Relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Judaism: Past and Present
Relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Judaism: Past and Present
By Yuri Tabak
Before expounding our chosen theme we should to define our terms. The reader will anticipate that we are going to discuss the relationship between Russian Orthodoxy – the predominant and historically most influential faith in Russia – and representatives of the Jewish religion (1). For centuries the terms evrei (Hebrew) and iudei (Jew) have been interchangeable, although in the specific stages of the development of Jewish consciousness, the ethnic and religious components of Judaism have acquired a separate significance: secularised Jews have broken away from the religious community but have not lost their cultural and ethnic identity.
Secularised Jews who no longer observe the faith nonetheless may recognise the tremendous human significance of traditional Jewish religious values (2). In this sense the term iudei, conventionally applied in Russia to those who practise the Jewish faith, is too narrow a term to denote the wider concept of evreistvo ("Jewry"), as understood by today"s Orthodox Christian. Moreover, the very meaning of the word iudei taken in its historical and religious context is complex and contradictory enough (3). For this reason we prefer to use the wider term evrei, even though this term does not remove a whole series of difficulties when considering the complexities of Judeo-Christian relations (4).
Furthermore, before analysing contemporary attitudes of the Russian Orthodox Church to Jews and Judaism we must examine the religious and historical circumstances which have determined the current situation. Extensive academic studies have been made of the position of the Jewish community in Russia and our task here is not to analyse this in detail (5). Nonetheless, we will attempt briefly to outline the main features of the relationship between Jews and Orthodox Christians in the thousand or more years of their coexistence.
The Jewish-Orthodox relationship dates back to the founding of the Russian state when in the ninth and tenth centuries Jews from Western Europe and Khazars professing the Jewish religion settled on the territory of Kievan Russia (Kievan Rus). It appears that the Jewish community was strong both socially and economically: Kievan Jews studied in the famous Jewish educational insitutions of Europe and Kiev was a leading trading centre between East and West, with trade being conducted mainly by Jews and Italians (6).
Jewish religious influence was also significant: it is no accident that in the famous History of the Baptism of Rus there is an account of how Prince Vladimir came to choose the future monotheistic state religion to replace old pagan beliefs, with one of the alternatives being Judaism. Although the question of the provenance and historical reliability of the History remains unanswered to this day (7), there is no doubt that in Kievan Rus a sharp polemic between Christians and Jews was already in its early stages: there are strong anti-Jewish passages in the Speeches of a Philosopher contained in the History.
It is possible that in the beginning of the battle of the Christian church against Jewish influence its anti-Jewish rhetoric was employed mainly in the service of apologetics. Even after the establishment of Christianity this polemic continued and is clearly reflected in the manuscripts of the time such as Sermon on Law and Grace by the first Russian Metropolitan Illarion, and in Tolkovaya Paleia, Arkhivskiy khronograf (XIII c.) and other works (8). In parallel with polemical writings there were practical attempts to convert Jews to Orthodoxy: the episode in the Life of St. Feodosy when "the saint scolded the Jews and argued with them about Christ, calling them apostates and transgressors" (9) is well known. Moreover the economic prosperity of the Jews could at times lead to increased hatred towards them.
Thus the prerequisites were laid down for the problematic situation of the Jews in ancient Russia, which reflected that of Jews in Western Europe, where periods of comparative calm and economic prosperity alternated with periods of religious repression, "bloody slander" and pogroms. The first pogrom in Ancient Rus took place as early as 1113, when the Jewish quarter in Kiev was destroyed. The further development of the Russian state reproduced the model of relations between Jews and Christians characteristic of both Kievan Rus and Western Europe: with its insecure social and economic standing, the Jewish community remained to a greater or lesser extent a persecuted ethnic and religious minority.
When studying the history of Russian Jews it is not hard to recognise that the social and religious persecution and measures applied against the Jewish population took on forms already traditional in the West: exclusion from the professions, enforced baptisms, bloody pogroms. The numerous Jewish ghettos in Western European towns could be compared to the "Pale of Settlement" in Imperial Russia. The authorities blamed Jewish influences for heretical movements in the Catholic world, such as the Albigensian, and subjected Jews to the cruellest persecution. Likewise in Russia, in the fifteenth century the "Judaising" movement brought a number of misfortunes on the Jewish community (10).
Despite these similarities between the forms of the religious repression of Jews in Western Christendom and in Russia, there are a number of differences resulting from the underlying causes. Western academic research, in its analysis of antisemitism, traditionally addresses three main sections of medieval Christian society, namely the masses, the Church and the state, and analyses them according to their relationship to the Jewish community. Of course, here Russia has much in common with Western Europe. In Europe and in Russia, state policy and official practice were governed by a series of shifting ideological, economic and social factors, with the result that the degree of repression of the Jews varied, alternating between periods of relative calm and prosperity and the bloodiest pogroms.
The Christian community, linked by numerous trading and economic ties to the Jewish community, maintained a more or less neutral attitude towards the Jews during these periods of calm, and, on the personal level, even conducted individual friendships (11). However, the mixture of fear and hatred of Jews characteristic of medieval Christian consciousness (the religious roots of which will be discussed below) never completely disappeared: these latent emotions smouldered beneath the socio-economic necessity of maintaining the status quo. It only took the emergence of any new circumstances in society, whether in the social, economic, religious, or governmental spheres, or in the internal dynamics of the Jewish-Christian debate, for these latent emotions to reach boiling point. The defenceless Jewish community would then become the target of harsh economic measures, a pawn in someone"s political games, or a convenient focus for the lower classes to vent their own discontent. These factors readily combined to ignite the smouldering embers of religious hatred: the uneducated Christian masses could change overnight into a fanatical crowd capable of murder and pillage. This anti-Jewish feeling reached its culmination in the twentieth century, when six million Jews became the victims of Hitler"s genocide (12).
However, the fundamental difference in the conduct of anti-Jewish measures in Russia, in our opinion, lies in the much lesser role played by the Russian Orthodox Church in the conduct of this policy, compared with the Byzantine Church, the Catholic Church of the early and late Middle Ages and the Protestant denominations of Western Europe. In the West (and partly in the East (13)), church policy in relation to the Jews was contradictory. In the history of the Roman Catholic Church (for example under Popes Innocent IV, Gregory X and others) many examples can be found of a tolerant and humane attitude towards Jews, protecting them from tyranny and the worst excesses of antisemitic attacks. However, there are also many negative examples when the church authorities either initiated or readily participated in the conduct of antisemitic legislation and policy. Moreover, the Western Church at times adopted a more actively antisemitic position than the State, which, from time to time, defended the Jewish community (14).
Such examples in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church are difficult to find. All anti-Jewish decisions were conducted by state administrative organs, acting on the authority of emperors, state committees and ministries. Even if the Ecclesiastical Collegium under Peter the Great and, later, the Holy Synod, agreed with and approved certain measures, it is important to remember that these aforementioned institutions were essentially government departments. Before Peter the Great when the church preserved some degree of independence, it is hard to find any definite statements of an official anti-Jewish policy. By official, we mean the highest church authorities, the decisions of local and diocesan councils, decrees of the Patriarch and so on. Although it would be entirely natural to suppose that the Church authorities had a particular influence on the State in the conduct of anti-Jewish measures and even that these were indeed initiated by the Church, there is no conclusive evidence to support this (15).
Undoubtedly the Russian church can be criticised for its total submission to the State in the Synodical period (after the abolition of the Patriarchage in the early eighteenth century), for its inability to express an independent opinion and for its failure to demonstrate love for one"s neighbour and defence of the persecuted in accordance with the basic teachings of the Gospel: unlike the Western church, the Russian Orthodox Church took no steps to protect the Jews. But once again we must emphasise that unlike the Western churches, antisemitic policies were not conducted in the name of the Russian Orthodox Church.
It does not follow, however, that the clerics and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church were not prone to antisemitic attitudes. The cruellest attacks on Jews can be found in Orthodox polemics, in the sermons and speeches of the most illustrious clerics and hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, from Iosif Volotsky to St John of Kronstadt. At the end of the nineteenth century the antisemitic views of Archbishop Nikon of Vologda, Hieromonk Iliodor (Trufanov), Archpriest Ioann Vostorgov were widely known. These individuals were not expressing an official church position on the Jewish question, which had simply not been formulated; they reflected the widely-held negative attitudes of the general population towards the Jews.
It is important to remember that an equal number of Russian Orthodox clerics, including senior hierarchs, openly defended persecuted Jews, at least from the second half of the nineteenth century. In Russia, perhaps more than in the West, hierarchs of the church and professors in the theological academies refuted the accusations that Jews conducted pogroms and ritual sacrifices and were organising a "worldwide conspiracy", as they fought for the social rights of Jews (16). Soloviev, Bulgakov, Ilyin and other prominent Russian religious philosophers played an active role in this movement. However, neither the number of speeches by the Christian community, nor the impassioned nature of their appeals on behalf of the Jews, could alter the general hatred of Jews characteristic of the Russian population since medieval times. A corresponding attitude towards the Jews was reflected also in state and religious laws (17).
Moreover, if the eighteenth century was a watershed in the situation of Western European Jewry, with the gradual widening of their religious and social rights, no such movement took place in Russia. This happened, in our view, due to two basic factors. Firstly, the path of Russian history has been characterised by the weakness of any liberal and democratic tendencies – these were too poorly developed to stand against the reactionary authoritarian views which permeated all levels of public life, as had happened in the West. In particular, a series of major historical developments – the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Reformation – which played a key role in the fate of Western Jewry, bypassed Russia. It is not possible within the confines of this paper to concentrate on this important and complex theme (18); we will, however, briefly examine the second factor, the particular religious and cultural features of Russian Orthodoxy which influenced attitudes towards Jews in Russia.
Orthodox belief rests on the changelessness of its religious teachings, formulated in the era of Ecumenical Councils and set down in HolyTradition, which is deemed as being "from God". Moreover, although the compass of Holy Tradition is wide and includes the whole historical experience of the church – the Bible, Service Books and Prayer books, decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church, lives of the saints, canon law, iconography, music and architecture (19) – the theological foundation of modern Orthodoxy is constructed upon Holy Tradition, set down before the end of the eighth century. Holy Tradition by its very definition embodies a "sacred" character, that is its religious and cultural value and relevance have never been called into question.
The materials contained in Holy Tradition have never been placed in any order of importance: the private pronouncements of the Fathers of the Church, even if contradictory, are respected as no less sacred and meaningful as decisions of councils and even of the Bible itself (20). It is no coincidence, therefore, that Russian Orthodox believers have always been encouraged to study the lives of the saints and the holy fathers just as much as the New and a forteriori Old Testaments. Hence the universally-accepted convention of citing the holy fathers in Orthodox polemics, whose writings are almost universally perceived as equally convincing.
Given the duty of every Orthodox Christian to be guided by the teachings of the church embodied in Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, then his/her attitudes towards Jews and Judaism must equally be governed by Holy Tradition, since in accordance with Orthodox teaching the true meaning of Holy Scripture is revealed exclusively through Holy Tradition. However, due to the particular objective social, religious and historical circumstances prevailing at that time, Holy Tradition dating from the period of the holy fathers is suffused with an overt antisemitic spirit. This mood was reflected both in the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils and in the works of the holy fathers, where Jews were called "murderers of God" and "a despised people". Generation after generation of Christians were educated in the spirit of this "teaching of contempt" (to use an expression coined by the French historian J. Isaac) in relation to Jews, which led to the most terrible persecutions of the Jews by Christian society over the last seventeen-hundred years.
As has already been noted, religious hatred of the Jews was for centuries also prevalent in the consciousness of Western Christians. However, the opportunity for the teaching of the church to evolve, seen in the historical experience and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, living in the context of a gradual rejection of the old medieval world view and the growth of anti-clerical tendencies, meant that by the time of the sixteenth century the fathers of the Council of Trent (1545 - 63) had developed the thesis that the guilt of Christians, who continue to crucify the Son of God by their own sinfulness, is greater than the guilt attached to the Jews (21). The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church cancelled the guilt of the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ and expressed its "sorrow" for its antisemitism. In the ensuing thirty years the Catholic theological understanding of Israel has undergone further significant changes and definitive progress has been made in Catholic-Jewish relations (22).
Unlike the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church from the outset declared Holy Tradition to be the work of man. This made it possible to reject prevailing medieval anti-Jewish concepts and formulate an independent approach to the Jewish question on the basis of new criteria. Such a step did not entirely rid Protestantism of occasional manifestations of antisemitism, but it gave an opportunity each time to reassess and reformulate their religious and philosophical approaches in the context of a changing society. Following the Holocaust, many Protestant churches adopted a radical position in relation to Jews and Judaism through their categorical rejection of all forms of antisemitism and anti-Judaism, of paternalistic attitudes and ultimately through a rejection of any form of missionary activity among the Jews.
Thus the Western churches had the opportunity in the second half of the twentieth century to develop a new position in relation to Judaism. Unlike them, the Russian Orthodox Church has not taken such steps, being wholly governed by the writings of the holy fathers about the Jews "who crucified Christ". Russian Orthodox teaching still rests on medieval preconceptions; thus the most extreme Orthodox antisemites can logically claim that their monstrous anti-Jewish invective is based upon "Church teaching".
If, for example, St John Chrysostom, one of the most esteemed church fathers, called the Jews "unclean and foul" and the synagogue "a refuge of demons", then, given the accepted sanctity of Holy Tradition, the Orthodox Christian has no cause to think otherwise. Indeed nearly all of the most respected church fathers are not distanced from him in their attitudes towards the Jews, including the most respected church activists from Bishop Ignatiy Bryanchaninov to St John of Kronstadt (23). Conversely, there is to our knowledge not even one church father who has professed a genuine love for the Jews in accordance with the Biblical commandments. In this sense, the position of those modern authors who angrily denounce antisemites, denying that they are "true" Christians, strikes us as somewhat bizarre (24). Following such logic one could add the most respected pillars of the Orthodox Church to the list of "pseudo-Christians" and deny the genuineness of their faith, given the sorry two-thousand-year history of Judeo-Christian relations. What, then, is true Christianity?
In order to give some kind of response to this question, attempts have been made to define the positive tendencies in Christian history which opposed Christian antisemitism, looking in particular at the Orthodox traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (25). These attempts were only partly successful: in calling Orthodox believers to religious tolerance and condemning antisemitism, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox priests saw the resolution of the Jewish question only in terms of conversion to Christianity (in the historical context this would take place only in the "last days"). They attributed the Jewish reluctance to accept Christianity not only to the unworthiness of Christians themselves, but to the spiritual "blindness" of the Jews. The Jews were often not perceived so much as brothers but as enemies who had to be "loved".
This infelicitous position, often put forward as an example of a true Christian approach to the Jews, has been demonstrated by a large body of Western academic research (26) to be unsuccessful in rooting out Christian antisemitism. There is no exception here, despite the opinions of contemporary liberal Orthodox thinkers and the views of Russian religious philosophers on the Jewish question: behind the incoherence and internal contradictions of their position lies (perhaps involuntarily) the same Christian antisemitism (27). However, the paradox is in the fact that even if one could find in Orthodox tradition any pro-Jewish attitudes, this would solve nothing: everyone would select their own elements from Holy Tradition (28). In our view, the only way out of this impasse would be if the Russian Orthodox Church would issue a clear and unambiguous statement on this question, reassessing Holy Tradition as the Roman Catholic Church has done (29).
A whole body of Orthodox tradition, therefore, including the more liberal tendencies, underlies the contemporary attitudes of clerics and lay people of the Russian Orthodox Church towards Jews and Judaism (30), which we shall examine below. In order to do this it is useful to divide Russian Orthodox Christians into four main groups:
1. A relatively small, if active, part of the lower clergy, in which monks play an important role. The clergy, together with lay activists belong to a number of social and political movements operating mainly under the banner of Orthodoxy (31), whose outlook and ideology in essence combine an anti-Jewish and anti-Western ideology (including Western Christian denominations), as well as anti-democratic tendencies. These organisations include the Russian National Council, the Russian National Union, the Union of Orthodox Brotherhoods and others. A number of well-known cultural figures – writers, artists, and cinematographers – belong to this group. Their views are mainly expressed in the journals "Moskva", "Molodaya gvardiya", "Nash sovremennik" and in the newspapers "Zavtra", "Russkiy vestnik", "Russkaya gazeta" and others (32). Dozens of books have sprung from the pen of this group"s ideologues. They put forward various ideas regarding the salvation of Russia from the "Jewish conspiracy", from the screening of the ethnic and religious background of prospective holders of government posts, to mass expulsion of the Jewish community (33).
2. The overwhelming majority of rural and urban parish priests and laypeople who regularly attend church. They are characterised by a generally low level of religious education and their church life centres on a conscientious observance of Orthodox rituals and fasts. For them the Jewish-Christian debate and related issues bear no relation to their everyday lives, although a degree of underlying suspicion and religious fear of the Jews does occasionally manifest itself, arising from their sketchy knowledge of Holy Tradition regarding the Jews "who crucified Christ" (34). This negative attitude towards Jews is generally a passive one, though in a changing social and political climate, or as a result of the activity and influence of the first group, one might expect a growth in religious aggression towards the Jews from this second group, as has been the case on more than one occasion in Russian history. In this context, education and the democratization of society take on a particular importance, since they are known significantly to reduce levels of religious intolerance.
3. The church leadership, the main authors and exponents of the official line of the church, form a distinct group. The senior hierarchs of the church occupied their high positions during the Communist era, which has undoubtedly left its mark on their psychological outlook and on the way in which they conduct church policy. This, in our opinion, is not based so much on universal Orthodox principles, nor even on the individual views of a particular hierarch, but on the prevailing socio-political and socio-religious situation. The financial and economic dependency of the church on the state is too great and accordingly, when developing a general church position, the hierarchy is forced to gauge the strength of competing ideologies in the state organs of power. In turn, any important socio-political movement in modern Russia, resting on "national patriotic", "democratic reformist" or other principles, holds varying views on the role and position of Orthodoxy in modern society, as has been demonstrated by the ongoing conflict between various socio-political forces over the drafting of the Law on Freedom of Conscience (35). The church leadership, when working out an appropriate line, is forced to waver between conservative tradition and the demands of the political establishment. There is, moreover, a whole series of additional factors which influence the position of the church hierarchy: competing socio-religious interests, internal power struggles and the need to preserve face in Western church circles.
The uncertainty and instability of Russian political life is reflected in the uncertainty and instability of the ideological position of the Russian Orthodox Church and its hierarchy. This affects virtually every area of church life: liturgical reform, social policy, the ecumenical movement. The problem of antisemitism is subject to the same contradictions and uncertainties. It did appear that the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Aleksi II, in his speech at the end of 1991 to the rabbis of New York, had more or less defined the position of the Russian Orthodox Church by addressing the Jews as "brothers" and making a strenuous rejection of antisemitism in any form. However, it would seem that this speech, which aroused strong criticism both from the Russian Orthodox Church abroad and from the Moscow Patriarchate, especially the monastic community (36), has simply evaporated into thin air and has done nothing to alter the prevailing attitudes in church circles. Quite the reverse: in the last few years the antisemitic sermons, articles and speeches by the now deceased Metropolitan of St Petersburg and Ladoga Ioann (Snychev) have been actively circulated (37). The response of the Moscow Patriarchate has been to limit itself to the inadequate statement that these are merely the personal views of the Metropolitan.
The Moscow Patriarchate has not reacted in any way to the dozens of openly antisemitic books which have been published by Orthodox authors, nor to the articles published in the fascist and neo-fascist press, calling itself "Orthodox". In cathedrals and Orthodox bookstalls it is perfectly possible to buy a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, printed under the title of a book by S. Nielus, Velikoye v malom. In addition, openly antisemitic books have been published from time to time by the church itself (38). The hierarchy makes no response either to the representations of the few clergy and laypeople who are troubled by the problem of antisemitism, nor to the appeals of of Western theologians on the same question (39). Instead, with the exception of Metropolitan Ioann, who had the full support of the first group of believers described above, the remaining Russian Orthodox hierarchs prefer not to touch on the Jewish question at all and not to take any measures in this regard (continuing the long tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church), choosing instead to limit themselves to general appeals for tolerance and hoping to avoid being subjected to criticism from both the conservative and democratic factions in the church (40).
4. Priests campaigning for a renewal in church life who advocate ecumenical dialogue with members of other Christian denominations, strongly condemning Orthodox antisemitism, form a distinct fourth group within the Church. Their views are reflected in the journal Logos, in the newspapers "Russkaya mysl", "Segodnya" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta"; and in the broadcasts of the Moscow-based radio station "Sofia". There are also laypeople, the majority of whom are parishioners of churches in Moscow, who share these views. However, this group of priests and laypeople, who are constantly subjected to the furious attacks of conservative factions in the Moscovite clergy, is very small and usually sharply criticized by the official Church (41). Moreover, the contradictions inherent in the Russian Orthodox position do not allow this group of Orthodox believers to present a more convincing theological argument in support of their position (42).
Finally we will assess what concrete outcomes may emerge from the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church towards the Jews. Religious persecution of the Jews in its medieval form is unlikely: firstly because it is our hope that Russia will follow a civilised and democratic path (43); and secondly because, sadly, the Russian Jewish community, the possible object of such persecution, is slowly being eroded. The main reason for this rapid decline of the Jewish community is the mass emigration of practising Jews. The population of Russian Jews at the end of 1993 based on the official census was estimated at less than 400,000 (44). The majority of religious Jews have emigrated: the overwhelming majority of those who remain are almost entirely assimilated and secularised. The continuation of democratisation and the removal of the notorious "fifth paragraph" from passports (designating Jews as a separate nationality) will probably in a paradoxical way speed up this process of assimiliation. Furthermore, among the Jewish intelligentsia there have been a number of conversions to Christianity over the last few decades (45). A whole series of complex sociological factors still divides the Christian and Jewish communities, excluding the possibility of dialogue. This does not allow for religious stereotypes to be abandoned for greater mutual understanding between Jew and Christian (46).
However, neither the low probability of pogroms nor the objective difficulties of Judeo-Christian relations should become the excuse for stagnation in Christian religious thought. For it is only through a re-evaluation of the central issues for the Christian of the fate of Israel, the Jewish roots of Christianity, of antisemitism as the worst sin in the history of Christianity, that the "crisis of the medieval world view" (to use Vladimir Soloviev"s expression) can be overcome and a decisive step forward in the history of Orthodox-Jewish relations be taken, following in the footsteps of Western Christians.
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