“I am, as you will quickly discover if you don’t know already, a raw newcomer to your field of expertise. I’m here because I believe I can shed some observations from my own field, Jewish mysticism and messianism, that may shed light on dark places in yours. I hope for your expert judgment as to what substance there may be to the suggestions I will make today.”
That was how I introduced myself on Friday morning, October 3, when I delivered a paper on “Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz and Moravian Christianity” at the 2014 Bethlehem Conference on Moravian History & Music. I was at the time about 500 miles to the south of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where the conference was held. Through the miracle of 21st-century technology, and through the kindness of the conference organizers, I was able to participate on Skype.
With the group’s permission I made a video recording of my talk. Thanks to my friend and social media expert Martin Brossman, it’s now on Youtube.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve spoken on the possible connection of the extraordinary “heretic rabbi” Jonathan Eibeschuetz (1690-1764) with the Moravian Christianity of his day. In November 2013, when I shared a podium with Pawel Maciejko of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Moravians were one of the topics on my agenda. But this was the first time I’d run my ideas before a gathering of Moravian specialists, and I was a little bit nervous.
The “dark places” I spoke of at the beginning of my talk were the years that Moravian historians call “the time of the Hidden Seed,” the often mysterious prehistory of their faith.
The story of the “Hidden Seed” starts in November 1620, when the armies of the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand II crushed the Bohemian rebels in the Battle of White Mountain near Prague. The Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia–more or less equivalent to today’s Czech Republic–had until then been mostly Protestant, home to a variety of sects, most of them spiritual offspring of the great reformer Jan Hus. From 1620 onward, it became Hapsburg policy to stamp out Protestantism, to make Bohemia and Moravia once again Catholic.
After White Mountain, the only legal religions in Bohemia and Moravia were Catholicism and Judaism. The Protestant churches had to go underground.
Now fast-forward a full century, to 1722. In that year, a band of refugees from Moravia showed up on the estate of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf in Saxony. They claimed to be relics of a Protestant group called the “Unitas Fratrum” or “Bohemian Brethren.” They asked for asylum; Zinzendorf granted it. Together, he and they created what came to be known as “Moravian” Christianity.
The new faith–or perhaps it was an old one, in new dress?–spread fast. By the middle of the 18th century there was a Moravian presence in Scandinavia, Holland, England, and British North America. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was founded in 1741 by Zinzendorf and a group of his followers, so named because it was to be the place where Christ would be born in the New World.
Those old Moravians were a good deal less buttoned-up than their grandchildren and great-grandchildren were later to be. The distinguished Moravian scholar Craig Atwood, whom I’m proud to call a former student of mine at UNC-Chapel Hill–he’s the man on the far left of the still shot above–published in 2012 a paper entitled “Christ and the Bridal Bed: Eighteenth-Century Moravian Erotic Spirituality as a Possible Influence on Blake.” Building on the discovery 10 years ago that William Blake’s mother had belonged to the Moravian “Congregation of the Lamb” in Fetter Lane, London, Atwood discussed the “sexualized spirituality” that Mrs. Catherine Armitage would have been taught by her church, and that she might have communicated to little William, her son by a new husband.
Quoting Marsha Keith Schuchard, Atwood wrote that “Blake’s unconventional views on marriage” belong in a context of “eighteenth-century sexual experimentation among Moravians, ‘mystical scientists, heterodox Jews, antinomian Yogis, Priapic antiquarians, revolutionary Freemasons, and even a transvestite spy.'”
Which brings us to Rabbi Jonathan Eibeschuetz, a “heterodox Jew” if there ever was one. Despite his having been at the same time the leading rabbi of Central Europe.
I’ve posted earlier about the extraordinary spiritual “double life” of this famous rabbinic scholar and preacher, who in his late 20s wrote a book called I Came this Day to the Spring. In that book, Eibeschuetz set forth his vision of the world religion of the future, rooted in Kabbalistic Judaism but unlike any religion ever known. That religion turns out to have some remarkable resemblances to the radical Moravianism of Count von Zinzendorf.
I Came This Day to the Spring outlined a faith in which all human beings were joined, sharers alike in God’s love. A faith in which the male and the female are equal in the realm of Divinity and presumably also in real life, and in which homosexual love is a legitimate form of eroticism deserving acceptance and respect.
All of which could truly be said of Zinzendorf’s Moravianism.
Zinzendorf sought to transcend the traditional Christian aversion to sex. With Christ’s incarnation, he taught, the genital organs were no longer pudenda, “things of shame,” but verenda, “things to be reverenced.” As for Eibeschuetz, his I Came This Day to the Spring carries the eroticism of the Kabbalah to such an embarrassing degree of sexual frankness that more than one modern scholar has labeled it as pornographic.
Speaking of “embarrassing”: a feature of 18th-century Moravianism that comes across today as disturbingly kinky is its fervent worship of the vagina-like wounds of Christ, inflicted on the helpless Savior by the phallic spear. (“Powerful wounds of Jesus, So moist, so gory … You are so succulent, whatever comes near becomes like wounds and flows with blood. … Soft wounds of Jesus … I crawl to you.”) This seems to be echoed in I Came This Day to the Spring, in a bizarre passage that speaks of the wounds inflicted on the “God of Israel” in the course of homosexual lovemaking with a higher divinity called the “Root.”
So was the young Eibeschuetz, like the young Blake, under the spell of the Moravians and their “sexualized spirituality”?
I kind of think so. But there’s a problem, and it’s a serious one.
We don’t know exactly when Eibeschuetz wrote I Came This Day to the Spring, but it had to be sometime before 1725, when we know for sure that the book existed. That’s three years at most after the Moravian refugees settled on Zinzendorf’s estate, and he and they began together to develop their old-new faith. Ideas like the ones we’re talking about take years to gestate. There seems no way they can have matured in time to influence I Came This Day.
“I see three possible resolutions,” I told the Moravian scholars assembled in Bethlehem. “First, we might decide that the parallels between Moravian teachings and practice and [I Came This Day] are too general to sustain any hypothesis of direct influence. At most they point to elements of a shared Zeitgeist.”
I suggested, but was inclined to dismiss, the possibility of influence in the opposite direction, of heretical Judaism on Zinzendorf and his followers. And then a third possibility, the one that really intrigued me:
“Might we suppose that Eibeschuetz, who spent his most impressionable years in Moravia, there came into contact with underground cells of Protestants who had already evolved beliefs and practices and rhetorical tropes normally associated with Zinzendorf and the Herrnhut [Moravian] community? …
“Is it farfetched to suppose that remnants of the old faith hung on in secret, taking new forms, long after the defeat at the White Mountain in 1620 and the religious repression that followed? Or that an inquisitive young rabbi’s son might have found a way to make contact with the preservers of the flame? …
“If these conjectures should be correct or at least plausible–a question I submit for your informed judgment–then a ray of light is shed from an unexpected source into the ‘time of the Hidden Seed,’ the dark and mysterious decades preceding the 18th-century blossoming of Moravian Christianity.”
That was how I ended my paper. And I waited for my audience’s expert verdict.
Which, to tell the honest truth, wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be.
Respondent after respondent said that my first hypothesis, that of a “shared Zeitgeist,” was the one that made the most sense. Professor Gerald MacDonald, who moderated the panel on which I spoke, tried to put both Eibeschuetz and the early Moravians in a wider context of the religious radicalism of the 18th-century, much of which–like the political radicalism of the 1960s–had a strong sexual coloring. He mentioned a name I’d never heard before: Eva von Buttlar (1670-1721), the famous or infamous “Mother Eva” who taught the doctrine of an androgynous Adam and an androgynous Christ, and who initiated men into her faith via ritual sex–with herself.
My idea, that Eibeschuetz gives us a window into a kind of “proto-Moravianism” at the very beginning of the 18th century, got a distinctly cold response.
I’m not totally convinced I was wrong. Sometimes the “raw newcomer,” as I described myself without false modesty with respect to Moravian studies, can see features of a landscape that those familiar with it overlook. More frequently this newcomer, carried away by enthusiasm, sees will-o’-the-wisps that he (or she) mistakes for signal lights. To ignore the “informed judgment” of the experts is, most of the time, a dumb thing to do.
So what do I do now?
I feel a bit like that prospective convert to Judaism who demanded that the rabbi teach him “the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” To which the rabbi replied: “What you don’t like, don’t do to other people. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)
What do I do now? I go and learn.
by David Halperin
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