Jewish Apostasy and American Citizenship Revisited

Nan Goodman

Jacob Frank. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“You can check out any time you like,

But you can never leave!”

—“Hotel California,” The Eagles

Sometime between 1756 and 1757, Jacob Frank, the charismatic leader and would-be messiah of a group of Jews known as Sabbatians, converted from Judaism to Islam. In 1759, a scant two to three years later, Frank converted again, this time from Islam to Catholicism. There were indications—at least in some of the fiction that came to be written about Frank—that he may have apostasized for a third time by converting from Catholicism back to Judaism later in life. But even if he didn’t, there is reason enough to see Frank as a mega-apostate, converting from one religion to another openly and with seeming abandon. In fact in the apostasy department, one could even say that Frank outdid Sabbatai Sevi, the seventeenth-century false messiah on whom he modeled his messiahship. While Sevi’s apostasy from Judaism to Islam in 1666 helped determine the shape of the Sabbatian movement for years to come, it also cost him the majority of his followers. Frank’s second apostasy by contrast led to thousands—some say tens of thousands—of conversions, triggering the first mass Jewish apostasy in Poland–Lithuania.[1]

As influential as Frank’s apostasy to Catholicism was, however, his lasting legacy as a mega-apostate, I argue, lay in the persistence with which he continued to perceive himself and to be perceived by others as a Jew. He left everyone who knew of his widely publicized apostasies with the distinct impression that Judaism was, more than any other faith, difficult if not impossible to abandon. In my recent Journal of the Early Republic article on the uses of Jewish apostasy during the American expatriation debates in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I invoke the difficulty of leaving Judaism that Frank’s apostasy brought to the fore to explain the apostasy in 1798 of another Jew, the errant Joseph Samuel Christian Frederick Frey. Frey, who arrived in New York in 1816 as a Christian missionary, became the subject of a small but significant pamphlet war about the virtues of perpetual versus voluntary religious belonging. In the article I argue that when read in the context of the debates about citizenship and national belonging in the early years of the republic, Frey’s apostasy, which followed on the heels of Frank’s apostasy and was shaped by its legacy, offered Americans a new understanding of the perpetual identity they had left behind when they won their independence from Great Britain.  More specifically, the Jewish model of perpetual belonging offered Americans an alternative to the model of fluid and interchangeable religious belonging Protestantism displayed as the Second Great Awakening got underway. Because of time and space constraints, however, my article doesn’t go into detail about Frank’s apostasies and their impact on Frey’s American reception, so I thought I would say a bit more about that here.

Unlike Sevi’s apostasy, which was seen as a betrayal by most of his followers but reinterpreted by those who stayed loyal to him as a necessary step in his messianic mission, the meaning of Frank’s apostasies remained uncertain during his lifetime and beyond.[2] For some Jews and Christians, they introduced a threat of religious syncretism.  That Frank apostasized more than once also suggested to many of his interlocutors that he did not take conversion seriously. But as witnessed in the public debates his apostasy to Catholicism provoked, there was much more at stake than his sincerity. In two well-attended disputations in Poland in which the Frankists spelled out their reasons for apostasizing—the first in Kamieniec in 1757 and the second in Lwow in 1759—the durability and perpetuity of the Frankists’ Jewish identity were on display.

In Kamieniec the Frankists reaffirmed their ties to Judaism in two ways. While they openly rejected the Talmud, a collection of rabbinic interpretations of Jewish law venerated by the rabbis, they grounded their Judaism in the Kabbalah, a compendium of Jewish mysticism. In espousing the teachings of the Kabbalah, the Frankists admittedly strayed very far from accepted interpretations. Among other things, they argued to the horror of the rabbis and other traditional Jews that the Kabbalah accommodated their belief in the three persons of God—the one belief that had traditionally distinguished Christianity from Judaism. The idea that such a perverted understanding of Judaism might spread caused the rabbis to claim that the Frankists were no longer Jews. As their fears mounted, however, the rabbis and other Frankist critics changed tacks, arguing instead that the Frankists had never been Jews in the first place. They were rather descendants of the “mixed multitude,” the group of non-Jews who had joined the Jews on their exodus out of Egypt.[3] Seen by many as weak on its face and rejected out of hand by none other than the influential Baal Shem Tov, this argument was yet another example of how difficult it was to sever ties between the Frankists and Judaism.

Frey’s grave in Pontiac, Michigan.

In the second debate in Lwow, the Frankists openly renounced their ties to Judaism and presented themselves as willing candidates for baptism, but even here the lingering nature of their identity as Jews was affirmed. Frank, for example, insisted that the Jews would not convert unless the Church allowed them to continue wearing their beards and ear locks and honoring Saturday as well as Sunday as holy days, signs of their lingering Judaism.[4] More astonishing still, in choosing to uphold the truth of the blood libel, the age-old anti-Semitic accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood to make matzoh, the Frankists looked for support not in Christian invectives where the libel was widely disseminated but in Jewish theological texts. In this, the Frankists reinforced their Jewish identity in two additional ways: by demonstrating their profound familiarity with Jewish texts—to the point of being able to pervert them—and by anticipating their willingness as Christians to pervert the meaning of Christian texts and practices in turn. Indeed, as soon as Frank was baptized, he petitioned the church to grant him and his fellow converts an autonomous territory in Poland where the Frankists could settle and practice their own version of Catholicism—a version inflected with Jewish ritual and practice by all accounts.[5]

Through Frey’s story of apostasy, which was in many ways a recapitulation of Frank’s, Americans were introduced to a form of perpetual belonging they could for the first time associate with an entity other than Great Britain. In this way, Jewish apostasy entered the American debate about citizenship, prompting an examination of perpetual belonging that helped to reshape the contours of American citizenship in the public arena and in the courts.


[1] See Pawel Maciejcko, The Mixed Multitude:  Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755–1816(Philadelphia, 2011), 130.

[2] Some scholars lump Frank’s apostasies together with Sevi’s and read them both as part of the “animating force of the Sabbataian [sic] heresy overall.” See, e. g., Herbert Levy, “A Note for the General Reader” in Alexandr Kraushar, Jacob Frank:  The End to the Sabbatian Heresy (New York, 2000), 5.

[3] Maciejcko, The Mixed Multitude.

[4] Arthur Mandel, The Militant Messiah, or The Flight from the Ghetto:  The Story of Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement (Atlantic Highlands, NJ, 1979), 56–57.

[5] Mandel, The Militant Messiah, 56.

19 March 2021

About the Author

Nan Goodman is professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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