This Day in Jewish History

1504: Proselytizing Jews Burned at the Stake

When a sect of Jewish scholars who opposed the teaching of the Russian Orthodox Church lost the support of the archduke, they were quickly tried for heresy and burned at the stake in 1504.

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On December 27, 1504, several of the perpetrators of a "Judaizing heresy" were burned at the stake in Novgorod in northeast Russia. The term refers to attempts at proselytization meant to convince members of the Orthodox Church of the falsity of church doctrine.

In the case of Novogorod, the theological teachings were apparently brought to the city by Skhariya of Kiev, Zecharia ben Aharon Cohen, a scholar and translator – or, in the eyes of his accusers, an astrologer and practioner of black magic. According to the testimony of those who saw the sect as an enemy of the church (no documentation about their teachings or activity survives from members of the sect themselves), they preached against such basic Christian beliefs as the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus and basic church rituals and hierarchy.

The so-called Judaizers and their teachings spread to Moscow, where they gained the support of Ivan III, the archduke of Moscovy, as well as some key Orthodox clergymen, including the archpriest Aleksei. Suddenly, the natural conflict between the proponents of the heresy and its opponents found itself in the realm of high-stakes politics. Leading the fight against the heresy was the hegumen (monastery abbot) Joseph Volotsky and the archbishop of Novorod, Gennady.

The investigation and persecution of the sect began in 1487 after some drunken priests who had been exposed to its teachings blasphemed in public and, under questioning by Gennady, outed the sect. Over the next several years, Gennady implored his fellow clergy to convene church councils, “not to debate [the Judaizers], but to burn them.”

Despite Gennady’s concerted efforts to root out and destroy those who preached doctrines he saw as heretical, so long as the latter had the support of the archduke, the churchman was limited in his actions. Eventually, however, Ivan III came to understand the significance of heretical teachings and the political damage he could suffer by alienating the church, and he withdrew his support for the sect.

Members of his court, including his advisor and diplomat Fyodor Kuritsyn, and Ivan’s daughter-in-law, Helena, continued to be supporters. (Kuritsyn had started a club that educated against certain church practices.)

But Gennady managed to outmaneuver them all. Helena was arrested and her son Dmitry, lost the patronage of the grand duke. Kuritsyn’s club ceased to operate, and a number of accused proselytizers were burned at the stake. Skhariya of Kiev was executed in 1491.

On December 27, 1504, the church council in charge of investigating the sect, condemned a number of suspected heretics (including the brother of Fyodor Kuritsyn) to death. This amounted to a death blow to the group, even if not to all the theological concepts they professed.

Today, there is no consensus among historians regarding the origins of the teachings that were called the “Judaizing heresy,” and there is no definitive proof that they were propagated by Jews. Some point to the Reformation as the inspiration for anti-Church concepts. Others look to clergymen within the Orthodox Church who were disappointed by the failure of certain eschatological prophecies, particularly one that had predicted the end of the world at Easter 1492, to come to fruition.