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The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement

Chapter 4
The First Accusation Against The Rebbe

Hersheleh Choshech (darkness), as he was known in Vilna, was a scribe. That is, his occupation was writing petitions in Russian and Polish. Hersheleh was an accomplished informer, a degenerate who refrained from nothing for money. A Vilna Maskil offered this unsavory Hersheleh several rubles in payment for informing against the Rabbi of Lubavitch. By coincidence, when Hersheleh was in Krupki, Mogilev province, he happened to meet two professional associates, Jews. Together they composed an accusation against the Rabbi -- his opposition to Jews' serving in the Czar's army, forbidding Chassidim to permit their children to serve, and sending emissaries to reprove communal leaders for sending children to serve.

Hersheleh sent off three copies -- one each to the Governor of Mogilev, the Governor-General of Vitebsk, and the Third Section in Petersburg. For this noble deed he was rewarded by Nissan Rosenthal, a Vilna Maskil, with the munificent sum of twenty-five rubles. Our hero took the money and promptly told a Chassid that he knew for a definite fact that the Rabbi had been slandered. Of course, for a slight consideration and expenses he could obtain a copy of the accusation and all pertinent details. The Chassid paid Hersheleh the "slight consideration," and received a transcript of the letter with the names of the recipients.

The Vilna Maskilim wrote an article in German, describing the joyful gratitude of Russian Jewry for the benevolence of the Czar of Russia, his tireless efforts for the welfare of his subjects, the Jews included. They wrote of the intentions of the Government to establish schools for Jewish children, staffed with certified pedagogues, and the unrestrained delirious joy with which Jews greeted this news. However, the article soberly noted, though the benevolent Government had assumed the initiative at His Majesty's behest in this program, there was, to the anguish of all Israel, opposition by superstitious fanatics led by the Chabad head, Rabbi Schneersohn of Lubavitch, who strenuously endeavored to nullify all the good work of the Czar.

The article was sent to the editor of Israelitische Annalen in Frankfort a/M, Isaac Marcus Jost, whose periodical was devoted to articles of historical significance. The German Maskilim were requested to urge Jost to publish the article since it was to be the spearhead of the penetration of the Enlightenment into Russia.

While the community of Riga was still considering the engagement of a German rabbi and preacher for their community, one Dr. Shlomo, a local physician, kept Lubavitch posted on all developments. By the time Dr. Lilienthal was appointed to the post, machinery had been set up to inform Lubavitch of all his plans to introduce the German spirit into Riga. When Lilienthal paid his visit to Prince Lichtenberg regarding the propagation of Haskalah, the Rabbi's vaad ( board of communal activities) in Petersburg was instructed to observe Lilienthal's movements during his stay there. In this way Lubavitch always knew Lilienthal's plans and the activities of the society of "Seekers of Enlightenment" in Berditchev under Dr. Rottenberg, in Kovno under his assistant Mapu, and in Brisk under Shlomo Shabad.1

1 These were the first cities to organize branches of the Society. Rottenberg and Shabad, being wealthy, financed the Society in addition to their work on its behalf. Mapu, as impoverished teacher, arranged for three philanthropists of the Vilna Maskilim to finance his branch.

After meeting Dr. Lilienthal, Prince Lichtenberg and Minister Uvarov were full of admiration and affection for him. He was highly respected by them and by his fellow Maskilim. But the unanimity of regard was not perfect. Officials of the Third Section, especially General Freigang, the assistant chief of the Secret Police, suspected Lilienthal of political subversion. Freigang voiced his doubts about Lilienthal to Count Bidlov, and with his permission, placed Lilienthal under police observation. When Lilienthal participated in the secret conference in Vilna, Freigang felt his suspicions were well founded. Though Lilienthal was officially appointed by Uvarov in the Czar's name to plan the schools for Jews, and was receiving a monthly stipend of seventy-five rubles besides expenses, the surveillance was reinforced:

After four months had passed and the article had not appeared in the German periodical, the Vilna Maskilim were concerned. They learned after investigation that the copy had been lost in transit. A duplicate was sent and lost, and a third. Finally they found a traveler to Germany who consented to serve as courier, and the article appeared in Israelitische Annalen #VI. When the periodical arrived in Petersburg a copy was sent to Uvarov.

He was outraged to learn that there could be any doubt as to the Government's ability to actuate its plans for schools for Jewish children, and regarded the article as a blatant affront to the Government. Uvarov brought the offending material to the attention of the Minister of the Interior, Stroganov, pointing out the intolerable humiliation of His Majesty's Government in a foreign periodical suggesting that the projects of the Government might be hampered by a Jew in Lubavitch, a leader of the Chassidic sect, that stood accused of treason seventy years ago and whose leader had been imprisoned for treason fifty years ago. Uvarov expressed his confidence that the Minister of the Interior would investigate this Jew of Lubavitch and employ proper measures to prevent him from obstructing the implementation of the intentions of the Government.1

1 Letter dated March 28, 1841. Archives of the Ministry of Culture, Petersburg. Marked 80589/1254. This document and the others mentioned here were published in the Collection of Documents of the Ministry of Culture, Part 1, Leningrad, 1920.

Uvarov was still not satisfied. He wrote another letter to the Third Section, attaching a copy of the Annalen with a Russian translation. Knowing Benkendorff, chief of the Third Section, to be an implacable Jew-hater, he urged him in a personal letter1 to consider the state of affairs in the country -- that though these parts of Russia were under Commissioner Diatkov2 and authorized provincial officials, still, a Jew, one M. Lubavitcher, could be described in foreign journals as frustrating the Government. This was disgraceful, he wrote, and the Chief would doubtless utilize appropriate measures to assure that the Jews would not interfere with Government officials engaged in carrying out the Czar's commands benefiting all his subjects, the ingrate Jews included.

1 Dated March 30, 1841.

2 A tyrant who surpassed his predecessor, Chavanski, in his cruelty.

Uvarov reminded Benkendorff too, in this letter, of the imprisonment of an earlier Chassidic Rabbi fifty years previously, as a traitor. The culprit had been all but condemned for the crime, since it had been ascertained that he supported a Jewish army in Turkey, and had committed other capital offences.1 However, since Czar Paul was subject to alternating fits of melancholy and exhilaration, he was approached at a propitious moment and agreed to pardon the traitor. This error was subsequently rectified when the traitor was re-arrested and brought to Petersburg. Then, when Czar Alexander was crowned, his three bosom companions -- Nicholas Dolgarukov, Jan Lubomirski, and most important, P. Galitsin persuaded the Czar to free the rebel again. This was the cause for the popularity of the Chassidic movement, and at that time, according to Dr. Lilienthal, 75 % of the Jewish people were affiliated with that sect. Without doubt, Uvarov concluded, His Excellency was aware of the deleterious effect such a large group could have even against the Government itself.

Uvarov's letters were gratifyingly effective, especially the personal one. Benkendorff was so enraged that he immediately demanded that the Governor-General of Vitebsk and the provincial officials of Vitebsk and Mogilev institute an investigation of Rabbi Schneersohn and his influence over the Jews, in particular over the Chassidim.

1 The opposition to Chassidus started early and was intensified with the passing of the Mezritcher Magid in 1772. The Magid was the successor to the founder of Chassidus, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, and teacher of the founder of Chabad and leader of Lithuanian Chassidim, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. The antagonism reached its climax in 1798, after the passing of the Vilna Gaon, who led the opposition to Chassidus among Lithuanian Jewry. Instead of working within the Jewish world, the opponents used the Government as a weapon. A note was submitted to Petersburg ( emphasizing that the gravity of the situation made it too urgent to be dealt with by mere provincial officials) denouncing Rabbi Schneur Zalman.

The accusation stressed his transferring funds to a foreign power, Turkey, then ruling the Holy Land. His treasonous activities included plans to proclaim himself King of Israel and leading a Jewish army to conquer the Holy Land. The charges cited his teachings erroneously -- on malchus, implying subversive attitudes. Briefly, of the Ten Attributes of G-d the last is malchus, translated as Kinghood. Torn from context it could, to the unlearned, be distorted into an uncomplimentary view of royalty, but it has, of course, no political relevance whatsoever. There were many other minor points in the accusation to spice the major charges.

The Government was sufficiently impressed to have the Rabbi brought to Petersburg in the Black Coach reserved for doomed criminals. He was held in the Petropavlovski fortress, for three weeks in the solitary confinement cell used for traitors. From the first he was kept under armed guard. An unfavorable result of the investigation of charges would result in the extreme penalty.

High officials were curious as to the character of this desperado challenging mighty empires. They visited him, spoke at length, and were soon convinced of his saintliness and sincerity. Fifty-three days after his arrest he was released, on Kislev 19, henceforth a banner day on the Chassidic calendar. The perpetuation of Chassidus was virtually assured.

Two years, almost to the day, after the first arrest, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was again arrested. In 1798 the accusations were primarily personal, in 1800 ideological. He suffered the first time but was treated with consideration, the second. In 1800 he was accompanied by his youngest son, Rabbi Moshe, who translated the Rabbi's Yiddish or Hebrew into fluent Russian or French. Young Rabbi Moshe impressed the officials, and their later sympathies to Chassidus were, at least in part, due to him. (See further, p. 53.)

Rabbi Schneur Zalman was exonerated in a few weeks, but was not permitted to leave Petersburg because of technicalities. (See "On Learning Chassidus," Brooklyn, 1959, p. 24 ff.) In the meantime Czar Paul -- who played a major role in the first release -- was assassinated. His successor, Alexander I, signed the document freeing the Rabbi. Incidentally, this was the second document Alexander signed as Czar.

The arrests of Rabbi Schneur Zalman play a large role in the history, and subsequently in the literature, of Chabad. See "Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi;" Brooklyn, 1948, text and bibliography; Arrest un Bafraiung, 1960 (Yiddish). - Trans. 

The Petersburg vaad had developed means of access to the Ministries of Culture and the Interior and the Third Section. From the time Lilienthal arrived in Riga the vaad endeavored to keep informed of all business in the Ministry of Culture pertaining to the Haskalah movement. They fortunately met young Pavlov1 who obligingly acquired  for them various transcripts, including copies of Uvarov's letters to Stroganov, Benkendorff, and the Third Section. Another transcript the vaad received, was a copy of Lilienthal's report to the elder Pavlov, assistant Minister of Culture, concerning the conference in Vilna.

1 Personally devout and an admirer of religious people, he was receptive to the explanations given him by Chaikin of the Petersburg vaad, concerning the Maskilim's plots against the Jewish faith. He then began assisting the vaad.

The secret conference had been held without the necessary permission of the local police, Lilienthal explained, "since the police had cordial relations with the Chassidic sect and its leaders. Shlomo Bailkish and another superstitious fanatic, Nachman Parnes, are honored by the police and are constant visitors in the police offices. Since these men are influential with the police (and, as the Minister remarked that he frequently meets with Chief Benkendorff, it might be advisable to inform him of this), I called this gathering secretly, depending on the certificate issued me by the Ministry of Culture with Your Excellency's signature, to prevent those two Jews, Bailkish and Parnes, from learning of our work and hindering us in planning the implementation of the Government's wishes for the welfare of the Jews.

"Many older enlightened Jews participated in this conference -- men who recognize the benevolence of the Government, who revere its officials, and earnestly desire to assist them in carrying out their wishes. But many obstacles will impede us. According to one of our members who has visited Chassidic communities in many provinces, the Lubavitcher Rabbi, whom he met personally, will strenuously oppose the Government's directive to organize schools. It is therefore imperative that the Government, by all means, restrain him from hindering the execution of the law."

The vaad utilized each transcript to the fullest advantage. They succeeded in intercepting the letters Hersheleh Choshech sent to the Third Section and to Vitebsk, but could not prevent the third letter, to the provincial offices of Mogilev, from arriving. Eventually it came into the hands of the ambitious assistant to the Governor, Sobietski, an anti-Semitic Pole. Without informing his superiors he undertook a private investigation on his own authority, with hopes of substantial rewards for his initiative. He asked his brother, an estate-holder in Shvintzian, Vilna province, to procure a competent spy for a special task.

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