The Rebbe’s Christian Son

November 6, 2012 | By

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Members of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidism love nothing more than telling stories about their rebbes. One episode, however, that doesn’t get much mention concerns Rabbi Moshe, son of Chabad’s founding rebbe, Shneur Zalman of Liadi. As David Assaf reports in his book Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism, Moshe, a respected rabbi and scholar, was plagued from childhood with an unspecified mental illness.

In the summer of 1820, 36-year-old Moshe converted to Christianity. On Tisha B’Av of that year, at his own urgent request, Moshe was secretly baptized by a Catholic priest of Ulla, where he still technically served as rabbi. He moved to a monastery to study Christianity, but a priest there became convinced that Moshe was emotionally disturbed and recommended he be returned to his family.

What followed was a power struggle between the warring agendas of Russian authorities, religious leaders, and family members. Eventually even the czar got involved, decreeing that Moshe remain under the care of the Church. He received private treatment in the home of an archbishop before being hospitalized, at which point the historical record–and, historians speculate, his life–came to an abrupt end.

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