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Convert or Saint? In the Footsteps of Moshe, the Son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady / מומר או קדוש? מסע בעקבות משה בנו של ר' שניאור זלמן מליאדי

דוד אסף and David Assaf
Zion / ציון
Vol. סה‎, חוברת ד‎ (תש"ס / 2000), pp. 453-515
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23564131
Page Count: 63
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
Convert or Saint? In the Footsteps of Moshe, the Son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady / מומר או קדוש? מסע בעקבות משה בנו של ר' שניאור זלמן מליאדי
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Abstract

This article treats the question of 'history, memory and cover up', while focusing on the tragic story of Moshe (1784?– before 1853), the gifted younger son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of Habad Hasidism. In 1820, at age 36, Moshe converted to the Orthodox Russian Church. Having never explained his decision, he left the gate open to speculation. At the same time, Habad followers were actively trying to suppress the truth about this embarrassing turn of events. This article gathers all the known and relevant sources that deal either directly with or hint to Moshe's fate. Gleaned from letters, articles, memoirs, satiric, polemic and hagiographic literature of maskilim, converts, scholars, and hasidim, the sources and their analysis allow one to identify the paths that shaped different memories. Despite the highly charged negative attitudes toward conversion, shared by all circles of Jewish society (not only the Orthodox), conversion in 19th century Eastern Europe was relatively widespread, though highly unusual among distinguished hasidic families. The first testimony about Moshe's conversion comes from a letter sent in 1820 by the maskil Isaac Baer Levinsohn (Ribal) to his colleague Joseph Perl. Levinsohn had heard that the two sons of the late Shneur Zalman fought over succession to his throne and that Moshe had lost out to his brother Dov Baer (known later as the 'Middle Rabbi'). As a result, Moshe decided to take revenge on his family and convert. No evidence exists to support this claim and, though adopted by other writers, it must be considered a rumor spread by contemporaries to account for the unbelievable story. Its source may lay in the actual controversy over leadership of the community that ensued between Dov Baer and Aaron of Starosielce, a prominent disciple of Shneur Zalman. Abraham Dov Gottlober, the maskil, suggested that through his study of Kabbalah, Moshe went insane, wrote kabbalistic 'secrets' on the cross and then converted. While other sources claim that he died from sadness and grief shortly after his conversion, Gottlober presented another 'end', suggesting that Moshe repented and returned to Judaism. According to this version Moshe imposed upon himself a life of wandering and deprivation (galut) as expiation for his sins, refusing to reveal his true identity. Additional information from the memoir of Joshua Lazarus, himself a contemporary convert, claimed that Moshe converted after reading the New Testament. He was baptized in St. Petersburg but shortly thereafter began preaching against icon worship of the Russian Church. According to this version, he was later imprisoned and then, thanks to bribes given by Jews, he was cast into an asylum where he died. It appears that during the 1870s, under the leadership of Rabbi Samuel of Lubavich, the fourth head of Habad, an intensive search was undertaken to discover Moshe's fate. However its apologetic and didactic tendency makes this traditional Habad account problematic. One can classify it into two different memory 'channels': the first, presented in H.M. Heilmann's Beit Rabbi, confirms that indeed 'something' very unpleasant occurred which caused great sadness to Moshe's family and the entire community. Heilmann offered no explicit details but did not deny its validity. The second 'channel' is connected to the 'historiographic' writings of the sixth head of Habad, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn. He denied the whole affair by fabricating an alternative biography for Moshe, one in which he was victorious in a Jewish-Christian religious debate with Russian priests and was subsequently forced to flee and live under cover. Close analysis of this version shows that it was an 'invented tradition'. Schneersohn's systematic reshaping of events and use of hagiographic motifs render his writings useless for historical reconstruction, though they remain valuable for understanding the needs and aims necessary for shaping the hasidic collective memory. The myth of Moshe, the penitent wanderer, grew by way of colorful oral hearsay and spread among the hasidim. While Habad writers knew and confronted another 'truth' and another memory, the hasidic attitude was contradictory: on the one hand it never explicitly admitted that Moshe ever thought of converting to Christianity, and on the other hand exaggerated the story of his penitence. At the same time, his name and biography are almost unknown among hasidim and efforts are still being made to keep it that way. This study concludes that although there is no doubt that Moshe actually converted, we cannot be sure of his final actions, even though we can assume that he died as a Christian not long after his baptism. The hasidic tradition advocating his repentance, first documented more than fifty years after the events, in the 1870s, is highly unreliable. From a critical point of view all previous explanations for Moshe's motivation to convert (struggle for succession and ensuing disappointment; romantic love for a Christian woman; intellectual conviction in the truth of Christianity) lack historical substantiation. The author offers a psychological explanation for his decision, as some contemporary sources already suggested. A mental crisis could have triggered the collapse of accepted familial behavior, placing in abeyance feelings of guilt or family loyalty. Once this mental breakdown occurred other underlying ideological or social factors could have surfaced which may also have contributed to his unexpected behavior.

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