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The Heresy of Jacob Frank

From Jewish Messianism to Esoteric Myth

Jay Michaelson

Publication Date - 09 September 2022

ISBN: 9780197651025

272 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


The Heresy of Jacob Frank is the first monograph length study on the religious philosophy of Jacob Frank (1726-1791), who, in the wake of false messiah Sabbetai Zevi, led the largest mass apostasy in Jewish history. Based on close readings of Frank's late teachings, recorded in 1784 and 1790, this book challenges scholarly presentations of Frank that depict him as a sex-crazed "degenerate," and presents Frank as an original and prescient figure at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, reason and magic, Kabbalah and Western Esotericism.

Frank's worldview combines a skeptical rejection of religious law as ineffectual and repressive with a supernatural, esoteric myth of immortal beings, material magic, and worldly power. With close readings of the theological and narrative passages of Frank's teachings, Michaelson shows how the Frankist sect evolved from its Sabbatean roots and the infamous 1757-59 disputations before the Catholic Church, into a Western Esoteric society based on alchemy, secrecy, and sexual liberation. Sexual ritual, apparently tightly limited and controlled by the sect, was not a libertine bacchanal but an enactment of the messianic reality, a corporealization of what would later become known as spirituality.

While Frank was undoubtedly a manipulative, even abusive leader whose sect mostly disappeared from history, Michaelson suggests that his ideology anticipated themes that would become predominant in the Haskalah, Early Hasidism, and even contemporary 'New Age' Judaism. In an inversion of traditional religious values, Frank's antinomian theology held personal flourishing to be a religious virtue, affirmed only the material, and transferred messianic eros into social, sexual, and political reality.


  • Dispels false conceptions of Jacob Frank and fills in important chapter in history of Jewish mysticism
  • Expands understanding of boundaries in mysticism and in Judaism
  • Provides a critique of past scholarship's conservative denigrations of sexuality and sexual deviance through the lenses of queer theory and phenomenology and philological-textual analysis

About the Author(s)

Jay Michaelson is an affiliated assistant professor at Chicago Theological Seminary and a visiting scholar at the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion, as well as a bestselling author and journalist. He is the author of nine books, including Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism and God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Outside the academy, Michaelson is a columnist at New York magazine and an editor at Ten Percent Happier, having previously been a columnist at The Daily Beast for eight years and at the Forward for many years before that. He is a frequent media commentator on issues of law and religion, has twice won the New York Society for Professional Journalists Award for opinion writing, and has been featured in the 'Forward 50' list of the most influential American Jews.


"Jacob Frank, one of the most unexpected, shocking, original, and misunderstood figures in Jewish history, stirred up the Jewish world from the margins of heresy to the center of broad messianic movement that engaged thousands of followers in the mid-eighteen century, by crossing every traditional border of the Jewish community. Now, for the first time, The Heresy of Jacob Frank provides a groundbreaking book-length analysis of Frankâs outrageous and innovative religious ideas, based on close readings of his recorded oral teachings. Dr. Michaelsonâs brilliant work is a major achievement in the scholarship of Frankism, Sabbateanism and Jewish mysticism, as well as an engaging and surprising tale of a man who transgressed every boundary he came across. Highly recommended." -- Rachel Elior, John and Golda Cohen Professor Emerita of Jewish Philosophy, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Table of Contents

    Introduction: The Boundary Crosser

    Chapter 1. “I tell you everything and tell you nothing”: Charlatan, Fool, Deviant, Heretic-Who Was Jacob Frank?

    Chapter 2. “I do not look to heaven but at what God does here on Earth”: Frankist Antinomianism as Materialist Skepticism

    Chapter 3. “Everything that is of the spirit has to be turned into flesh”: Magic, Myth, and the Material Imaginaire

    Chapter 4. “To make a man in wholeness, stable and possessing eternal life”: The Occult Quest for Immortality

    Chapter 5. “With this deed we go to the naked thing”: Sexual Antinomianism as Mystical Messianism

    Chapter 6. “We have no need of books of Kabbalah”: Rejecting Kabbalah and Sabbateanism

    Chapter 7. “The gods of freemasonry will have to do that which those two did”: Frankism as Western Esotericism

    Chapter 8. “All religions change and go beyond the borders laid down by their ancestors”: Foreshadowing Secularism and Spirituality

    Appendix: Review of Scholarship and Textual Notes