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

July 26 2022

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.

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Read more at Seforim

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

Don’t Let Iran Go Nuclear

Sept. 29 2022

In an interview on Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that the Biden administration remains committed to nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, even as it pursues its brutal crackdown on the protests that have swept the country. Robert Satloff argues not only that it is foolish to pursue the renewal of the 2015 nuclear deal, but also that the White House’s current approach is failing on its own terms:

[The] nuclear threat is much worse today than it was when President Biden took office. Oddly, Washington hasn’t really done much about it. On the diplomatic front, the administration has sweetened its offer to entice Iran into a new nuclear deal. While it quite rightly held firm on Iran’s demand to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from an official list of “foreign terrorist organizations,” Washington has given ground on many other items.

On the nuclear side of the agreement, the United States has purportedly agreed to allow Iran to keep, in storage, thousands of advanced centrifuges it has made contrary to the terms of the original deal. . . . And on economic matters, the new deal purportedly gives Iran immediate access to a certain amount of blocked assets, before it even exports most of its massive stockpile of enriched uranium for safekeeping in a third country. . . . Even with these added incentives, Iran is still holding out on an agreement. Indeed, according to the most recent reports, Tehran has actually hardened its position.

Regardless of the exact reason why, the menacing reality is that Iran’s nuclear program is galloping ahead—and the United States is doing very little about it. . . . The result has been a stunning passivity in U.S. policy toward the Iran nuclear issue.

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Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Iran nuclear deal, Joseph Biden, U.S. Foreign policy