Chabad's Lost Son

Very few among Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim know this story, and those who do go to great lengths to deny it. After all, it is not easy for the Hasidim to accept that Rabbi Moshe, the youngest son of the founder of their movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi converted to Christianity.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

Very few among Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim know this story, and those who do go to great lengths to deny it. After all, it is not easy for the Hasidim to accept that Rabbi Moshe, the youngest son of the founder of their movement, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1902-1994) - better known in Jewish history as the Ba'al Hatanya and the author of the Likutei Amarim Tanya, a basic book on Hasidic philosophy - converted to Christianity.

In Eastern Europe of the last 200 years, conversion to Christianity was certainly not unheard of, and was most often motivated by a desire to alleviate the conditions of life - to find a job or be accepted to studies - or romance - falling in love with a non-Jew. But the conversion of a major Hasidic rabbi's son is certainly the most celebrated case.

The story was first made public by Professor David Assaf, a lecturer in Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, in an article he published some two-and-a-half years ago in a journal called "Zion." According to Assaf's research, involving the study of a wide variety of Hasidic sources related to Christianity, Moshe converted at the age of 36, when he was already married and had children. Moshe was his father's favorite son and viewed as his father's successor. Despite Moshe's young age, he was appointed to the prestigious position of hozer - the one who repeats the rabbi's sermons for the Hasidim.

Assaf examines the various possible motives, as discussed by others, and rules most of them out. Thus, for example, he mentions the claim made by a number of maskilim (secular or modern, observant Jews) that Moshe converted to Christianity because he was angry that his older brother, Dov Ber, whom he held in contempt, was ultimately chosen to succeed his father (mainly due to intervention by their mother, who supported Dov Ber's appointment).

Assaf maintains that Moshe's conversion to Christianity occurred many years after the decision concerning the succession and that there is no proof of any link between the two events.

The romantic motive - that he fell in love with a Christian woman - had already been ruled out as an unfounded and unreasonable rumor.

Assaf also rejects the possibility that Moshe became convinced of the justice of Christianity, or that he became a Christian so as to land a respectable job, along with the possibility raised in the past that he converted after befriending a Russian officer.

Assaf takes the view that Moshe's conversion to Christianity occurred as a result of mental illness. As he puts it: "He lost his mind and then his religion."

He finds a hint of this in a letter written in 1817 to one of the Hasidim by Moshe's mother, Rebbitzin Shterna, in which she relates that her son Moshe had "returned to his previous healthy state." Assaf entertains the possibility that she was hinting of the illness in the letter and that Moshe's recovery was only temporary.

Assaf notes in his article that among the Hasidim, in the first generations after Moshe's conversion when the story was still well known, the story circulated that many years later, Moshe renounced his Christianity, returned to the fold and sought to atone for his sin by wandering about the villages and towns unknown and alone, and that on one of these journeys he died.

Assaf says that the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson (1880-1950), was the first of the Hasidic movement's leaders who tried to contend with the story of the conversion by means of total denial. In his view, according to the version presented by Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak, Moshe, who had a general education and was familiar with the ideas of Christianity, became embroiled in religious debates with Christians and was consequently forced to flee. In this way, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak hoped to gain two dividends by both denying the story of the conversion and at the same time warning others of the dangers of too broad a general education.

In his article, Assaf also mentions the book by the converted Jew, George Lazarus. In his memoirs, published in 1841, Lazarus relates that in his youth, when he was still Jewish, he took a great interest in Hasidic customs, in particular because of his background as part of the Mitnaged movement (a movement that vehemently opposed Hasidism, which, it claimed, attributed greater importance to prayer and social values at the expense of Torah study and halakhic meticulousness).

In a footnote, especially interesting in view of the developments of recent years in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Lazarus writes that the proximity between Hasidism and Christian principles was very great: "The fuel is ready and all that is needed is a tiny spark to ignite the fire."

The baron, the hooker and the countess

In a new twist, Boaz Eppelbaum, bureau chief for former prime minister Shimon Peres and now a businessman, has recently written a novel based on the story of the conversion - "The Christian Son of the Lubavitcher Rebbe" (Bitan Publishing). The Hebrew name and what appears to be the cleverest part of the book, "Chabad's Goy" - a play on the expression, "Shabbes Goy" - was suggested by sculptor Yigal Tumarkin entirely by chance.

Eppelbaum relates that he went to a Tel Aviv cafe to show the manuscript to singer and producer Dudu Elharar, and Tumarkin, who happened to be sitting there, took a look at the material, became excited about it and a few moments later came back with three ideas for a name. This was one of them.

The book is a sensationalist amplification of the account of Moshe's conversion to Christianity. Eppelbaum inserts a high-class call girl into the plot, Anna-Marie Schlagelbach, who is presented as Moshe's lover, and another lover, Countess Yelena Obarova, the daughter of the governor of the Ukraine and Lithuania, characters that figure nowhere in Assaf's study. He does not mention any independent source that led him to these people.

The book portrays the background for Moshe's conversion as an act of revenge by Baron Karl Schulmeister, the chief of Napoleon's espionage service who proposes to Moshe that he serve as a spy for the French forces invading Russia. Moshe refuses. In retaliation, according to Eppelbaum's version of events, the general decides, in council with Moshe's older brother Rabbi Dov Ber (the second Lubavitcher rebbe), to abduct Moshe and spread rumors about him that he has lost his mind. Ultimately, Moshe himself decides to convert because of his love for the Christian countess.

Eppelbaum added another interesting detail - that in 1943, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak ordered his Hasidim to remove the cross from the grave of Moshe. Eppelbaum says that this fact and others were reported to him by two Lubavitcher Hasidim who prefer to remain anonymous. He adds that he has been conducting negotiations with the Cameri Theater concerning the possibility of a play based on his book and with Channel 8 on a film about a search for Moshe's grave.

Assaf, who has already read the book, says, "It is not a historical novel. It is not a novel because it is simply inarticulate and poorly written; and it is not historical because there is nothing real in it except for the fact of Moshe's conversion to Christianity."

He rejects the account of the removal of the cross from Moshe's grave, saying, "According to all the sources that I have studied, no one even knows where Rabbi Moshe is buried, although a Hasidic tradition attributes it to the village of Radomyshl."

Eppelbaum, on the other hand, does not deny that he added liberally to the plot, drawing on his own imagination, but insists on his right to do so. "I approached the subject as a writer, not a researcher. Because there are so many conflicting versions and lacunae in the story, and because I wanted to bring the story to the attention of as many readers as possible, I deliberately chose the format of a historical novel, taking the license to lean in the direction of a particular view or fabricate parts of the plot. I leave it to the reader to decide where reality ends and fiction begins. I will not contribute to any clarification of the picture."

Arguments with Christians

It is interesting to note that Eppelbaum himself admits that he happened on to the subject after having read Assaf's article. ("So why didn't he talk to me at any time while working on the book?" wonders Assaf.) But, says Eppelbaum, the article only served as the catalyst to deal with subjects that troubled him about the Chabad-Lubavitch movement even earlier.

"The first was in 1984, when I served as then prime minister Shimon Peres' bureau chief. The Lubavitcher rebbe appealed at that time to Peres to use his ties with the Italian foreign minister at the time, Giulio Andreotti, to ask his friend Mikhail Gorbachev to release the Hasidic writings kept at the time in the Leningrad Library. When Stalin allowed the sixth rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak, the Lubavitcher rebbe's father-in-law, to leave the Soviet Union, he refused to allow him to take the larger part of the Hasidic movement's most important writings.

"A few weeks later, Andreotti returned with Gorbachev's response, which was a definite no. He explained that the Lubavitcher rebbe and the entire Chabad movement were viewed by them as CIA agents that dispatch spies all over the world, including to the Soviet Union, under the pretense of a religious mission."

The second case, Eppelbaum relates, was a year later, "when Peres wanted to find out what the position of Rabbi Schach, the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox movement, would be were he to dismantle the unity government that existed at the time to establish a narrow government in its stead. Emissaries that spoke with Rabbi Schach reported that he refused to even meet with Peres, explaining that the rabbi refused to even speak with a `murderer of fetuses,' referring to the Labor Party's support four years earlier for the amendment to the Abortion Law, making it more liberal.

"In order to appease Rabbi Schach, emissaries were sent to him, of which I was one. In the discussion between us that ensued, I asked him why he opposed a narrow government headed by Labor, when the Lubavitcher rebbe was sending positive signals [The Lubavitcher rebbe is considered a far more extreme hawk, but according to Eppelbaum, because of his desire that Peres serve as an intermediary for the books, he was willing to support a narrow Labor government headed by Peres - Y.S.]. He responded with contempt for Chabad, saying among other things that `Chabad is the religion closest to Judaism,' meaning that it is not really Jewish at all."

Chabad spokesman Menachem Brod vehemently denies the story of the conversion. "It never happened; it's a fairy tale. Eppelbaum's book is not worthy of comment, but Assaf's article is also based on unproven hypotheses. As far as we know, Rabbi Moshe became embroiled in disputations with Christians, and after it was claimed that he lost one such debate, he was indeed ordered to convert, but refused to do so. Consequently, he was forced to flee and live his life out anonymously."

Brod also rejects the quote from Rabbi Schach describing Chabad as "the religion closest to Judaism." Brod says, "It is too witty for Rabbi Schach. The quip was made by Uri Zohar, who himself regretted it later on."

New information on the affair has surfaced in recent months. A historian from Hebrew University who prefers to remain nameless to avoid pressure from Hasidim collected documents relating to the story from both Jewish and non-Jewish sources in Eastern Europe, primarily Belorussia. The historian says it will take a very long time before the documents are deciphered because the 100 or so papers are written in a variety of languages, most of which will have to be translated by an independent translator. Therefore, he explains, he cannot discuss the new details that the papers reveal. "But it is already clear that they deal with the conversion of Rabbi Moshe."

In other words, they provide additional testimony to authenticate the story.

The life of Menachem Mendel and Chaya Mushka Early in his book, Eppelbaum discusses Chabad during the lifetime of the last rebbe, Rabbi Menachem-Mendel Schneerson. He writes that not only did the rebbe receive a general education, having attended a polytechnic institute in Paris, but that while he was there (before he was appointed Lubavitcher rebbe), he and his wife, Rebbitzin Chaya Mushka, led a bohemian and somewhat hedonistic lifestyle.

According to the book, the rebbitzin remained a very modern woman ("She was a very beautiful woman, who bore a strong resemblance to actress Marlene Dietrich") even after her husband was appointed rebbe. He describes her as refusing for many years to wear a wig, that she wore trousers and smoked cigarettes with a cigarette holder in public, in the style of Western women at that time.

"She had a restraining influence on her husband and only after his death did he begin to develop his messianic direction," the book says.

Professor Menachem Friedman, a scholar of ultra-Orthodox society in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar Ilan University who has been involved in the study of the life of the Lubavitcher rebbe for a number of years says that this claim too is an amalgam of fact and fantasy.

"The relationship between the Lubavitcher rebbe and his wife was very complex. They shared a great love, even in light of the fact that they lived alone and never had any children. But it is not true that only after her death did he discover Messianism. According to my research, the messianic direction in Chabad is much older, starting in the 1880s, becoming a central tenet during the lifetime of Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak, in the wake of the Communist revolution. It was an attempt to explain it, and later to explain the rebbe's flight and abandonment of his Hasidim in the middle of World War II, when he moved to the United States."



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

$1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN

The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), which is operated by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, is pictured in New York.

Israeli Used Indian Hackers to Spy for Russian Oligarchs, Court Told

Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island

Inside the Fierce Battle Over America's Oldest Synagogue

Protesters demonstrating in front of the consulate general of Israel in New York last year.

Huge Gap Between Young, Old Americans' View on Israel-Palestine

Rep. Henry Cuellar attends a campaign event on Wednesday, in San Antonio, Texas.

AIPAC-backed Dem Declares Victory Against Progressive Challenger in Texas Runoff

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief Mohammad Eslami at an event for Nuclear Technology Day in Tehran, last month.

Prospects for Reviving Iran Nuclear Deal 'Tenuous' at Best, U.S. Envoy Says

A family grieves outside the SSGT Willie de Leon Civic Center following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Wednesday.

Israeli PM Offers Condolences After Texas Gunman Kills 21 at Elementary School