Sunday 29 August 2021

350) Messianic Parallelisms



In this article I want to show fascinating parallelism between the twelfth-century story of David Alro’i; the seventeenth-century episode of Shabbatai Tzvi; and a modern event from a completely different culture and context. By comparing these three stories, we might come to a better understanding of modern messianism which is popular within the Jewish world today. And, surprisingly, it may have a stronger component relating to basic sociology and psychology than to spirituality.

David Alro’i

In a previous article, we explored various accounts of the false messiah R. David Alro’i who was active around the mid-1100s. [See Kotzk Blog: 217) R. DAVID ALRO’I AND THE NIGHT OF THE FLIGHT:]

David Alro’i was born in Iraq under the name Menachem ben Shlomo. He was a student of Chasdai the Exilarch as well as of Ali the Gaon of Baghdad. He was well versed in Talmud and Jewish mysticism. With time he built a reputation amongst the masses as a kind of miracle worker.[1] He claimed that he was the Messiah and many Jews around the world, not just those in Baghdad believed him.

There are different accounts of the story but the essential message is the same. According to R. Adin Steinsaltz, Alro’i made the claim while he was still alive that the Jews were to gather on a certain night and wait on the rooftops of Baghdad to ‘fly’ to Jerusalem.

To make the flying easier, the Jews were told to hand over all their possessions which they wouldn’t need anyway in the messianic time they were entering However, by morning’s light no flying had taken place and some swindlers had run off with all their wealth.  Alro’i’s followers had waited up all night and even the Muslims:

were so amazed at what had happened that they refrained from opposing (the Jews) until the result of their vain expectations had revealed itself (in the morning)”.[2]

It is what happened next that is even more interesting. The followers of David Alro’i did not give up their belief in their messiah and they became known as Menachemim. David’s name was really Menachem but he had changed it to David to fit his messianic aspirations. These followers perpetuated their belief in Alro’i’s messianic claims for about a generation or more after his death.


Maimonides’ responds to such endeavours

It is of significance to note that Maimonides (1135-1204) the rationalist, had issues with the mysticism that was practised in Baghdad at that time. We know that the Shmuel ben Ali, the Gaon of Baghdad publicly accused Rambam of discarding a most fundamental precept within Judaism, namely the notion of the Revival of the Dead. The Gaon was the most outspoken critic of Rambam during his lifetime. This prompted Rambam - in 1191 - to write his Essay on the Revival of the Dead, to defend himself against this open charge of heresy. [See Rambam's View on the Revival of the Dead.]

In the Essay, Rambam writes quite scathingly about his mystical adversary the Gaon of Baghdad: 

“I received a copy of the writing of the Gaon. I found it was a collection of homilies and legends that he had gathered. Everyone knows that scholars are not expected to rehearse the homilies and the curious tales, of the sort that women tell one another in their condolence calls.”

This way Maimonides clearly positions himself against the “curious tales” that seemed to be commonplace in Baghdad at that time. Nevertheless, Maimonides’ opposition to these mystical exploits fell largely on deaf ears.


Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676):

In the seventeenth century another false messiah, Shabbatai Tzvi, had the majority of the Jewish world following him including respected rabbis. Eventually, Shabbatai Tzvi converted to Islam. People sold their business and gave away their possessions in anticipation of being taken to Jerusalem to partake in the promised messianic revelations. Even after his death, his followers - called the Ma’aminim or Believers - continued to wait for his imminent return:

Matt Goldish[3] (2020:113) writes that, surprisingly, there is little recorded opposition to Shabbatai Tzvi:

“Popular works of Jewish history have often portrayed the Sabbatean movement as all but disappearing after the apostasy of Sabbatai Zevi in 1666.”

The ignorance of the enduring influence of Shabbatai Tzvi in the popular psyche is indeed something worthy of further investigation.

Goldish draws our attention to the fact that a number of books on Jewish history have been published[4] that adopt the prevailing attitude that nothing really happened after Shabbatai Tzvi’s death. The false Messiah was exposed and everything soon went back to normal in the Jewish world. He then points out that all those books, in their revised editions, post-dated Gershom Scholem’s classic, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah[5], whose Hebrew original appeared in 1956/7. Yet still, the continuation of the movement in its various forms, somehow was not sufficiently noted or duly recorded even by historians. Amazingly, this period of relatively recent Jewish history was only documented and discussed by a handful of scholars while the rest of us were exposed to what Goldish refers to as a “misleading picture”.

Goldish (2020:114) explains:

“A significant number of Jews, especially scholars, remained fully committed to Sabbatai and Sabbatean theology through both the apostasy and the expiration of their Messiah.”

For some time after the apostacy, prominent rabbis, judges and communal leaders still believed in Shabbatai Tzvi as the Messiah. Entire communities retained their Sabbatian beliefs. The little rabbinic opposition that did come was mainly from the Istanbul rabbinate.

Goldish (2020:116) refers to various Sabbatian events that took place in the aftermath of Shabbatai Tzvi, such as R. Yehuda Chasid’s Sabbatian aliya to Palestine in 1700, the incident with Nechemya Hayon and many others:

“If rabbinic leaders had really been searching out and exposing Sabbateans, each of these situations should have occasioned an investigation which would quickly have exposed its Sabbatean nature”.

A possible reason why so many rabbis and learned elite still continued to follow Sabbatian ideology, was because they were so invested in the ideology. They understood the intricacies of the theology better than the masses who had a superficial connection to populist notions of the movement. Goldish shows how Sabbatianism started as a rabbinic movement. All the key players were scholars and Kabbalists. All the participants in Nathan of Gaza’s prophetic episode on Shavuot in 1665 which launched the movement, were rabbis. Most of the leaders of the movement during its height between 1665-1666 were rabbis.

Elisheva Carlebach[6] (1990) has collected testimonies from rabbis of the time who acknowledge that they knew exactly what was going on but they turned a blind eye. For example, R. Netanel haLevi of Pesaro admitted he knew about the Sabbatian connection regarding R. Nechemya Hayon:

“I had known about these matters since my youth, but I had kept the words guarded in my heart”.

Even the great Sabbatian hunter, R. Yakov Emden, wrote with regard to the work VaAvo haYom el haAyin compiled by R. Yonatan Eibeschuetz who was suspected an being a secret Sabbatian, that:

“The book is the work of heresy and sacrilege and it certainly deserves to be burned, but I advised…not to make…objections public, because nothing good would come out of it and it would likely only cause damage.”


Goldish (2020:120) writes that:

“…the leading anti-Sabbatean activists struggled to obtain any support from establishment rabbis or leaders…

Sometimes they were openly opposed and often they found themselves marginalized or even exiled as a result of their anti-Sabbatean efforts.”

Thus, we see that just like the messianism of David Alro’i, the messianism of Shabbatai Tzvi certainly did not disappear even after his conversion to Islam and his death ten years later. It just went underground but it continued to thrive.

Let us now jump ahead some centuries, to a different world and a vastly different culture:


Dorothy Martin

During the Second World War, a young statistician by the name of Leon Festinger was hired by the Army Air Forces. His job was to select candidates for pilot training. The problem was that from a statistics perspective, many of those pilots would be sent to almost certain death and, worse, they would be court-martialled if they did not complete their missions.[7]

Festinger was to become one of the great social psychologists of his time. After the war, he conducted a study of a cult operating from Chicago called the Seekers. The Seekers were led by Dorothy Martin who claimed to be in contact with a group of aliens. She called these aliens, the Guardians. Dorothy Martin informed her followers that the Guardians had told her in their communications that the world was going to be destroyed by a flood on December 21, 1954. The Guardians had a plan to save Dorothy Martin’s followers a few days before the apocalypse by sending a flying saucer, which would land in her backyard, to rescue them. Festinger approached the Seekers for permission to observe and study the anticipated event.

The Seekers left their families and resigned from their jobs and they gave away all their possessions. They gathered at Dorothy Martin’s house in Oak Park, on the 17 of December at 4 pm in preparation for the flight. But the aliens did not arrive. At midnight, Dorothy announced that a new message had come through and that the aliens were on their way. They waited but still, the aliens did not come.  Then Dorothy said that there had been a change in the itinerary and that the spaceship was to arrive at midnight on December 21. Again, the Seekers gathered a few days later at her home and again the aliens did not arrive.

All the time Festinger was observing. He was quite sure that the prediction was false but he wanted to study what happens to followers who have their core beliefs shattered by reality taking a different path to the one they expected. Festinger and two colleagues (cited by Gladwell 2012:111-112) wrote up their studies in a book called When Prophecy Fails:

“Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen?”

Festinger sat with the Seekers as they waited for the midnight hour:

“The clock chimed twelve, each stroke painfully clear in the expectant hush. The believers sat motionless.

One might have expected some visible reaction. Midnight had passed and nothing had happened… There was no talking, no sound. People sat stock still, their faces seemingly frozen and expressionless.”

It was expected that the ‘disconfirmation’ of their beliefs might cause them to abandon those same beliefs. But that was far from what happened. At 4:45 that morning, Dorothy Martin informed her followers that she had received another message. The aliens had reported that because of the unwavering faith of the Seekers, God had decided no longer to destroy the world.



Dorothy Martin’s ‘explanatory’ response resonates in so many different ways with similar reactions and responses that we are so familiar with and have heard in relation to so many events of the past and even the present when expected supernatural events did not transpire.

But what is most interesting is the psychological discovery that Festinger made: The more one utterly invests in an idea (especially a spiritual or religious concept or construct) and the more one is prepared to sacrifice for that same notion – the more resilient and steadfast one becomes in the face of any and all real evidence to the contrary. No hard data in the world will change the mind of one who has undergone such a process. In fact, instead of abandoning the original set of beliefs, in the face of visible evidence to the contrary, one often doubles down and holds them to be even stronger and truer. The experiences of the Seekers were influential in formulating Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. Festinger observed: 

it may even be less painful to tolerate the dissonance than to discard the belief and admit one had been wrong.”

It appears that these messianic ideas (and I’m not referring to the legitimate Jewish belief in the concept of a messiah[8]) do not go away even after the supposed messiah is proved to be false or dies.  The number of false messiahs in Jewish history is staggering and these messianic aspirations do not disappear but they continue to manifest and even perpetuate in some form or another. There is no real difference in the mindset of the twelfth-century Menachemim, the seventeenth-century Ma’aminim, the twentieth-century Seekers, and modern Meshichist movements. These, and other messianic responses are not always ‘spiritual’ responses, but may instead be indications of the psychological anomaly and counterintuitive natural human response of doubling down after investing totally in a belief system that fails empirically. For these types of apocalyptic movements, failure sometimes explains their success.

[1] From a lecture by R. Adin Steinsaltz on David Alro'i.

[2] Moshe Perlman, Samau’al al-Maghrebi, Ifham al-Yahud — Silencing of the Jews (Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research 32, 1964).

[3] Goldish, M., 2020, ‘The Open Secret of Sabbatean Communal Leadership After 1666’, Jewish Thought, vol.2, 113-131.

[4] These include: Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews, revised ed. (Philadelphia: JPS, 1968), 447; Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews, revised ed. (New York: Schocken, 1970, 312–13); Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 471–72.

[5] Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

[6] Carlebach, E., 1990, The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies, Columbia University Press.

[7] Gladwell, M., 2021, The Bomber Mafia. A Story set in War, Allen Lane, 109-113.

[8] Although there are very different models as to what the nature of the messianic belief actually is and whether it will be supernatural or a distillation of natural events. The messiah concept is far more complicated than the perceptions popularised by outreach movements and the like. [See Kotzk Blog: 226) MASHIACH - A NATURAL OR SUPERNATURAL EVENT?]


  1. After the Death of Chabad’s Messiah

  2. Thank you for your fascinating article.

  3. Chabad? Who said anything about Chabad? Maybe you have a guilty conscience... Reminds me of the story in the introduction to Rabbi Hamberger's משיחי שקר ומתנגדיהם.