Was Frankism the link between Kabbalah and Enlightenment?

at Association for Jewish Studies Conference @ Sheraton Boston
39 Dalton Street
Boston, MA
More Info / Registration

Was Frankism the link between Kabbalah and Enlightenment?, or, What Scholem Got Unintentionally Right

Gershom Scholem posited Frankism as the crucial link between Sabbateanism and modernity. Sabbateanism’s anti-authoritarian stance inspired the anti-authoritarian Haskalah, Scholem said, much more than did the non-Jewish Enlightenment. And Frankism, by way of Prague, is the missing link.

Yet Scholem’s conclusion was based on an incomplete understanding of Frankism. Like other scholars, Scholem regarded Frank as a false messiah, a Kabbalist, and a Sabbatean. Unfortunately, Frank is none of these things. By the recording of Zbior Słow Panskich (“The Collection of the Words of the Lord”), Frank is quite clear that he is not the messiah; his program is one of personal immortality, not communal redemption, even though his followers revived communal messianic rhetoric immediately after his death. Likewise, Frank reviles Kabbalah throughout ZSP, rejecting its other-worldliness in favor of this-worldly materialism and magic. And Frankism bears but one of Scholem’s five characteristics of Sabbateanism, while Frank mocks Sabbetai Zevi and insisting that his (Frank’s) mission is a different one.

Was Scholem wrong, then, about Frankism? Ironically, he was unintentionally right. As a species of Western Esotericism, Frankism is indeed a halfway-house between religion and secularism. Late Frankism was part of a Western Esoteric tradition that, in its materialist metaphysics and in its presenting of an alternative body of knowledge to religion, helped lay the groundwork for the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Scholem was puzzled that Frankist superstition could persist at the time of the French revolution, but this “superstition” was in fact a set of Western Esoteric myths that helped lay the groundwork for the French Revolution itself. In sum, Frankism was, in fact, part of the movement that birthed modernity – the Western Esoteric movement – and Scholem got it unintentionally right.