Post-Doc/University of Chicago (USA)
Research Stay: 15 July to 30 September 2005
The interchange between Jewish sectarian movements and secret societies in 18th-century East-Central Europe
My research interests fall within the history of the Jews in East-Central Europe in the Early Modern Period in general, and the history of Jewish-Christian cultural and religious relations in particular. In my doctoral thesis entitled The Frankist Movement in Poland, the Czech Lands, and Germany (1755–1816), I analysed the formation of Frankism, a Jewish messianic movement that erupted in Poland and spread into the Habsburg Empire and the German lands in the second half of the eighteenth century. In my postdoctoral research I intend to expand the scope of my investigation focusing on the intellectual interchange between Jewish sectarian groups and secret societies of the Age of Enlightenment. More specifically, I intend to trace the transmission of Jewish kabbalistic notions and rituals into the doctrines and rites of Polish, Czech, and German Freemasonry.
The interactions between Jews and European Secret Societies are rooted in more general features of Jewish emancipation in Central and Eastern Europe. Various heterodox groups offered an alternative to those Jews who felt constricted by the power of the rabbinate. At the same time, a sector of European society began to display an active interest in esoteric Jewish lore. Those who intended to reform Western society by reviving esotericism highly esteemed knowledge of Hebrew and of Kabbalah. In the study of this phenomenon, I would like to propose a threefold course of action.
First, I shall analyse direct contacts between Jews and European secret societies, concentrating on the history and the doctrines of the order known initially as Die Ritter (or Brüder) des Lichts and later as Die Brüder St. Johannes des Evangelisten aus Asien in Europa. This order was founded in Vienna in 1780 with the explicit purpose of creating a platform for people of diverse religious and social backgrounds to interact on neutral grounds. The Asiatic Brethren accepted both Jews and Christians in its rank and included among its members important Christian dignitaries (Duke Lichtenstein, Count Westenburg, Count Thun) and wealthy Jewish financiers from Vienna (Nathan Arnstein, Bernhard Eskles). The rites of the order contained both fashionable ideas of the philosophes and Jewish kabbalistic ingredients. Christian members of the Asiatics were given Hebrew names and various offices were designated by Hebrew terms. Similarly, in addition to Christian holidays such as the Day of St. John the Apostle, the Asiatics also celebrated Jewish festivals, such as Shavuot. As a secretary of the order explained, the intention behind these practices was »to bring about religious unity by leading Christianity back to its Jewish form.«
Second, I shall offer a phenomenological analysis of parallels between Jewish heterodox groups and European secret societies. I propose to apply categories developed in the field of sociology of religion to the study of secret societies. The concept of sect, as developed in the works of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, can be also applied to the description of secret orders and brotherhoods. Both sects and secret societies are voluntary organisations defining themselves in contrast to the obligatory character of a church or wider society. Both posit an ideal of a new social order and define their aims in terms of reformation and emancipation. Both create rigid hierarchical structures, exemplified by a system of grades and initiations, and rely on charismatic leadership and total subordination of their members. Both exist alongside of the recognised religious and social associations and are rejected by the establishment as illegal. Both, finally, justify their actions in terms of a mysterious tradition belonging exclusively to them. A phenomenological description of the parallel between sects and secret societies will be supplemented by a functional analysis. Roger Caillois and scholars linked to the College of Sociology discussed the functions performed by exclusive elitist groups in primitive societies and in the contemporary Christian world. However, no such description has been attempted with regard to Judaism. Since Judaism does not have centralised religious authority or well-defined dogmas, characterisations of a phenomenon as sectarian or heterodox are often prescriptive rather than analytical. A functional perspective can shed additional light on the history of Jewish religious movements in the eighteenth century as well as on their interactions with the contemporary Christian world.
Third, I shall also explore the influence of the mythology of secret societies upon Jewish heterodox groups. The parallel between Jewish sects and European secret societies is not only a scholarly tool externally imposed upon the material, but was drawn contemporaneously. Already in the late eighteenth century Christian observers described the Frankists as »a sort of an order.« Solomon Maimon defined the Hasidim as a secret society. In 1798, the Russian authorities arrested Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi, the founder of Habad Hasidism, on suspicion that his followers intend to create »a new kind of Freemasonry.« I believe that representatives of heterodox strains of Judaism in some cases consciously nourished the aura of mystery surrounding them. In their dealings with Christian aristocrats, heretical Jewish leaders seemed to capitalise on the noblemen’s curiosity for Jewish esoterica and their interest in Kabbalah. The case in point is Jacob Frank. While at the early stages of the development of Frankism the group tried to mask its sectarian character, at the later stages Frank created a kind of sectarianism for sale in order to serve as a magnet for curious Christians. He began to play consciously on the eighteenth century topos of wandering mystic-adventurer. Already Georg Forster saw Frank as a representative of this tradition and Fritz Mauthner bestowed upon him the epithet of a »Jewish Cagliostro.« Frank became as a Jewish incarnation of the type of itinerant charlatan cum alchemist cum adventurer populating salons and courts of the European Enlightenment. In accordance with the prevailing climate, he started to practise alchemy and devoted his time to the production of »Golden Drops,« which were supposed to heal all diseases. His entourage began to adorn their garment with alchemical and elemental emblems and symbols. Frank's followers fancied flashy titles, ornate costume, and elaborated bogus genealogies. The Frankists started to spread the rumour that Frank had a family connection to the Russian Royal House. Some believed that Frank was in truth the miraculously saved dethroned Tsar Peter III. Others claimed that Frank's daughter Ewa was in reality a natural child of Tsaritsa Elisabeth and Prince Alexiey Rasumovsky. To enlightened Christians and proselytising millenarians Frank was a Christian-Jew and a freethinker typified by mysterious connections, magic and secret riches, and a herald of liberation from the oppression of gender, class, regime, and religion.