The Frankist Ecstatics of the Eighteenth Century
Copyright © 1998 by T Allen Greenfield
A century before the European Enlightenment produced the conditions in which modern European Judaism arose, the ghetto world of the Jews of Europe and Asia Minor was wracked by a messianic fervor virtually unknown today outside Judaic intellectual circles. The influence of the Qabalism of the late medieval period reached a final flowering in the works of Isaac Luria and other mystics of the 1600s. An outright messianic movement developed around the person of one Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-76 EV) and his prophet, Nathan of Gaza. This movement was shattered when, faced with martyrdom or conversion, the would-be messiah Tzvi chose conversion to Islam. Nathan became a Roman Catholic, and the movement largely collapsed, though some followed Tzvi into conversion, and there is down to the present time an Islamic sect in Turkey that follows Tzvi's teachings.
In recent years there has been some effort made among Jewish revisionist historians to more-or-less rehabilitate Shabbetai Tzvi as a kind of protoZionist leader. It is certainly true that the messianic movement's collapse led in the 1700s to the development of the mystical-ecstatic Chassidic Judaism. Under the leadership of Israel Baal Shem Tov, this has been far more widely accepted as a legitimate Jewish religious trend. Scholars of the stature of the late existentialist Martin Buber have done much to establish the legitimacy of Chassidic thought and practice. It has nonetheless continued as a movement to have both a Qabalistic and messianic undertone, as witnessed by the messianic expectations centered on the Lubovicher Rebbe that reached a peak shortly before his recent death.
At approximately the same time that Chassidic Judaism was developing, another trend which for many years was almost lost to history was bubbling up in the Ghettoes of Eastern Europe in the wake of the Tzvi messianic expectations. Indeed, most older English-language sources relegate this rather substantial movement to a footnote, usually couched in the most unflattering terms. This was a sect known as the Zoharists or Frankists, after Jacob Frank (1726-91 EV), originally named Jacob Leibowicz . Like the Chassidim, the Zoharists were deeply steeped in Qabala and magick and ecstatic religious expression. Like the followers of Tzvi, they were also messianic. Unique to the Frankists was a doctrine of salvation through sexual ecstasy that had not characterized these other tendencies. Indeed, the Zoharists anticipated the sexual magick that emerged a century and more later under the influence of such luminaries as P.B. Randolph, Max Theon and, ultimately, Aleister Crowley. There is a bare chance, in fact, that the Zoharists may have influenced these later exponents of sexual spirituality.
Frank was born in Galicia in Polish territory, traveled widely, and died in Offenbach, Germany on December 10, 1791 EV. He traveled in the Balkans and got to know the followers of Tzvi, some of whom looked forward to the latter's resurrection. About 1751 he proclaimed himself the Messiah and promulgated a "Higher Torah" -- based on the medieval Qabalistic writings of the Sefer Zohar ("Book of Splendour"). Frank maintained that certain elect individuals were above the conventional moral law. He even went so far as to engaged the staid Rabbinical Community of the time in a debate over the value of the ecstatic principles promulgated in the Zohar as opposed to the legalism of the Talmud, which the Zoharists considered blasphemous. Within five years the Rabbinical Judaism had denounced the Zoharists as heretics.
The Frankists enjoyed some protection in Roman Catholic circles, ever hopeful of making conversions among the Jews. In a certain sense Frank's critique of the Talmudic Judaism of his time resembled the friction between Jesus and the Pharisees of an earlier era. Frank, who felt that his sect was above restriction, was quick to exploit this protection, and proceeded to promise Baptism of his followers. He was himself baptized in Warsaw with the Polish King, Augustus III, acting as his godfather.
But the Frankists continued to practice sexual orgiastic ecstasy as a spiritual sacrament, and soon ran afoul of the Holy Inquisition. Like Count Cagliostro a few years later, Baron Jacob Frank found himself imprisoned by the inquisitors in 1760 EV, at the fortress of Czestochowa. He languished there for 13 years until being freed by the Russian conquest. He relocated to Germany, which then became the seat of the Zoharist movement. It should be noted, and more than in passing, that Baron Frank's sexual movement among the Jews coincided with the birth and flourishing of the so-called "Hellfire Clubs" of England and France, the Elect Cohens and later Martinists of France, and other communities with similar ideas and practices of sacred sexuality.
Frank lived out his life in the luxury of the nobility, supported by his huge following. Most unusual for the time, Frank was succeeded, upon his death, by his daughter Eve , who continued the Work of the sect until her own passing in 1816 EV.
Be it noted that later in the 19th century another enigmatic Polish Jew, the son of Rabbi Judes Lion Bimstein of Warsaw, came to teach an almost identical sacred sexuality as the Grand Master of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Light. This man was one Louis Maximilian Bimstein, better known as Aia Aziz, and better still as Max Theon. Based in North Africa and France, Theon taught a "fully Tantric" approach to spirituality, according to Sri Aurobindo. He exercised a profound influence upon HB of L Frontal Chief Peter Davidson, who, in turn, was a profound influence upon Papus and other luminaries of the "occult revival". Whether this represents a direct continuity from the Zoharists we may never know. Clearly, Jacob Frank, his daughter Eve and their followers deserve a special place in the history of Western Sexual Occultism comparable to that only now being fully recognized where P.B. Randolph, Peter Davidson and their circle are concerned.
For further reading - MY PEOPLE by Abba Eban (Behrman-Random House, 1968) (section) "False Messiahs" pp. 232-238; THE LEGENDS OF THE BAAL SHEM (translated 1955) and TALES OF RABBI NACHMAN (translated 1956) by Martin Buber; THE HERMETIC BROTHERHOOD OF LUXOR by Godwin, Chanel & Deveney (Weiser, 1995) pp. 293-302; MIRRA THE OCCULTIST by Sujjata Nahar; MAGIC, MYSTICISM, AND HASIDISM by Gedalyah Nigal (1994); DEMYSTIFYING THE MYSTICAL by Chaim Dalfin (1995).
Also see: FRANK, Jacob, (article) Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia (1994); Frank, Jacob, (article) Encyclopaedia Britannica (1995); Frank, Jacob (article) Webster's New Biographical Dictionary (1983); FRANK, JACOB, (article) The Encyclopedia of Jewish Knowledge (Behrman's, 1938); Most general and especially Jewish references have either an article under Frank's name, or some mention in an article on 'false messiahs' or specifically Shabbetai Tzvi. Take note that there is a lot of nonsense in reference to the Zoharists, and many usually reliable sources will either repeat without variation the assertions of earlier sources, or fall into sectarian vilification. One would do well to sort through the many short references, and compare consistencies and inconsistencies.
1 The reader may be bewildered by the variation in names; Jacob Frank is variously referred to as Jacob Leibowicz, Jankiew Leibowicz and the more familiar Frank. His birthplace is sometimes given as Podolia, Berezanka or Korolowka. He is reported to have died in Offenbach. Patronized by the Archduchess Maria Theresa, he may indeed have been made a Baron. He was certainly a man of wealth and means to the end of his colorful life.
2 Frank's daughter was variously called Eve or Eva, depending on source material. She became the object of a devotional subcult herself, with some followers keeping small statues of her in their homes.