Posts Tagged 'Russia'

Glasnost: A Word for Passover

As it was reported in the Guardian and Foreign Policy, on March 28, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s oldest independent newspapers, announced it was suspending operations until the conclusion of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Since the start of the war, the Russian government has blocked or shut down all remaining independent sources of information in Russia, including the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, the television channel TV Rain, and the bilingual news website Meduza. This scene of a winnowing free press in Russia is reminiscent of the Soviet control of the media.

While there is nothing as bad as the horrors of war, this is scary. Without a free press, there is little hope for the future. Without any public accountability, how will Russians know the truth? They might not even know that they need to push their government to end this war.

Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy ushered in a new era of cooperation between media and government in the early 1990s. This policy opened the door to muckraking in the name of reform—after all, if problems cannot be named and openly discussed, how can they be solved? The last years before the Soviet collapse saw the rise of a new media that sought to critique, investigate, and, above all, tell the truth. Sadly with Putin and his way on Ukraine this has come to a stop.

What does the word glasnost means? In the Russian language, the word гласность means “openness and transparency”. It come from the word глас – the voice, or гла́сный -public, open” and‎ -ость -ness. This was a policy of opening up the voice of the Soviet Union.

This idea of glasnost finds a parallel to a playful Ukrainian Torah of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev . He explained that Pesach literally means pehsach, “the mouth (peh) talks (sach).” On Pesach, the mouth talks about the wonders and miracles of liberation. On the most fundamental level, our greatest freedom is using our voices. But before we can experience liberation we need to be able to articulate our suffering and give voice to pain.  Before we can become free we need to speak our truth.

This year as we prepare for Passover we need to speak the truth about the terror being perpetuated against Ukrainians. We cannot have a pehsach without glasnost. Liberation means having a voice. We need a free press.


Hidden Identities: Esther, Sharansky, and Us

With the advent of Adar Sheni we say,” Mi Sh’Nichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– as soon as Adar has entered, we increase in happiness.” (Taanit 29a) It is hard to really get into the happy mood right now. It is impossible not be be appalled by violence in Ukraine, horrified by the enormity of this refugee crises, and terrified by the prospects of World War III.

With Adar comes Purim and with Purim comes Esther. There in her eponymous book we are introduced to her, “And [Mordechai] had raised Hadassah, she is Esther . . .”(Esther 2:7) Why did she have two names?

The name Hadassah is derived from the Hebrew word hadas הדס , a myrtle tree from the Myrtaceae family. The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance. The Talmud explains why Queen Esther was also called Hadassah:

Why was she called Hadassah? Because the righteous are called myrtles. As it states (Zechariah 1:8), “And he was standing among the myrtles [the righteous prophets Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah].”

Megillah 13a

The sages in the Midrash take this one step further:

Just as a myrtle has a sweet smell and a bitter taste, so too Esther was good and listened (“sweet”) to the righteous Mordechai, and was adverse (“bitter”) to the wicked Haman.

Esther Rabbah 6:5.

According to Kabbalah, each of her names corresponds to a different spiritual level. The name Hadassah represents righteousness. As such, it corresponds to a heavenly sphere representing God’s infinitude. The name Esther -אסתר is derived from the Hebrew word hester-הסתר, which means “hiddenness,” and corresponds to a spiritual plane representing hidden Godliness (Deuteronomy 20:19). Interestingly, she is referred to by both names—seemingly opposites. How do we understand these identities? Why is the book called Megilat Esther and not Megilat Hadassah?

I was thinking about these questions recently when reading this amazing story about Nathan Sharansky. He was speaking this past week at the Sheva Brachot of Yossi and Chana Dickstien’s wedding. Yossi lost both his parents and brother, to a terrorist attack when he was just seven years old). Sharansky shared the following to those at the Simcha:

When I grew up in Ukraine in the city of Donetsk, there were people of various nationalities living there. Their ID certificates had the word ‘Russian’, ‘Ukraine’, ‘Georgian’, ‘Kozaki”, it wasn’t that important and there wasn’t much of a difference. One thing was important – if it had the word ‘Jewish’ written on it, that would be as if you had some disease. We knew nothing about Judaism, except antisemitism and hatred towards us.  That’s why no one tried to replace the word ‘Russian’ or the word ‘Ukraine’, in order to get accepted to the university.  But if it you had the word ‘Jewish’ on your ID papers and you could manage to change that, your chance of getting accepted was so much higher. I was reminded of this while watching this week how thousands of people are standing at the borders, trying to escape the tragedy in Ukraine. They stand there day and night, and there’s only one word today that can help them get out: “Jewish”. If you are a Jew – there are Jews outside who care for you, there is someone on the other side of the border looking for you, your chance of getting out is so much higher. The world I knew has been turned upside down. When I was a child ‘Jewish’ was an extraordinary bad word, no one was jealous of us! Today at the border of Ukraine, ‘Jewish’ is an extraordinary word for good, it describes people who have somewhere to go and there’s an entire nation – their family, waiting for them outside.

Sharansky and Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, 19 September 2000

This resonates with something the Elie Wiesel. wrote in Jews of Silence in 1965 when he wrote, “In Russia they hated the Jews because they were not Russian enough, and in the other Soviet states they hated the Jews because they were too Russian.”( from memory so might not be precise) Our identities have always made us feel different or scorned, but this seems to be a new moment of safety and pride.

Reading Sharansky’s quote, I cried seeing how this is really a time when, like Purim, it is nahafochu– things are topsy-turvy. What was once a hidden identity and even shame, was overturned to become a source of pride or even salvation. How do we think about Esther’s and Sharansky’s hidden Jewish identities? In the Jews of Silence Wiesel wrote, “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.” How will we show up with our hidden identities to meet this moment? Like the Megilah being called after Esther, it is our choice if we come out like Hadassah to do the right thing.

Ukrainian Torah: The Kedushas HaLevi on Avram

Last week on Facebook Rabba Leah Sarna wisely asked, “What Ukrainian Torah will you be teaching?” I know that it is complicated for us as Jews to related to this question. While there is a rich history of Jews in the Ukraine, it has been far from all possitive, and relatively few Jews there understood themselves to be Ukrainian. That said, Zelenskyy, their heroic President, is one of us.

So I let the question marinate for a moment. This circumstances of Russia’s war on Ukraine got me thinking about the War of Nine Kings which is described in the Torah in Genesis 14:1–17. The Torah explains that the Battle of Siddim occurred between four Mesopotamian armies and five cities of the Jordan plain. According to the biblical account, the Elamite King Chedorlaomer subdued the tribes and cities surrounding the Jordan River plain. After 13 years, four kings of the cities of the Jordan plain revolted against Chedorlaomer’s rule. In response, Chedorlaomer and three other kings started a campaign against King Bera of Sodom and four other allied kings.

Avram intervened to save him cousin Lot who was caught up in in the middle of the war. There we read:

They seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Avram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. A fugitive brought the news to Avram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Avram’s allies. When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

Genesis 14:11-14

In his eponymous book the Kedushas Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Levi Yitzchok Derbarmdiger) (1740–1809) shared his thoughts on Avram’s heroic activity. It it relevant to me the Berditchev is in the Ukraine.

There he wrote:

“when Avram heard that his kinsman had ‎been taken captive,”(Genesis 14:14) When the Torah continues and speaks ‎about Avram taking with him 318 men in his pursuit of ‎Chedorlaomer and his armies as far north as the tribal territory of ‎Dan (in the future), the number 318 is not accidental, but ‎represents the numerical value of the word ‎שיח -to speak‎, another word for ‎דבור -to speak‎, suggesting that Avram defeated these armies by means of ‎uttering the holy name of God. ‎The word ‎דבור ‏‎ also means ‎הנהגה- leadership; the word ‎שיח=318‏‎ ‎also occurs in the sense of ‎השפלה- humiliation, i.e. Avram ‎humiliated these boastful kings. The word occurs in Proverbs ‎‎23:27 in that sense, i.e. ‎שוחה עמוקה זונה‎, “a harlot is a deep pit.” ‎‎

Kedushat Levi on Genesis 14:14

So how does Avram seek to save Lot? According to the Kedushas Levi there might have been any of four ways, but all of them are rooted in this number 318 having the gematria value of an act of speaking. The four ways are:

  1. Saying ineffable name of God. This is an allusion to when ‎Moshe killed the Egyptian in Exodus 2:13, an act referred to in ‎Exodus 2:14 as having been accomplished by a אומר- saying a word.
  2. Avram acted was through his leadership.
  3. Shaming Chedorlaomer.
  4. Something ambiguous regarding a harlot being as a deep שוחה- pit.

It is noteworthy that the holy Berdichever was a Hasidic master and Jewish leader who was also known as the “Sneiguron Shel Yisroel”-defense attorney” for the Jewish people, because he would intercede on their behalf before God. Known for his compassion for every Jew, he was one of the most beloved leaders of Eastern European Jewry. He very much saw his own role as someone who would use his words like Avram for his brethren.

So what do we make of the Berdichever’s reading? When Avram sees Lot in danger he intervenes. His mode of attack is actually with words and not soldiers. There are four ways:

  1. Through the revelation of God’s name.
  2. Through diplomacy and leaderships
  3. Through shame
  4. This whole thing with the harlot is still not clear to me.

Clearly this story the War of Nine Kings is relevant to what we are seeing as the Russian attack on Ukraine. There is merit to look to Avram for guidance as we determine what we should do in response. We are all appalled by this violence, horrified by the enormity of this refugee crises, of AND terrified by the prospects of World War III.

So what do we make of this four-fold Ukrainian Torah of the “Sneiguron Shel Yisroel”-defense attorney” for the Jewish people at this moment:

  1. Through the revelation of God’s name- While it is easy to imagine that this crisis is just about NATO, East vs West, or Putin’s power game at home, it is critical to reframe things. This is actually a religious war between Russian Orthodoxy and the West. For Putin this is a crusade for the  “spiritual security”  of their historical “Third Rome” concept. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, explained in early 2019, “Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kiev ‘the mother of all Russian cities.’ For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so under no circumstances can we abandon this historical and spiritual relationship. The whole unity of our Local Church is based on these spiritual ties.” Even if you say that Avram used words to combat Chedorlaomer, words can kill. Words of being rational will not end a crusade. We might need to fight religious war with religious rhetoric. It did not help when Pompeo hailed it as a “historic achievement for Ukraine” which represented America’s “strong support for religious freedom.” We are playing into the story of the East being the infidels in this Russian Orthodox crusade (for more on this see this compelling article.)
  2. Through diplomacy and leaderships. NATO like Avram needs to step up to lead with sanctions and political impact to support Ukraine and fight this Russian invasion.
  3. Through Shame- Unlike absurd Kremlin propaganda lines about “Ukrainian Nazis” perpetrating  “genocide” against Russians, we need to get the truth out there. That said, we should be worried about shaming Putin any more than he is already embarrassing himself. If he cannot leave with his pride, many more people will die.
  4. So when it comes to this harlot, I think about the old joke. There man says to a woman, “Would you sleep with me for one million dollars?”. The woman says sure. The man replies, “How about for ten dollars?”. The woman replies, ” What? Do you take me for a common whore?” The man retorts, “We’ve already established that. All we’re doing now is negotiating the price.” Why would she care about being called a whore? Once we sell ourselves, the price is just a detail. Words are just words, at some point we are only judged on our actions. While the Kedushas Levi imagines that Avram intervened with his 318 men means with his words, at some level Avram acted and brought in his army to end the war and save Lot. At some point words are not enough and we will need to actually intervene.

So when we think about the Ukrainian Torah, think about the ways we can try to intervene, end this war, and save lives.

Putin is No Stalin: Like a Bird in a Cage

When I graduated college I went to live in Minsk Belarus to work as the youth director for the Jewish community. I like to think that I did a fair amount of teaching during that time, but upon reflection I realize that I learned much much more. I learned skills, a language, a lot about myself, and new perspective as I learned another culture. What was the culture of the former Soviet Union?

I have reflected on this part of my life as Belarus is joining Russia in attacking the Ukraine. Under the Soviet, they were all neighbors. And now they are killing each other. And we are inching closer to the brink of a 3rd World War. So again I am left thinking what do we know about the culture of the former Soviet Union? Upon reflection I recall a story that I heard during my time in Minsk. As it goes:

When Josef Stalin was on his deathbed he called in two likely successors, to test which one of the two had a better knack for ruling the country. He ordered two birds to be brought in and presented one bird to each of the two candidates. The first one grabbed the bird, but was so afraid that the bird could free himself from his grip and fly away that he squeezed his hand very hard, and when he opened his palm, the bird was dead. Seeing the disapproving look on Stalin’s face and being afraid to repeat his rival’s mistake, the second candidate loosened his grip so much that the bird freed himself and flew away. Stalin looked at both of them scornfully. “Bring me a bird!” he ordered. They did. Stalin took the bird by its legs and slowly, one by one, he plucked all the feathers from the bird’s little body.  Then he opened his palm. The bird was laying there naked, shivering, helpless. Stalin looked at him, smiled gently and said, “You see… and he is even thankful for the human warmth coming out of my palm.”

There are many reasons that Russia is invading the Ukraine (e.g. politics, religion, ego, economy, etc.) Beyond the rationale, it is clear that Putin expected to pluck the feathers and hold a thankful Ukraine in him palm.

Putin is no Stalin even if he wants to be because Ukraine will not be a play the part of the bird. For now they are refusing to be caged. Let’s hope for peace and soon. I have trouble imaging Putin calling it quits quietly.

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