Sect: Russian Jewish-style

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.

  Two Victories 

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.

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