Moshe Schneersohn (also, Moshe Zalmonovitch or Moshe Shneuri, later Leon Yulievitz) (born c. 1784 - died, before 1853) was the youngest son of the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. According to some scholars he converted to Christianity and died in a St. Petersburg asylum. Chabad sources claim that his conversion and related documents were faked by the Church.
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The year of Moshe Schneersohn's birth is not clear. It is known that he married in 1797, and since all of his brothers married at 14 years of age, scholars assume that he was born around 1784. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe in his historical notes on the Chabad movement notes that he was born in 1784 in Liozna, but elsewhere writes that he was born in 1779.
It is alleged that when he was eight years old he started showing signs of mental infirmity. He received medical treatment, and from the scant information available, it appears that his illness alternated between remission and outbreak during his childhood. In 1801 his father took him for treatment with doctors in Vitebsk, St. Petersburg and Smolensk.
Moshe had an excellent memory, and while in Ule he authored a number of manuscripts of novellas that he had heard from his father (as well as notations). These are still used by Chabad Hasidim today.
During Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, his family fled from Liadi to the Russian interior. His father died as a result of the journey. Moshe did not go with them, instead traveling to Shklov. He was captured by the French Army and sentenced to death for espionage, but he was pardoned. According to a letter written by his mother in 1817, he had been stable prior to this incident, but apparently this event took a toll on his mental health.
Chabad accounts and scholarly accounts of Moshe's conversion and later life differ.
The Chabad biography, authored by the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, recounts that Moshe accompanied his brother, the second Rebbe of Chabad, Dovber Schneuri to the Tsar to discuss the situation of the Jews in his territory. The Tsar was impressed by Moshe's erudition, and ordered a disputation between Moshe and his Chief Priest. Moshe reluctantly accepted the challenge, and won the debate. Furious, the Christians arrested Moshe, took him to a church and physically forced him to sign his name to a letter that declared his intent to convert to Christianity. Moshe managed to escape from the church, but due to fear of rearrest, he traveled around Europe incognito until his death in 1878. The documentation of his conversion post date this incident by several years.
Contemporary Chabad sources repeat the story of the attempted forced conversion.
His conversion and mental infirmity and apostasy have been denied by the Chabad movement consistently since his death, with no historical backing whatsoever.
Documents found by historian Shaul Stampfer apparently document Schneersohn's conversion to Christianity. The original documents are located in the National Historical Archives in Minsk, Belarus. These include a letter to the local priest in which he states his intent to convert and his baptismal certificate dated July 4, 1820. The documents also show that after his conversion he worked for the Tsar to assist in the conversion of other Jews.
In the letter in which he stated his intention to convert he wrote that Jews who knew him had tried to prevent him from doing so by watching him constantly, beating him and threatening him. He wrote: "I have remained steadfast in my desire to take upon myself the true faith of Jesus Christ, to which the holy books and all the prophets testify." After conversion he changed his name to Leon Yulievitch. He returned to visit Lubavitch, but fled, ultimately dying in a mental institution in St. Petersburg.
- Assaf, David. "End Notes". Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis & Discontent in the History of Hasidism. University Press of New England. pp. 247–248, note 27. ISBN 9781584658610.
Moshe’s date of birth is extrapolated from the date of his marriage... More problematic are the dates of birth and death suggested by the sixth Habad rebbe, Yosef Yitshak Schneersohn (Rayyats), who sets Moshe’s birth in 1784 and his death in 1878 (Igrot kodesh: Moharayyats, 7:16). It appears unlikely that Moshe lived to the age of ninety-four, spending nearly seventy years in absolute anonymity. More confusing is yet another, earlier date of birth supplied elsewhere by Yosef Yitshak Schneersohn in his grandfather Shmuel Schneersohn’s name: Tammuz 1779 (Sefer hasihot, 5704, 150; Sefer hatoladot: Moharash, 134; Sefer hatoladot: Moharashab, 13; see also Hillman, Igrot ba’al haTanya, 213, no. 119), making Moshe’s life span nearly ninety-nine years! Yet another version penned by Rayyats places Moshe’s date of birth as Adar 1780 (Divrei hayamim hahem, 91; see the notes in Sefer hatoladot: Moharash [New York, 1997], 106).
- Assaf, David. "Moshe, Son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady". Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis & Discontent in the History of Hasidism. University Press of New England. p. 35. ISBN 9781584658610.
According to the archival sources discussed below, the first signs of Moshe’s mental illness emerged when he was eight years old. He received medical treatment, and from the scant information available, it appears that his illness alternated between remission and outbreak during his childhood. The documentation also indicates that, in 1801, his father Shneur Zalman made the rounds of Vitebsk, St. Petersburg,30 and Smolensk in search of a cure for Moshe.
- Assaf, David. "Moshe, Son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady". Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis & Discontent in the History of Hasidism. University Press of New England. p. 35-36. ISBN 9781584658610.
Moshe married Shifra,33 the daughter of Zvi Hirsh of Ule, a town in Vitebsk Province, not far from Lyady and Vitebsk... At a later date, Moshe apparently received an appointment as a communal rabbi.35
- Assaf, David. "Moshe, Son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady". Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis & Discontent in the History of Hasidism. University Press of New England. p. 36. ISBN 9781584658610.
Habad sources report... that, because of his excellent memory, Moshe was honored with the task of repeating his father’s talks for hasidim who had not been present when they were originally delivered: “During our rebbe’s lifetime . . . goldentongued Moshe would repeat our rebbe’s hasidic talks in their entirety exactly as delivered, and would also record them in their entirety (and we saw a large book with all these writings and notations).”36 Some of these notations, known as hanakhot, have been preserved in Moshe’s own handwriting.37 Aside from these notations, no other Torah exposition, thought, or letters by Moshe are known to be extant.38
- Assaf, David. "Moshe, Son of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady". Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis & Discontent in the History of Hasidism. University Press of New England. p. 36-39. ISBN 9781584658610.
But Moshe and his family did not take part in this perilous journey and evidently remained in Ule, or nearby... Moshe did attempt, albeit unsuccessfully, to flee east (without his family) in order to join his father and brothers. He made it to Shklov, where he was taken prisoner by the French army and accused of spying. Interrogated and sentenced to death, Moshe was released when his captors realized that the supposed spy was emotionally unbalanced... Sometime before 1817 Moshe experienced another physical crisis that was undoubtedly emotional as well. His recovery was noted in a letter dated Nisan 1817 from his mother44
- New Book Reveals Darker Chapters In Hasidic History, Allan Nadler, August 25 2006, (Review of Assaf's book in The Forward)
- Chabad: Documents are fakes
- It's official: Son of Chabad movement's founder converted to Catholicism
- Neehaz ba-Svakh: Pirkei Mashber u-Mevucha be-Toldot ha-Hasidut, David Assaf, Zalman Shazar Institute, Jerusalem 2006
- David Assaf (2010). Untold Tales of the Hasidim. Translated by Dena Ordan. Waltham: Brandeis University Press.