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Around the Jewish World Insult from Russian Chief Rabbi Puts Chabad-reform Dispute in Public Eye

March 29, 2005
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An article in Chabad’s main Russian-language magazine blasting Reform Judaism has outraged Reform leaders in Russia and the United States. Reform Judaism “embodies an approach toward things that is opposite to the approach of the Torah,” Rabbi Berel Lazar, the leading Chabad official in the former Soviet Union and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, wrote in the February issue of Lechaim.

Tension between Chabad and the Reform movement has been simmering in the former Soviet Union, but Lazar’s broadside has intensified the conflict and put it squarely in the public eye.

Leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism, as the movement is known in the United States, and of the World Union for Progressive Judaism called Lazar’s attack on Reform Jews deplorable.

“Rabbi Lazar cannot request American Jewish support for his work and profess to speak in the name of all Russian Jews while simultaneously proclaiming that Reform Judaism is not Judaism and Reform rabbis are not rabbis,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Lechaim is a monthly magazine published by the Federation of Jewish Communities, a Chabad-led umbrella group and the largest Jewish organization in the area. The magazine, which is free and distributed across the former Soviet Union, is one of the largest Jewish-interest monthlies in the area.

The article, “Do Not Bargain with God, Gentlemen,” attracted the attention of Reform leaders in Russia this month. Reform leaders in the United States, Israel and around the world joined in the denunciation.

” ‘Reform Judaism’ cannot be seriously called a religion!” Lazar wrote. ” ‘Reformed Judaism’ is just a code of rules created by the people for their own worldly comfort. There is no God there.”

Reform Judaism is “an interest club,” the article continued, and “I feel strange when a director of the club is all of a sudden called ‘a rabbi.’ “

Though they weren’t not surprised to find criticism of their movement in a Chasidic publication, Reform leaders were worried about Lazar’s article, given its author’s prominence.

Lazar argues that over the past 100 years Reform Judaism developed primarily in the United States and therefore reflects American values, which grow out of a secular society. Those values make it hard for Jews to fully observe the Torah’s commandments, he writes.

He hopes that the Reform movement’s expansion in Russia fails, Lazar wrote.

“Luckily, despite all the efforts, there has been no success in rooting the U.S. invention in the Russian-Jewish soil, and with God’s help, will never be,” he writes.

Russian Jews, who endured considerable suffering to remain Jews during the Communist era, are more likely to embrace traditional Judaism than any other variant, Lazar argued.

Assimilated and non-affiliated Jews often tell him that if they had to decide to go to a synagogue, they would chose the one “that resembles most of all the synagogue of my grandfather” — which would not be a Reform synagogue, Lazar pointed out.

Russian Reform leaders say Lazar is wrong about their movement not being successful in Russia.

Rabbi Grigory Kotlyar, head of the Union of Religious Congregations of Modern Judaism in Russia, the central body of the Reform movement, told JTA that the movement has about 35 active congregations in Russia, about 40 in Ukraine and about 20 in Belarus.

The movement now has six rabbis born in the former Soviet Union working in congregations in Moscow; St. Petersburg; Kiev, Ukraine; and Minsk, Belarus.

Kotlyar said Lazar might have been motivated in part because Chabad fears the Reform movement will gain new momentum in Russia in response to the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s global forum, slated for this summer in Moscow. It is believed to be the first time Reform Jewish leaders from around the world will meet in the former Soviet Union.

In a letter to Lazar signed by five Reform rabbis, Russian Reform leaders noted that their movement was not born in the United States. In fact, they wrote, the movement’s Russian roots are almost as deep as those of the Lubavitch movement: The first Reform congregations opened in czarist Russia in the middle of the 19th century.

The letter added that Lazar’s article undermined the principles of democracy and pluralism in the Jewish community that Lazar himself has praised when meeting with American Jewish leaders.

The Reform leaders also said it was regrettable for one Jewish group to publicly attack another, given growing anti-Semitism in Russian.

As of press time, Lazar had not responded either to the Reform letter or to JTA’s request for comment.

Leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism demanded to know how the leader of a group that claims to represent Russian Jews both domestically and internationally could have written what Lazar wrote.

Lazar’s federation has been increasing its fund-raising efforts in the United States, claiming that the money it raises will benefit Jews across the former Soviet Union, Yoffie noted.

But Lazar’s Lechaim article proved that he doesn’t represent all of Russia’s Jews, Yoffie said.

“He is speaking the language of a Chabad functionary and not of a Russian Jewish leader,” Yoffie said.

Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director for the World Union for Progressive Judaism, also blasted Lazar’s article.

“It’s regrettable that Chabad — which professes to connect all Jews as they are — so easily returns to its old, hateful bashing of Reform Judaism,” Regev said in a statement.

Regev said U.S. partners of Lazar’s federation should reconsider their ties to his group if he refuses to re-evaluate his comments.

“A movement guided by such views cannot be a partner to pluralistic, inclusive Jewish organizations such as the” Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations “and the American Jewish Congress, who have been approached by Chabad in recent times,” Regev wrote.

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