Book Review: Mavericks, Mystics, and False Messiahs, by R. Pini Dunner

Full disclosure. Toby Press sent me this book for review, though I do think my review will be fair regardless.

Jewish education has failed its students in many ways, but one of the ways it has done so that is particularly near and dear to my heart is we don’t give our students the sense that Jewish History is awesome. We focus a lot on the bare facts and dates and important personas, but don’t provide any color to those pictures, color that not only is important in its own right as facts that deserve their own airing, but stuff that would go a long way to making learning about history much more exciting and less boring. The fact that students come out of our educational system knowing that the Ibn Ezra is a commentary on chumash (if that!) instead of knowing him as the wisecracking world traveller who writes witty put downs of his opponents and probably brought the zero to Europe is a missed opportunity. Learning R. Chaim Brisker becomes more fun when you learn about how his students would chant his name when he entered the room, and learning the Chazon Ish was, according to those who knew him, hilarious, provides valuable color to a black and white stern picture.

I was therefore gratified to see that R. Pini Dunner has authored a book, “Mavericks, Messianics, and Mystics” specifically to discuss the kinds of Capital C Characters that get left out in the typical discussion of Jewish history. R. Dunner writes in his intro about his motivation for this book being his soft spot for the eccentrics and misfits of Jewish history, and his desire to examine the trends that led to their existence, seeing them as a mirror for the societies they came from. but also because this stuff is fun and interesting on its own. His book is a long overdue bit of awesome for students of Jewish history.

The book has 7 chapters, each dealing with a different historical figure or event. It begins with Shabtai Zvi, giving an account of his rise and fall as the messianic hope of early modern Jewry. I loved the fact this chapter exists; I grew up hearing Shabtai Zvi put in the same sentence as Hitler without knowing what exactly he did, only that he was bad. This was, looking back, a missed opportunity, where I was denied the pleasure of learning about this weird, bizarre personality and the possibly the strangest event in Jewish history, merely knowing Shabtai Zvi as a bad guy. The story is told well, if quickly, going through the basic timeline of events, outlining Shabtai’s travels, detailing his meeting with Nathan of Gaza, and then its sudden conclusion with Shabtai’s conversion to Islam. A reader will get the basic gist of the events, if not fine detail.

The next chapter deals with the “Baal Shem of London,” whose portrait has been erroneously said to portray the Baal Shem Tov, founder of hassidus, detailing his life and his odd array of pursuits (magic! kabbalah! alchemy! philantropy! possible Sabbateanism!).

Chapter Three, taking up the bulk of the book, is a dramatic retelling of the Emden-Eyebeshutz story, complete with dialogue taken straight from the participants’ accounts. The story hits all the important notes, and is well written, building tension and suspense out of what is one of more compelling stories in Jewish history. The account in the book, it should be noted, seems to privilege Emden’s account of events, which is understandable being as a) Emden wrote a ton, and his stuff accounts for most of what we know b) he was probably right that Eyebeshutz was a Sabbatean (the evidence is such that it would be more surprising if he wasn’t.) Still, it struck me as unnecessary to take R. Emden’s word that he, passed over for the rabbinic job in the Triple Community (which had previously belonged to his father) by R. Eyebeshutz, had absolutely no personal stake in the controversy.

Additionally, the Emden-Eyebeshutz chapter, along with the previous two chapters, suffers from a tell, not show approach when it comes to the quirks of its participants and the bizzarre/lurid details of the relevant events. R. Dunner will tell us about Shabtai Zvi participating in bizarre rituals and the Sabbateanism cult having extremely disturbing and bizarre beliefs that necessitated Emden taking action as he did, but will seldom provide details as to what those rituals or beliefs were, besides some references to forbidden things being permitted.

There may well be a very good reason for this: the need to keep this book PG. The bizarre rituals and beliefs of the Sabbateans were frequently sexual in nature, as once you’ve abrogated the need to avoid sins, one imagines you start thinking of which sins you would want to do, and its just a hop skip and a jump from there to some real deviant stuff. Many of Emden’s more severe accusations aimed at Eyebeshutz were accusations that Eyebeshutz engaged in prohibited sex, including, one accusation went, that Eyebeshutz had sex with his own daughter. Even the Baal Shem of London chapter leaves out the details of some of his diary entries describing his visions, which were occasionally pornographic in nature. The obvious problem is, it’s very hard to market that kind of book to Orthodox people. R. Dunner does his best with what he’s been given, even sneaking in a note about the “reputation” of Shabtai Zvi’s bride.

Quibbles aside, its quite a good narrative exposition of the events, and I recommend its use to teachers of Jewish history.

The rest of the chapters, perhaps freed from the need to hide the sexual hangups of its protagonists, are more detailed and flow better. Chapter Four, though, does not deal with a personality, rather than an event: The Get of Cleves, in which one beit din stubbornly and puzzlingly held on to its ruling despite opposition from pretty much everyone. While it detracted a little bit from the theme, it was still a pretty great, if somewhat infuriating story. The last 3 chapters are back to dealing with people. Chapter Five deals with Lord George Gordon, a great story I had never heard before of a member of British nobility known for his social activism and wild partying who, in jail for inciting a rash of riots that rampaged across London, converted to Orthodox Judaism. It’s a really great story and R. Dunner contributes a personal ending (in the concluding chapter) that is an incredible twist. I will not ruin it for you.

Chapter Six deals with R. Yudl Rosenberg a respected rabbi who also had a second career as a literary forger. R. Rosenberg forged works of the Maharal, writing a haggadah claiming to have been written by the Maharal, as well as writing many of the stories that became the basis for the legend of the Maharal making a Golem, something none of the legitimate works of the Maharal allude to. R. Rosenberg was so brazen a forger, he even rewrote a Sherlock Holmes story to be about the Maharal. I personally have known this story for years, because I am a killjoy, but R. Dunner ably relays the facts here, and does a good job of setting R. Rosenberg up as an enigma, a respected rabbi who probably didn’t need to forge stuff, but did anyway.

Chapter Seven, finally, deals with the very strange story of Ignatz Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln, a man who started out an Orthodox Jew in 1879, and ended in 1943 as a (illegitimate) Dalai Lama. What happened in between? So much. Sooo much. It’s a wild story. I can’t do it justice here. Read the book.

R. Dunner, in conclusion, has put together a book that, with its cast of fascinating and weird characters, contributes much to the awesomeness of studying Jewish History. For that he is to be commended, and I hope this opens up a new wave of discussion of Jewish History as awesomeness.