When Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces marched through Germany and Italy, they tore down the walls of the ghettos in which Jews had been forced to live—symbols, to Revolutionary French eyes, of the worldly power of the Catholic Church in the old regime. Some French Jews even wrote Hebrew panegyrics in Napoleon’s honor. When the emperor was poised to invade Russia, many prominent rabbis prayed for his victory, seeing French rule as clearly more beneficent than that of the tsars. But Shneyer Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of the ḥasidic movement, disagreed. Dovid Margolin writes:
Shneyer Zalman’s s stark rejection of Napoleon was on the surface not an easy or obvious position to take. It placed him in direct opposition to other great contemporary Polish ḥasidic leaders, including Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein—known as the maggid (preacher) of Kozhnitz—and Rabbi Mendel of Ryminov, who insisted that the liberation promised by Napoleon would be preferable to Russia’s oppression of its Jews. After all, “[i]t was the ideology of the French Revolution, incarnated in Napoleon, that liberated European Jewry from confinement in the ghetto,” as Irving Kristol observed in a 1988 Commentary essay.
Rabbi Shneyer Zalman maintained his loyalty to the tsar despite his imprisonment by Russian police on false charges of sedition. In the final year of his life, he authored a homily about Sennacherib—the Assyrian king who sent the ten tribes of Israel into exile in 721 BCE—that Margolin reads as a veiled critique of Napoleon:
Unlike the other idolatrous kings of his time, [the rebbe wrote], who recognized the idea of a God of gods, Sennacherib rejected the very existence of a Creator. Shneyer Zalman alludes to the tradition that the [the founder of ḥasidism], Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, refused to travel in a wagon driven by a Gentile who did not make the sign of the cross while passing a church along the road: “There is more [possibility for redemption] for a non-Jewish believer than for a heretic,” Shneyer Zalman explained in the discourse. And so the lines were drawn: on one hand, there was Tsar Alexander’s religious faith in the one Master of the Universe who created and controls the world, and on the other hand was Napoleon’s [secularism].