The Truth v. Hasidic Hagiography

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.

Here is Nadler’s recounting of Assaf’s revelations regarding Moshe, the son of the Alter Rebbe who converted to Christianity:

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.



Filed under Blogs, Chabad History, Chabad Theology, History

7 responses to “The Truth v. Hasidic Hagiography

  1. Nigritude Ultramarine

    נאחז בסבך can be purchased here for 79 ש”ח.

  2. doresh

    A few things.

    1. Does anyone have any idea if and when this book will be translated into English?

    2. The issue of playing fast and lose with the truth appears to be found not just with hassidim but with other parts of the UO as well.

    3. Given that the UO often self servedly ‘rewrite history’ and from what I can see from slifkin affair rewrite what is acceptable and what is kefirah it leads me to wonder whether our whole mesorah is a pack of lies.

    4. For instance there are indications that the story of Purim was an ancient Persian fairy story. I could imagine it getting embellished and embellished. Non nod led to wink wink. New commentaries such as midrashim were written. Later they were claimed to be from Sinai. Then rishonim wrote things. Later they were said to be divinely inspired and not questionable.

    5. This would have been buttressed by constantly changing the history of the previous generation of gedolim to make them more saintly (see making of a godol and the objections the velt has to it). Then the stories start. You tell a story and embellish it a bit. And before long the godol performed a nais or was associated with one. And even though there is evidence against it, the evidence is ignored. And of course given that they are told to children, the kids believe and associate with their culture and will never want to relinquish the stories as adults (in the same way a Turk even when he becomes an adult and even if he goes to university and grad school ect will never admit the Armenian genocide – I met many like this.)

    6. Now we get to the ‘victors write the history’ argument. The maskilim eventually intermarried. They couldn’t answer back after a few generations. So whatever slander was perpetuated against them held and grew roots. Again one side of

    6. Once one have sanctified the previous generations questioning what they have said or written is not possible and whatever embellishments they have made to the torah /and/or mesorah become accepted as the norm.

    7. The apologetics movements started with all this. The brightest and the best come up with very clever answers to explain contradictions that otherwise would have blown the thing apart. Thus nishtaneh hatveh was started by the baalei tosfos. But many answers are sometimes offered. Like lice don’t have chayim if you cant see them reproduce with the naked eye. So we redefine chayim. Other explanations contradict this. No-one point this out. Its just a mad rush to placate the masses.

    8. And then the don’t take it literally people have a go although they are put on a tight leash because if taken too far could lead to no-one taking the torah seriously and no-one keeping mitsvos. Sometimes I have been told that medresh x is not literal ect. But then I find some ranban and a ran who do take it quite literally. And people don’t want to deal with that. But given that most people don’t know all these rishonim it doesn’t matter anyway.

    9. When difficult questions come up like in Nosson Slifkins books they are suppressed for fear of opening Pandora’s box. That would explain the real reason why they have been banned. People are worried that once some things are explained away that questions might remain and that new questions might be asked. The placation of the masses may be usurped by reading the books.

    10. It also explains why the velt doesn’t like digging up kisvai yaddos and using them to learn various sugyas. It might imply that the halacha needs to be changed in the light of finding new rishonim. So people come up with a ‘clever clever’. No matter what some meiri or ritva says we keep the halacha the same. But then they worry that they might contradict the mesorah or our hashkos. So all the mosad harav kook kisvai yaddos are viewed with suspicion.

    11. Sometimes the rewriting of history is so complete that people don’t realize that kabbala was controversial about 900 years ago and baal hakabala were not always mekubal (parden the pun hehe). The zohar seems to not have come from Reb shimon bar yechai given that it mentions nekudos and the crusades. But then the clever explanations start. It was based on a prior work that was written by R shimon bar yechai ect. Indeed no matter the evidence the clever explanations continue apace.

    12. The Hasidim vs misnagdim argument was swept under the carpet. If the Hasidim were wrong why don’t the litvish olum continue in their persecutions? So was the gra wrong? No we can’t say that. Did the Hasidim change? That would mean the original rebbes were wrong and we can’t say that too. So we come up with a mooshy post holocaust ‘we need to rebuild’ that continues forever. And we note that even Hasidim learn a lot of torah nowadays. And even litvishas wear gartels and are into certain segulahs and treat the litvish gedolim like rebbes. And if you ask you are told that ‘150 years ago was different’, it just was….somehow…… And reading mishpacha magazine makes the olum feel so mooshy about all those rebbbes anyway.

    13. The consequence of this is to admit that we are like goyasha children discovering that santa claus does not exist.

    14. I wonder if many people secretly justify the scheme for cultural reasons of maintaining Jewish identity.

    15. I don’t personally know what to think.

  3. Franji

    what did we say?
    chassidim shoytim!
    chossidim, in this case braslavers, keeping the peace -in kever yosef (? maybe or could be sheikh yusuf-who cares?) in time of crisis!
    it seems Yosef Hatzaddik (or who knows?! may be Yosef the Carpenter, patron of all craftsmen) , may have been Braslav’s Patron Saint all along. Let’s face it, the trip is cheaper than that to Uman, with planes falling like flies in the Ukraine.

  4. Unfortunately, there are elements of the Rabbanute committed to white-washing the humanity and flaws of our leadership and creating a false mythology.

    This is nothing new. It is unfortunate, in my humble opinion, as clearly we have a Torah filled with characters who were human with flaws.

    Compilers of our version of the Talmud removed from earlier manuscripts storys that placed the personalities of the Talmud in a negative light. The clearest example of this is Bruriah. The story of how she was seduced by a student of her husband, Rabbi Meir, which led to her suicide and her husband flight to Babylonia is now only in Talmudic commentaries to Tractate Avodah Zarah but clearly these commentators had access to earlier versions of our Talmud which still retained this story.

    A modern example of this comes from the false story of Rabbi (Yom Tov) Lipa Brenner Hacohen written by Rabbi Paysach Krohn (brother-in-law of Rabbi Ephraim Boruch Bryks Halevi who is married to Brenner’s daughter) in Around the Maggid’s Table R. Paysach Krohn, p.98. Rabbi Brenner has provided information to Krohn regarding the historical background of many selections in Krohn’s books (p.15, The Maggid Speaks: Favorite Stories and Parables of Rabbi Sholom Schwadron, Shlita By Paysach J Krohn).

    I present to you a retelling of the false story found on a website for a Bukharian youth group that has received funds and sponsership from at least one mortgage broker company related to Rabbi Brenner with long quotes from Krohn’s book. I will follow the lie by the actual truth:

    1) THE LIE:
    The following amazing true story illustrates the importance of correcting others in the nicest way possible:
    Being a Rabbi in a small town, far from any city with a large Jewish population is often a lonely and thankless job. True, there is much to accomplish, but the challenges that need to be overcome on the way to solidifying a minyan of shomrei Shabbos (Sabbath observers), building a day school, or convincing people to uphold and maintain standards of kashrus and family purity always seem to be uphill struggles. More often than not, a Rabbi in an area with a limited number of Jewish inhabitants gets the feeling that the Jews in the community are simply not on the same wave length as he is.
    One such rav was Rav Lipa Brenner, who had been inspired to enter the rabbinate by his mentor in Yeshiva Torah V’daas, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (1886-1948) of blessed memory. After a few years of serving as a rabbi and principal in a small town in New Jersey, Reb Lipa was becoming exasperated. The local baalei battim (laymen) were not cooperating with him in his endeavors and Reb Lipa’s accomplishments seemed to dim with every passing year. Meanwhile, to add to his dilemma, business opportunities beckoned from New York. Aside from the potential financial security that was so alluring, New York offered a variety of boys’ and girls’ yeshivos in which Reb Lipa might finally have the opportunity to provide his children with the chinuch (education) that he felt was proper and essential.
    In a quandary as to whether or not to leave the rabbinate, he decided to travel to Eretz Yisrael and seek the advice of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Reb Chaim Mayer Hager, of blessed memory. (1888-1972). Reb Lipa obtained his tickets and a passport, and made the trip. However, upon his arrival he was informed that the Rebbe was preparing to leave for Lugano, Switzerland, and would receive no more visitors before his departure. So Reb Lipa followed him to Switzerland.
    In Lugano, Reb Lipa made his way to where the Rebbe was staying. He waited his turn to see the Rebbe and, when he was finally ushered in, the Rebbe asked Reb Lipa to sit beside him at his table. Seated across the table was another rav from Tel Aviv. After a few moments the rebbetzin (Rebbe’s wife) came in with a glass of hot tea for her husband. Before she could even put the tea on the table, the Rebbe gently admonished her and said, “Please bring two more glasses of tea. We are three rabbanim (rabbis) here about to have a discussion.”
    Reb Lipa was astounded. The Rebbe had referred to him as a rav, and talked of him as though he were a peer. Reb Lipa trembled as he realized the significance of the title the Vizhnitzer Rebbe had inadvertently bestowed on him. But perhaps it wasn’t inadvertent? Did the Rebbe know that he was thinking of leaving the rabbinate? Reb Lipa never bothered to find out. Then and there he resolved his own conflict. He would retain his position as rav.
    Reb Lipa went on to teach and influence hundreds of under-affiliated Jews. For example, more than two decades later, Reb Lipa was visiting in the Mattersdorf section of Jerusalem. It was Shabbos afternoon and dozens of children were playing in the streets, which are cordoned off until nightfall. Suddenly a bearded young man came over to Reb Lipa, yelling, “Rebbe!” Reb Lipa turned around, but he did not recognize anyone. “Rebbe,” the young man said, smiling, “you are Reb Brenner, aren’t you? You probably don’t recognize me anymore. I went to your school back in New Jersey more than twenty years ago. Come with me,” the young man said warmly. “I want to introduce you to your grandchildren.”
    The young man took Reb Lipa by the hand and brought him to where his wife was watching their children play. The Sages tell us “Anyone who teaches Torah to a child of his friend, is as though he gave birth to [the child,]” said the young man, citing the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19b). “Thus, if I am your child, these are your grandchildren.”
    The young man was indeed one of the five from a foster home in New Jersey whom Reb Lipa had dedicated himself to teach Torah so many years previous. Reb Lipa had seen to it that he attend the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York, and from there, the young man went on to become an outstanding talmid chacham (Torah Scholar). Reb Lipa had all but forgotten him, but the young man had remembered. The face of his mentor had been etched in the child’s memory forever. (Around the Maggid’s Table R. Paysach Krohn, p.98)
    We see the power of correcting others in a kind way. The Torah and mitzvahs of the young man and his family were only possible because Reb Lipa decided to stay a Rabbi. Thus, the kind words of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe had a tremendous effect on several generations. In our story, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe merely treated Reb Lipa with respect, by referring to him with the title of “Rav.” There are plenty of businessmen but precious few talented Rabbis who can teach authentic Torah to the masses. Thus, Reb Lipa was much more needed in the rabbinate than in business. The Vizhnitzer Rebbe, who was endowed with enhanced spiritual powers of perception was able to see into Reb Lipa’s soul and know what issue was on his mind. Therefore, when it came time to give Reb Lipa his opinion, the Rebbe did so in the sweetest way possible.

    2) THE TRUTH

    Rabbi “Lewis” (Yom Tov) Lipa Hacohen is a vile pedophile. He was convicted in 1996 of child molestation. The original charges included 14 counts of sodomy, sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of sodomy in the third degree, a Class E felony, in exchange for a sentence of five years’ probation.

    Prosecutors said Brenner had sexual contact with a youth he met in the bathroom of the synagogue they attended. The molestations allegedly took place over a three-year period that ended in 1995 when the victim was 15 years old.

    Yes, that is why the local baalei battim were not “cooperating” with him in his endeavors. They wanted him out of chinuch and out of their communities and institutions.

    Instead, Rabbi Brenner moved from one community to the next through numerous synagogues and institutions in NJ and NY state. Brenner was a former Vice President of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and has held numerous pulpit positions in NY and NJ over the past 50 years.

    See UOJ’s discussion at:

    As to the assertion “Reb Lipa was much more needed in the rabbinate than in business”. He was a complete and total fraud in both. His involvment in both is a complete chilul Hashem.

    As to his business dealings, see my post
    about Rabbi Brenner’s financial dealings and their possible impact on the child molestation criminal charges at:
    Former Rabbinical Alliance of America VP & confessed/convicted child-molester: no jail time. Did his role in $57 million government fraud save him?

    Yes folks, the truth, not the lie told by Rav Krohn in his Maggid’s Table Artsroll myths and his stated questionable historical background source of the many other stories that Krohn has written. His source? To repeat: A convicted/confessed child molester involved in $57 million of government fraud.

  5. One such rav was Rav Lipa Brenner, who had been “inspired” to enter the rabbinate by his mentor in Yeshiva Torah V’daas, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz (1886-1948) of blessed memory. After a few years of serving as a rabbi and principal in a small town in New Jersey, Reb Lipa was becoming exasperated…………………………..

    JWB, Shmarya…

    For the record, the grandson of RSFM had the following comments about this particular passage in Krohn’s book when I asked him about Brenner’s relationship with his grandfather. “There was no relationship. Look at the words used attempting to somehow have the reader believe that RSFM “encouraged” Brenner to enter the rabbinate.”
    “Brenner was a poor student at the yeshiva and was a social misfit,” according to his sources. He says this only to set the crooked record straight about these type of misrepresentations of the truth.
    Certainly, these very quotes are used to enhance the credibilty of Brenner, which causes just more pain and grief to his numerous victims.

  6. avrohom

    Just as it is horrible and criminal for someone to commit the crimes mentioned by the writer, so too is criminal to malign a person who is innocent. So too, equally deplorable is to malign people of crimes he did not do, even if he did other crimes. So too. is to malign people without documenting it. TO make such allegations is easually deplorable and criminal. Likewise: when making such sweeping accusations witrh certainty if there is no such certainty.

    The people who wrote here about a person, did not document their claim. Their claim is just as worth as the crime the accuse others of. One of the writers (uoj) ACTUALLY A PERSON WHO IS GUILTY OF A CRIME OF BESMIRCHING PEOPLE. He was actually identified. He smeared so many people. He is detrmiental to the goal he is pursuing.

    For the alleggations he just presented it would be appropriate to be documentated to be able to verify indepedently.

  7. >Certainly, these very quotes are used to
    >enhance the credibilty of Brenner, which
    >causes just more pain and grief to his
    >numerous victims.

    Yes, UOJ is correct and the source as I’ve documented is Brenner himself for the above story I clearly labelled “THE LIE”. Rabbi Brenner has provided information to Krohn regarding the historical background of many selections in Krohn’s books (p.15, The Maggid Speaks: Favorite Stories and Parables of Rabbi Sholom Schwadron, Shlita By Paysach J Krohn). So clearly, the claims using names of godols to make himself “look good” are all suspect. It is incumbent that we set the record straight and that pedophile Brenner not be allowed to rewrite history with his accomplices.

    >The people who wrote here about a person,
    >did not document their claim. Their claim
    >is just as worth as the crime the accuse
    >others of.

    “Aavrohom”, the case was documented in the NY Law Journal. Is that independant enough for you? Brenner is a confessed and convicted child sex offender.

    Go to the library or the courts and check it out.

    Retroactive Effect Given Megan’s Law Fed’l, State Rulings Diverge, Judge Notes
    New York Law Journal – March 14, 1997, Friday


    A BROOKLYN rabbi who pleaded guilty to one felony count of sexual abuse must register as a sex offender under New York’s version of Megan’s Law even though the criminal act occurred before the law became effective and though he was sentenced to probation instead of jail time, a state judge has ruled.

    Ruling yesterday in People v. Lewis Brenner, filed in Supreme Court, Kings County, Criminal Term Part AP F1, Acting Justice Charles J. Heffernan noted, after an extensive review of 15 opinions in 13 cases across the country which have considered whether Megan’s Laws should be applied to all offenders retoactively, that “there is a marked divergence of opinion between federal and state courts.”

    An edited version of the decision will be published Monday.

    Justice Heffernan said he agreed with the majority of state judges who have considered the issue that, when applied to Mr. Brenner, New York’s Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) was not punishment, since Mr. Brenner already had felt the sting of community rejection upon his arrest. Thus, he said, the retroactive application of the notification provisions of the law was not unconstitutional as a violation of the ex post facto clause of the U.S. Constitution.

    Furthermore, the judge said, the Legislature intended the law to apply to offenders sentenced to probation as well as to those who serve prison time. But, he said, prosecutors had failed to produce evidence that would justify classifying the 65-year-old man as a Level 2 Risk which would require notification to law enforcement agencies and possible announcement to the community of his “approximate” address (based on his zip code) and criminal background.

    A Level 1 Risk, a “low” risk of repeat offense, requires notification of his address and background only to law enforcement agencies.

    The original Megan’s Law requiring notification to law enforcement agencies, and in some cases the public, of a defendant’s status as as previously-convicted sex offender was enacted in New Jersey after the molestation and murder of Megan Kanka by a released sex offender whose history was unknown in the neighborhood where he and the child lived. All the remaining states have since enacted child sex offender registration laws.

    Shunned in Community

    Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin in Manhattan found the notification provisions of SORA amounted to punishment and thus were unconstitutional as an ex post facto law and permanently enjoined its retroactive enforcement in Doe v. Pataki, 940 F.Supp. 603 (appeal has been argued before the Second Circuit and is pending). Justice Heffernan, however, said he was unable to reach the same conclusion for Mr. Brenner.

    “While four of the six state courts which have considered the issue have rejected such [retroactivity-related] challenges . . ., decisions in four of the six federal cases on point have espoused a contrary view, either directly or by pointed suggestion. Appeals in two of those cases are now sub judice before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second and Third Circuits,” the judge noted in his 111-page opinion.

    Justice Heffernan said he agreed with the analyses and holdings of the Supreme Courts of New Jersey and Washington State, the U.S. District Court for New Jersey and a state Supreme Court justice in Rochester, N.Y., all of whom rejected the contention that retroactive notification constituted punishment.

    After conducting a hearing last October, the judge concluded that Mr. Brenner had been subjected to shunning within his Orthodox Jewish community (he had to resign from the temple he founded and received a letter threatening him unless he stayed off the block where his congregation was located), but “it would appear that defendant has been able to retain considerable stability in his life with limited exceptions.” Justice Heffernan noted that Mr. Brenner had been accepted by another religious congregation despite knowledge of thecharges in the case.

    “[Defendant] failed to demonstrate that the effects of any form of community notification, should it be authorized, would be appreciably beyond those which arose without such notification,” he said. Thus there was no basis for a finding that the notification “would be an affirmative disability or restraint upon defendant.”

    Mr. Brenner had been charged with 14 counts of sodomy, sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child arising from sexual contact with the same youth whom he allegedly met in the bathroom of the temple they both attended. The sexual contact was alleged to have been committed over a three-year period until October 1995, when the then 15-year-old told authorities.

    He agreed to plead guilty to one count of sodomy in the third degree, a Class E felony, in exchange for a sentence of five years’ probation.

    Mr. Brenner was represented by Marvin E. Schechter. The case was prosecuted for Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Nancy M. Slater.

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