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We generally associate 1492 with Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, but it was a remarkably eventful year in other respect. Even without leaving the confines of Spain, it was the year that the Reconquista was completed and the year that Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews. Similarly, 1648 is known to the West primarily as the year of the Peace of Westphalia, but it was also the year of the Khmelnytsky Cossack rebellion in Ukraine — a distant event that has taken on increased significance in recent years, since the rebellion brought Ukraine from Polish to Russian control.

And, like 1492, 1648 was also a significant year for European Jewry. The Khmelnytsky rebellion unleashed a series of massacres of Ukrainean Jews. Meanwhile, in Izmir, a Jewish rabbi named Sabbatai Zevi proclaimed himself the messiah. Zevi attracted a significant following during his lifetime, but — unlike Christian reformers at the beginning of the 16th century — was unable to establish himself as the ruler of a city and reform Jewish religious institutions according to his desires. Instead, he spent his life being chased around the Ottoman Empire, from Izmir to Istanbul, Salonika, Cairo, and Jerusalem. Even when he ended up in prison at Abydos, he met adoring followers and received large donations.

Eventually, however, he became seen as a threat by the Ottoman monarchy. He was sent to prison in Adrianople, where he was given the choice of death or converting to Islam in 1666. He chose the latter, not only dying in his new faith, but also leaving behind a group of Islamic followers that remain in Turkey to this day.

This story makes an interesting contrast to the European Reformation, where political divison allowed dissenting religious movements to take hold. Charles V lacked the kind of power over his Empire that would have allowed him to deal with Martin Luther the way Mehmed IV dealth with Sabbatai Zevi. Besides, even if he had been able to crush Luther, the Empire was only one country of many, and he would not have been able to prevent the Reformation’s taking root in Switzerland and elsewhere.

On the other hand, Zevi promoted a messianic vision of Judaism, not merely a reform program, and messianic Christian sects did not fair well in Europe, either. Zevi might be compared with the Anabaptist state established in Münster. The radical reforms introduced by Anabaptist leaders frightened Christians of all types and led to the capture of the town after a siege. The leaders were put to death (hung in cages where they were exposed and starved) and the movement completely disbanded, although Anabaptists continued to exist elsewhere (especially in the Netherlands) in less confrontational forms.

The cages where the leaders of the Anabaptist rebellion were hung to die
Cages in Münster

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