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Russia’s Silent Rabbis and Russia’s Exiled Rabbis

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt speaking to Tim Sebastian on Deutsche Welle. 7 September 2022. (YouTube)
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt speaking to Tim Sebastian on Deutsche Welle. 7 September 2022 (YouTube)

As I argued in the first installment of this essay, the vast majority of Russia’s Jewish religious leaders have opted not to speak out against Putin’s murderous war. In contrast, Jewish religious leaders in Ukraine have rallied behind the country’s defenders led by a Jewish-born former comedian who rose to become a Ukrainian national hero. Some of Ukraine’s Jewish religious leaders have steeped their stance in both moral and religious rhetoric of a just and sacred war. In a Russian-language video address posted on May 19, 2022, the American-born shliach (emissary of Chabad-Lubavitch) Rabbi Meir Stambler, who, as Chairman of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, serves as the equivalent of Russia’s Rabbi Alexander Boroda, spoke of fighting for both Ukraine and for divine justice: “I have friends and disciples who fight for Ukraine. I consider myself also to be fighting for Ukraine.”

Rabbi Stambler variously characterized the war as a “fight for justice, for truth, for faith,” as “evil against good,” as “a pure struggle for justice… like in Biblical times.” While emphasizing that the war gave him a new awareness that “democracy is sacred,“ Rabbi Stambler depicted Putin’s actions as “war against G-d [voina protiv B-ga].”

Pundits may scrutinize the Ukrainian patriotism—loyalism—of Ukraine’s rabbis or speculate how these Jewish religious and community leaders would conduct themselves if they had been serving not in Ukraine but in Russia. But such speculation eschews a cardinal point: today Ukraine’s Jewish religious leaders are on the right side of history.

A symposium conducted by and published in the summer 2022 issue of Moment magazine probed the question of what guidance if any Judaism offers on war? While the symposium was not specifically billed as a response to the events in Ukraine, the timing could not have been more fortuitous, while some of the respondents spoke directly of Putin’s war. In thinking of the predicament of Jewish religious leaders torn apart by Russia’s war in Ukraine, I found the comments of three symposium participants particularly adroit. In the words of Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox rabbi and co-founder of the journal Cross-Currents, The puzzling reference in the Torah to the gear that you supply the infantry—the spade you give him to cover his tracks, so to speak, after certain biological functions—is a reminder that it’s easy for men in particular to see war as permission to revert to the primitive animal in them. The Torah insists that even while you’re conducting a war, you have to keep focused on the idea of kedusha, holiness, in yourself and in your camp.” Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and scholar, reminded us of an important distinction: “A far more restrained series of rulings on battlefield ethics by Rabbi Michael Broyde, professor of law at Emory University and a Modern Orthodox decisor of stature, distinguishes between a mitzvah or “commanded” (i.e., obligatory) war, e.g. of defense, and an authorized/ permissible war (milchemet reshut), such as a preemptive war.” Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland thus contextualized the war in Ukraine: “Rabbinic Judaism separates required from optional wars (milchemet mitzvah/reshut). Truly defensive military actions are sometimes necessary, as with World War II, or Ukraine this very year.” It would follow that Ukraine’s rabbis view what I previously had occasion to call “Ukraine’s Patriotic War” as both one of “holiness” and a “commanded” one. The patriotic commitment of Ukrainian rabbis to Ukraine’s resistance and to Jewish communities in Ukraine thus rests simultaneously on two axes, an ethical one and a metaphysical one: they join a just fight and they go to battle for G-d. What, then, of the position of Jewish religious leaders in Russia?

The absence of a publicly held high moral ground—and the longer the silence about the war in Ukraine, the more it comes across as acquiescence if not outright collaboration with Putin’s regime—has elicited harsh criticism against Russia’s religious leaders. Not surprisingly, Russia’s Chabad-Lubavitch establishment has received a disproportionally high dose of scorn, much of it from Israeli and Jewish American voices. In a vigorous op-ed published in the English-language edition of Haaretz Lev Stessin, an American political polemicist of Soviet origin, argued that the war in Ukraine has thrown into yet the sharpest focus the moral consequences of a cozy relationship between Russia’s Chabad-Lubavitch and Putin’s regime, an arrangement Stessin called “a Faustian bargain, as is any such agreement with the devil.”

While I admire the post-romantic (Wagnerian rather than Lisztian) thrust of this argument, I wonder if it is not more revealing to examine the predicament of Russia’s Jewish religious leaders through a lens of collaborationism. Over the past two centuries, a history of religious leaders’ collaboration with repressive and totalitarian regimes, with tyrants, dictators, and juntas, makes for a thick tome, while a history of religious leaders’ dissent and resistance forms a much slimmer volume.

Should one, perhaps, take apologetic comfort in the fact that Russia’s Jewish religious leaders have not lent support to Putin’s war? Could the silence or calls for peace—to the ears of many, hollow words without action or resolve—be contextually understood as a form of dissent or protest? Are the critics of the religious leaders’ silence forgetting that Russia has criminalized criticism of what in Putin-speak is called the “special operation” in Ukraine, and such offenses are punishable with up to 15 years in jail? In fact, rank-and-file members of the Russian Orthodox clergy have already been censored, prosecuted and charged for speaking out against the war in Ukraine. And those religious leaders in Russia who have openly criticized the war have had to leave the country for fear of troubles or even prosecution.

Two cases of dissenting religious leaders have received significant coverage: that of the former Moscow Chief Orthodox Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt and that of the former Archbishop of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Russia Pastor Dietrich Brauer, both of whom no longer live in Russia. At least one other Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Avigdor Nosikov of the central-southern city of Voronezh, left Russia and now leads a congregation in Germany.

As Victoria Arnold observed in a detailed report in Forum 18, a Norwegian publication devoted to religious freedom, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in even stricter censorship and control of Russian religious communities, other public organizations, media outlets, and individuals–whether by means of prosecution for the newly created offences of ‘discrediting the Armed Forces’ or ‘disseminating false information’ about them, or pressure from state authorities and religious hierarchies not to condemn or discuss the war.” After arriving in Germany, Archbishop Brauer has been speaking about the pressure exerted on Russia’s religious leaders. On March 17, 2022, in a German-language interview conducted by Magdalena Smetana, he stated that “there was a clear demand by the Presidential Administration that all religious leaders speak out and support the war. Most [of them] did. [My] Catholic colleague points to the Vatican and is silent; the Jewish Chief Rabbi, who is also an American citizen, found clever words [kluge Worte]. He called on all to work for peace. We could have joined that. I wanted to come up with a joint statement with all the religious communities, but the others did not sign on [to that plan].”

The departure of Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt has garnered much attention, owing in part to his international reputation as a rabbi and intellectual and his influential position as President of the Conference of European Rabbis, an Orthodox Jewish organization. Unlike the Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim, many of whom have roots in the former USSR and studied in the Hasidic yeshivas of Israel and United States, Rabbi Goldschmidt’s family had been living in Switzerland for generations. Born in Zurich in 1963, he had been working in Russia since the late Soviet times. In 1993 Rabbi Goldschmidt became the Chief Rabbi of Moscow. He served at the Moscow Choral Synagogue, the seat of traditional Orthodox Judaism. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rabbi Goldschmidt had had a brush with the Russian authorities; in 2005 he was forced to leave Russia but returned three months later after a wave of protest. Like Rabbi Berel Lazar, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt became a Russian citizen and made a big contribution to the revival of Jewish religious and communal life in the Russian Federation.

In March 2022 Rabbi Goldschmidt and his wife left Russia. He initially abstained from giving interviews and openly decrying Russia’s invasion and Putin’s regime—as though he was hesitating to make a full break with Russia. In a number of subsequent interviews and public statements, made from the vantage point of a non-returnee, Rabbi Goldschmidt emphasized that Putin’s regime pressured him to lend support to the war in Ukraine, which he vehemently opposed. “I’m concerned of the Jewish community in Russia, and I’m not the only one concerned. Thousands and tens of thousands of Jews have left the country since the beginning of the invasion,” stated Goldschmidt on September 7, 2022, in the often-quoted Deutsche Welle interview with Tim Sebastian. Speaking as a political commentator, and explaining why the Jews of Russia should be concerned about their future, Rabbi Goldschmidt referred, in the following order, to “the rise of antisemitism,” “the possibility of a closing of the Iron Curtain, that it is going to be impossible to leave,” “the harder-hitting sanctions that are going to damage the economy long-term,” “the possibility that there is going to be a general draft for the army,” and “the widening repression of civil society.”

While Rabbi Goldschmidt might have initially hesitated to cast his decision to leave Russia and his Jewish community in starkly ethical rather than circumstantial terms, the ethical justifications have since taken centerstage in his public comments. Speaking on July 5, 2022 with Gedalia Guttenag of Mishpacha, a weekly magazine that positions itself as a meeting place of “varying streams within the Orthodox Jewish world,” Rabbi Goldschmidt intoned: “It was clear to me that this was a defining moment in history. I had to be able to look my grandchildren in the eye and say that I’d done the right thing.” His arguments culminated with an eloquent op-ed in the New York Times, penned in Jerusalem and titled “My First Yom Kippur in Exile.”

Rabbi Goldschmidt’s paradoxical exile is not one of ancient Israelites in Babylon, but of modern ex-Russian Jews in Israel: “It is strange to feel in exile in Jerusalem, in the Jewish ancestral land—but home is strange like that. Over the centuries, rabbis used to sign their names on documents, not as a ‘rabbi of’ a certain city, but rather ‘as a temporary dweller’ of that city.” In justifying his decision to leave behind his duties and commitments to the Moscow Jewish community after thirty years, Rabbi Goldschmidt resorted not to scriptural or Halakhic sources, but to principles of what one might call secular post-Enlightenment ethics: “The role of a religious leader is not only to be a pastoral guide, not only to answer questions and lead services and give sermons, the beautiful and glorious moments that fill one with meaning, a sense of purpose and awe. Those are, so to speak, the easy parts of the rabbinate. The hardest task of religious leadership is to take moral stances in difficult times, no matter the cost.”

Powerful words… And yet (here the Dostoevskian inflection comes to one’s rescue), the expectation of ethical and religious idealism, especially when it is broadcast from Jerusalem or New York rather than from Moscow, tends to obfuscate that a refusal to denunciate or openly criticize Putin’s war by religious leaders of a small and vulnerable minority (somewhere around 130,000 Jews left among over 140 million people in the Russian Federation) is not a true moral choice but something much closer to frenzied self-preservation. Can a choice made with a proverbial or real gun pointing to one’s face ever be a truly moral choice?

On March 2, 2022 an extensive commentary on the wartime views of Russian and Ukrainian rabbis appeared in Moscow’s Nezavisimaia gazeta (Independent Newspaper), one of the country’s largest dailies. On its broad surface, this article by Andrei Melnikov, deputy editor and editor of the paper’s religion supplement, was a detailed analysis of the statements that Ukraine’s Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman and Russia’s Rabbi Berel Lazar had made in the first days of March 2022. Overlooked by Western commentators, Melnikov’s article amounted to both a playbook of and a position paper on what Putin’s regime has in stock for Russia’s Jews. Melnikov drew a parallel to the postwar and post-Shoah, darkest years for Soviet Jewry. In speculating about the consequences of what Russia’s Jewish religious leaders would inflict on Russia’s Jews by speaking out against the war in Ukraine, Melnikov compared them to the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee:

It is more or less the same responsibility as the one that lay on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee after the war. Then the Soviet regime made a 180 degree turn, and all of its political cynicism came crushing down upon the Soviet Jews, the ashes of whose relatives had not yet grown cold in the ovens of Auschwitz. The actor Mikhoels perished, poets and scientists were executed, doctors were thrown in jails. A hounding of the ‘citizens of the Jewish nationality’ began in the streets of the Soviet cities—Moscow, Kyiv, Minsk.

One can only guess whose messaging—and on whose behalf—Melnikov was doing in his article. His warning was unambiguous and menacing: “…the small bunch of Jews made for a convenient and defenseless object of repressions. That is the way it has been in all times. And those abroad will not help. The will only commiserate, as has been the case in history.” In sardonically echoing and recasting the words of Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman that “he, who silently agrees, is a co-participant of the crime,” Melnikov delivered the final injunction in the article’s last sentence: “To provoke the repetition of tragedies is to be their co-participant.” By “provoking” he clearly meant breaking the rabbis’ silence and protesting the war in Ukraine.                                    

Nine months into the war, the silence of Russia’s rabbis is no longer an acute but a chronic condition. In the clinical picture of this chronic condition, silence and deliberate refusal to engage in political action amounts to the price of staying. At the same time, those rabbis who want to speak out against the war must face the prospect of exile from their communities.

The binarity (or should it be, after Hannah Arendt, banality?) of this choice weighed heavily on me as I worked on this essay, and I felt a need for rabbinical guidance. I turned to Rifat Sonsino, a Turkish-born Reform rabbi and theologian, and in the past my colleague at Boston College. In an email, I asked Rabbi Sonsino to point me to a Halakhic source that would speak to the question of a rabbi’s duty and obligation to stay with his flock his/her Jews, even in times of danger and war, when it is increasingly dangerous to stay. Rabbi Sonsino directed me to a passage from Ethics of the Fathers: “[Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it” (Pirkei Avot 2.16). In this tension between an obligation and a commitment, one may find keys to understanding the overwhelming pressures of being a Jewish religious leader working and living in Russia during the war in Ukraine. I will discuss the prospects for Russia’s Jewish religious leaders in the next installment of this essay.

About the Author
Maxim D. Shrayer is an author and a professor at Boston College. His recent books include "Voices of Jewish-Russian Literature," "A Russian Immigrant," and "Immigrant Baggage." Shrayer’s new collection of poetry, "Kinship," is forthcoming in April 2024. Follow him on Twitter @MaximDShrayer
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