Guest Post: The Messianic Feminism of Shabbatai Zevi and Sarah Ashkenazi

Jericho Vincent on the Embodied Mysticism Now Derided as Heresy

We’ve got an amazing little bit of fascinating history for those of you who like feminism, Judaism, sacred sexuality, and/or the stories that don’t get told because they’re too inconvenient for some folks.

Before that, just fyi, I was on Gravity, a Christian podcast,1 talking about What Christians Miss About the Hebrew Bible, thought it might be of interest to some of y’all. Anyway, that’s here.

Back to our main event:

It’s a wild one, courtesy of the incredible Jericho Vincent, spiritual leader of Temple of the Stranger and author (under their previous name) of the acclaimed memoir Cut Me Loose and a beautiful, gorgeously done illustrated book of ancient magical Jewish tales called Legends of the Talmud.

When I published my Big Big Mega History Text History Post, they—seeing a key hole in my narrative—reached out and generously offered to drop some knowledge on Shabbtai Tzvi. He is famously known as the 17th c. “false messiah” who gained a massive following and whose conversion to Islam created a massive crisis in the community. That much I knew, in any case. What I didn’t know, however, was how theologically fascinating, how embodied, and how, well.. committed to dismantling patriarchy Tzvi and his (badass) wife Sarah Ashkenazi were.

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Handing the mic to Jericho Vincent. Come and learn.


with the help of cosmic spirit

Hi all! My thanks to Rabbi Danya and to all of you for having me as a guest in your online community. This is a pretty special corner of the internet and I’m delighted to be here!

A little while ago, when Rabbi Danya published her fantastic “Big Big Mega History Text History Post,” one of the entries caught my eye. It said:

Sabbatai Zevi 1626-1676 False messiah! A Sephardi Kabbalist in Turkey. Convinced everyone he was Moshiach/the messiah, then (whoops) converted to Islam. The mass disillusionment impacted everything for centuries, probably.

Rabbi Danya is a colleague and a friend, and, more than anything, a teacher of mine who knows waaaay more than I do about most things, but when I saw this summary, well, I had to reach out.

When I was growing up as the child of a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi, I read and reread a dramatic, moralizing ultra-Orthodox novel about Shabbatai Tzvi. There was something about the story of this grandiose impostor, this brilliant, irrational, sinful figure, that snagged at me. I felt a kind of itchy curiosity.

Decades later, having been expelled from ultra-Orthodoxy and coming back to Judaism on my own terms, I began to research his story in more depth. Bit by bit, the narrative I’d been told about Shabbatai Tzvi fell apart, revealing a mind-blowing story completely different from the one I’d been told. I had a feeling Rabbi Danya would enjoy this story — and so would you. I reached out to her, and, to my delight, she invited me to share my perspective with you all. So here goes!2 

Messiah simply means “annointed one.” In the 6th and 7th centuries BCE, “messiah” was the title of a longed-for redemptive king, but with the loss of Jewish monarchy, the rejection of Jesus as the messiah, and the intensification of antisemitic persecution over the centuries, the notion of the Jewish messiah evolved, accumulating narratives and prayers and swelling into a complex eschatological figure. By the 17th century, the awaited messiah occupied a central place in the Jewish imagination.

When people try to explain Shabbatai Tzvi’s messianic appeal, they often turn to the antisemitic atrocities of his era. The Jews of the 17th century were experiencing an near-unfathomable degree of violence, making rescue by a messiah an attractive prospect. But that may not be the only reason Shabbatai Tzvi was so popular.

At the very heart of Sabbateanism, the movement created by Shabbatai Tzvi and his wife Sarah, lay a radical innovation that may have made the movement very seductive to at least half the population:


As far as I can tell, Sabbateanism was not only the first feminist movement in Jewish history, it was the first feminist movement in all of recorded Western history.

Sabbateanism campaigned for and implemented radical reforms on women’s issues in an attempt to rectify the inequality between the sexes.

Why was this messianic movement also a feminist movement and what did this feminism look like?

I’ll tell you all about it, but first we need to pause for a minute to talk about Sarah Ashkenazi, Shabbatai Tzvi’s wife.

Sarah was an orphan of the Chmielnicki Massacres, a brutal wave of mass atrocities committed by the Cossacks against a number of populations, including Jewish children, women, and men.

The massacres began in 1648, the very year Shabbatai Tzvi declared himself the messiah, and they lasted almost a decade, wiping out hundreds of communities and murdering tens or even hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Sabbeatian stories say that after Sarah lost her parents, she was forcibly raised by Christians until she escaped through a miracle. Sarah found her way to Italy, where she was a sex worker or a sexually active woman (the distinction between the two can be hard to parse in documentation of the time) and a skilled fortune teller.

Sarah was convinced that she was supposed to marry the messiah, and she expressed this in such a brash and public way that the news reached Shabbatai Tzvi. He was the messiah, he thought, and Sarah was supposed to marry the messiah– a match! They married and had two children together. Sarah became a prophetess of the Sabbatean movement and was honored as a queen by their followers. When Shabbatai converted to Islam, so did she.

After seven years of marriage, Sarah and Shabbatai Tzvi divorced, referring to the Biblical phrase:

Six years the enslaved Hebrew shall serve, and in the seventh, they shall go out free. (Exodus 21:2)

A brief time later, they remarried, and they remained together until her death in 1674.

It is difficult to get a clear picture of who Sarah was and what impact she had on the Sabbatean movement because of, well, patriarchy. The surviving historical records about her are written by her adversaries, and they cast her in a negative light—but the issue is larger than that.

Gershon Scholem, the 20th c. scholar of Jewish mysticism who wrote the canonical book on Sabbatai Tzvi, speaks of Sarah almost as a being without agency, saying (emphasis mine):

“Emanuel Frances reports (or invents) a rumor to the effect that Sabbatai had never made messianic claims until incited by [Sarah] “ to set himself as king over Israel.” This is clearly an exaggeration, since there is no evidence that Sarah ever took any initiative in the movement. As a rule she merely followed the example of her husband…”3

And when analyzing the proto-feminism that emerged from the movement, take a look at the prejudices revealed when Scholem considers, for just a moment, that Sarah may have played a role in this phenomena:

Perhaps Sarah, [Shabbatai Tzvi’s] beautiful wife, demanded freedom to satisfy her sensual desires, but we should be wary of attributing too much to her influence.

[Ruttenberg editorial comment: 😒🙄😑]

As if it is unimaginable to Scholem that a woman could want equality for anything beyond satisfaction of her sensual desires– or as if satisfaction of a woman’s sensual desires are a frivolous ridiculosity!

Even academics who try to be a little more generous to Sarah can’t seem to talk about her without a little titillated pearl-clutching. As in this, from a contemporary scholar:

A certain sexual wantonness entered the movement with the marriage of Sabbatai to "Sarah the harlot," a Polish-Jewish orphan who dreamed of marrying the messiah.

The seminal scholar Ada Rapaport-Albert has no patience for this patriarchal hogwash. In her phenomenal book ‘Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666-1816,'4 she writes that Sarah

appears to have exerted considerable authority, especially over the female messianic believers, and her symbolic kabbalistic appellations, which paralleled those of her husband, make it clear that she was viewed as fully sharing in both the messianic and the divine dimensions of his personality.

Rapoport-Albert is presenting an obvious feminist conclusion: Sarah was a prophetess of the movement and a woman with a rebellious attitude towards the strictures of patriarchy, as evidenced even just by her relationship to her own sexuality and her brash announcements about who she was going to marry– a far cry from the submission to male matchmaking expected of women at the time. She was at the very least a co-conspirator with Shabbatai Tzvi in the birth of Sabbeatean feminism.

Sabbatean feminism might have been inspired by Sarah’s own visionary capacity, but what was the connection between feminism and the messiah? Well, for the Sabbateans, it was a theological strategy. The on-one-foot explanation5 goes something like this:

The Jewish people were living in a kind of hellscape. Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah believed that the way to get out of this nightmare and into a safe, happy, liberated world was to figure out how we got here in the first place.

Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah traced the people’s history back through their time in Europe, back to their pre-Diasporic existence in the lands of Israel and Judah, and back, through the Torah, to where, as Torah literalists, they believed it all began:


Eden was the last time things were good.

So we needed to get back to Eden. And the way to get back was to undo our exit from that utopian garden.

Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah had sharp eyes. They noticed that the fall from Eden was basically a story about gender and power, climaxing with the solidification of the patriarchy, when God famously punishes Eve for her part in the eating of the forbidden fruit by saying:

In pain shall you bear children.

Yet your longing shall be for your man,

And he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

Perhaps more than any other sacred verse, this one has been used as a “prooftext” for patriarchy. (Still. Even today.)

Well, if that was the big moment that marked everything falling apart, the messiah would be the one to put it all back together.

If Shabbatai Tzvi was the messiah, undoing patriarchy was on his To Do list.

The roots of this idea were based in Kabbalah, but the action plan was all Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah. In the words of Scholem:

The notion that Adam's sin would be repaired by the messiah was current in Lurianic writings ...In spite of the commonplace premise, Sabbatai seems to have been the first to draw the conclusion in terms of the emancipation of women.6

This conclusion was very explicit in the Sabbatean movement. A Christian contemporary of Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah quotes Shabbatai Tzvi as saying:

“As for you wretched women, great is your misery, for on Eve's account you suffer agonies in childbirth. What is more, you are in bondage to your husbands and can do nothing small or great without their consent; and so on and so forth. Give thanks to God, then, that I have come to the world to redeem you from all your sufferings, to liberate you and make you as happy as your husbands, for I have come to annul the sin of Adam.”7

This theological feminism was manifest in outrageously courageous ways. Drawing on pre-existing Sephardic traditions that revered female prophecy and spirituality, female prophets, especially teenage girls, played central roles in the Sabbatean movement. Rapoport-Albert reports:

Some Sabbatean women are described in greater detail and credited with prophetic insight and supernatural powers that match and even anticipate, inspire or exceed the powers of the men around them.

The liberation of women went beyond their role as communal leaders. In Sabbateanism, women were taught sacred kabbalistic texts. Women were considered full members of the community, without needing a man to vouch for them. Women were called to the Torah— a rite usually fiercely restricted to men.

Some Sabbatean women remained virgins, a choice of sexual autonomy that violated norms of the non-Sabbatean Jewish community. Other women starred in spiritual orgies and sacred sexual practices that sought to release them from the sexual control of their husbands, allowing them to claim their sexuality autonomously, and to understand their sexuality as a channel of sanctity.

As Jewish people across the globe flocked to the growing Sabbatean movement, the Rabbinic establishment was less than thrilled– both with this “promiscuity” and with the loss of their own power. In the heartbreak and disappointment after Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah’s conversion to Islam, the anti-Sabbatean rabbinic establishment roared back to life and made Sabbateanism a crime. For decades, they methodically hunted it down and tried to stamp out. They were so effective that the trauma still ripples out today in the story of Shabbatai Tzvi as a villain and an embarrassment. But the accounts of the efforts of the anti-Sabbateans reveals something of the novel power and freedom that women held in Sabbatean culture. As Rapoport-Albert reports:

[The Sabbatian prophetess Haya] was seen through cracks in the wall of the home of her brother-in-law, Leib Shabses, dancing naked with a 'Torah crown' on her head, and with members of the fellowship of believers carousing around her and falling upon her to embrace and kiss her. She clearly enjoyed a position of power and authority within her Sabbatian circle...Here is what the repentant former Sabbatian Samuel ben Solomon Segal had to say about her in his confession, delivered 'while weeping copious tears' before the rabbinic court convened in Satanow on 13 Sivan 5516 (June 1756):
Hayah, the wife of Hirsch Shabses, I embraced and kissed about six                          times. But in terms of real activity, I didn't do anything with her. She                           said to me, 'you are not worthy of taking up with me, for I am a believer                     in Sabbatai Zevi, and my father and also my grandparents and uncles                        are all believers. You still have not learned much Torah. You lack this                          merit.' Once I demanded of her that she sin with me, and she                                      responded, 'have you learned the Song of Songs today, as I have? How                     can you be permitted to perform such a holy act?'….

This was not a feminist utopia, but this was a world operating on a theology that was trying its darndest to introduce the novel concept that women–fully embodied women–-were as worthy as men, as powerful as men, and as sacred as men.

This theology was not just created from Jewish origin stories; it was also a reaction to the dominant theology of its time. There seems to have been a sense amongst the Sabbateans that patriarchy and anti-sex and anti-embodiment attitudes created by the fall from Eden had been worsened by biases in mainstream Jewish culture. As one Sabbatean sermon framed it (emphasis mine):

The Patriarchs came to the world in order to restore the primal integrity of the senses, and accomplished this with four of them. Then Sabbatai Zevi came and restored the primal integrity of the fifth sense, the sense of touch, which—according to Maimonides8 and Aristotle—is mankind’s disgrace, but which, through Sabbatai Zevi, became praiseworthy and glorious.9

Along with feminism, there were heavy queer overtones to the movement. As Sabbatean scholar Rabbi Dr.  puts it in a forthcoming publication:

Sabbateanism is also one of the few places in Jewish mystical history in which queer sexuality and gendering appears to have been significant. Homoerotic liturgy praised the beauty of Sabbetai Zevi… texts depict Sabbetai as a woman in the guise of a man, or identify him with the divine androgyne and with the Biblical Esther, while others describe his penis having been wounded, leading to years of non-marriage, and two marriages annulled prior to that to Sarah Ashkenazi. Even if we discount anti-Sabbatean rumors of… Sabbetai having had liaisons with young male servants, the non-normativity of Sabbetai’s gender and sexuality within Sabbatean sources themselves is remarkably striking.

Now, Shabbatai Tzvi was a complicated figure. He was unpredictable and had intense mood swings (folks today like to give him a diagnosis of bipolar). He and Sarah got plenty wrong. But I don’t know that there is any ancestor who did anything of major significance who didn’t. We can hold Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah, and all of our ancestors, accountable for their mistakes. The courage and the vision of Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah to try and untangle the knot of patriarchy, theologically and in practice, is still staggering.

And there’s one more thing: for a long time, people have talked about Shabbatai Tzvi as if he were a blip in history, a weird and painful aberration who left nothing behind but a painful wound in the Jewish people. There was indeed a painful wound in the people after the fall of Sabbateanism—a wound which was profoundly exacerbated by the anti-Sabbatean persecution that extinguished much of the movement and drove the rest deep underground.10 But the power and the beauty of Sabbateanism didn’t disappear when Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah converted. Truth never does. Their message was simply sublimated (and sometimes warped) into new movements. 

Scholem believed that Sabbateanism was a significant influence in the founding of Reform Judaism and the Enlightenment overall, saying:

It was the influence of [former Sabbatean factions]  which had not openly cut themselves off from rabbinical Judaism, which, after the French Revolution, became important in fostering the movement towards reform, liberalism and “enlightenment” in many Jewish circles.11

Sabbateanism may have shaped movements on the right as well as on the left. Many scholars believe that the 18th century Chasidic movement, which draws on messianic / kabbalistic themes, revolves around a central male leader, and centers “Shechina” –a feminine dimension of the Divine, emerged from the remnants of the Sabbatean movement, inheriting its mystical instincts but suspending human female empowerment “until some future time.” In the words of Rapoport-Albert:

Already in the late eighteenth century, the rabbinic opponents of hasidism denounced it as a latter-day offshoot of the messianic heresy, or else as its immediate successor… Given this line of descent, hasidism might have been expected to preserve the inclusive, egalitarian attitude to women that was such a definitive feature of Sabbatianism…. But the revolutionary novelty of Sabbatianism-- its promotion of some women in their own right to positions of authority as inspired prophetesses, and its full incorporation of all women as a constituency of the messianic community–was conspicuously absent from the emergent hasidic movement12That hasidism shied away from engaging women in what was, after all, the logical conclusion of a principle that lay at its core might well be a measure of the bitter lesson it drew from the trauma of Sabbatianism…It was an untimely eruption of female spirituality-a powerful force prematurely released which was now to be stowed away, kept out of sight… until some unknown point in the distant messianic future.

Did Chasidic rebbes throw women under the bus in an attempt to save their own skins as the anti-Sabbateans turned their glare on the new Chasidic movement? It is hard not to see Sabbatean influence in the emphasis on the feminine Divine in many Chasidic movements, while the patriarchal intensity of their cultural practices resembles a precise inverse image of Sabbatean culture, a negative space snapshot of what could have been.

Finally, before I leave you, I want to return to the concept of the messiah. The messiah has been part of Jewish theology for a very long time, but my teacher, the founder of Renewal Judaism, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l13 drew on the kabbalistic mystical tradition to speak of the messiah not as a man (always male, right?) on a forever receding horizon who might one day swoop in to save us from our misery—

but as a liberatory consciousness available to any of us at any time.

He called this moshiachtzeit, which means liberatory time. In the words of Ursula K LeGuin,

You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.

When we look at the messiah from this perspective, I don’t think Shabbatai Tzvi was a false messiah at all.

Shabbatai Tzvi and his wife Sarah held a true key to liberation. They were imperfect and messy figures, but I don’t think they were charlatans. I think they were sincere OG revolutionaries who would be overjoyed to see those of us involved in the feminist movement continuing their work of birthing a liberatory egalitarian age.

If I had to capture Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah’s impact on our tradition in just a few words, I might put it like this:

Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah 1626-1676 Liberatory giants! A Sephardic/Ashkanazi duo of Kabbalists in Turkey who ran a wildly successful messianic campaign anchored in sensual embodiment and female liberation. After they were forced to convert to Islam on pain of death, Shabbatai Tzvi was maligned as a “false” messiah, but Shabbatai Tzvi and Sarah’s wisdom, courage, and ideas shaped the Chasidic and progressive Jewish movements that followed. We owe them a huge and unpaid debt of gratitude.


Jericho Vincent is the spiritual leader of Temple of the Stranger, a mystical community rooted in Jewish ancestral wisdom and open to all. They teach Torah on Instagram @thealef. They are the author of the acclaimed memoir Cut Me Loose and an illustrated book of ancient magical Jewish tales, Legends of the Talmud (published under their previous name). You can join them at their online course on Jewish Witches that begins on 11/26.

Previous missives linked in this post:

  1. If I’m candid, I don’t know exactly how to classify these folks—the leads on this project seem to be using progressive evangelical tools to start a contemporary church using Episcopal worship? And some of the other folks seem to be progressive-to-centrist Christians, but the kind that speak out about Christian Nationalism and white supremacy, but not the ones I can find talking out about seriously controversial issues on social media or their websites (no hardcore BLM/pro-LGBTQ+ flagging on their websites like some of my Christian clergy peeps have, but talking about the problem of Christian Nationalism is real imho. I’m just not inside the Christian world enough to know all the nuances of this stuff—but of the broad strokes of “nice people I wanna talk to” and “nationalist mothballs who pass laws that oppress me and others,” these folks were nice.

  2.  A caveat: this is a very complex story that I’m telling from a birds-eye level. I highly recommend a deeper dive. Check out some of the books in the footnotes, starting with Ada Rapaport-Albert’s work. 

  3.  Gershon Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676 (1973).

  4.  It’s one of my very favorite books of all time. My only criticism of it is that it shouldn’t be a dense academic book, it should be a Broadway musical-hiphop album-Burning Man camp-international political platform.  

  5.  There’s a lot more complexity here to do with the workings of Lurianic Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical movement founded in the 16th century which is structured around messianic thought. (Lurianic Kabbalah remains the dominant Jewish mystical school of thought today.) 

  6.  Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676

  7. Emphases added by Ruttenberg, who is fascinated.

  8.  Speaking of messy narratives… Maimonides got a lot right and transmitted a lot of valuable wisdom to us, but he also got some pretty significant things wrong.  

  9. Quoted in Robert Alter’s “Sabbatai Zevi and the Jewish Imagination,” Commentary Magazine, June 1967

  10. Google the Emden-Eybeschutz controversy for one example of anti-Sabbatean sentiment and google “Ma’aminim” for information about one underground Sabbatean sect 

  11. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, 1941

  12. Emphasis Ruttenberg’s

  13.  This stands for zechar tzadik l’vracha which means “may this holy person be remembered as a blessing.” It’s an abbreviation of honor used after the names of great people who have passed on.

  14. Here’s a link to other drawings in the set.


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