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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. His father recognised a problem and had him treated by the best doctors available, but his problems recurred intermittently. In 1801 his father took him for treatment with doctors in Vitebsk, St. Petersburg and Smolensk.
He married Shifra daughter of Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh of Ula, a town near Liadi. He went to live with his father-in-law in Ula and was soon appointed to the post of Rabbi in that town.
Moshe had an excellent memory, and while in Ula he authored a number of manuscripts of novellas that he had heard from his father. 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 up to this point, but the sentence disturbed him and he never fully recovered.
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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.
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.
- 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.