We know very little detail about Eva Frank in her own words. There is her father’s portrayal of a dream she had, in which an old man from heaven soothes her anxiety about being the representation of the divine Messiah on Earth. There are descriptions by pilgrims and visitors of her court in Offenbach, Germany, where she listened to confessions and passed judgment on followers in the 1790s, often instructing them to be lashed for their sins. Few of these texts quote her directly. In 1800, there is her request to Jewish communities to convert to Christianity and take up the Frankist cause, written in red ink and sent to hundreds of Jewish towns scattered across eastern Europe. There are her letters soliciting supporters for money and merchants for loans. We know from these letters that she was mostly supported by followers of her father, she was accustomed to luxury, and she died in tremendous debt in 1816. We know she was venerated as the Messiah into the 20th century, where followers still carried her image, a small portrait of their holy female saint, the incarnated divine presence on Earth. We know that US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had such a portrait, given to him by his mother, descended from a prominent line of Jews who continued to revere Eva Frank.
The legacy of Eva Frank is almost as complicated as her own life, which wound through Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and secular communities in a dazzling cross-section of mysticism that attracted followers and spinoffs from nearly every corner of the Ottoman Empire and Polish world, dovetailing with the unfolding Enlightenment. It is the story of one woman given a mantle she might not have been born to bear, and the uneasy way worship of the divine feminine in 1700s Europe affirmed both women’s power and passivity, working in unexpected ways alongside Enlightenment calls for women’s emancipations and greater political leadership and educational access. With such a captivating and nuanced history, how can it be that we know so little about the only woman to have been worshipped as a Messiah in modern history?
Eva Frank was born in 1756, in modern-day Ukraine, to Jacob and Hannah Frank, along with their existing children. Jacob had been raised in a family staunchly committed to the radical teachings of Shabtai Tzvi, the Jewish messianic claimant who died in 1676 after ultimately converting to Islam, and whose widely embraced prophecies and antinomian preaching—which specifically called for overturning Jewish law—nearly upended European Jewry. Around 1751, five years before Eva’s birth, Jacob proclaimed that he was Shabtai Tzvi’s successor on Earth. Building on Jewish mystical teachings and Shabtai Tzvi’s legacy, he fashioned himself as the Messiah on earth who had come to teach a new way of religious life that would bring the Messianic era. He quickly attracted thousands of followers, known as “Frankists”, and reportedly took the antinomian embrace of holy subversion even further than Shabtai Tzvi, hosting intricate rituals that overthrew the taboos of incest, menstruation, and adultery, often with the aid of sacred objects, including Torah scrolls. Though there is ongoing debate about the extent of such rituals in practice, as opposed to simply wild rumors, scholars Cristina Ciucu and Regan Kramer argue in their article published in Clio. Women, Gender, History that such ideology was markedly more extreme in Frankist practice than that of prior leaders and took a specific focus on the display of feminine sensuality.
In 1756, local Jewish authorities excommunicated Jacob and his followers for these transgressive rituals and beliefs, and he responded by converting to Catholicism, along with three thousand believers. It was during this transition that Eva, who had been named Rachel at birth in honor of Jacob’s mother, was baptized with her new name. At this point, Jacob began to integrate Jewish and Christian beliefs more boldly into his theology. Soon after, however, local Catholic authorities imprisoned Jacob on charges of false conversion, noting that his followers continued to worship him as a divine presence and refused to marry outside their own community. Jacob was kept in a monastery in Częstochowa, where he continued to receive visits from admirers and develop his own ideas about mysticism, redemption, and feminine sexual power. Eva stayed with her father throughout the thirteen years of his imprisonment, along with her mother Hannah, and grew close to him. Their bond was reinforced when, later, Eva refused to leave during a Russian siege of the city, which kept even his staunchest followers outside the gates. Częstochowa was a city rich in Marian worship, as the home of the venerated Black Mary icon, and that influence is likely one reason (along with his new embrace of Catholicism as an important element in his own theology) that Jacob began to write more avidly than ever before about the feminine identity of the Messiah, focusing specifically on his wife as the divine representation on Earth.
In 1770, following the death of his wife, Jacob refocused his divine feminine decrees on nearly 16-year-old Eva. He declared her to be the Messiah and the reincarnation of both the Virgin Mary and the Shekhinah, the divine presence on Earth, interpreted as feminine in Jewish mysticism. Though there was some incredulity at the idea of a female Messiah among his followers, Jacob admonished them to accept this unprecedented belief, and, by and large, they did. Eva became widely known as “the Lady” or “the Virgin”. Portraits of her were distributed among Frankists in the area, similar to the small portraits of the Virgin Mary carried by Christian worshippers, though she was depicted unconventionally in a stylish outfit with a noticeably scooped neckline. Jacob established Eva as a central figure of worship among his followers and encouraged her to hear confessions and administer punishments for sins. When Jacob died in 1791, Eva moved to Offenbach, Germany, with two of her brothers, where they strived to continue their father’s work and continue her role as the Messianic divine figurehead of the movement. There, she continued to receive visitors, offer confession, and maintain support. In 1803, the Offenbach court was disbanded for unclear reasons, and Eva moved back to Poland, where she continued to function in her Messianic role to an increasingly diminished and diverse group of followers, before her own death in 1816. After her death, the baptized Frankists largely assimilated into Christian culture while the Jewish ones lingered on in clandestine meetings until eventually petering out. By early 19th century, the Frankists were seen as a group similar to the freemasons and other vaguely secular, secret, ritual-based societies that ran rampant in this era, with their Jewish origins largely lost, though pockets of support for Jacob and Eva Frank lingered across all of these communities in Poland and beyond for at least a century after her death.
What do we make of Eva Frank? Her strange legacy is often caught between those eager to embrace her as a trailblazing icon of female religious authority, and those convinced she was a tragic victim in her father’s abusive schemes for sex and power, as read into his Messianic claims and teachings about unconventional, socially transgressive sexual acts as means to hurry along the new Messianic era. Each has evidence in their corner. The emphasis on taboo sexual relations and female sensuality within Frankist theology make it difficult to definitively rule out a physical relationship with her father, though by all accounts Eva never married and her status as a holy Virgin remained central to her identity until her death. She is consistently referred to as the Virgin in Frankist writings, compared to the Virgin Mary and other religious Christian saints celebrated for their perpetual virginity. No physical relationship between Jacob and Eva is ever mentioned in any of the writings of Jacob himself or his followers. Though Eva is referred to as Jacob’s divine female companion in his own writings, her own religious identity was fashioned on the cult of Mary, which already promoted a divine female counterpart that was not a sexual partner, but a mother. The Frankists, possibly borrowing from Christian monastic culture, referred to one another as brothers and sisters, further extending the categories of non-sexual associations between male and female members. In Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666 – 1816, one of the most recent books on the topic, scholar Ada Rapoport-Albert is much more skeptical about the pervasiveness of incest and ritualistic orgies within the movement. In general, the transgressive sexual element of Frankist practice has been most fervently emphasized by traditional Jewish voices who see the entire offshoot as heretical and subversive. There was indeed a strange culture of purity and ritualized sexuality prevalent in Offenbach, and it is far more likely that Eva occupied a place of confirmed celibacy while other women engaged in ritualistic sexual practices, though this hardly addresses the full question of her own agency in the matter.
Another way to consider how Eva should be understood is to reflect on the role of women in Frankist circles more generally. Scholars Ada Rapoport-Albert and Cesar Merchan Hamann shed some light on this question through an intriguing analysis of a Frankist manuscript dated to 1800, written by a follower of Jacob Frank and used by Gershom Scholem, one of the most influential scholars of Jewish mysticism, to advocate the view of a progressive embrace of female authority within Frankist belief. In their analysis, however, Ada Rapoport-Albert and Cesar Merchan Hamann caution against simply adopting Eva Frank as an empowered religious figure, or the text as evidence of broad female emancipation in the movement. Through a thorough rebuttal of Scholem’s argument, they argue there is little evidence to suggest the Frankist beliefs about the divine feminine were synonymous with those of female emancipation within Enlightenment thought. Though there is some shared interest in reshaping beliefs about the role of women in their relative contexts, it is too simple to view the example of Eva Frank and the embrace of divine femininity as evidence of the influence of the Enlightenment on the movement, or even mutual influence between the two movements.
Nonetheless, the analysis of this Frankist manuscript draws out important elements of Frankist beliefs about women, and why their theology believes the Messiah is a woman. The problem with casting Eva’s ascendency to divine Messiah as evidence of the adoption of female emancipation as a Frankist value is that, far from advocating for political and education reforms for women (a core focus of Enlightenment activists), the Frankist text used for evidence here is much more focused on freeing the sexual impulse within both men and women. As Rapoport-Albert and Hamann demonstrate, the author describes the need for the female sexual impulse to be “release from captivity—understood in the sense of ‘shame’, ‘modesty’, or in other words, the constraints of conventional sexual morality” so that the coming Messianic era can dawn, a breakthrough only possible “with the emergence of the Messianic ‘virgin’ or ‘maiden’ who he believes is embodied in the figure of Eva Frank.” The societal repression of female sexuality is, the unnamed Frankist writer believes, a suppression of the creative vitality of women which, when expressed, will revitalize the male sexual impulse, a development which will ultimately allow the hidden, repressed female Messiah to emerge in her full glory and thus usher in the era of Messianic redemption. She need only be seduced, encouraged to overcome her feminine shyness, and aroused to action to reveal herself. The text itself repeatedly emphasizes the desire of women to be cherished, noting how, “the whole essence of woman is to be loved, kissed, etc.,” and how society keeps the female Messiah hidden by condemning the feminine expression of sexual desire. The theological ramifications are tremendous, because, the author continues to his reader
You will be well aware that the personification of shekhina, from now on better called the Holy Virgin, the betulah, is the gateway to God and to all divine treasures. All capacity for Him is in her; all the keys to His treasures are with here; everything apparent, manifest, and revealed in the world is to be revealed through her; she is the first step and the gateway; she is also the true sensuality for God, just as every good wife is her husband’s sensuality.
Though Scholem sees in this text evidence of female empowerment, it is hard not to read instead a rendering in which Eva Frank personifies a divine force that is worshipped but passive, merely a gateway to divine powers higher up the ladder. Jacob Frank, in his own writings, describes this feminine divine presence on Earth as “the gateway to God, and only through her is it possible to read God and grasp him.” In this understanding, the female divinity remains little more than an icon to be worshipped, with no activated leadership requiring her to speak, think, or act. She is passive, her power limited to the fact of her existence.
This divine conception within Frankist thought is hard to square entirely with the role of Eva Frank in the court at Offenbach, where she pronounced judgements on her followers and meted out punishment and, we know, occasionally refused to see devotees she deemed insufficiently holy to stand in her presence. But it is also hard to know how much authority she actually had, beyond her venerated status. We know little of how women more broadly functioned in Frankist communities, and how they understood their own relationship to her.
One should not overlook, of course, that the religious participation of women in these antinomian communities was radically expanded, and it is possibly one reason the claims of sexual perversion were so quick to stick. Many movements throughout history with more equitable female participation have faced accusations of sexual perversion, especially at times when women rarely socialized outside the home, leading many to assume their presence in public rituals or socially among men could only have a sexual basis. From his earliest leadership claims, Shabtai Tzvi allowed women to participate in public worship in ways that would remain prohibited in mainstream Jewish communities for another three hundred years. As Rapoport-Albert and Hamann note, Shabtai Tzvi’s strident focus on the desire to liberate women from masculine domination was noteworthy, and persisted among his followers, who were known as Sabbateans. “Sabbatianisnism’s promotion of women to positions of prophetic and even messianic-divine authority…was a unique feature of the movement…and persisted in one form or another throughout its history, culminating in the veneration in Frankist circles of Eva Frank as the female Messiah and the living incarnation of the divine sefirah Malkhut,” they write, using a different term in Jewish mysticism for the Shekihina. In fact, Rapoport-Albert believes it was the female liberation inherent in this movement that rendered the emerging Jewish mystical tradition of Hasidism particularly hostile to female religious authority and leadership. The desire to liberate the sexual impulse undoubtedly led to abuse, and to the odd perversion of women as objects, and yet this was also the most dramatic break from Jewish traditions of sidelining female religious participation, allowing new possibilities to unfold and manifest.
Despite her fascinating role in 18th century religious life, Eva Frank has long been considered little more than a footnote to the legacy of her charismatic father. When she is mentioned, it is often due to the novelty of calling her the first (and only) female Jewish Messiah, though the term stretches the definition of Jewish identity almost to a breaking point. This is a puzzling development. Scholar Abraham Duker makes a convincing case in his article published in Jewish Social Studies that Eva had come to personify, and outlive, the movement her father had started. Citing numerous examples of continued veneration in the 1850s and beyond, in addition to strong consensus that it was her death in 1816, not her father’s death in 1791, which forced the movement into decline, Duker’s research suggests that Eva had become the central focus of divine worship among the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other Frankist followers in the century following her death.
While she seems to have lacked the force of vision and leadership power that defined her father’s legacy, there is every reason to think she had embraced her role among the community, by the end of her life, as a figure of divine significance and Messianic authority. In turn, as the extreme aspects of her father’s writings faded from memory, her followers in subsequent decades would keep her portrait close, seeing her as a misunderstood figure who had come to Earth with the promise of divine redemption, and was thwarted by traditional religious leadership’s fear of female ascendency. This acceptance, by a community which had initially believed they were following a male messiah, is noteworthy and extremely dramatic, and there is every reason to see Eva as an unprecedented religious figure in her own right. However one views her, she deserves a place among the strange, evolving story of religious life in the 18th century, when so much changed, and so much remained the same.