Recently, my wife and I were privileged to travel to Russia for a brief but fascinating trip under the leadership of Rabbi Aryeh Katzin, a principal force behind Russian kiruv in the U. S. Rabbi Katzin heads RAJE (Russian-American Jewish Experience) and founded Sinai Academy. He grew up under Communism in Russia, learned Torah in Yerushalayim, and was recruited some thirty years ago by leading American rabbis, principal among them Rabbi Elya Svei zt”l.
Our trip was fascinating for many reasons, but what came across intensely was the amazing fact that Jews in Russia, for the first time in centuries, are unafraid. This impression comes not from propaganda, but from personal conversations with many people.
Despite intense controversy over Vladimir Putin in the Western World, there is no doubt that he is beloved by observant Jews in Russia. They walk in the street with yarmulkas and, by their own testimony, there is no evidence of anti-Semitism in Russia today. I am not saying that the famous statement, “esev sonai l’Yaakov …Esav hates Yaakov” (see Rashi on Genesis 33:4) has been repealed. What I do say is that government policy, from the top down, is strongly sympathetic to Torah life and Torah institutions.
I first heard the following story several years ago from a distinguished rosh yeshiva at a large yeshiva outside Moscow: Mr. Putin was a mediocre student in high school, but he had a teacher named Mina Yuditskaya Berliner who saw in him tremendous potential. She taught him to identify and direct his strength, and from this moment began his spectacular rise.
This teacher was a Jewish lady.
To Mr. Putin’s everlasting credit, he never forgot what he owed to her.
Because of this and other childhood experiences with kindly Jewish neighbors, Mr. Putin’s attitude toward Jews in general became extremely benevolent. When he achieved power, he remembered his beloved teacher, to the extent that he bought her an apartment in Israel and visited her there on official state trips as president. One Jewish lady changed the world!
Can you imagine: because of her, millions of Russian Jews benefited! Jewish communities in Russia have no problems with the government. Many large buildings and facilities housing Jewish institutions have been given to them gratis by the government. Amazingly, Mr. Putin himself contributed one month of his salary toward building the enormous and sophisticated Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow!
No matter what the Western media say, Vladimir Putin’s record toward
Russian Jews and Jewish institutions cannot be equaled by most statesman around
the world. From whom did I learn this? Among others, a rosh yeshiva; two observant businessmen who emigrated from New York
to Moscow; a dayan (a judge in a
rabbinical court), a businessman who runs a large Jewish publishing house, a
law professor and distinguished rabbonim
in St. Petersburg and Moscow. We met with Rabbi Alexander Boroda, president of the Federation of Jewish
Communities of Russia. Articulate even in English, Rabbi Boroda operates
outreach centers throughout Russia and is one of Mr. Putin’s close advisors.
At this season of repentance, it is instructive to contemplate how one person can affect the lives of millions of our brethren. Mrs. Berliner’s innate goodness and desire to improve the world was part of her Jewish soul. We can all change the world by cultivating chessed and acting with dignity, living up to the example inherited from our Father Abraham, who changed the world by 0demonstrating the nobility of the service of the Ruler of the Universe.
In our era, “politics,” which really should be the service of mankind, has become a term signifying corruption and obsession with power. Monarchy is archaic; there are very few, if any, real kings. The celebrated Queen of England, for example, is a powerless figurehead.
This week’s Torah Portion, conversely, reveals the Torah view regarding the head of government, a subject which I believe it is vital to contemplate. “When you come to the Land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, and possess it, and settle in it … you shall surely set over yourself a king whom Hashem, your G-d, shall choose. From among your brethren shall you set a king over yourself; you cannot place over yourself a foreign man, who is not your brother.” (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)
It is fascinating to examine the view of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on the role of the Jewish king: “The king, who is at the head of the nation, holds all its powers, and – with none above him but Hashem his G-d – directs his people in the way of G-d’s service.” (Hirsch Chumash Leviticus 4:22) Rabbi Hirsch indicates that the king is the prime teacher of the nation in the ways of serving Hashem, like a powerful rebbe teaching proper behavior.
Rabbi Hirsch continues, quoting the Gemorah: “Fortunate is the generation whose ruler seeks atonement by making an offering for the wrong he has committed in error. How must the conscience of the ordinary citizen be stirred by the conscientious conduct of the king! And if he is so deeply affected by a transgression he has committed in error, how much more deeply will he be affected if he has been guilty of an intentional sin!” (Horayos 10b)
We live in a cynical world, but the Torah is not cynical; we believe in the perfect goodness of a world governed by Torah and we are awaiting ben Dovid, the Moshiach.
“[Our rabbis and prophets] did not yearn for the Messianic Era in order to have dominion over the entire world, to rule over the gentiles … or to eat, drink and celebrate, but rather … to be free [to involve themselves] in Torah and wisdom without pressure or disturbance, so that they would merit the World to Come….” (Rambam, Laws of the King)
May we see it soon in our days!
Left to right: the author, Rabbi Alexander Boroda, Rabbi Aryeh Katzin