It's official: Son of Chabad movement's founder converted to Catholicism

Haggai Hitron

Haaretz

Tamuz 16, 5765

Documents have recently come to light proving that the youngest son of the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Russia, converted to Catholicism.

For 180 years, the conversion of Moshe Zalmanovitch (son of Zalman) has been difficult for Chabad hassidim and the hassidic world in general to accept. Now, it will be difficult to ignore.

Rumors of the conversion of Moshe and conversions in other Hassidic families were rife in the 19th century, fueled by members of the Enlightenment who, in spite of their world view, nevertheless excoriated such moves.

Chabad denied the rumors vehemently over the years, presenting alternative versions of the life of the rabbi's youngest son, a married father of four. But documents, copies of which are in Jerusalem, prove the rumors true. The original documents are located in the national historical archives in Minsk, the capital of Belarussia.

Five years ago, Tel Aviv University historian Prof. David Assaf wrote an article about Moshe for the Hebrew periodical Tzion, surveying evidence proving and disproving the conversion.

Assaf concluded that the facts were irrefutable: a conversion indeed had taken place. However, he expressed the hope that in the rich trove of archives in the former Soviet Union, undiscovered documents would shed more light on the subject.

Assaf's hopes were fulfilled. Following publication of his article, Hebrew University Prof. Shaul Stempfer searched the archives, and found two files of documents that had once belonged to the Catholic Church in the area of Mohilev in eastern Belarussia. The documents, written in Russian, Polish and Latin, are devoted to Moshe's conversion. The files were photographed by emissaries of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the Hebrew University, and archivist Benjamin Lukin allowed Haaretz to look at some of them.

Letter to a priest

One of the most important documents is a letter written by Moshe on July 1, 1820. It was addressed to a Polish priest named Siodlovsky, in the Polish city of Ulla, where Moshe lived after his marriage.

The 36-year-old Moshe wrote he had long sought to become Roman Catholic.

He said the Jews had tried to prevent him from doing so by watching him constantly, beating him and threatening him. However, he wrote: "I have remained steadfast in my desire to take upon myself the true faith of Jesus Christ, to which the holy books and all the prophets testify."

The declaration was made before Christian witnesses, officers and clerks, whose names and occupations are noted in the document. They signed, certifying that the writer of the declaration was "of sound mind."

Thus, Moshe son of Zalman became Leon Yoleivitch.

Of sound mind? Opinions are divided on that point, to put it mildly.

Jewish sources, even those who deny the conversion, mainly agree that Moshe had suffered from mental problems since childhood.

On the other hand, senior Catholic figures who examined Moshe after his conversion tended to affirm the act, claiming he had pretended to be insane for fear of the Jews.

Mentally unstable convert

Subsequently, the recently discovered documents reveal, even the priests realized that the new convert was mentally unstable, and sent him to the village of Lubavitch where his brother, the rabbinic leader Dov Baer, was living. Eventually, Moshe-Leon announced his intention to become Eastern Orthodox.

He was brought to St. Petersburg where he became an adviser to the Tzar, Alexander Nicolaevich Golitzin, whose vision was to convert the Jews. After his mental state deteriorated, he was sent to a clinic for nervous disorders in St. Petersburg, where he apparently died.

Assaf believes it was Moshe's mental state that led him to convert. Were there other motives, such as anger against his older brother, or pressure from a Christian friend?

These and other questions are the subject of a book written by Assaf that will be published this year. In any case, the documents and testimony, old and new, shed fascinating light on the history of the Jewish people in Russia.