Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
Frankists were the followers of Jacob Frank (1726-91) in Podolia, south-east Poland, who formed themselves into a Shabbetean sect. Frank, a charismatic figure but also, by all accounts, something of a charlatan and bold adventurer, boasted of his ignorance of the Talmud, claiming that the true, higher Torah is found only in the Zohar; hence the name Zoharists by which the sect was known in the 18th century. The name Frankists was not given them until the early 19th century, after Frank’s death.
The Frankists conformed outwardly to the halakhah, the legal side of Judaism, but in secret believed it essential to disobey the law. They even went so far as to indulge in orgies at which the sexual prohibitions of adultery and incest were cast aside. The Rabbis, appalled by their excesses, placed a ban on the Frankists and this led them to attempt to curry favor with the Catholic clergy in order to win their protection.
The Frankists claimed that the rabbinic opposition to their views was due to the fact that elements in their creed were close to Christian beliefs. This was at first only a pretence but eventually the sect actually embraced Catholicism, developing a new theology of accommodation.
Frankist theology, as it later developed, is a curious amalgam of Kabbalistic, Shabbatean, and Christian beliefs, an antinomian mystery religion which seeks to transcend all the religions. Frank maintained that the true and good God has no links with the finite and insignificant world but conceals Himself behind the “King of Kings” whom Frank calls the “Big Brother.” The shekhinah of the kabbalists, the female element in the Godhead, becomes, in Frankist theology, the “Virgin,” an obvious adaptation of the Catholic doctrine.
The Frankists believed that their function was to lead the way to the life of freedom from the restraints of the law. This process had begun with Shabbetai’s conversion to Islam and was now to be followed still further by conversion to Christianity and, through Christianity, to the future religion of freedom of which Frank was the true messiah. This whole bizarre doctrine was naturally rejected by both Jews and Christians and Frankism vanished entirely from the scene of Jewish life.
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