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Gregory Benevitch
Jewish question in Russian Orthodox Church

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Chapter 1

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously commiting evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy his own heart?

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

The Gulag Achipelago.


The problem of anti-Semitism in the Russian Orthodox Church as in society in general has various dimensions. One of them is the sociological dimension. I would like to start with this aspect of the problem to clear up some possible misunderstanding on this point on the part of the Western audience. Let me cite the general conclusion of the article by Vladimir Borzenco, 'Anti-Semitism and Orthodoxy in Russian today (a sociologist's view)', written in 1992, to be published by Keston Institute in Religion, State and Society, vol. 23 N 1 1995: "The general level of anti-Semitism in Russia is lower than the average in comparison with developed European countries". According to Borzenko, who supports his statement through the results of serious sociological surveys, "In practically every category and in practically every question there was less evidence of anti-Semitism among Orthodox subgroups than among atheists. Not more than around 10 per cent of the Russian population as a whole could be said to be anti-Semitic."

What is there then to discuss if the situation is so good? I do not think that Borsenko's results are wrong, however, Russia is not a Western country. This figure of 10 per cent in Russia may have different implications than similar figures, say, in England or in the USA. Before the Revolution, communists constituted no more than 10 per cent of the population, nevertheless, amidst the total crisis of society, and the weakness of all other political parties in 1917, this small but ideologocally strong group was large enough to gain power and to direct the Russian people into the communist future.

In the other words, the level of anti-Semitism in Russia might be quite less of a concern if only we had no crisis in our economy, politics, ideology and culture, that is a general crisis of society. However, the problem of this crisis is not the topic of my lecture.

What scandalises me as an Orthodox Christian is that there is such a phenomenon as anti-Semitism in the Russian Orthodox Church at all, even if it is not so widespread as it may seem.

Moreover, one can find some very dangerous signs of anti-Semitism not so much among the so to speak simpler Christians than among the Russian Orthodox intelligensia both clergy and laity. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which were born in the depths of the tsarist police and then played there evil part in Nazi Germany appeared in our Church's shops amidst a whole variety of new Black Hundred literature. Not only some dreadful pamphlets about Jewish sacrifices of Christian babies can be easily found in St Petersburg, Moscow or Sergiev Posad but, what is more dangerous, some literature written by priests or monks containing a simple answer to the question, who is to blame for all the misfortunes of Russian history is also widespread.

Now I would like to draw your attention to quite a different problem. Yes, it is a matter of fact that maybe no where in the world is anti-Semitism so openly aggressive as in modern Russian Orthodoxy. However, one may easily find another striking tendency. I do not know if any Christian body in the world can boast of so great a number of Jews becoming Christians than the Russian Orthodox Church.

I do not like counting but I may testify that I personally know a lot of Jews who became, and are becoming Christians in this Church. Father Alexander Men is the most famous one. There are many Jews among priests and monks as well as among the best theologians. Life in Russia now is quite hard and Jews can easily emigrate to Israel or to America and lead a much better life. Those who stay in Russia, however, often have some spiritual reasons. The strongest one is their Christianity and their love for the Russian spiritual and cultural tradition which is inseparable from Russian Orthodoxy.

It seems that the number of Jews who became Christians in Russia is so great that it makes Russians themselves jealous: something opposite to the process described by Apostle Paul in Rom.11.11.*(*That is why one cannot agree with Jurgen Moltmann's statement:"For a gentile Christian... there is nothing more positive for his salvation than the Jewish no<to Christ>."/ Jewish monotheism and Christian Trinitarian Doctrine, A dilogoue by Pinchas Lapide and Jurgen Moltmann, Fortress Press Philadelphia 1981, p 89/. Modern Russian experience gives us quite an opposite result.) After years of institutionalised atheism in Russia, a phenomenon which also comprised Russia's Jews,who usually were Jews not by their education and religion but only by blood, Jews have been among the first to search for the religious values lost during the years of communism. Admirers of the older Russian classical culture in which they were once raised, many of them have been brought to the Church. The reason being, that Russian culture itself is Christian through and through.

Russians who find these Jews who became Christians in their, as they sometimes erroneously think, national Church are not always happy. Hence we can find a slogan: A Jewish Church for Jews. This is the title of an article by N.Dubrovin published in the right-wing nationalist news-paper Zemschina N 99. The author of this article refers to the Revelation of St John and sees the signs of the Last Days in this process of the conversion of Jews to Christianity. He is really frightened that this process can ruin the national characteristics of the Russian Church and argues for establishing a Jewish Church in Israel with its branches in all countries where Jews live and want to be Christians.

Now let me pass on to more serious, theological issues. As you know, the problem of anti-Semitism was solved in Western Christianity within the so called "Theology after Auschwitz". This theology was happy to proclaim that all the Christian Fathers and teachers of the Church in whose writings one can easily find some negative attitudes towards the Jews, all these Fathers, were wrong and even bear their part of the responsibility for Auschwitz.

Now we come to the central problem of the Orthodox Church. I believe that Orthodoxy will never reject its own heritage. Nobody will dare to say that St John Chrysostom or St Maximus the Confessor were wrong. Nobody will dare to say that for centuries Orthodox Christian teachers were wrong, but we who are sinful and have not even a glimpse of their sanctity are right. This theological solution to the Jewish problem is impossible in Orthodoxy. /Unlike Protestantism and modern Catholitism Orthodox Christianity is at least as faithful to its own Tradition as is Orthodox Judaism.

But what is really interesting: the Orthodox Fathers' attitude towards Jews does not at all frighten those Jews who become Orthodox Christians in Russia, does not prevent them from becoming Christians. Yes, being a Jew one cannot be pleased by these words of the Christian Fathers, but who ever said and when was it ever said that Christianity was established to bring us pleasure. Christianity does bring us pleasure, but a spiritual one, nevertheless, it demands from us something: to hate one's "soul in this world"(Jn.12.25), which is not a pleasant exercise.

The Anti-Semitism of Russian Orthodox Christians, however, is quite different from the anti-Judaism of the Fathers of the Church. The Fathers never said a word against Jews who became Christians, though this process was never of real importance, to say the truth.

In early Christianity, as today, national or cultural circumstances led to the administrative disunity of the Church, a state of affairs censured by St Paul. Unfortunately, in modern Orthodoxy in such countries as the USA or England it often happens that in one city you can find three or even five national Orthodox Churches. I would say this is the main problem of our Church, its greatest desease, especially when they are not in sacramental communion with each other. As for the Jews who come to Orthodoxy in Russia, I believe, there is something of God's providence in this process, because Jews remind Russian Orthodox Christians of the universal character of the Church which cannot be confined to any local concrete cultural forms. Each side in Russian Orthodoxy is taught by God in its own way. Jews are taught to hate their own souls when they are faced with the anti-Judaism of the Fathers which can also be found in the Church's services in the words of the hymns. Russians, on their part, are taught to hate their souls, which means to love their fellow-Jews in the Church in spite of all cultural, ethnic and other differences. All are taught to "hate their souls in this wold", which means to hate their own innate sinfulness, their failures to love God and their neighbours. This is a hard task for both sides, though God never demands simple things from his chosen people, and both Jews and Russian Christians claim to be one, claim to be God's beloved Israel.

From the point of view of the Orthodox Church it is not correct to speak about the Church on the one hand and Israel on the other, as the post-Auschwitz theology often does. the Christian Church is not a Church of the Gentiles. Here lies the main misunderstanding of the Church on the part of both Judaism and the post-Auschwitz theology. Non-Orthodox Christians can call themselves gentiles if they want (take for example German theologian Jurgen Moltmann), Orthodox Christians will never call themselves gentiles and will never acknowledge this name being called in this way by the Jews. The reason is quite simple, the main point of Christ's mission in this respect was to destroy the wall of separation between Israel and Gentiles. According to Apostle Paul, Christ for us "is our peace who has made us both one and has broken down the dividing wall of enmity"(Eph 2.14). And this wall of separation is really destroyed in the Church as we believe. Orthodox Christians from any ethnic, cultural or national background become Israel in the Church, that very Israel of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac. This feeling of oneness with Israel of patriarchs and prophets is really very deep in Orthodoxy, and there are many feasts celebrated in their memory along with the memory of the Christian saints.*[* Characteristically, until Vatican II only one commemoration of Old Testament's figures was known in the calendar of the Latin Church, that of the Macobees. Only Vatican II has suggested to celebrate a new feast of patriarchs and prophets, which was always celebrated and even several times a year in the Orthodox Church. (see Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Herder & Herder 1968, v III, p. 28). See also on this question, "Orthodoxy: Jewish and Christian." Fr. A. James Berstein, Concilliar Press, 1990 ]

At this point one may immediately ask, how about Jews themselves, does the Orthodox Church say that after the Christ-event those from the Jews, who do not accept him, do not belong to God's beloved Israel any more? I think that the answer to this question on the part of the Church should be the same as to the question about Non-Orthodox Christians. This answer was proposed in the XIX -th century by the great Russian religious thinker Aleksey Khomiakov. He said that the Church /i.e. Orthodox Church/ knows Herself as the Church, in other words as God's Israel. As for all other Christians, and, I would add, non-Christians, or even atheists, we do not judge them. Only God knows whether they belong to his people, his beloved Israel or not. The only thing which we know for certain that there can be only one Israel, one people of God, as there is only one God, and our Church understands Herself as a witness for this oneness. In other words, we believe that only in Christ the very opposition of Jewish Israel and non-Jewish Gentiles which is the main source of enmity between them, is abolished. It is abolished in the New and yet Old Israel of God which is the Church of both Jews and Non-Jews who believe in Christ.

Instead of Moltmann's phrase: "Christendom can gain Salvation only together with Israel"/ibid. p 90/, I would say, "Christendom can gain Salvation only being Israel", and I would add: "Jews can gain Salvation only being that same Israel."

There cannot be two Israels or Israel and the Church, as the "theology after Auschwitz" tries to argue. God demands love from men, not just "togetherness" in the terms of Moltmann even less so, tolerance and indifference which is often the case with Judaism and Christianity now in the West. I do not mean that anti-Semitism could ever be justified, even if only on the basis of anti-Judaism. Yet anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism are not inseparably connected as theology after Auschwitz and Judaism itself try to argue. One can convict Judaism and be not anti-Semitic. The problem is that some still fail to make the distiction between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. Now, after such historical experience as pogroms in Kishinev our Church is obliged to express clearly Her teaching, that She does not identify the Jews with Judaism . Our Church has no need to betray Her tradition, She may keep her heritage and reject anti-Semitism.

What it means to keep the heritage of the Fathers in the modern world can be clearly shown by the example of the so called problem of 'the killers of God' . It is well known that since the time of the Nestorian controversy when the notion of the Theotokos was in question and was finally approved by the Church, it became common to call the Jews "the killers of God". Can we after Auschwitz still keep this awful word? The Theology after Auschwitz and Vatican II clearly answer, "no". But that means to reject the authority of the Church Fathers, for whom this term was quite usual. However, there is another solution to this problem, a problem which is really serious, I think, because according to Borzenko's surveys a lot of Orthodox Christians still believe in Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Christ. But there are two different questions in fact. One is: who killed Christ? the other one: who is guilty? yes, speaking historically about Jewish guilt and Christian guilt we inevitably come to the fact of Christ's Cross. The fact that Jews killed Christ and failed to believe in Him was the source for Christian hatred towards Judaism. The Theology after Auschwitz (the Protestant one) often tries to solve this problem on the basis that not Jews but Romans, especially Pontius Pilate, are guilty of killing Christ. This theology does not agree with all those Church Fathers who clearly said that Jews were the killers of God.

Orthodox theology cannot agree in this point with the Theology after Auschwitz. And this is an issue of great importance. If we say that the Romans killed Christ there is still a possibility for someone who attentively reads the Gospels to say that the Jews did it (see for example Acts 2.22,23). So, there is still a possibility for anti-Semitism. The Orthodox position is more profound, I believe. We say that no matter who it was who killed Christ, his guilt has been taken by Christ upon Himself. Being God He (with His Father and the Holy Spirit) is the only true source of the Cross. Thus when we say that Jews (and if you like - Romans) killed Christ we must add that their sin was taken on by Christ. That is why we cannot accuse anybody of His death. If Jews do not acknowledge that their forefathers killed God it is a matter of their freedom, we Christians with our Church Fathers can say both things - that Jews killed God and that their sin is expiated by His blood. So, only we in Christ can say that they are not guilty.

It is a paradox of Judaism that until the Jews accept Christ's divinity, that they crucified God on Golgotha (God, against whom it is impossible to perpetrate an act of violence) they will remain unreconciled with God.* [* This idea that the main mistake of the Jews was that they failed to understand that Christ's suffering was voluntary, can be found already in early Christian thought. See for example Act of Martyrdom of Pionius the Presbyter (dated around 300 a.c.): "For you have also heard that the Jews say,'Christ was a man and died as a criminal...' What this people forget is that this criminal departed from life at his own choice".(The Acts of Christian Martyrs, trans by Herbert Musurillo, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1972 p. 155)] On the other hand, if those who took no part in those events would consider anybody (Jews in particular) guilty of the death of Christ, then they are practically denying Christ's divinity. That is, like Jews, they do not recognise Him as Saviour even if they themselves claim to be Christians.

I know, yet, another approach to the issue of "the killing of God", a Catholic approach, which is also popular among some Jews in Russia. This solution to the problem presupposes that those, maybe a few hundred, Jews who forced Pontius Pilate to kill Christ are indeed the killers of Christ, but not the whole nation, even less so those Jews who live today. This idea seems to be quite reasonable. But may I ask, do modern Jews "are still beloved by God for the sake of the fathers"?(Rom.11.28) With Apostle Paul I believe they do. If "the gifts and the calling of God"(Rom.11.29) are transmitted from generation to generation, that is some event in the past has its effect in the future, than what is the reason to think that the event of the Cross does not have its effect even up till now.*

Being a Jew myself I see no other way for me to be reconciled with God than to be an Orthodox Christian, which does not mean of cause that I allow any attempt to accuse Jews of killing Christ. I repeat once more: it is one thing to say with our Holy Fathers: Jews killed Christ, it is another thing to say that they are guilty. The one statement is true, the another - false, if only we believe that Christ is God.**

* Even after Vatikan II the Catholic theology still speaks about the guilt of those who crusified Christ. A possibility to think in the terms of culpability is opened by the Council's definition itself: "What happened in his Passions cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today"(Nostra Aetate, n 4). This definition still contains an idea that somebody can be blamed for the cricifixtion of Christ. And this is precisely the case in the Catholic theology, which though trying to diminish this guilt, still speaks in the terms of culpability. See for example in "Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, v II, p.7: 'That the ignorance of those responsible for the crucifixion substantially mitigated their guilt even if did not eliminate it altogether is a teaching with firm roots in the New Testament (Lk. 23.34).

However, in the New Testament, precisely in the place mentioned in "Commentary", we find something quite different, Christ praying to his Father to forgive his killers. How can we still speak about the guilt of the killers of Christ, if he himself has forgiven them?

Moreover, such Orthodox Fathers as St.Maximus the Confessor teach that Christ has voluntary chosen his Cross and has been cricified to save those who has killed him, as well as all humanity. (See Exp. Or.Dom. PG 90. 347 C: "He restores (human) nature to itself not only in that having become man he kept a free will tranquil and understubed... even in the face of those who were crucifying him, he even chose death for them rather than life, as the voluntary character of the passions shows, which was accomplished by the disposition of love (for them, who were crucifying him) by one who underwent this passion." (English translation of this place in St. Maximus, given in 'Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings N.Y. 1985 p. 104, is not correct - - instead of "death 'for them" it gives, "at their hands". My reading agrees with A.Riou "Le Monde et L'Eglise Selon Maxime le Confesseur", Beauchesue,Paris, 1973,p.185, and with Russian translation by A.Sidorov, 'Tvorenia Prepodobnogo Maxima Ispovednika', Moskva, Martis, 1993, p. 187)

But St.Maximus says nothing new as compared to the Gospel. And one can find it clearly in the Creed: Christ came down from heaven for the sake of us... Whom? Us, Orthodox Christians? - No. - "Us, men"; that is - all humanity. Which means, that no human being is by nature an enemy of Christ (be he a Jew, American or Russian). Every nation is predestined to Salvation. Who teaches otherwise, rejects the Gospel and the Creed.

Those who are in Christ - that is in the Church - cannot blame anybody (in the past, present or future) for Christ's death, since he himself, as both God and man, has forgiven his killers. His passion was "passionless" (as we sing) which would have been impossible, if he had been putting blame on anybody. To be in the Church, means to have "the same mind that was in Christ Jesus"(Phlp. 2. 5.). ** One may certainly argue that the Fathers calling Jews "the killers of God" were accusing them and really thought that they are guilty. At least there is a possibility to understand their words in this way. Let us now examine this argument. Yes, if the Fathers thought that the Jews were guilty they would have been judging them. Now, as we know, Christ said: do not judge. Thus, if they were judging the Jews they were not in fact holy. That means that they are not the Holy Fathers at all! What a threat for the whole Orthodox tradition!

But let us now examine our own words. How can we know whether they were judging or not. Only a man himself and God can know what is in a man's soul. The problem of drawing the difference between fact and judgement is a problem raised in modern philosophy, it was as such unknown to the Fathers, that is why we cannot find anything in their writings which might have drawn this distinction. Nevertheless, the Fathers knew such a word as "apatheia", and holiness in fact is something inseparable from "apatheia".(What does "apateia" means? But "apatheia" presupposes that one who is in this state does not judge anybody. Now, if you like, it is in the rules of the game to try to read the Fathers' writings in the spirit which they claimed to be theirs. Moreover, I would say that it is within our freedom to read their words in whatever spirit we choose. This freedom is given to us by the written word, we do not hear the voice which might to some extent represent the emotional state of a speaker. If we understand the Fathers' words as a judgement we judge ourselves, because one cannot be in the state of true "apatheia" when one deals with a judgement (that is one is forced to agree with it or to disagree with it ,or to be indifferent to it, which is also far from real "apatheia"). The only way to be in the spirit of "apatheia" is not to presuppose a judgement, to abstain from looking for it, even to guard one's heart against reading the judgement into somebody's words.

Having in mind what I have said above, one may find an answer to the question posed by Prof. Vitaly Borovoy (see Orthodox Christians and Jews on Continuity and Renewal, The Third Academic Meeting between Orthodoxy and Judaism, ed. by Malcolm Lowe, Immanuel 26/27, 1994).

Characterising the situation in the Russian Orthodox Church as regards the Jewish question, Rev. Prof. Vitaly Borovoy has said: "Lately, the Russian Church has proclaimed new saints. Some of them are counted among the greatest forerunners of piety, service, ascetic life, etc. However, they were exponents of the political ideas of their days as well - the end of the XIX and beginning of the XX centuries - they were monarchists, antisemites, because many Jews participated in the revolution.

Now then, people pick out some of their opinions and call us traitors to the Orthodox faith. I call upon all Orthodox ... to help us to rightly explain to our people the real meaning of the spirit of the teaching of the Holy Fathers, and not to base ourselves upon certain of their views that have a purely historical character. That is really important, for we all live in a climate of spiritual terrorism that those categories create, according to which we are, as it were, prisoners of Jewish influence."(pp 64-5).

There are two problems in fact, which are posed here. The first one is a problem of canonisation of saints. To my mind, if somebody was proclaimed by the Church as a saint, it is not correct (and even blasphemous) to say that he was an anti-Semite. Otherwise, people may think that it is possible (and allowed) to be Orthodox and to be anti-Semite, that one can be even a saint being anti-Semite.

Let me say once more, only God knows whether those which say something against the Jews, are convicting them being in the state of "apatheia", or they are hating them and blaming them, being passionate anti-Semites. One can hate the evil of the world not hating those who commit this evil.

Now, insofar as the Church has proclaimed, say, John of Kronstadt, as her saint, it means that she believes that he was not a hater of the Jews or Communists or anyone else, otherwise, he was not a saint. There is no other answer to this question, I believe.

The second problem, posed by Prof. Vitaly Borovoy, is a problem of historicity of truth. Yes, it is true that the teaching of the Church Fathers, as any other teaching, is always proclaimed in some historical context. However, it is not right to reject some of their words on the ground that we live in the different moment of history. Everything said by the Fathers can be useful and can be applied to our situation, being properly interpreted.

Since we believe that saints, convicting somebody, hated the sin and the devil, not the sinners, we may apply their words when the same sin is committed today. It is precisely on the ground of dispassionate character of the Fathers' words that their truth does not vanish with time.

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