Remembering the Life and Teachings of Chabad Founder, 200 Years After His Death

Two thick tomes by scholar Yehoshua Mondshine draw a portrait of Chabad's founder against the background of war and peace in czarist Russia and the infighting of the Jews.

“Hama’asar Harishon” ‏(The First Imprisonment of the Admor Rabbi Shneur Zalman, Author of the Tanya, the Struggle between the Mitnagdim and Hasidim in Vilna, and the Informing by the the Gaon of Vilna − in Light of Certificates and Documents, Both New and Old‏), by Yehoshua Mondshine. Knizhniki Publishing, Moscow, 682 pages

“Ha’masa Ha’aharon” ‏(The Final Journey: On the 200th Anniversary of the Journey of the Admor Rabbi Shneur Zalman, Author of the Tanya, at the Height of the Napolenonic War − in Light of Certificates and Documents, New and Old, As Well as Stories and Rumors, Sermons and Articles‏), by Yehoshua Mondshine. Knizhniki Publishing, 380 pages

The recent occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of Chabad Hasidism 1745-1812 offers an opportunity to survey the latest books by one of the important scholars of Chabad. Rabbi Yehoshua Mondshine is himself a member of Chabad who, until his recent retirement, worked in the manuscript and archives department of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Within a short space of time, he published two thick volumes that bear titles that would likely prove enigmatic to anyone outside the field: “Hama’asar Harishon” ‏(“The First Imprisonment”‏) and “Hamasa Ha’aharon” ‏(“The Final Journey”‏). They contain no thesis, nor a story with a beginning, middle and end. But they have a wealth of new and well-documented information, based on manuscripts that were exhumed from oblivion and archival papers that were laboriously gathered and thoroughly explicated.

“Ha’ma’asar Harishon” is based on a publication from 20 years ago ‏(in the journal Kerem Chabad 4, from 1992‏) that has been greatly expanded here. On the basis of numerous documents, both new and old, Mondshine discusses the persecution of Hasidim, which dates back to Vilna in the 1770s. The climax of the persecution involved a false act of informing to the czarist authorities in May 1798 that led to the first of two arrests of the rabbi, who then lived in the town of Liozna. By means of the many documents he perused, Mondshine seeks to prove “that the motives and essence [of the persecution of Hasidim] were a personal interest, bereft of the scent of Torah.” Folded into this brief statement is an aggressive historiographic position, held by Mondshine in opposition to other historians, regarding the place, whether central or marginal, of the man who is widely known as the Vilna Gaon − Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman − in the persecution of the Hasidim by their opponents, the Mitnagdim.

The prevailing opinion among historians, including Shimon Dubnow, Mordechai Vilensky and Immanuel Etkes, is that the Vilna Gaon was the driving force behind that persecution, and that he acted thus out of an ideological-religious position that saw in Hasidism a new heretical movement, one that drew its strength from Sabbateanism. Mondshine, however, has contended for years that the Vilna Gaon was dragged into the activism of leaders of the kahal ‏(the autonomous administrative body that governed the Jewish community of Vilna‏), who viewed Hasidism as a movement that threatened the old order, and their economic and social standing. The latter leaders, who waged a political battle against the
Hasidim, the way that any institution battles a grassroots protest movement, presented the Vilna Gaon with false evidence, thus inciting him to lash out at the Hasidim.

Anyone familiar with the dynamic of how disagreements among Jews come into being and the way they are conducted in our generation of courtiers surrounding “the greats of the Torah” − from the late rabbis Shach and Elyashiv to the last Lubavitcher Rebbe during his illness, or even the still-active Rabbi Ovadia
Yosef − will understand fully the reality at which Mondshine is hinting.

This historic picture is very convenient for Hasidim, for it presents their greatest opponent as a pawn in the hands of wheeler-dealers, and the opposition to Hasidism as empty of any real ideological content. Mondshine does not deny the Vilna Gaon’s opposition, but it is important to him to depict the Gaon as not having been a partner in practice to the persecutions, which occurred, for the most part, after his death.

His success in this comes at a price. It may clear the Vilna Gaon of the charge of brutal persecution, but in practice, it diminishes his character and presents him as lacking an independent opinion and as someone who merely served as a pawn in the hands of corrupt kahal leaders, and who was detached both from his surroundings and from reality.

To back up his claims, Mondshine presents the relevant historic documents. And so we peruse the file of Russian-language ones concerning the “first arrest,” which began with the denunciation by a Vilna Jew named Hirsh Ben David of “Rabbi Zalman Ben Baruch” ‏(Mondshine points to documents that may hint that such a person never existed, even though Shneur Zalman confessed in his interrogation that he knew a person from Vitebsk, but not Vilna, of that name‏). According to the informant, Shneur Zalman was inciting against the powers-that-be, for he was gathering young Jews and instructing them to give aid to the French, and that was enough to grab the attention of the czar’s agents.

Moreover, he and his disciples were said to be leading a dissolute lifestyle, “drinking, eating and roaming around doing nothing,” cheating others and their families. Hirsh recommended that the emperor draft the rabbi and his students into the army, “or perhaps exile them to the steppe to settle permanently, and there they will have the promised and longed-for Holy Land, and there they will have also the wild ox and leviathan.”

The letters of denunciation made an impression, and shortly thereafter, an inquiry was opened into that same group, known as the “cult of Karolinim” ‏(as Hasidim were called at the time, after the major Hasidic center in Karlin, near Pinsk‏). The investigation, which doubtless was carried out with the help of Jews, led to interesting findings regarding the Hasidim and their customs, which did not differ much from those of their Mitnagdim peers ‏(among the customs mentioned that did set Hasidim apart were immersion in the ritual bath before lengthy prayers, and travel to a tzadik, a righteous man, to confess sins.)

The Russian documents attest that the regime’s officials did not put a lot of credence in the details of the denunciation, but took advantage of the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the nature of the new Hasidism, which was growing in force before their eyes. At the end of September 1798, Shneur Zalman was arrested in his hometown of Liozna, along with several of his disciples from Vilna, and sent to the capital, St. Petersburg, for a full interrogation.

Freemasons and Illuminati

The answers Shneur Zalman composed in his own handwriting to the questions posed to him under interrogation ‏(the original document is reproduced in the book verbatim, with explication‏) is among the most important and exciting documents in Hasidic scholarship. Beyond Shneur Zalman’s personal perspective on the historical background of Hasidism, its nature and aims, it attests to the fact that the interrogators’ interest lay in Hasidism as a movement and not in the rabbi as a persona, who was perceived from the start to be innocent. The Russians were troubled by the possibility that Hasidism represented a new religious stream, one that was close to the mysterious cults ‏(like the Freemasons or the Illuminati‏) that were spreading in Europe at the time, and were associated with the values of the French Revolution. The investigation set their minds at ease.

Because Shneur Zalman wrote his testimony in rabbinical Hebrew, his statement was sent to Vilna to be translated into French. Why French? Not only because that was the language used by the Russian elites, but also, as Mondshine explains in “The First Arrest,” “because it [Shneur Zalman’s testimony] was not written in the simple language all the local Jews use [Yiddish], but rather in the Hebrews’ erudite tongue, which is known to few people, and those who can translate it into Russian are not available at all.”

In the end, Czar Paul I himself ordered that the prisoners be released, since nothing harmful to the state, nor any corruption, was found in their behavior. To be on the safe side, however, they were to remain under surveillance. The order was issued on November 16, 1798, namely on the 19th of Kislev, a date that became, and remains until today, a holiday for Chabad Hasidim ‏(the release itself actually occurred the next day.‏)

‘A charitable duty’

One interesting chapter in Mondshine’s book is only indirectly related to its main subject, but will be of great importance to scholars of the history of the Old Yishuv ‏(Jewish population of Palestine‏). It concerns an unusual collection, one that was confiscated at the Vilna home of one of the Hasidim who was arrested together with Shneur Zalman. It contains some 70 bills and receipts that were sent to members of the Vidzh community in Belarus, in return for donations they sent to Palestine in the years 1793-1796. These funds, collected among the Jews of Eastern Europe, were life-savers, literally; without them, their fellow Jews living in the Holy Land would not have been able to survive.

In the denunciation, Shneur Zalman was accused of being in charge of that enterprise, which took money out of Russia and transferred it overseas. In responding to the charge, the rabbi noted that the custom was an ancient one, by which means Jews aided their destitute brethren. It was not currency-smuggling, but rather a charitable duty, a part of the Jewish religion that had been recognized by the government: “Thus does our religion provide for the poor of the Land of Israel, so they will pray there for all the Jews.” Thousands of such documents, similar to those preserved from Vidz, were sent in those years, but only a handful, these among them, have been preserved.

One fascinating topic that Mondshine buried deep in the book relates to the arrests of the Vilna Gaon. This is a disturbing affair that was connected to the kidnapping of a boy named Neumann, son of one of the leaders of the Vilna kahal who had converted to Christianity. The Vilna Gaon, who was accused along with the boy’s father and other community elders of involvement in his abduction, was arrested in early February 1789 and interrogated for about a month, during which he exercised his right “to remain silent” and hardly answered his interrogators. In September of that year, the Vilna Gaon was jailed again, in a “religious wing” that was arranged for him, but it is not known how long he was actually incarcerated. In 1791, the Vilna Gaon was placed under house arrest again, and was forced to swear that he had played no part in the kidnapping.

The documentation of this affair was first publicized in 1942 by the historian Israel Klausner. Mondshine revisits the case and enters into a heated debate with an old rival of his, Dov Eliach, who published a scandalous three-volume book on the Vilna Gaon a decade ago. There he claimed, among other things, that the Hasidim had instigated those arrests and also that the bans against the Hasidim, which were issued by the Vilna Gaon in the last quarter of the 18th century, had never been revoked. Mondshine exposes Eliach’s bias and distortions, and proves that the documents on which Eliach relied do not contain any evidence that the Hasidim were involved in this affair.

In another chapter, Mondshine presents old and new documents concerning the polemics between the Hasidim and Mitnagdim of Vilna, which reached their height after the Vilna Gaon’s death, during Sukkot of 1797. This documentation reveals a portrait of ugly community politics, wherein brother is set against brother and no party can escape this. Vilna’s image as a “sacred community” dubbed “Jerusalem of Lithuania” was never farther from reality.

In closing, Mondshine devotes a special chapter to the tragic figure of the man known as “the rabbi of Volpa.” This colorful personality, described in Hasidic sources as “falling” ‏(a term that describes “one of our own” who has strayed from the path and is “caught in the thicket”‏), conceals a dramatic and suppressed story that is typical of that generation’s stormy affairs.

From the host of documents and stories, it emerges that the person in question was Rabbi Chaim ben Karpel of Karlin, a Torah scholar and head of the rabbinical court in the community of Volpa in northeast Poland, who became a student of Dov Ber of Mezeritch, aka the Maggid. He then fell out with his friends, informed on them to the Vilna Gaon, tried to make money off of his snitching, and ended his days a drunkard. Mondshine discusses the unclear and contradictory traditions concerning him, and attempts to remove the shroud of mystery. The figure of the rabbi from Volpa still remains inscrutable, and especially in the chapter about his “fall,” but Mondshine’s writing is accompanied by an acerbic and aggressive response to David Kaminetzky, a noted scholar from the “Lithuanian” school and an old opponent of the author’s, who also published an article on the subject. Kaminetzky is accused of ignorance, arrogance, forgery and distortion. It may be safely assumed that the final word in this debate has not been spoken.

We have before us, then, a juicy and enlightening example of the continued historic polemic between Hasidim and Mitnagdim in our day as well, even if by different modes than in the past.

‘Exodus from Lyady

The book “The Final Journey,” which was printed on fine stock and in album format, is different from its predecessor. At its center stands one relatively long letter composed by Shneur Zalman’s eldest son, Dov Ber, who is known as the Mitteler Rebbe ‏(Middle Rabbi‏), shortly after his father’s death in December 1812. In it, the son described in detail the route of his father’s escape, when he fled his Belarusian town of Lyady in fear of the Napoleonic troops that had invaded Russia. This “exodus from Lyady,” at the beginning of the month of Elul 5572 ‏(early August 1812‏), was essentially a large convoy of family members, which was escorted by Russian soldiers for the safety of the passengers. The Russian authorities thereby repaid the rabbi for the intelligence services he and his hasidim had provided to them, and as the transit permit they were furnished puts it: “because they proved their loyalty to the homeland by uncovering the location of the enemy armies.” In the nature of things, and even though military and government officials everywhere came to the aid of the fugitives, it was a difficult journey that took some five months. At its end, Rabbi Shneur Zalman died, far from his home and his disciples, in the remote village of Pena, in the depths of Russia. He was buried in the city of Hadiach.

The letter is chock-full of historical and geographical information both about the journey itself and about the political views of Shneur Zalman, who loathed Napoleon and considered the French Revolution to constitute a real danger to religious tradition. Because of the many errors that have entered the letter since it was first published in 1876, some have cast doubt on it and claimed there had been later revisions. What we have here is a clear-cut and accurate version, based upon philological-historical analysis of old and new manuscripts, and upon comprehensive verification of the fateful escape route and its stations, as arises from official Russian documentation.

Once you overcome the obstacles of the convoluted wording and language, the letter itself is a moving and surprising document, in which the son frequently quotes his father. Thus, for example, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5573 ‏(August 1812‏), while the famous Battle of Borodino was raging, following which the French were able to advance on Moscow, the old rabbi summoned his son and said to him: “I am very sorry, Son, about the war going on now in Mozhaysk. May the Lord give to the good one, for the hater is growing in force and in my opinion will also take Moscow. And [the Rebbe] wept copious tears ... [and the next day he] summoned us and spoke to us words of joy and comfort in these very words: Today I saw in my prayer that an excellent change for the better has occurred, and shelanu natzah [it is our victory]. And even if they take Moscow, it will not last, and relief and salvation will come to us.”

It is clear from this not only that Rabbi Shneur Zalman was updated about the war’s progress − probably by the officers who accompanied the convoy − but also identified himself, deeply and emotionally, with the Russians. The use of the expression “shelanu natzah” signifies both that “our” side, meaning the Russians, would be victorious in the battle, but also that we represent the eternal, whereas the opposing side, the French, is ephemeral. Shneur Zalman went on to express himself even more adamantly: He understands that Moscow will fall to the French, “but that their defeat will be a fall that can go no lower.”

The son further recounted that his father repeatedly maintained that despite the hatred of Jews that prevails among the masses, the Jewish religion can have no “strong existence [except] precisely under the government of ... the [Russian] emperor, because he believes that the Almighty is one, and truly and honestly is interested in the Almighty’s servants.” From this assessment, regarding the czar’s commitment to religion and its adherents, stemmed the deep relations of trust and closeness that Chabad Hasidim felt toward Russia and the Russian people. This positive attitude, which naturally changed during the time of religious persecution in the Soviet Union, is evident to this very day.

Having discussed the wording of the letter, Mondshine turns to its contents, and creates colorful chapters that reflect his abilities as a detective who has managed to find surprising materials and connect them to each other. For example, we get the rabbi’s laissez de passer, which was stamped at the checkpoints through which the convoy passed; the letters of Shneur Zalman’s wife, who wrote to the “association to aid casualties of the enemy” ‏(which was established in Russia after the war‏) and applied for compensation for the property damage the family suffered; and other letters by the son Dov Ber, including an enigmatic missive from 1814 regarding some administrative complication relating to the cemetery plot where Shneur Zalman was buried. Mondshine succeeds in deciphering the secrets of this document, which deals, among other things, with esoteric matters related to the forestry department in the Russian finance ministry, and identifies the individuals mentioned in it − including the name of the deputy governor general of Poltava province and the chief official in charge of the forests there.

In the second section, Mondshine has collected mainly internal and later sources, such as rumors and stories that were passed down through generations of Chabad Hasidim, but whose historical value is limited ‏(in Mondshine’s opinion as well‏). The importance of these sources is educational and folkloristic, but they have the capacity to reflect the imagery typical of the Chabad world; for instance, Shneur Zalman’s negative attitude toward Napoleon.

A typical ‏(and belated‏) story has it that one of the righteous of the generation complained to the rabbi that “fonya” ‏(a derogatory term for Russians in general, and the czar in particular‏) was a thief, an adulterer and a murderer. To which Shneur Zalman replied that this was indeed true, but “that at least” fonya did not deny that there was “one” ‏(i.e., that God is one‏), in contrast to the educated and rationalist Napoleon.

Chabad spies

Another interesting chapter summarizes what is known about espionage operations by Chabad Hasidim in the service of the Russians. Several Hasidim − the most important being Moshe Meislish, who knew French and Russian − worked as spies among the French and conveyed vital intelligence to the Russians. There are also discussions here of fascinating and unknown sources, such as a “prophecy” of Napoleon’s death, which was mistakenly attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman, but, ironically, was actually written by one of his greatest opponents, Rabbi Avigdor of Pinsk; or a shir vetfila ‏(poem and prayer‏) booklet that was printed in Shklov in 1814 and consists entirely of a patriotic paean to Czar Alexander I. That text was attributed to a Chabad Hasid, but Mondshine rules it out. I, too, believe it is not a Hasidic text, but rather a characteristic Enlightenment poem.

We would do well to quote a few lines from the poem, a section mocking Napoleon’s downfall, structured on a well-known dirge for Tisha Be’Av: “On your departure from Paris − meat and wine / On your departing Moscow − not even bread; On your departure from Paris − animal feed and barley / On your departing Moscow − donkey meat; On your departure from Paris − butter and eggs/ On your departing Moscow − sans possessions,” and so forth.

Finally, Mondshine discusses the events of the war itself as they pertain to Jews: the destruction of White Russia and the Jewish communities in it, the political achievements made by Russian Jews in the war’s wake, and Czar Alexander’s gratitude ‏(here the author relies on the findings of Benjamin Lukin, from the Jerusalem-based Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People‏), and more.

This section, which testifies to the wide breadth of the author’s knowledge of
general history ‏(and it is a pity that Mondshine, uncharacteristically, does not mention the secondary sources from which he borrowed‏), is likewise filled with superb visual material. These include dozens of color photographs of people and sites related to the Napoleonic Wars in Russia, from the invasion and tremendous destruction the war inflicted to the humiliating French defeat. There are drawings and engravings from that period, as well as photographs of the places referred to as they appear today. Mondshine is not Tolstoy, and one cannot expect his book to read like “War and Peace,” yet until now, almost nothing had been written in Hebrew about this era from the perspective of the Jews.

In a special chapter, Mondshine presents a “verbal and pictorial explication” of the events mentioned in the Mitteler Rebbe’s letter with which the book began, and he who peruses it sees with his own eyes the crossing of the Neman River by Napoleon’s army; pictures and monuments depicting all the Russian leaders and military commanders − from General Dmitry Nevrovsky, who fell near Leipzig, to the legendary Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov, who defeated the remnants of Napoleon’s army in the Battle of Berezina; and the battlegrounds and weapons.

Mondshine’s books are directed first and foremost at the educated public of Hasidim, those among them who have an interest in history “as it was” − not as it was recounted to them in kindergarten or in Portion of the Week pamphlets. A Hasid like that will learn that the story of Rabbi Shneur Zalman cannot be understood without having a good handle on the history and geography of czarist Russia, its governing mechanisms and the way of life of the majority society in whose midst the Jews, including the Hasidim, functioned.

Between “The First Imprisonment” and “The Final Journey,” there ought to be another, “middle,” volume. Mondshine promises in his book that the next volume of his project will indeed deal with Shneur Zalman’s second imprisonment, in 1800. The word “middle” may not appear in it, but it will certainly be the requisite completion to this important documentary trilogy about the life of the founder of Chabad.

David Assaf is a professor in the Jewish history department of Tel Aviv University, specializing in the social history of the Hasidic movement. His most recent book is “Beguiled by Knowledge: An Anatomy of a Hasidic Controversy” ‏(2012, in Hebrew‏).