Jan Doktór, at Jasna Góra "the truth of Christianity began to be identified with the cult of the Virgin Mary, who according to Frank was nothing else but the institutional shell of Shekhinah”. [Shekhinah being in Cabbalah the feminine element of God].
A struggle to liberate the Shekhinah from this shell came to be represented as the proper reason and purpose of his stay at the monastery. Thus, the imprisonment at Jasna Góra was transformed into a mystical Tikkun.
– explains Doktór.
To put it shortly, at Jasna Góra the Virgin Mary became the central element of Frank's new theology. But there was one little problem: "in the image of the Mother of God from Jasna Góra, the Lady is present only latently. She takes on the living and tangible form in the person of Ewa Frank, the daughter of the sect's leader", as Adam Lipszyc notes.
The Words of the Lord
In August 1772, in the chaos unleashed by the 1st Partition of Poland, Frank found himself free for the first time in 13 years. In January 1773 he arrived in Warsaw, only to leave the capital of Poland two months later – as it turned out, he would never return to Poland... As Jan Doktór notes, during the 36 years of his messianic activity Frank enjoyed freedom in Poland for only 2 and a half years.
In 1773, Frank settled in the Moravian town of Brno, where he dictated a series of esoteric lectures. Written down by his followers, The Collection of the Words of the Lord remains one of the most idiosyncratic documents of Polish literature. Adam Lipszyc described the book as a peculiar combination of picaresque novel and Messianic treatise.
Shortly after writing the book, Frank left Brno and together with his court settled in the castle in Offenbach am Main, where he soon died (1791). However, the significance of Frankism for Polish culture only starts here.
Frankists after Frank
During Frank's lifetime, the Jewish families which followed his example and converted to Christianity had already began to play an important role in Polish society. This was especially striking in Warsaw, where the vast majority of Frankists settled, and where their number was estimated in 1780 at around 6 thousand (ten years later there were around 24 thousand Frankists in the whole country).
In this first period, many Frankists families were able to secure their economic position, their members becoming successful businessmen and factory owners, effectively dominating several branches of business, like breweries, distilleries and the tobacco monopoly. They also played an important part in the reformative efforts at the time of Sejm Czteroletni (Szymanowscy, Orłowscy, Jasińscy), and many of them were Polish patriots and members of the progressive masonic organizations (Szymanowscy, Krysińscy, Majewscy, Krzyżanowscy, Lewińscy, Piotrkowscy). Frankists were also said to have dominated Warsaw's legal bodies. According to Gershom Scholem, the vast majority of Warsaw's lawyers in the 1830s came from Frankist families. Many of them were budding Polish intelligentsia.
For the first three generations following the apostasy of 1759/60, Frankists strived not to inter-marry with Polish families and took great care to cultivate their own religious tradition. However, by the mid-19th century, this approach was superseded by the practice of full integration. Frankists merged with Polish society – the only remaining sign of their past being names adopted at the time of apostasy.
Despite being at the forefront of the modern acculturating processes and having great benefits for Polish culture, Frankists were accused of insincere conversion, and of putting on false appearances of Christianity and simulating integration, while in fact they were cultivating their Jewish separatism.
Un-Divine Comedy, the Anti-Frankist Drama?
One of the greatest enemies of converts and their role in Polish culture was Zygmunt Krasiński (1812-1859). Considered one of the greatest Polish Romantic poets, Krasiński, who was a descendant of an old aristocratic family, was deeply convinced that Frankists were "a separate tribe, full of the strangest superstition, but in the end, believing in nothing".
One of Krasiński's masterpieces and the key piece of Polish Romanticism read at school even today, the drama Un-divine Comedy, was built around a similar resentment. The piece is an apocalyptic vision of a revolution which upturns the old order of things, brutally crushing the world of the old masters. In this ultra-conservative vision, Jews and converts are portrayed as one of the key forces behind the Revolution.
In fact, in this "flawed masterpiece", as Maria Janion called Krasiński's piece, the author combined several Christian delusions about Jews. The Talmud is defined as a tool instrumental in instilling hate towards Christians, and Jews are depicted as craving Christian blood and world domination. They are represented as the driving force of the Revolution, which becomes a tool in their hands. But the worst are the converts who are seen as false Christians only pretending to believe in Christian dogma, when in fact they are scheming against their fellow citizens.
Scholars pointed to many similarities between Krasiński's drama and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – the infamous anti-Semitic pamphlet from early 20th century. In many respects the Un-divine Comedy seems like its predecessor. As Maria Janion notes, with this drama Krasiński established a founding myth of Polish anti-Semitism. She went on to call the argument between Krasiński and Adam Mickiewicz which followed the publication of the piece as a key dispute of the Polish cultural paradigm – not only in the 19th, but also in the 20th century – and today.
Mickiewicz and the Frankist matrix
In fact Adam Mickiewicz became one of the earliest victims of this myth. Mickiewicz's marriage with Celina Szymanowska (whose both parents descended from prominent Frankist families) in 1834 drew mischievous comments and gossip from the Polish emigre circles. Krasiński called Celina "a Talmudic Jewish woman, a devil, convert, and lunatic”, and believed she was a bad influence on the poet. At the same time, the high society of Polish emigres also gossiped about Mickiewicz's allegedly Frankist background (for Krasiński, Mickiewicz was "the perfect Jew"). Chopin wasn't spared from similar gossip either.
And yet for Mickiewicz – and the fate of Polish culture – his marriage with Celina was of utmost significance. Mickiewicz saw in Celina a Frankist, which is to say, a Jewish Christian. His relationship with Celina only confirmed and further developed some of his intuitions, especially his idea of Polish-Jewish messianism. Mickiewicz deeply believed that one cannot detach Christianity from Judaism, and he also believed that the historical settlement of a huge Jewish population in Poland was part of some divine plan. For Mickiewicz, Polish and Jewish fates were inextricably connected. According to Maria Janion, much of this was derived from the Frankist matrix operating in the poet's imagination.
Mickiewicz's approach to the Jewish issue can be clearly seen in his project for emancipation of the Jews which, among others, he had formulated in a draft of the new Polish Constitution Skład zasad (1848). One of the last signs of the poet's commitment to the Polish-Jewish cause was his travel to Istanbul in 1855, where he attempted to form a Jewish legion, and where he eventually died.
Maria Janion has repeatedly underlined the exceptional place of Mickiewicz's project in the history of Polish culture. She noted that by 'acknowledging the antecedence of Israel [in relation to Christianity] the poet was laying ground for the real Polish-Jewish dialogue”, which however never really materialized.
This vision of Poland, being itself, as Janion points, a part of a wider vision of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Poland (a vision shared also by Tadeusz Kościuszko), was in stark contrast with the conservative idea of a closed, "homogeneous" nation proposed by Krasiński. It transcended the horizons of most of Mickiewicz's contemporaries, drawing critique from all political fractions.
For Janion, Mickiewicz's vision of a common Polish-Jewish fate and brotherhood remains a remarkable and unparalleled moment in the history of Polish culture, one also which has remained its greatest unrealized potentiality.
Judaeo-Polonia, or Frankism today
Paradoxically, the clash between Krasiński and Mickiewicz and between the two visions of Poland may still be operating today. Janion claims that the cultural and economic success of Frankists in Polish society rather than securing their position, contributed to spreading the myth of Judaeo-Polonia. This phantasm, still popular – in some circles – today, in its exaggerated version, claims that Poland is secretly ruled by Jews (or people that are pretending to be Polish, while in fact they are Jews). Janion shows, that this essentially paranoid mode of thinking, akin to conspiracy theory, in the Polish context is rooted deeply in the story of the integration of a sect started by Jacob Frank.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 16 April, 2015