On March 1, 2022 Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman, the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi of the Brodsky Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, recorded and made public a video appeal “to the rabbis of Russia, to the Jews of Russia, and simply the Russian people.” “Stop the war,” Rabbi Asman said in the opening. Then he admonished his audiences about the coverage of the invasion by Russia’s media: “Do not watch what they tell you on TV, they are lying. War crimes are happening here” (here and hereafter my literal translations—M.D.S.).
It was the second week of the war in Ukraine, and for wards of Soviet history like the one typing these lines, the push of Putin’s troops to overrun the defenders of Kyiv called to mind the failed attempt of Hitler’s armies to take Moscow in the late autumn of 1941. Earlier on that day, Russian missiles had fallen near the Babyn Yar memorial, site of the Shoah’s largest single massacre by bullet, and the ashen-faced Rabbi Asman choked back tears and pressed a Torah scroll to his breast as if it were a rescued child. A Ukrainian child of Judaism suffering under Putin’s bombs.
Born in 1966 in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), as a young man Rabbi Asman had tasted of refusenikdom, made aliyah in 1987, studied in yeshivas in Israel, and served in the Israeli Defense Force. When he returned to the post-Soviet space in 1995, it was not to his native city but to Kyiv. In October 2005 Rabbi Asman began to call himself Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, which resulted in controversy and in a power struggle with the Kyiv-based Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich of the Karlin-Stoliner Hasidic dynasty, and also with another Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, Jonathan Markovitch, the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and the official shliach(emissary) of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It is worth pointing out that Rabbi Asman’s history of denouncing Russian aggression predated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and went back to 2014 and the conflict in Donbas.
Rabbi Asman speaks an unadorned Russian with a touch of the Israeli accent. If I did not know he was a rabbi and were listening to a voice recording of his appeal, I might suspect he was an Israeli from the ranks of thousands and thousands of Jews who became reluctant Soviet engineers. Rabbi Asman’s rhetoric leaned heavily on the cultural and military mythology of the sort that most ex-Soviets of our generation knew like callouses on the fingertips: “I was born in the city on the Neva, the city of Leningrad. The hero-city of Leningrad,” said the rabbi in the opening. He referred to his father who, as a boy, had lived through the siege of Leningrad. He spoke with pride of his many relatives who fought the Germans at the war fronts and were decorated, and of uncles and aunts who were Belarusian partisans. Rabbi Asman’s appeal reached its highest notes when he turned to the interlinked topics of a rabbi’s responsibility and commitment to his people and of the complicity of those who dwell in silence as they witness crimes:
I haven’t left. I’m here. Why? Because I’m not an indifferent person and I will not leave my community. I’m the Rabbi of Ukraine and am proud that I have the honor of saving people. I’m on the side of light, and not on the side of those who do the killing. I’ve been silent for a long time. I can no longer be silent. I appeal to you, dear people of Russia, dear Jews, dear Russian people. Remember that he who is indifferent and he who silently agrees is a co-participant in the crime, the war crime, the crime against humanity [the Russian word Rabbi Asman used, souchastnik, might also be translated as ‘accomplice’ or ‘accessory’]. […]
I bless all those who are not indifferent. And if, G-d forbid, I am to perish, let a curse be on those who are silent and silently co-participate in this terrible crime. I stand here with the Holy Torah. The Almighty gave us this Torah. And I say unto you upon the Torah: ‘Wake up. I will say the words our ancestors said when they were led to Babyn Yar.’ They said: ‘Shema Yisrael Adonai Elocheinu Adonai Echad.’ […] I bless you, people who are not indifferent.
From the founding of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the former Russian Empire, its allegiances have been marked by loyalism to those in power and by tremendous ideological shrewdness. Historians from the ranks of the movement love to speak of the conduct of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch known as the Alte Rebbe, during Napoleon’s invasion of 1812. The Alte Rebbe opposed Napoleon, espoused Russian imperial patriotism, and passed away in the Kursk Province of south-central Russia after escaping with the retreating Russian troops. His Russocentric vision of the Napoleonic invasion differed from pro-Napoleonic sympathies or professed neutrality of other Hassidic leaders. In reality, the Alte Rebbe’s motives in siding with the czar and not Napoleon were mixed; he feared that a victorious Napoleon would grant equal rights to the Jews of the Russian Empire, and their emancipation would in turn lead to Jewish assimilation.
In a recent conversation with a middle-aged Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi based in the greater Boston area, a lovely and open-minded person whom I will not identify by name, I asked about the historical legacy of support for the governments and regimes of the countries where Chabadniks live and work, and also about the political caution of the movement’s leaders. “How is it possible to profess political neutrality during Russia’s war in Ukraine?” I blurted out. “I hate Putin. But it is not my job to oppose Putin,” answered the rabbi. And he added, a bit forlornly: “The job of the rabbis in Russia is not to engage in politics but to take care of their communities.”
Rabbi Asman’s video appeal may therefore strike the observers of Chabad-Lubavitch’s history as unusually blunt and devoid of political maneuvering. On the following day, March 2, 2022, Rabbi Berel Lazar of Chabad-Lubavitch, who is one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, issued a statement of his own. Rabbi Lazar’s statement was widely disseminated by the Russian media, and a section appeared on the website of RIA, Russia’s Information Agency, the official state channel for domestic news. While subtle differences between the Russian text of Rabbi Lazar’s statement and the released English version await closer scrutiny, I will quote from the text made available by a Chabad-Lubavitch publication in the United States:
One of the mainstays of monotheism is the belief that any conflict can and should be resolved peacefully. In our Holy Scriptures, one of the names of G-d is Shalom, which means “peace.” Peace is the objective that G-d sets for us daily, as we repeat several times a day in our prayers. Today’s reality, regretfully, is far from it: every day we receive news from our co-religionists, from the rabbis of Ukraine, on what is going on there.
We feel the pain of our brothers, regardless of their faith. I urge everyone to pray for peace, but prayer alone is not enough. Now G-d expects every believer to do everything in their power to save human lives. Personally, I am ready for any mediation, ready to do anything I can and beyond to silence the guns and to stop the bombs. However, now is the time for joint action. Therefore, I appeal to all religious leaders in Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and other continents to join forces for peace. We, loyal to One G-d alone, should use all our influence, all our power to stop the chaos and prevent further casualties. This is our sacred duty to the One Who created us all and gave us life in this world. Let’s do it, and G-d will surely help us!
Rabbi Berel Lazar was born in Milan in 1964. His parents were among the first shluchim dispatched by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. In 1990, three years after having been ordained by the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva in New York, Rabbi Lazar, whom in a 2017 book I described as “the ambassador of Jewish pride,” came to Moscow with the purpose of reviving Jewish religious and communal life. In 2000 he became a Russian citizen (he also holds US citizenship), an act not only emblematic of his stated commitment to Russia’s Jews but also punctuating his meteoric rise to prominence in Putin’s state, where Rabbi Lazar and the organization he represents, Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FEOR), have enjoyed Kremlin’s patronage and support.
In seeking an insider’s view of what the Jewish leaders in Russia would risk by speaking out against the war in Ukraine, I reached out to the Moscow-based head of a branch of a Jewish philanthropic organization not affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch. (For obvious reasons, my informant asked that his/her identity not be revealed.) “I’m working on an essay about the accusations directed at Jewish religious and community leaders […] because they have not condemned Russia’s aggression. It would be great to have your insight,” I queried. My informant replied: “As far as Rabbi Lazar is concerned, it’s plain obvious that in the current situation [Rabbi Lazar] would willy-nilly support the president, so as not to lose [the president’s] incredible disposition and to be able to reap the great opportunities of obtaining the necessary benefits (for instance, the huge parcel of land in a near suburb of Moscow, where a large Jewish Community Center was built).”
It is important to note that Rabbi Lazar has neither voiced nor implied support for Russia’s monstrous, neocolonial war in Ukraine while making repeated calls for peace and offering to mediate between Russia (the perpetrator) and Ukraine (the victim) of violence. The latter stance (or juggling act, as some commentators characterize the position of Russia’s Jewish religious leaders), has angered many in Ukraine, the West, and even Israel. We should also note the position of Russia’s other Chief Rabbi, Adolf Shayevich, the Birobidzhan-born octogenarian survivor of state-controlled religious life in the USSR and former member of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public. Rav Shayevich, who represents non-Hasidic Orthodox Judaism and its umbrella organization, Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations (KEROOR) and does not enjoy the backing of Putin’s regime, has likewise not voiced support for the war in Ukraine. Be it as it may, Rabbi Lazar, Rabbi Shayevich and the absolute majority of Jewish religious and community leaders in Russia have yet to decry the crimes that the Russian military continues to commit in Ukraine.
At the same time, one should not overlook the statements by Rabbi Lazar’s associate, Rabbi Alexander Boroda, since 2008 the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, who has allegedly replicated the Kremlin’s rhetoric of the “denazification” of Ukraine. Rabbi Boroda’s background differs markedly from that of Rabbi Lazar. Born in Moscow in 1968, Boroda followed a winding Soviet path to a stellar post-Soviet career as a Jewish religious and community leader. Behind his back are a military service in Soviet marine aviation and working as a mining engineer. A Jewish community organizer and fundraiser during the first post-Soviet decade, Alexander Boroda, who is often called a ”disciple” of Rabbi Berel Lazar, was ordained as a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi. He became a driving force behind the creation and construction of the Moscow Jewish Community Center in Maryina Rosha, the largest such campus in Eastern Europe, and of the Jewish Museum of Tolerance. On prior occasions, notably in the 23 January 2013 interview with Yulia Taratuta on Dozhd’ (Rain) television channel, Rabbi Boroda had not shunned opportunities to acknowledge President Putin’s patronage of Jewish religious and communal life in the Russian Federation.
A controversy erupted over the comments Rabbi Boroda’s made on March 4, 2022 to the Interfax Russian news agency: “It is difficult to comprehend that in Ukraine, which has a large and in many ways prosperous Jewish community, there is a parallel ongoing process of heroization of criminals [geroizatsiia prestupnikov], guilty of the death of the ancestors of the same very Jews.” It was of Rabbi Boroda that the Kiev-based Rabbi Asman had the harshest words in a Jerusalem Post interview with the journalist Zvika Klein. Asman recognized that “the rabbis in Russia may have no choice because the ‘iron curtains’ are setting in again. I was born in Russia and know what an iron curtain is.” Rabbi Asman also highlighted a historical precedent for Jewish leaders’ resistance, that of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson: “I suggest to Alexander Boroda to learn from the personal story of the father of the last Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe. Communists threatened him and wanted to kill him, but he wasn’t afraid of them. He didn’t sell his Jewish beliefs and conscience to the devil. He defeated Stalin.” Then came Rabbi Asman’s judgment of Rabbi Boroda:
[He] has a choice: either to be on the side of the ‘light’–which is Ukraine–or with the darkness: Russia. It’s his freedom of choice. […] When the war will be over, it will be very difficult for him and others to live with this conscience; the war will soon end, yet we are going to be living with these losses for life. […] God will make sure that [those that supported the Putin regime] will be held accountable.
Rabbi Boroda subsequently claimed, most extensively in a conversation with Louis Keene of The Forward, that “Interfax framed the comments in a misleading way,” and that “he never connected the question about neo-Nazi activity in Ukraine to the war.” Western and Israeli commentators have pointed out that while the professed political neutrality of Russia’s Chabad-Lubavitch leaders was already apparent during Russia’s wars in Chechnya and continued throughout Russia’s aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine’s breakaway regions, the start of Russia’s invasion put the Jewish leaders “between a rock and a hard place.” To quote Cnaan Liphshitz of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine has placed unprecedented strain on [the special arrangement between Russia’s Chabad and the Kremlin], threatening what many view as a golden age of Russian Jewry and possibly Chabad’s place alongside Christian and Muslim counterparts operating under similar understandings with Putin.”
The war between Russia and Ukraine has split the Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis, many of whom were born in the former USSR and subsequently studied together in Israeli and American yeshivas. They found themselves divided along the lines of national belonging and allegiance. The Russia-Ukraine war reanimates the horrible times in the history of the past century when Jewish soldiers fought other Jewish soldiers and died with the Shema on their parched lips, and Jewish field officers led troops to battle against troops that included fellow Jews. I’m thinking mainly of the long years of World War I, but also the brief period of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, when Jewish servicemen went to battle in opposing armies.
In today’s war, Chabad-Lubavitch leaders in Russia and Ukraine find themselves not only on opposing sides of a brutal military conflict, but also on opposite sides of justice. I will consider the consequences in the second installment of this essay.