From their earthly sufferings many Jews, especially in Poland, retreated into supernatural consolations. Some ruined their eyes studying the Talmud; some lost their wits in the Cabala; some “Sabbataians,” despite the apostasy and death of the false Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, still believed in his divinity, and abandoned Talmudic Judaism for heretical hopes and rites. Jankiew Leibwicz, who came to be known by the name the Turks gave him, Jacob Frank, persuaded hundreds of Polish Jews to accept him as a reincarnation of Zevi; he taught them a doctrine akin to the amiable Christian heresy that conceived the Trinity as composed of God the Father, Mary the Mother, and the Messiah their Son; finally he led his followers into the Catholic Church (1759).
The lowly state of Polish Judaism was in some measure redeemed by the Hasidic movement. The founder of this “doctrine of piety” was Israel ben Eliezer, known as Baal Shem-Tob (“Master of the Good Name”), and, for short, from his initials, Besht. He wandered from place to place as a teacher of children; he lived in cheerful poverty, prayed rapturously, and made “miraculous” cures with mountain herbs. He asked his followers to pay less attention to synagogue rites and Talmudic lore, to approach God directly in humble but intimate communion, to see and love God in all forms and manifestations of nature, in rocks and trees as well as in good fortune and pain; he bade them enjoy life in the present instead of mourning the sins and miseries of the past. Sometimes his simple sayings resembled those of Christ. “A father complained to the Besht that his son had forsaken God, and asked. Rabbi, what shall I do? The Besht answered, ‘Love him more than ever.’”42
In some ways the Hasidic movement in Poland corresponded to the Moravian Brethren, the German Pietists, and the English Methodists; it agreed with these in bringing religion out of the temple and into the heart; but it rejected asceticism and gloom, and bade its adherents dance, enjoy the embraces of their spouses, and even, now and then, drink to the brim of ecstasy.
When Baal Shem-Tob died (1760) his flock was shepherded, and sometimes fleeced,43 by a succession of Zaddikim (“Righteous Men”). Orthodox Talmudists, led by the scholarly but fanatical Elijah ben Solomon of Wilna, fought the Hasidim with exhortations and excommunications, but their number increased as Poland died (1772-92), and by the end of the century they claimed 100,000 souls.44
A life so harassed on earth, and souls so fixed in heaven, could not contribute much to secular literature, science, or philosophy. Almost everywhere the Jews were excluded from the universities by the oath of Christian faith required of all students. Their Mosaic Code barred them from the practice of pictorial art, and dulled their appreciation. Writing in a Hebrew understood only by a small minority, or in a Yiddish which had not yet become a literary language, they had little stimulus to produce any literature beyond religious commentaries or popular trivialities. One memorable contribution they made to practical arts in this fallow age: Jacob Rodrigue Péreire of Bordeaux invented a sign language for the deaf and dumb, earning the praise of Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau, and Buffon. And one Jewish poet illuminated the gloom.
Moses Chayim Luzzatto was born in Italy (1707), of parents rich enough to give him a good education. He derived from the Latin poets, and from Italian poets like Guarini, such skill in poetic meters that he was able to give to his Hebrew verse a fluent ryhthm and delicate charm hardly known in that language since Jehuda Halevy. In his seventeenth year he composed a drama on Samson and the Philistines. Then he took to studying the Zohar, Bible of the Cabala; his imagination was caught by its mystic fancies; he turned some of them into poetry, and they turned his head with the notion that he was divinely inspired. He wrote a second Zohar, and announced that he was the Messiah promised to the Jews. The rabbis of Venice excommunicated him (1734); he fled to Frankfurt-am-Main, where the rabbis made him promise to renounce his messianic illusions; he moved to Amsterdam, where the Jewish community welcomed him; he supported himself, like Spinoza, by polishing lenses; and he resumed his cabalistic studies. In 1743 he composed a Hebrew drama, La-Yesharim Tehilla (Glory to the Virtuous), which, despite the abstractions used as dramatis personae, earned lauds from those competent to judge. Popular Ignorance, maintained by Craft and Deceit, generates Folly, which repeatedly frustrates Wisdom, and deprives Merit of its crown, until Reason and Patience at last overcome Deceit by revealing Truth; however, by Truth Luzzatto meant the Cabala. In 1744 he went to Palestine, hoping to be acclaimed as the Messiah, but he died at Acre of plague (1747), aged thirty-nine. He was the last eloquent voice of Judaic medievalism, just as was the first major voice of a Judaism emerging from protective isolation into contact with modern thought.