On May 23, 1749, Count Valentine Potocki, a Polish nobleman of Vilna who had taken the unusual step of converting from Roman Catholicism to Judaism, was burned at the stake for heresy. That at least is the gist of a tradition that has been handed down via secondary sources from that time onward. The story is still given credence among Orthodox communities today, although secular scholars have largely concluded that it is a legend.
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Broadly, the tale of the ger tzedek – Hebrew for “righteous convert” – involves Valentine Potocki, the son of a prominent, Vilna gentile family.
Because the son is gifted, his father, the Duke Potocki, decides to send him to Paris to study.
Disappointed by the pope
When there, he befriends another Vilna aristocrat, named Zaremba, who has also been sent to Paris to study. One day, the two friends come upon a Jewish wine seller, who, when they approach him to make a purchase, is poring over the Bible, specifically, the Five Books of Moses, in Hebrew.
The two young men ask the wine seller about the Torah and realize they are not familiar with the work. They offer to pay him to teach them the Hebrew Bible, a text that had not been part of their Catholic upbringing.
After six months, Potocki tells Zaremba he intends to go to Amsterdam to convert to Judaism. Zaremba promises to meet him there at a later date. They choose Amsterdam as their destination because of its relatively tolerant attitude toward Jews and their religious observances.
Potocki does go to Amsterdam, but only after making a stop in Rome, where he approaches the pope, determined to give Christianity a last chance. But when he discovers that the pope is a whoring sinner, he proceeds to the Netherlands. After undergoing conversion, and taking on the traditional Hebrew name of Avraham ben Avraham, Potocki returns to Lithuania.
One day, in the synagogue there, his prayers are disturbed by a young boy making a lot of noise. When he scolds the boy, the child’s father takes umbrage, and realizing that this is the notorious proselyte Potocki, who is sought by the Catholic authorities, he turns him in.
After his arrest, a lengthy imprisonment and a trial for heresy, Potocki is sentenced to death. He is supposed to have been burned at the stake on Sivan 7, the second day of Shavuot – the "holiday of converts," preferring to die for the sanctification of God’s name (“al kiddush hashem”) than to accept the offer made to him, according to one version, by the great Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliahu ben Shlomo Zalman, to use kabbalistic magic to rescue him from death.
One Jew who sneaks into the immolation collects some of the ashes from the fire, which are later buried together with the remains of the Vilna Gaon.
In the meantime, unexplained disasters occur to many of those who took part in some way in the killing of Potocki.
The town where the wood used for the bonfire comes from, for example, begins to find its homes burned down. Later, when Zaremba, who in the meantime has forgotten his pact with Potocki, hears about his death, he gets a fright; he and his wife and his child travel to Amsterdam to convert, and later immigrate to the Land of Israel.
In a detailed scholarly article about the history of the tale of Count Potocki, published by Wesleyan University in 2005, Magda Teter, today a professor of history at Fordham University, treats it as apocryphal, and traces its development over the centuries. She also offers some ideas about its origins.
One is that it was meant to counter an 18th-century drive to convince Jews to convert to Christianity. Another possibility is that it was meant to undermine the heretical movement led by the false messiah Jacob Frank, many of whose followers converted.
A third possibility is that the story emerged among Lithuanian Jewry, whose leader, the Vilna Gaon, led the opposition to Hasidism. Whereas Hasidim made up a sect given to ecstatic experience, the Judaism of the Vilna Gaon – and of Potocki -- represents the other extreme, a Jewish tradition focused on the learning of Torah. Lending credence to this theory is that the Vilna Gaon shows up in most versions of the Potocki tale as a supporter of the count.