I Do Not Look to Heaven: Frankist Antinomianism as Materialist Skepticism

at Association for Jewish Studies Conference
301 East North Water Street
Chicago, IL
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Part of the Association for Jewish Studies 44th Annual Conference

Critical studies of Frankism as a religious movement have tended to understand Frankist antinomianism as derived from Sabbateanism and Lurianic Kabbalah, i.e., as a means of ‘uplifting the sparks’ or, in the unfelicitous translation of Gershom Scholem’s famous essay, ‘redemption through sin.’ However, the primary Frankist text, Zbior Słow Panskich (“The Collection of the Words of the Lord”), reveals a completely different antinomian ideology: a materialist critique of religious observance as ineffectual and as limiting of human agency. In the recorded dicta, Jacob Frank’s theology of transgression has nothing in common with theosophical-theurgical Sabbatean Kabbalah — which he mocks on several occasions — and more closely resembles the materialist critiques of religion proffered by eighteenth century esoteric movements, with which Frank was in contact; contemporary libertine literature; and the incipient skepticism of the Enlightenment and Haskalah.

This presentation analyzes Frank’s theology (or atheology) of transgression, and building on the work of Shaul Magid proposes a more rigorous taxonomy of religious/philosophical antinomianisms, which distinguishes between types of antinomianism: unreflective nihilistic antinomianism (hucksterism, hedonism), apathetic antinomianism (‘pure’ secularism), skeptical humanistic antinomianism (principled libertinism, Epicurianism), religious-pedagogical antinomianism (radical Protestantism), religious-experiential antinomianism (left-hand Tantra, possibly some Sabbatean antinomianism), and religious-ritual antinomianism (theurgical or cosmological antinomianism, some Sabbateanism, Crowleyan magick). Understanding the differences between different ideologies of antinomianism helps illuminate Frankism specifically, and antinomian religious movements more generally. And properly locating Frankism within the Western Esoteric tradition, skepticism, libertinism, and the Enlightenment — rather than as the final, misbegotten offspring of Sabbatean Kabbalah — sheds new light on Scholem’s controversial thesis, usefully modified by Ada Rapoport-Alpert, that Sabbateanism and Frankism paved the way for the Haskalah.