Three Misconceptions about Jacob Frank

at Association for Jewish Studies

Chicago, IL
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It is generally understood that Jacob Frank (1726-1791) was a Sabbatean false messiah, a nihilist degenerate, and a sex fiend.  These conceptions, however, are false, false, and false, at least when evaluated in terms of in Frank’s later teachings, recorded in 1784 and 1789–90 in a Polish-language anthology now known as the Collection of the Words of the Lord (Zbiór Słów Pańskich).

First, Frank was not a messiah in any usual sense—he rejected the Jewish, Kabbalistic, and Sabbatean conceptions of the messianic age, replacing them with his own materialistic blend of militaristic triumphalism and the alchemical pursuit of immortality. While Frank’s daughter was an incarnation of the messiah, a syncretic feminine figure known as the Maiden, Frank himself was not.

Second, Frankist antinomianism is a rationalist, materialist skepticism of the efficacy of religious law that anticipated Haskalah and Reform objections that are commonplace today.  While radical, it was not nihilism; it was humanism.

Third, while antinomian sexual ritual was practiced in the Frankist sect, it was extremely limited and rare. Indeed, the problematic associations of Frank with sexual “deviance” and incest is itself a remnant of heresiology, rather than scholarship.

Frank was not a paragon of ethical behavior; he was manipulative, deceptive, toxically masculine, abusive, conniving, and cruel. But he was, as the etymology of the word “heretic” suggests, a believer. Drawing directly on the Zbiór Słów Pańskich and other Frankist texts, this presentation will evaluate the evidence for and against the popular (mis-)conceptions of Frank, and propose an understanding of Frank and his work that is more closely grounded in the primary sources.