By proclaiming himself « Messiah » in 1648, Sabbatai Tsevi created a movement that was both revolutionary and apocalyptic. He achieved great success, and his messianic vocation was recognized as such by the Jews of Aleppo and Smyrna, his hometown, as well as by many Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the Middle East.
But, after a beginning as shattering as it was promising, why did Tsevi then apostasize Judaism and convert to Islam in 1666?
Gershom Scholem reports in his study of him that Tsevi was actually seeking, in apostasy, the « mystery of the Divinity ».
In any case, one cannot fail to admire his courage and his spirit of transgression. Tsevi converted spectacularly to Islam, when he was seen as Messiah by a large part of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Why? This is due to a profound, difficult, but not unimportant idea – even today.
Tsevi believed that his apostasy, as Messiah, would advance tiqoun (« reparation » or « reconstruction »), thereby working for the restoration of the world.
A foolish bet, full of good intentions.
The tiqoun required broad, radical, revolutionary gestures.
Moses had brought a Law of Truth (Torah Emet) and the Koran a Law of Kindness (Torah Hessed), he said. These two laws had to be reconciled in order to save the world, as the Psalmist says: « Goodness and truth meet » (Ps. 85:11).
It was not necessary to oppose laws and traditions, but to unite them, to conjoin them. As proof, Kabbalists argued that the « divine mystery » is symbolically embodied in the sixth Sefira, Tiferet, which corresponds to the third letter (ו Vav) of the Tetragrammaton, which marks the conjunction, in Hebrew grammar (ו means « and »).
Tsevi, well versed in Kabbalah, was not satisfied with it, however. He thought that the divine mystery was located far above the Sefirot, even beyond the first principle, beyond the idea of the First Cause, beyond the inaccessible Ein-sof, and finally far beyond the very idea of mystery.
The ultimate remains in the holiest simplicity.
That is why, after having been influenced by it for a long time, Sabbatai Tsevi finally rejected the Kabbalah of Luria. He said that « Isaac Louria had built an admirable tank but had not specified who was driving it ».
The admirable chariot was the metaphor then accepted to designate the Sefirot of Louria. This expression also referred to Ezekiel’s famous vision.
The Tsevi question remains relevant today. Who drives the Sefirot’s chariot?
An even more important question, maybe :
Where is this chariot really going?