The Story of Eastern Europe’s Most Famous Convert to Judaism May Not Be a Myth

In the Great Synagogue of Vilna before World War II, on the second day of the holiday of Shavuot, the congregation would recite a prayer in honor of Count Walentyn Potocki, a nobleman who, according to local legend, had converted to Judaism and was burned at the stake in punishment on that day in 1749. The count’s gravesite—destroyed with the rest of the cemetery by the Soviets—was frequently visited by the pious on the fast of the Ninth of Av. But the lack of corroborating contemporary documents has led scholars to cast doubts on the tale, and the website of Vilnius’s official Jewish community, following Wikipedia, dubs it a “myth.” Yosef Vilner argues that skeptics shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it:

As we read the [Wikipedia] article, we are informed that: . . . “the Polish historian Janusz Tazbir asserted that the story originated at the turn of the 19th century and was published in a Jewish periodical issued in London as The Jewish Expositor and Friend of Israel (vol. 8, 1822).” [But] The Jewish Expositor and Friend of Israel was a monthly periodical published by the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, by no means a “Jewish periodical.”

The abovementioned volume contains “Extracts from the Journal of Mr. Wolff,” who was a Jewish convert to Christianity. . . . In the spring of 1822, he met with Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, one of the leading rabbis in Jerusalem at the time. A neophyte Christian and a fervent missionary, Joseph Wolff initiated theological discussions with Rabbi Menachem Mendl in a disguised attempt to convert him to Christianity. Rabbi Rabbi Menachem Mendl, on the other hand, intended to bring Joseph Wolff back to the faith of his forefathers.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who was one of the outstanding disciples of the Vina Gaon, [i.e., the famed talmudist Elijah Kramer], immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1808 and settled in Jerusalem in 1816. . . . There is little doubt that he heard the story [of Potocki] from rabbis of Vilna who were contemporaries to the trial and the execution in 1749.

As to Tazbir’s claim that executions on religious grounds were rare, Vilner notes that

in the span of a five-year period from 1748 to 1753, another two such executions occurred in Poland. Abram Michelevich, a Jew from Mohilev, and his Christian partner, Paraska Danilowna, were executed in Mohilev in 1748, Abraham for proselytizing and Paraska for apostasy. And on June 2, 1753, Rafal Sentimani was burned alive for having converted from Catholicism to Judaism on the outskirts of Vilna.

Read more at Seforim

More about: Conversion, Jewish folklore, Jewish history, Polish Jewry, Vilna

Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict