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The Shepherd, the Hostage, or the Deliverer?

Rabbi Berel Lazar addresses the emergency conference of Russia’s rabbis. September 5, 2022. (The Times of Israel)

In part 1 and part 2 of this essay I argued that, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rabbis in Russia and Ukraine found themselves on opposite sides of justice. The spirit of trenchant refusal to leave Russia, coupled with the continuing silence of Russia’s religious leaders, lorded over the September 5-6, 2022 Moscow emergency conference of Russia’s rabbis. In their statement, over 75 Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis collectivized and reaffirmed a vision of staying with their communities despite the war in Ukraine (which they did not identify as such) and the growing political terror in Russia (of which they did not speak). Consider the following section of the Russian-language statement:

Naturally, it is not our business to get involved in politics and geopolitics. We decisively reject the position of those, who not only consider permissible a politicization of rabbis and even abandon their communities because of political motivations, but also come out with statements that disapprove of rabbis who are not prepared to undertake such actions [i.e. to make political comments or to leave—M.D.S.] We support the leaders of Russia’s Jewish community, who have been encountering attacks and expressions of bias and hatred because of their responsible and dignified conduct.

In addressing the conference, Rabbi Berel Lazar, who is one of Russia’s two chief rabbis and represents Chabad-Lubavitch, stated that “the main task of religious leaders is always to be with the community. A businessman, for example, in a difficult moment he simply closes the business and moves it to where it is better. And understandably so, since for him business interests come first. But a rabbi is different, for a rabbi the people come first, the Jews for whom he is responsible before G-d! A rabbi must be with his Jews, even in the hardest of times.” Sounding increasingly like a hostage of the Kremlin, Rabbi Lazar had the following message for the rabbis both in Russia and in Ukraine: “This is why I thank you once again for having stayed with your Jews and doing everything so the work in the communities would continue. And a special thanks to the rabbis in Ukraine, who stayed with their brothers and sisters, even under fire, and continue now to do everything, so the people would not feel without protection and help.” As reported by Toni Brown for Lubavitch.com, Rabbi Alexander Boroda also restated the idea of staying with the community “during a tumultuous time”: ‘‘Despite the difficulties, more than ever our communities are asking, ‘what does it mean to be a Jew?’ […] ‘It is our duty to be there for them; we carry the responsibility to sustain our community’s spiritual life.’” Also of note was the message to the Russian rabbis’ emergency conference by Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi: “We encourage you; in the Torah’s opinion, just as a captain of a ship cannot abandon his passengers in a raging sea, you have a sacred duty to remain with your flocks.”

The Jewish religious leaders have resorted to the seafaring trope. And not surprisingly, in focusing on the moral and religious obligation to stay with their “ship,” they have elided other important aspects of a rabbi’s duties: to respond and to lead. To respond to injustice and aggression not through silence but by condemnation, and to lead one’s flock to safety.

Western and Israeli commentators from different parts of the media spectrum have interpreted the recurrent references to those who “abandon their communities because of political motivations” as a veiled criticism of the departure of Rabbi Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt—a criticism or even a condemnation of the former Moscow Chief Rabbi. In the Russian media, the vilification of Rabbi Goldschmidt took shape at the time of the September 2022 conference of Russia’s Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis. The journalist Andrei Melnikov, who heads the religion supplement of Moscow’s daily Nezavisimaia gazeta, has emerged not only as a messenger of Putin’s plans for Russia’s Jews but also the evil genius of Russian media’s coverage of Jewish religious life. Melnikov report on the rabbis’ conference, published in Nezavisimaia gazeta on September 9, 2022, quoted extensively from his interview with Rabbi Alexander Boroda, President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, who denied any kind of pressure by Putin’s regime on Russia’s rabbis. Rabbi Boroda here sounds like a condemned defendant speaking to the press at a show trial:

Besides the fact that nobody exerted any pressure on us [i.e. Federation of Jewish Communities], we believe that Pinchas Goldschmidt made up this story, since no other person but himself had been pressured. Never. […] I do not think that he was the kind person who would have been subjected to pressure. Here he was not the main speaker—or the one who expressed the opinion of the Jewish community—to have been subjected to some kind of a special pressure […] The Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar has experienced nothing close to pressure, and neither have I.”

Not just the politics of the war in Ukraine hang over the heads of Russia’s Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis. I suspect that two specters haunt Russia’s Jewish religious leaders as they reaffirm their commitment to shield and shepherd their flocks. The first, expectedly, is the specter of the rabbis’—and specifically of Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis’—persecution and repression in Stalin’s USSR. The second specter, perhaps less apparent (and redolent of a poisoned legacy), is that of Joel Teitelbaum, the first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty. During the war and Shoah, as the threat to the very survival of Hungarian Jews became more and more apparent, Rabbi Teitelbaum continued to advise his flock that they should not flee the Nazis but rather remain in Hungary, and that G-d would protect them there. On June 30, 1944 he boarded the so-called “Kastner train,” carrying over 1,600 Jews, among them rabbis and prominent Hungarian Jews, whose freedom had been paid for with gold, diamonds, and  cash, out of Hungary and eventually to their safety in Switzerland. Although a sworn enemy of Zionism, in August 1945 the Satmar Rebbe sailed off from Italy to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he lived in Jerusalem and from where he subsequently emigrated to America. About 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Shoah. I asked my Boston-area colleague Jonathan Sarna, a Professor at Brandeis University and a renowned historian of American Jewry, about the opinion that his late father, the great biblical scholar Nahum M. Sarna, held of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. On October 9, 2022 Professor Sarna replied: “My Father was deeply critical of the Satmar Rebbe […]. He said that the Rebbe was ‘morally treif’ and considered his anti-Zionist book Vayoel Moshe blasphemous. He excoriated the Rebbe for telling his Hasidim not to go to Palestine and then himself escaping to New York via Palestine.”

Hasidic lore tells us about Rabbi Hayyim of Krosno, disciple of the founder of Hasidic Judaism, the Baal Shem Tov. Rabbi Hayyim of Krosno stood in contemplation, surrounded by his disciples, as he observed a ropewalker balancing on a stiff rope—a performance that the town’s residents watched the way one follows a scripted yet breath-stopping show. The modern collectors and interpreters of this anecdote, notably Martin Buber, emphasize the surprise of the rabbi’s disciples at their teacher’s fixation on the ropewalker, and the rabbi’s explicatory parable: “This man […] is risking his life, and I cannot say why. But I am quite sure that while he is walking the rope, he is not thinking of the fact that he is earning a hundred gulden by what he is doing, for if he did, he would fall.” This parable speaks to more than the rejection of the immediate renumeration for a rabbi’s job—all in favor of the invisible, greater rewards. I suspect it also envisions a Jewish religious leader as a ropewalker balancing and not falling in plain view of an ogling crowd. In a profile of Rabbi Berel Lazar based on a visit to Moscow, Mishpacha Magazine writer Arieh Ehrllich drew a rich portrait of a Jewish leader and rabbi performing a virtuosic balancing act: “Rabbi Lazar has been put in a most awkward position due to the war. As a religious leader who is supposed to reassure his followers on the one hand and convey a moral position on the other—while still preserving his famed close ties with the Kremlin and with the president—he can only pray for siyata d’Shmaya [an Aramaic phrase meaning ‘with the help of Heaven,’ popular with Orthodox Jews] in walking this complex tightrope. For the most part, he’s adopted the wise advice of Chazal: Lo matzasi l’guf tov ela shtikah—silence is the best policy.” Ehrllich quotes Rabbi Lazar’s detailed justification of his position:

That’s kind of what our reality is like […] We don’t get involved. It makes no difference who is right. The question is what the Jewish community needs. We have a goal here: to bring Jews closer to Torah and mitzvos, to support the mosdos [schools and institutions of learning], to provide humanitarian aid. Of course, Jews are in favor of peace, but we don’t have a role in this story. It’s a wrestling match that has been going on for many years, but it’s not our game.

This is why we keep quiet, because whatever we say can endanger the Jews of Russia and Ukraine. There are things we don’t need to get involved in, that are not good to be busy with, that are not good for us. When I close my eyes and think about my mission, what HaKadosh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He] wants, what halacha says, what the Rebbe who sent me here wants me to do, I’m sure that I don’t need to issue statements and cause harm. Show me one ruling from our long history in exile that when the nations of the world battle with one another, the Jews need to state an opinion.

 I asked my former graduate school classmate Anna Krotkina-Brodsky, a Professor at Washington and Lee University, an expert on Russia’s neocolonial wars, and a frequent contributor to Ukraine’s mainstream media, what she makes of the argument, reaffirmed by the September 2022 conference of Russia’s rabbis,that their duty and obligation is to stay out of politics and remain with their communities. Professor Krotkina-Brodsky had this to say (and look how closely her secular vision of an ex-Soviet Jewish intellectual aligns with the religious vision of Rabbi Moshe Reuven Asman of Kyiv):

Today the Jews of the Russian Federation find themselves citizens of a country that has waged an unprovoked, bloody war. In this situation, the ‘above politics’ stance turns any citizen of the country-aggressor into a silent accomplice to the murder of neighbors. Such a position is not only deeply amoral, but is also near-sighted. Today large numbers of Russian citizens, regardless of their confession or ethnicity, are being drafted into the army. Soon enough Jews, who have put faith in their leaders’ call to remain outside politics and not to leave Russia, will have found themselves drafted and forced to kill the people who are defending their country, Ukraine, or will be killed.

Putin’s war in Ukraine has revised if not rewritten the equation of the Jewish leaders’ cooperation with Putin’s regime as clouds continue to darken over the lives of Russia’s Jews. In September 2022 Israel issued a dire warning to its numerous dual citizens: “Israeli citizens who also hold Russian citizenship who enter, stay in, or will visit inside the borders of the Russian Federation, will be subject to Russian laws and regulations, including decisions regarding drafting citizens into the Russian military and the possibility of leaving the state’s borders.” Almost every week new reports emerge of reprisals against Jewish organizations based in Russia (most notably, the Jewish Agency for Israel) and of new outbursts of anti-Jewish prejudice and antisemitic scapegoating in the Russian media and public spaces (such as a recent attack against the Jewish-French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy). Classic canards of late-Soviet Russian antisemitism, originally directed at Jews seeking to emigrate and charging them with “abandoning Russia” on the brink of a national disaster, have returned to the mainstream from under the dirty rugs of public life. Putin’s Rosh Hashanah address of 25 September 2022, “To Russian Jews,” has been interpreted to contain a coded message of his regime’s expectations: “It is very important, that in maintaining loyalty to ancient spiritual traditions, Russia’s Jews make a significant [or: weighty; in Russian, vesomyi] contribution to the preservation of the manifold cultural diversity of our country, to the strengthening of concord among nationalities and of the principles of mutual respect and religious tolerance.”

The regime’s stated and implied expectations of the Jews look more and more like moving targets. A case in point is the recent scandal with the article by Aleksei Pavlov, Deputy Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, published on 25 October 2022 in the popular Moscow weekly Argumenty i fakty (Arguments and Facts). Titled “What They Cook in ‘Witch’s Cauldron’: Neopagan Cults Have Gained Strength in Ukraine,” Pavlov’s article characterized Chabad-Lubavitch as a “sect” and stated that Russia intends to “desatanize” a number of “cults” in the course of its “special military operation.” Speaking of “those in power in Kyiv [having become] militant fanatics, whose views are directly opposed to those of normal people,” Pavlov singled out Ihor Kolomoiskyi, Israeli billionaire whom Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelenskyi had actually deprived of Ukrainian citizenship: “Ihor Kolomoiskyi is a Lubavitch Hasid, a Chabadnik, an adherent of the Ultra-Orthodox religious movement. The main living principle of the Lubavitch Hasids is the superiority of the sect’s followers over all nations and peoples. A number of other Ukrainian oligarchs also belong to this movement.”

Rabbi Berel Lazar immediately offered a strongly-worded response, in which he provided a point-by-point rebuttal of Pavlov’s article. He described the article as “in its present form […] but a mouthpiece for antisemitic statements.” That Rabbi Lazar was prepared to take to task the Security Council of the Russian Federation speaks volumes of the temperature of the Jewish question in the Russian mainstream: “One might characterize Mr. Pavlov’s speculations as antisemitic gibberish and disregard them with a sense of revulsion, but the position he holds disallows it. Such new retellings of the old blood libels coming from an employee of the Security Council of the Russian Federation represent a grave danger, and therefore must be immediately and unequivocally descried by the country’s society and the leaders.” Two days later Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, publicly apologized and indicated that Pavlov’s article “contained erroneous lines about Lubavitch Hasids” and reflected Pavlov’s “personal point of view and in no way the position of the Security Council of the Russian Federation.” Rabbi Lazar’s urgent response put into question the feasibility of his commitment to “silence.” As the journalist Juda Ari Gross observed in The Times of Israel: “Pavlov’s article demonstrates the precariousness of Chabad’s status in Russia in general and calls into question the success of its balancing act regarding the war.” Indeed, the political situation in today’s Russia will have soon rendered meaningless the tired argument that by collaborating with authorities the religious leaders shepherd—protect—their communities. Another way of saying this would be to wonder whether in its wartime agony, Putin’s repressive regime is bound to push members of Russia’s silent rabbinate to the brink of confrontation?

In the meantime, aliyah from Russia is rising like yeast while thousands and thousands of Russian citizens, especially draft-fearing male ones scrounging to escape, have discovered a forgotten Jewish grandparent in the hope of qualifying for Israel’s Law of Return. Dr. Mark Tolts of Hebrew University, a leading demographer of Jews in the post-Soviet space, pointed me to the latest aliyah data from the Israeli Ministry of Absorption. As of September 2022, during the first 8 months of 2022, Israel received 47,600 repatriates, of whom 36,600, or 77 percent, came from Russia and Ukraine. A breakdown by country of origin and by month suggests that in March 2022 the wave of those making aliyah from Russia increased by 4.5 times and continued to rise. Since the start of 2022, over 23,000 people from Russia and over 13,000 from Ukraine made aliyah. In an op-ed published on 30 October 2022 in The Jerusalem Post—a desperate plea for mercy and for emergency rescue measures—Leah Aharoni, director of operations for the Vaad Hatzalah Rescue Committee, declared that “unless we wake up and do everything in our power to assist Russian Jews out of the trap, tens of thousands may find themselves once again behind the Iron Curtain, under a ruthless totalitarian regime.”

How can one now doubt that we are witnessing an endspiel of Jewish-Russian history, in which Russia’s Chabad-Lubavitch religious leaders will have an increasingly difficult time anticipating the next moves or even moving the chess pieces?

Working on this essay forced me to judge with my mind a predicament that my heart refused to judge.At times what kept me going was the blessed memory of my late great-grandfather, Rabbi Chaim-Wolf Breydo (Broyde), the last in our long lineage of Litvak rabbis, which most likely goes back to Gaon Rabbi Aizik Broida. My father last saw his maternal grandfather not long before the Nazi invasion, when he and his mother visited the old rabbi in Polatsk, Belarus, where he spent his last two decades, a remarried widower working as a Jewish teacher. My father remembers sitting in his grandfather’s lap as a five-year-old boy and “eating challah and drinking milk” from his furrowed hands. The old rabbi insisted that his two daughters from the second marriage leave when it was still possible to leave, and one of them became a decorated war hero in the Red Army’s signal corps. As for himself, the old rabbi refused to go, and also refused to be herded to the ghetto the Nazis established in Polatsk. After the war the non-Jewish neighbors told my grandmother Bella that her father was shot in his house, his gaze directed into the depths of the sacred books. That would have been in late July or August 1941, and in December 1941 over 7,000 Jews of Polatsk were murdered.

My original intention was to end here, but this would have been unfair to the living. And so I shot a quick follow-up email to a charming Boston-based Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, with whom I had preciously spoken about the silence of Russia’s Jewish leaders and the ghosts of collaborationism: “For an essay I am working on (about the war in Ukraine), might you point me to a Torah passage […] that speaks to the question of a rabbi’s duty and obligation to stay with his Jews, even in times of danger and war, when it’s increasingly dangerous to stay?” The rabbi immediately replied: “…it is the whole story we learn from Moses and his narrative with the Jewish people.”

And so we end with the one Jewish story almost everyone has heard of…

There was once a court Jew who found it in him to shed privilege and status and recognize that a grave danger hangs over his people. He teamed up with his brother, the future archpriest, and his sister, the future prophetess. He took the bones of an earlier Jewish viceroy from a crypt, and this meant that he and his people were leaving for good. We all know the rest of the story, or we wouldn’t be living out its legacy in today’s world.

Would that Russia’s Jewish religious leaders took more guidance and inspiration from the story of Jewish deliverance from the land of the Pharaohs.

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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