On the Asiatic Brethren, Part 2 - An Excursus on Frankism

On the Asiatic Brethren, Part 2 - An Excursus on Frankism

This is the second chapter in our exploration of the order of the Asiatic Brethren. As mentioned when we set out, collective memory is a curious thing and often tells more through what it holds back then what it is easily willing to share. Our Western Mystery tradition certainly is not exempt from this human pattern - from our desire to create stories and myths from what originally might have been accidents and happenstance. 

During the first chapter we undertook an excursus into Sabbatianism. The reason was that we had stumbled across one Franz Thomas von Schönfeld, a founding member of the Asiatic Brethren. As it seemed there was a connection between von Schönfeld’s born name Moses Dobruska and the heretic currents within Judaism, our goal was to better understand the latter. However, in order to prove a direct influence of Sabbatai’s teachings on von Schönfeld and the order of the Asiatic Brethren, we still need to bridge more than hundred years from Sabbatai’s death in 1676 to the founding year of the order in 1781.

A second, maybe even more magical excursus on our Western Mystery tradition will therefore lead the way and quite easily guide us over this bridge.  

A final note before we set out: Frankism is a topic still relatively little explored by English or German speaking academics. Despite the groundbreaking articles by Gershom Scholem we only find a few critical publications all the way from the 1960s until today. In light of this I read everything my time and language skill allowed and then decided to concentrate on Pawel Maciejko’s (PM) excellent book ‘The Mixed Multitude’ which won the 2012 Baron Book Prize by the American Academy for Jewish Research. It presents the most thorough approach on the topic published so far and critically examine most other earlier publications.

Additionally, I decided to share selected quotes from ‘the Lord’ Jacob Frank himself as these present the only authentic first-hand literary source of Frankism. You can find these quotes spread throughout the text and indicated by their numbers. They are all taken from Harris Lenowitz’ The Collection of the Words of the Lord.

Frater Acher

P.S. This essay will first appear as a series of blog posts on www.theomagica.com. Once completed, I will re-edit it and offer it for free download as a consolidated eBook. 

II.B An Excursus on Frankism 

The Early Years

In the mid-eighteenth century, Podolia became for Judaism what twelfth-century Languedoc was for Christianity: a seditious province where dissenters gathered and heterodoxy was practiced openly and publicly. Podolia was the only place in the world where - almost a hundred years after Sabbatai Tsevi’s conversion to Islam - many Jews openly adhered to Sabbatianism.
— PM, p.10

Jakob Frank (1726 - 1791) was a Polish Jew born as Jacob ben Leiba into a family with strong Sabbatean ties. When he was only a few months old his family moved to the Ottoman Empire and once arrived continued to lead a restless life. In short sequence we find them in Czernowitz, Smyrna, Bucharest, Sofia and even Constantinople. Early on he gained the nickname ‘Frank’; it betrayed his foreign European origins as it was a general appellation in the Ottoman Empire for Europeans since the time of Charlemagne and the Crusades.

A story from Jakob's youth - click to enlarge

On the night of his wedding in 1752 ‘the mystery of the faith’ was disclosed to Frank by his groomsmen. Such ritual was the practice for initiating new members into the Sabbatean elite. The ‘mystery of the faith’ refers to the final revelation of Sabbatai Zevi which originally had only been shared with those disciples who converted to Islam together with him; its content was transferred orally only for decades among the sectarian elite. Frank, however, was sceptical and told his mystagogues he would only believe them if he saw that they indeed possessed “the wisdom of making gold” (PM, p.12; note: This early reference to Frank’s alchemical interest is significant for our subject - yet, might also provide a hint about the nature of the ‘mystery of the faith’ revealed to Frank.) Despite his hesitations Frank decided to go to Salonika, a centre of Sabbatean faith at the time created and maintained by the famous and close-knit Dönmeh community. 

(…) the Dönmeh’s brand of Sabbatianism acquired a very pronounced antinomian tendency, whereby ritual violations of the principles and the rites of Jewish religion became a significant part of religious practice.
— PM, p.13

A Vision of Jakob Frank - click to enlarge

Here one of the official successors to Sabbatai Zevi, Berukiah Russo (in Islam: Ottoman Baba, 1677-1720) had established a radical version of Sabbatianism and was declared by his followers to not on only be the reincarnation of Zevi but also of the G’d of Israel itself. Again, Frank questioned the divine status of Berukiah given that the latter not only died like an ordinary human, but also because he lived a life in relative poverty and with little political power… It was during this early time and contact with the Dönmeh sect that Frank’s own spiritual agenda took shape: he set out to take up where Sabbatai and Berukiah both had failed - that is to establish a significant centre of worldly as well as spiritual power for the Sabbatean movement, with himself as the central figurehead and leader.

In the years to come we see Frank rise amongst the various Dönmeh groups - accelerated by his visionary and mediumistic skills through which he revealed many secrets and mysteries to his followers. Equally he continued the tradition of ‘strange deeds’ that was so critical for the foundations of Sabbatianism:

He threw himself into the sea, which did not want to take him and resuscitated him alive, and performed ‘strange deeds’ publicly violating the Shabbat or - during a service in a synagogue - taking the Torah scroll, lowering his trousers, and sitting on it with his naked buttocks. (…) At the grave of Nathan (of Gaza) he formulated his program for the first time: ‘The Ran (Rabbi Nathan of Gaza) ordered after he died, a bag of earth should be placed in his coffin, thus giving a sign that he wished to convert the spiritual world into the world of flesh. But I tell you that already in this world, everything that is in spirit must be made into flesh like our flesh. Then everyone will see, as any visible thing is seen.
— PM, p.16

Despite his meteoric rise amongst the Dönmeh, Frank refused to become a leader amongst the sect and instead returned to Poland in 1755. Here we quickly find him imprisoned together with his disciples as part of an incident that ultimately would have tragic ramifications on many Jewish communities in the area. In short the incident on the night of the Shabbat is best summarised by its one of its earliest sources:

And they took the wife of the local rabbi (who also belonged to the sect), a woman beautiful but lacking discretion, they undressed her naked and placed the Crown of the Torah on her head, sat her under the canopy like a bride, and danced a dance around her. They celebrated with bread and wine of the condemned, and they pleased their hearts with music like King David … and in dance they fell upon her kissing her, and called her ‘mezuzah’, as if they were kissing a mezuzah.
— Rabbi Jacob Emden, Sefer shimush, 1760, quoted after PM, p.22)

Interestingly, it is Frank himself who is purported to have pulled the heavy rugs from the shutters that night and opened the windows - for anybody to witness their Sabbatean celebration. In fact, what we encounter here is a rite based on the well known mystical marriage with the Torah amongst orthodox Jews. As we might remember, already Sabbatai Zevi himself had celebrated his wedding with the Torah in public - sat under the canopy, cradled the sacred scroll in his arms and sang her love-songs. However, Frank had gone too far in pushing this rite even further: Instead of turning the Torah into a metaphorical bride, he had turned a naked woman into a physical Torah, by placing the sacred crown on her and allowing her to sit under the holy canopy. In essence, Frank proved to true to his program announced at the grave of Nathan of Gaza: he aimed at nothing less but to turn all things spiritual into human (more specifically: female) flesh (PM, p.27).

By no means was this the only time sexual transgressions were reported for the Sabbateans. In fact we have evidence that it is not unlikely they still practiced ‘sexual hospitality’ as known from the Hebrew Bible. I.e. upon the commandment of their husband women were supposed to offer themselves up to visitors and even strangers coming to a Sabbatean’s house. Here is a report from a member of the Polish Sabbatean community by the time Jacob Frank was their leader:

(…) it is permissible to have children and to have sexual intercourse with someone’s else wife or one’s own sister, or even - through only in secret - with one’s own mother. As I am old now, I no longer do it, but twenty years ago (and I have professed this faith for twenty-four years), I had carnal relations with the wife of my son. (…) And I believe that all this is permitted because of God commanded us to do thus.
— testimony of Samuel of Busk as part of the investigations against Jacob Frank, quoted after PM, p.32

A Frankist ritual - click to enlarge

Not surprisingly, what unfolds in the four years to come, from 1756 to 1760 is a storm of religious banns and detentions, book burnings, political manoeuvres and powerful intrigues between all four major players involved: the orthodox Jewry, Catholic Church, Polish nobility and potentates as well as of course Frank and the various Sabbatean groups. For a short period - only three months right before its collapse - the star of Jacob Frank seemed to rise beyond anything orthodox Jewry, the Church or European potentates had seen ever before. Through the forging of powerful alliances as well as ruthlessly exploiting Jewish stereotypes such as the blood sacrifice of children for his own interest, Frank had managed to gain support from both the Church as well as the local nobility.

Clearly Frank was a man on a mission - not only to bring the rise of Sabbatianism to completely new heights, but more importantly maybe to lead all of his followers out of exile and gain large lands in the district of the former Podolia for settlement of his Sabbatean followers. As part of this strategy during 1759 - 1760 more than three-thousand Jews converted to Christianity - hoping to follow in the footsteps of Sabbatai Zevi and to be led into worldly and spiritual freedom under their new leader, Jacob Frank (PM, p.32). 

After the baptism, Frank conducted himself with ostentatious splendor, attended theatres, and visited the homes of the most important magnates in Warsaw. He traveled in a chariot pulled by six horses, tossed handfuls of gold coins to the poor, ‘clothed himself like a king’ and ate on gold and silver. (…) Frank’s aim was to establish a separate, semi-independent colony for Christian Sabbatians. (…) Little is known about the character envisaged for the projected colony. Frank demanded total rule over the neophytes and envisioned a strict military regimen. He was always surrounded by armed guards and forced his followers to train with weapons. (…) After the baptism, Frank presented the abandonment of official Judaism as a double liberation: emancipation from the tyranny of religion and the tyranny of landlessness. The Frankists were to become soldiers and the Frankist leaders - military commanders.
— PM, p.159-160
Jacob Frank was for the Polish-Russion Jews of the eighteenth century what Sabbatai Tsevi was for entire Jewry of the seventeenth.
— Simon Dubnow, quoted after PM, p.18

While this narcissistic pomp and these wanton plans read like an episode of ‘Games of Thrones’ they were all over on 7th of January 1760. On that day Frank was arrested and spent the following twelve years in captivity. The Christian clergy had achieved exactly what they had aimed for: thousands of freshly converted new Christian church members, a significantly weakened orthodox Jewry - yet still strong enough to continually be exploited financially - and with the imprisonment of Frank himself no further thread to the established power balance in their Polish-Russian territories (PM, p.166f).

The Female God

What now began was a new and completely unexpected phase of Frankism. Here is how it went: The goal of the bishop and potentate simply was to isolate Frank from his followers, to lock him up safely and ideally for the world to forget about him. At first glance there could not have been a better place than the one they chose: the remote Jasna Góra monastery in the South-Polish city of Częstochowa. Frank was the only prisoner here and special chambers, separated from the pilgrims to the shrine of the famous Black Madonna, had been prepared for him. Frank would spend the next twelve years confined to this place; initially completely isolated, then slowly with increasing contact to his family and followers and ultimately residing in the monastery with an entire entourage where they would hold their own services next to the monastery.

On the power of the Maiden - click to enlarge

The unexpected turn, however, was initiated through Franks encounter with the cult of the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra. Legend tells that the enigmatic icon treasured in the monastery had been painted by Luke the Evangelist on a fragment of the table of the Last Supper and subsequently been brought to Constantinople from Jerusalem by Constantine the Great. When Frank arrived at the monastery the icon had already been the central locus of pilgrimage for Polish Catholics for centuries. Records tell us that in 1762 more than 200,000 pilgrims visited her sanctuary within a month and a half only - making her the most ardent object of spiritual devotion, both popular and learned (PM, p.169).

For Frank this was nothing but a revelation as well as a call to action: He evolved his teachings in no insignificant ways and interpreted Częstochowa as the actual Mount Zion. From here the Shekhinah would ‘raise from the dust’ and she would do so in the icon of the Black Madonna. While other kabbalists had hinted at the parallels between the concept of the shekhinah and the Christian devotion to the Virgin Mary before Frank, only he was bold enough to postulate transformation of the former into the latter (PM, p.175).

But he even went further: according to Frank there is no separation between G’d, the shekhinah as well as the messiah. Because of the female gender of the shekhinah, thus, he assumed even the messiah as well as G’d herself were female. With this single act of revolutionary re-interpretation Frank identified not only G’d and the messiah as female - but also the Virgin Mary and the messiah as the very same spiritual principle. The gate through which according to Christianity the messiah had passed into the material world, now turned into the principle of salvation itself.

To put it into a nutshell, unlike Christianity, Frankism was not about a male God who took a human body upon himself through a human woman, but about a feminine goddess who acquired a human form. (…) Frank appropriated elements of Catholic Mariology but departed from Christian doctrine in two crucial respects: he claimed that the Maiden was an element of the Godhead (and not as the Christians would have it, the human mediatrix Virgin Mary) and he declared that She was actually present (and not only pictorially present) in the Częstochowa icon.
— PM, p.175/176

You think that’s quite a handful for the pious Polish society of the late 17th century? Well, Frank had a dozen years of isolation right next to the black icon to even take the next step in his private cosmology. Take this:

The final and complete revelation of Frankism amounts to the true incarnation of the divine Maiden in a true human maiden: Eve Frank (Frank’s daughter, ed. Acher). (…) From the very outset, Frank presented her as a semidivine being and a future leader of the group (…). Wherever she appeared, she was accompanied by a cortege of the daughters of prominent Frankists, who were trained to attend to all her needs. (…) The Frankist dicta give detailed directions of the way an initiate should behave in order to be ‘worthy to come to the Maiden’: he should come dressed in white and fall on his face without raising his eyes toward her, then kiss her feet, then stand up with his hands folded without looking at her, and then slowly look at her but without looking her directly in the face. Finally, he will be allowed to kiss her hand; she will address him as ‘brother’ and ask about his dearest wish, to which he will answer with a phrase from the Son of Songs 5:2, ‘Open to me, my sister, my love!’
— PM, p.177

Clearly the welcoming of the ‘Maiden’ was staged by Frank rather as a mystical vision than a royal rite. However, we know from an authentic source, a visitor to the Frankist court in its final stages in 1798 - i.e. more than thirty years after Frank had initiated this cult and seven years after his own death - that precisely this ritual was still performed when approaching Eve Frank. Finally, we should mention as well that of course Frank developed a related doctrine stating that he himself was both the father and (allegorical or not) husband of his daughter Eve, the true messiah (PM, p.178f). 

click to enlarge

When Frank finally was released from captivity in 1772 he had regained a large fellowship and was again recognised as one of the most important Sabbatean leaders in Europe. However, in truth he had moved on from many of the original teachings of Sabbatai Zevi and founded his own female cult of divine worship - as well as a strong outer circle of military defence. 

The Asiatic Connection

While in the 1750s and 1760s, Frankism was first perceived as a sect within Judaism and then as a movement on the border between Judaism and Christianity, its expansion in the 1770s and 1780s was defined by the reformulation of its tenets in terms of something that can best be called a secret society.
— PM, p.230

From South-Poland Frank and his entourage relocated to Moravia, and in particular to the city of Brünn. It was here that not only a Sabbatean stronghold had remained throughout the years, but it also proved to be connected much closer to the local nobility and their necessary funds to entertain a growing circle of Frankists.  

Frank on sorcery - click to enlarge

In Brünn Frank found shelter at his cousin’s estate, the powerful Schöndl Dobruschka. Schöndl, equally famous and infamous for her beauty, sometimes carrying the epithet ‘the whore of Brünn’ was perceived as a strong female leader of local Sabbateans, possibly even within all of Moravia. She gave birth to twelve children; the most talented of them being young Moses who was 18 years old when Frank and his entourage arrived at their house. And here it is that our circle closes: Moses Dobruschka is the name we encountered in the beginning of our story on the Asiatic Brethren. A founding member of the order and - as it turns out - a member of the Sabbatean community by birth as well as a strong ally to Jacob Frank himself.

As we will see in the next chapter on the actual teachings of the Asiatic Brethren, there were quite a few interests and spiritual convictions these two men shared. The passion for alchemy was certainly not the least of it:

Jacob Frank also devoted time to alchemy and established a special laboratory at his court for this purpose. The laboratory was said to produce large quantities of Hoffman’s Liquor (a mixture of ethanol and ether), which Frank consumed daily, believing that it would make him immortal. (…) He also made frequent use of alchemical imagery, telling his disciples, for instance, that as ‘the whole world seeks and desires to make gold, so I desire to make pure gold of out of you.’ The importance of alchemy can be gathered from the fact that he derided his Sabbatian former teachers precisely for not mastering its mysteries: ‘On the 10th of October (17)84, the Lord, dressed in white, said: If I knew at least that you had achieved the wisdom of making gold, then I would say nothing to you. And that is what I told Rabbi Isshahar and Mordechai. I will not believe that you are chosen, unless I see that you possess that wisdom.’
— PM, p.352

Jacob Frank and his court remained in Brünn for almost fourteen year until the spring of 1786. As we shall see these were the formative and most essential years during the short life-span of the Asiatic Brethren. During this time Frank developed strong connections into the Masonic communities of Vienna as well as into Germany. However, it is questionable at best wether his actual doctrines and teachings ever spread far beyond his own circle of fanatic followers. Freemasons and secret societies during this period most of all were interested in re-discovering the ancient wisdom and purported truth hidden in the Jewish mystery tradition. While it remained highly ambiguous to most of them, what this tradition truly was and what it was comprised of, Frank’s teachings suffered two fundamental flaws in order to attract wider attention in such circles.

First, his teachings were incredibly fluid; they were not fixed on paper, they constantly changed and never assumed a homogenous, fixed form that could easily be transmitted orally or in writing. His eclectic body of beliefs and syncretic dogmas drew upon all three major religions of the time and were constantly evolved further by their teacher according to his personal needs (PM, p.263). Secondly, his actual rites and ‘strange deeds’ as performed in his inner circle simply might have been too radical for even the secret societies of his time. Noblemen and adventurer of the time had a huge interest in alchemy and the mystical arts; they wanted to wear robes and masks and listen to the master’s voice in hushed silence. Jacob Frank instead was playing in a completely different league. The example of the death of his first wife might illustrate this: When people approached him mourning his wife’s death, Frank scolded them and instead introduced new celebration rites to honour femininity. Shortly afterwards he was witnessed sucking at the naked breasts of two of his followers during such an honorary rite… Shocking of course to everyone who didn’t know that Frank and his wife Hanna had been reported to perform public nude sex themselves (Lenowitz, footnote 1069). 

The final chapter of the Frankists takes place in Germany, in the city of Offenbach beginning in 1786. Once more - even though in a much more confined and smaller environment than in 1760 - Frank took up all the pomp and mystery that had made him famous before his long captivity next to the Black Madonna. He and his court resided in an old palace they called the ‘house of God’ (Gotteshaus) and where their spiritual and worldly centre should reside for even many years after his death in 1791. Upon his entry into Offenbach Frank managed to receive exemption from communal laws for his entire entourage and his palace and thus was able to create his own little kingdom, a rampart against the rising tide of Enlightment (Aufklärung):

The Frankists’ life in Offenbach began at once to follow a strict regime. No one had free access to the castle. Heavy curtains covered the windows. A section of the castle was turned into an alchemical laboratory, where mysterious experiments took place. The yard in front of the building became a parade ground on which military manoeuvres were executed; every day young Frankists could be seen training with weapons. On the rare occasion when someone from outside of the sect was permitted to enter the castle, he would be escorted to a guarded room, where Frank, always accompanied by an interpreter, sat on an ottoman smoking a water pipe. (…)
— PM, p.233

Only a few years after Frank’s death the fame of the court at Offenbach had spread even further. When the young German writer and novelist Bettina Brentano reported on her impressions from the Frankists’ way of life in Offenbach we already see the myth beginning to mix with memory. While Frank might have failed in bringing the new female messiah to his fellow cult members, he still might have prevailed in his original programme - which was to turn everything spiritual into human flesh.

Offenbach has changed into some kind of a magical tale. (…) A mystical nation wanders the streets in strange, colourful clothes, old men with long beards, wearing purple, green, and yellow robes, young beautiful boys in gold, one half of the leggings green, the other in yellow or red. They ride horses with silver bells on their necks; in the evenings they play guitars and flutes under the window of their beloved. (…) A prince at the head of these people, with silver beard and long white robes, rests on luxurious carpets and pillows in front of the gates of his castle, surrounded by his court. Each person wears the emblem of his function and status.
— Bettina Brentano, 1785 – 1859, quoted after PM, p.238

Two portraits of Jakob Frank and a photo of his skull as excavated from his grave in Offenbach

: :   to be continued  : :

Selected Resources

  • Pawel Macieko, The Mixed Multitude - Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816, University of Pennsylvania Press 2011
  • Klaus Davidowicz, Die Kabbala - Eine Einführung in die Welt der jüdischen Mystik und Magie, böhlau 2009
  • Gershom Scholem, Die krypto-jüdische Sekte der Dönme (Sabbatianer) in der Türkei, in: Numen, Vol. 7, Fasc. 2 Brill 1960
  • Gershom Scholem, Ein verschollener jüdischer Mystiker der Aufklärungszeit: E. J. Hirschfeld, in: Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 1962 
  • Gershom Scholem, Die jüdische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen, Suhrkamp 1980
  • Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Zwi - Der mystische Messias, Jüdischer Verlag 1992
  • Harris Lenowitz, The Collection of the Words of the Lord [Jacob Frank] from the Polish manuscripts, published online 2004