Detractors and admirers alike called him a “zealot, the son of a zealot” a fitting title for arguably the most divisive figure in early eighteenth-century Jewish history. A native son of Jerusalem, Rabbi Moshe Chagiz (1671-1751) originally journeyed to Europe to raise funds for his beleaguered Yeshiva. Within a short period of time, however, he commanded center stage as a major polemicist in the movement to extirpate all traces of Shabbatai Tzvi’s confused legacy in the Jewish community. Chagiz published widely, both his own Rabbinic works and those of others, but he is best known for his aggressive attacks against Jewish heretics, real or perceived. Unfortunately, his zeal for ideological purity ultimately drew him to criticize the activity of a young Kabbalist named Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. R. Chagiz’ persistence drove R. Luzzatto into exile and an early death. History would nevertheless vindicate the victim of Chagiz’ calumnies as one of the greatest minds of the Jewish people since the 16th century Safed circle.
After the conversion of Shabbetai Tzvi in 1666 and his death a decade later, his eighteenth century followers may be divided into three categories. The core supporters followed Shabbetai Tzvi into Islam. Known as the Doenmeh, they continued to maintain a distinct communal status for centuries. A second group retained Jewish identity, but openly practiced antinomian Sabbatean practices such as the elimination of fast days and radical experimentation with traditional Jewish marital laws. Certainly the most visible and controversial, these Sabbateans attracted the most attention of polemicists. Rabbi Chagiz, however, was especially concerned with a third category, potentially the largest and certainly the most insidious: crypto-Sabbateans. These Jews, often very learned and occupying leadership positions in the community, secretly harbored Sabbatean inclinations and ambitions, hoping to slowly infiltrate key sectors of the Jewish population and ultimately win the community over to the messianic delusion of Shabbetai Tzvi.
“The Destruction of Sinners” (1714) was Rabbi Chagiz’ first major polemical work, attacking the crypto-Sabbatean Nechemia Chiya Chayon. The text pioneers many techniques that became standard practice for anti-Sabbatean attacks: a relentless search for hidden allusions in the writings of a given Rabbi, the meticulous examination of signatories of his letters of approbation, and the secret collection of testimonies about his personal practice. After a drama that involved several major European communities, R. Chagiz emerged victorious over Chayon.
The experience was transformative, and R. Chagiz went on to build a virtual career as a type of Jewish Inquisitor. For some, he became a heroic defender of Torah-true Judaism, teaming with other opponents of Shabbetai Tzvi like Chacham Tsvi Ashkenazi and Yaakov Emden. For others, he was the pinnacle of intolerance and a purveyor of artificial controversy. After the success of “The Destruction of Sinners,” however, there was no stopping his “pursuit of heresy” (the title of a brilliant biography of R. Chagiz by Columbia professor Elisheva Carlebach, whose career includes teaching at Touro College). When news of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s Kabbalistic circle reached him, R. Chagiz embarked on his final crusade. The highly respected Rabbi Isaiah Bassan, teacher to R. Luzzatto since his youth, shielded him from the most egregious charges of crypto-Sabbateanism, through R. Luzzatto was coerced into signing an oath severely limiting his public teaching. After wandering through Europe, R. Luzzatto journeyed to Israel where the ban on his activity did not apply, ultimately dying a premature death. The victory of R. Chagiz was a tragic loss for the Jewish intellectual tradition.
This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2016 issue of the Five Towns Jewish Times.