Towards the end of the 15th century, a dynamic religious movement ‘threatened’ to deflect the Russian populace from the Greek Orthodox Church to Monotheism. Within a brief time, so many Russians accepted the sect’s tenets of Jewish belief that the Church felt under threat and took violent means to eradicate the menace. Priests described the episode as the Heresy of the Judaizers. The latter term refers to Christians trying to return to the practices and beliefs of the “Old Testament,” a trend the Church has fought against almost since its inception.
Zechariah of Kiev
The two main persecutors of the Judaizing sect were the hegumen (monastery head) Joseph Volotzky and Archbishop Gennadi of Novgorod. During the controversy, Volotzky recorded his version of the story in Prosvyetitel (The Enlightener), a book that tries to prove the falseness of the new sect’s teachings and urges the public to search out the heretics and persecute them.
He records that the movement was started by Zkhariya (probably a variant spelling of Zechariah), a charismatic citizen of Kiev who arrived in Novgorod in 1470 with the retinue of Prince Michael Olelkovich of Lithuania. This happened after Lithuania seized control of this city state. Little did Zkhariya dream that he was about to launch a religious revolution.
Most historians identify Zkhariya as a Jew; some associating him with Zechariah ben Aharon of Kiev, a learned scholar who translated a number of Hebrew texts on astronomy, logic, and philosophy. Indeed, four of the five Lithuanians who came later to Novgorod in order to help him in his proselytizing efforts bore distinctive Jewish names. These people were Osif (Yosef), Shmoilo (Shlomo), Skargei, Moisei (Moshe), and Chanush (Enosh).
But in his book, Volotzky seems reluctant to admit Zkhariya’s Jewish roots and does his best to blur his identity. As the following passage from his book indicates, he wanted to characterize the movement not as an offshoot of Judaism, but as a confused jumble of conflicting creeds.
“Zkhariya was an educated individual and had an excellent mastery of dialectics,” he writes. “He knew the Holy Scriptures and the works of the holy fathers [early Christian writers], astrology, and all the sciences. He was also familiar with the natural sciences. Zkhariya attached himself to the Judaizer interpretation and it is difficult to understand why. It is doubtful that he was a Talmudist, because in the teachings of Zkhariya not one word from the Talmud is found. By all likelihood, he was a member of some religious community in Latvia. His entire teaching did not contain anything new or original, nor was it complete, delivered to us from somewhere else, but was a compilation of various and sundry similar and conflicting opinions and interpretations, all of which developed from the eras of the Bogomils and Strigolniks [earlier Judaizing movements] on Russian soil. And so we see that the new teaching, popularly labeled the sect of the Judaizers, quickly seized the Russian community and that era and found proselytes among educated individuals.”
Zkhariya was obviously a highly social, charismatic and persuasive personality. He rapidly made friends in Novgorod, and so struck them with his personality that many of them converted to his beliefs. One of them, a priest named Dionis, introduced Zkhariya to the influential archpriest Aleksei. Aleksei soon converted as well, and began converting many clergymen of Novgorod and the nearby city-state of Pskov, as well as people of every class of Russian society. He eventually adopted the name Avrohom and changed his wife’s name to Sarah.
Most members of the sect never converted to Judaism. According to Volotzky, they rejected all the idolatrous tenets of Christianity in favor of a form of Monotheism. They did not believe in the Divinity of Yeshu, he writes, and believed that the moshiach had not yet arrived. Yeshu, they said, was a regular person who died and decayed in a tomb. They also condemned graven images, believed (at least in theory) in keeping the laws of Moshe, such as bris milah, chagim, and kashrus, and observed Saturday as a day of rest. The Judaizers were probably nonhomogonous in their practices and beliefs, some leaning more towards Jewish practices and beliefs than others.
Initially, the members of the sect kept their beliefs and practices secret. Like Naaman who believed in Hashem after being cured of leprosy, yet continued to accompany his king to idolatrous temples, so the Judaizers behaved like faithful members of the Greek Orthodox Church while keeping their new beliefs to themselves.
Spread to Moscow
In those days, Russia was not a united country as it is today, but was comprised of a number of city-states such as Novgorod and Pskov. Moscow was the largest and most influential of them all. The new movement spread to Moscow after the Grand Duke of Moscow, Ivan Vasilyevich, conquered Novgorod in 1471 and brought the city-state under his influence. Visiting the city in 1478, the duke was impressed with Aleksei’s and Dionis’s piety and appointed them heads of two major churches in Moscow. Aleksei promptly converted many important Moscovites including Feodor Kuritsyn, the grand duke’s influential secretary of foreign affairs, and Princess Helen Stefanovna, the duke’s daughter-in-law. As for the duke himself, although there is no evidence that he joined the sect, he limited the persecution of its adherents and allowed the sect to survive.
Then the sect’s secrecy was shattered, according to one report, by the age-old curse of Russia, alcoholic spirits. In 1487, seventeen years after Zkhariya first arrived in Novgorod, some local clergymen became intoxicated and blasphemed the official faith. In their subsequent trial, one of them, a priest named Naum repented, confessed everything to Gennadi, Archbishop of Novgorod and Pskov, and told him that a number of the town’s merchants had circumcised and fled to Lithuania to escape punishment. At the time, other sect members fled to Moscow to seek the support of Aleksei and Kuritsyn.
Gennadi’s battle against the heresy made little headway in Moscow due to the protection of the grand duke. In 1488, Gennadi convened a sobor (church council) of bishops with the aim “not to debate them, but to burn them.” Sobors held in 1488, 1490, 1494, and 1504, outlawed and burned the sect’s books, decreed execution on the heretics “who glorify the Jewish faith and abuse the Greek Orthodox religion,” sentenced others to blows of the knout [a sadistic Russian whip], and exiled and excommunicated still others. Some historians say that Zkhariya the Jew was executed in Novgorod in 1491 by order of the Duke. Others say that he simply faded from the pages of history and was never heard of again.
Generally, the sobors had less influence outside Novgorod thanks to the Duke, who, although officially a supporter of the national Church, may have been happy to have a dissenting element because weakening the Church facilitated his goal of confiscating church lands and handing them to his favorites. He compromised between the two factors and allowed persecution of the sect on a limited scale.
The sect enjoyed a moral victory in 1492. Correctly believing that the end of the world would come at the end of the seventh millennium, but wrongly believing that this would happen in 1492, the Church had not bothered to calculate festival dates beyond that time. When the end of the world traditionally predicted by the Russian Church failed to materialize, the Judaizers had a good laugh.
On two occasions, history smiled on the Judaizers and there was hope they might gain power over Russia and revolutionize its religious practices. The first was in 1490 when the priest Zosima became chief bishop over Russia. Zosima was a secret sympathizer of the Judaizers and may have done much to protect its members and promote their cause were he not removed from his position in 1494 on charges of drunkenness and immorality.
The second victory of the sect came about through Helen, the duke’s daughter-in-law. The duke had married twice. From his first wife, Maria of Tver, the duke bore Ivan the Young who died in 1490. From his marriage to Helen, Ivan the Young had left an only child, Dmitry the Grandson, who was sympathetic to the sect. When Dmitry was crowned as successor to his grandfather in 1498, the future of the sect seemed secure.
But later Ivan reversed his decision in favor of Vasily, the son of his second wife, Sophia, and crowned him as co-regent in 1502. Helen was incriminated of supporting the sect and died in prison in 1505, and Dmitry languished in prison until his death in 1509.
However, thanks to the duke’s reluctance to interfere too much, the sect persisted until the death of Theodore Kuritsyn in 1498 and the passing of the duke in 1504 .
Deprived of their most influential supporters, the sect was driven underground. Although its public activities ceased, the sect was still regarded as a threat. Forty-six years later, in 1550, Czar Ivan the Terrible would not admit Jewish merchants from Poland as he feared they brought “poisonous herbs to Russia and led the Russians away from Christianity” and various legislative measures from time to time indicate that the Church still regarded the sects as a menace. The sectarians lay low.
They either disappeared or sprang up from the woodwork during the relatively liberal reign of Emperor Alexander I three centuries later, when Judaizing sects appeared in a number of different locations in Russia. Many of these people converted to Judaism and their descendants are proud members of the Jewish people until this day. For all you know, the stranger davening next to you in shul could be a descendant of people influenced by Zkhariya the Jew over five hundred years ago.