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Defined as heretics by the Russian Orthodox Church, Judaizers were Christians who adopted various practices such as observing the Sabbath, practicing iconoclasm, and, at times, denying the divinity of Jesus. In the sixteenth century, Russian chronicles and decrees of the Orthodox Church Council made note of a “Judaizing heresy” that had existed in Russia in the area of Novgorod and Moscow at the end of the fifteenth century. There is no consensus, however, on whether the movement had been stimulated by actual Jewish influences. Indeed, Russian nationalist historians have tended to dismiss the idea of a modern Jewish impact on Orthodox Christianity, while Soviet historians saw “humanist and antifeudal foundations” in these movements. Historians writing outside of Russia have found trends related to the Reformation within the faction, while some Jewish historians undeniably have argued for the existence of Jewish inspiration. More recently, scholars have linked the emergence of this heresy to failed eschatological expectations among Eastern Orthodox Christians and to political upheavals in the region.

According to Eastern Orthodox Christian calculations, the end of the world was to occur at Easter 1492, a date falling 7,000 years after the creation of the world according to their calendar. Disappointments resulting from the failure of these expectations and the availability of a Slavonic translation of a Jewish work of astronomy, Six Wings, (Shestokryl’, from Hebrew Shesh kenafayim) led some to turn to a Jewish calendar for explanation, according to which the 1490s marked just 5,250–5,260 years after creation. The new calculations afforded many additional years for the fulfillment of eschatological expectations linked to the year 7000.

Some scholars have demonstrated that the charge of Judaizing was used as a political tool in the struggle between the forces of Ivan III and the Novgorod church, following Ivan’s incorporation of the region into the expanding Muscovite state and his confiscation of land belonging to the church. Archbishop Genadii of Novgorod (served 1485–1504), seeking to strengthen himself, raised the charge of Judaizing against his opponents and supporters of Ivan III. In particular, he linked the roots of the heresy to a Jewish man sometimes named Skhariya who had come to Novgorod with Prince Mikhailo Olel’kovich.

In addition, the so-called Psalter of Feodor the Jew, an eastern Slavonic version of Jewish prayers purportedly translated by a convert to Orthodox Christianity, was also cited as evidence of Jewish influence in the last decade of the fifteenth century. Finally, fears that Jews would choose to proselytize contributed to factors that led to their exclusion from Russian territories until the partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795. In sixteenth-century Poland as well, accusations of Judaizing were an aspect of religious conflict. Polish anti-Trinitarians, a radical Protestant group that denied the divinity of Jesus, were accused of Judaizing and were sometimes referred to as semi-iudei, or half-Jews. To distance themselves from these charges, the anti-Trinitarians polemicized against Judaism, responding with, among other writings, Marcin Czechowic’s Odpis Jakuba Bełżyca na Dyalogi Marcina Czechowica, a work that appears to be a Christian response to a Jew named Jakub of Bełżyce. Since no work by a Jakub of Bełżyce has survived, it is not known if he was a historical figure or a fictional character. In the text, Czechowic refutes Jewish beliefs and practices, repeating arguments found in earlier Christian anti-Jewish literature. As in typical works of this genre, a Jewish character begins a religious debate, but a Christian has the final word.

Suggested Reading

Samuel Ettinger, “Ha-Hashpa‘ah ha-Yehudit ‘al ha-tesisah ha-datit ba-mizraḥ shel Europah ba-sof ha-meah ha-15,” in Sefer yovel le-Yitsḥak Ber, ed. Samuel Ettinger, pp. 228–247 (Jerusalem, 1960); Judah M. Rosenthal, “Marcin Czechowic and Jacob of Bełżyce: Arian-Jewish Encounters in 16th Century Poland,” Proceedings of American Academy for Jewish Research 34 (1966): 77–97; R. G. Skrynnikov, “Ecclesiastical Thought in Russia and the Church Councils of 1503 and 1504,” Oxford Slavonic Papers 25 (1992): 34–60; Constantine Zuckerman, “The ‘Psalter’ of Feodor and the Heresy of the ‘Judaizers’ in the Last Quarter of the Fifteenth Century,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 11.1–2 (1987): 77–99.