The Moral Dilemma of Russian Jewry, and Its Rabbis

November 14, 2022 | Maxim D. Shrayer
About the author: Maxim D. Shrayer is a professor at Boston College and the author, most recently, of the collection Of Politics and Pandemics. His new memoir, Immigrant Baggage, is forthcoming in March 2023.

In the past few months, religious leaders in Russia have found themselves under growing pressure to show their support for the war against Ukraine, while the government has become ever more hostile to dissent. The chief rabbi of Moscow left the country, and has since denounced Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile Berel Lazar—the more prominent of Russia’s two chief rabbis—issued a carefully crafted public statement calling for peace, and has avoided any criticism of the Kremlin even as he has refrained from showing explicit support for the war. Maxim D. Shrayer, returning to questions he addressed in Mosaic in 2017, examines the current dilemmas facing Russian Jewry and its clergy:

[T]he 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 denounce or to criticize openly 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, the darkest years for Soviet Jewry. . . . 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. They will only commiserate, as has been the case in history.” . . . 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.

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 anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitism, 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. . . . The regime’s stated and implied expectations of the Jews look more and more like moving targets.

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