The Forward has picked up on the controversy surrounding David Assaf’s new book on the hasidic movement, noting, in this review by Allen Nadler, that the book is surprisingly difficult to purchase unless you have an in with a bookseller. Why would that be?
Of course, we all know why. Booksellers like to live.
The chapter that has created by far the most Internet chatter concerns the conversion to Christianity in 1820 of Rabbi Moshe Schneerson, the youngest son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, venerated founder of Chabad/Lubavitch. In it, Assaf offers a complete history of the efforts at distortion and repression by Lubavitcher apologists, horrified by the conversion of their founder’s son, and by their enlightened opponents, who could not have been more delighted by it.
Let’s begin with the Hasidim. Although this tragic episode has not been unknown to historians, neither has it exactly been part of the standard official history of this most high-profile of Hasidic dynasties. In fact, the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, in his published chronicle of Chabad history went so far as to deny that the conversion ever took place. According to Schneerson’s hagiographical account, Rabbi Moshe was compelled to engage in a theological disputation with the Catholic priest of his town, in which he was of course victorious, and then was forced to flee for his safety. Rabbi Moshe, according to Schneerson’s account, spent the remaining years of his life as a lamed-vovnik — the classic anonymous saint of rabbinic mythology — and was buried anonymously in the Ukrainian shtetl of Radomysl.
As Assaf demonstrates, this fanciful tale has no historical basis whatsoever. Instead, Assaf concludes that Rabbi Moshe’s conversion is best explained as a result of the well-documented, though unspecified, mental illness from which he suffered since childhood. And he offers proof. As he explains, while searching the Belorussian State Archives in Minsk, historian Shaul Stampfer recently came across a treasure trove of documents verifying Rabbi Moshe’s apostasy — including a letter of intention to convert that was addressed to the Catholic Priest of the Belorussian town of Ula (where Moshe served as rabbi), and his actual baptismal certificate, dated July 4, 1820. For the skeptical, Assaf includes reproductions of these documents in his book and adds that it is almost certain that shortly after his conversion to Christianity, the rabbi was consigned to St. Petersburg’s famed mental hospital, Obuchovskaya, where he died.
Note the “history” written* by the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe is completely false.
Nadler also recounts Assaf’s version of the suicide of the Seer of Lublin, of Sqverer and Talner violence against Breslov that makes inter-Satmar fighting look tame, and more.
Best yet, he mentions Tzemach Atlas’s mentalblog.
* The Rayyatz spent an hour each week telling this “history” to a Yiddish writer, I believe named Meckler. Meckler produced pieces that were published under the Rayyatz’s name, after the Rayyatz approved each one. Then the pieces were combined into the two-volume “history” sold in most Chabad Houses and online. No wonder Chabad’s archives are closed to most scholars.