Monday, June 27, 2005

Russian move to examine Jewish text is serious anti-Semitism 

Part 1:

Russians to "investigate" the Code of Jewish Law - The Shulchan Aruch (Shulkhan Arukh)

By Amiram Barkat, Haaretz Correspondent, and Haaretz Service
Mon., June 27, 2005 Sivan 20, 5765

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin opened Monday's plenum session by condemning a Russian decision to examine a code of Jewish halakhic law to ascertain whether it constitutes racist incitement and anti-Russian material.

Rivlin said "we in the Knesset are following the matter closely, due to both worry and zero tolerance of serious expressions of anti-Semitism such as this."

According to Israel Radio, a senior Foreign Ministry figure on Monday evening said Israel will view gravely any Russian decision to examine the Shulhan Arukh - a code of Jewish halakhic law compiled in the 16th century.

Russia's state prosecutor has ordered an examination of the Shulhan Arukh and the probe against a Jewish umbrella organization in Russia for distributing a Russian translation of an abbreviation of the Shulhan Arukh.

Last Thursday, attorneys from the Russian State Prosecutor's Office questioned Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Organizations - one of the two large Jewish umbrella organizations in Russia. Kogan was asked to explain the contents of Shulhan Arukh, especially regarding its treatment of non-Jews.

Jerusalem sources following the affair said this is the first time since Stalin's regime that Russian officials have described holy Jewish scriptures as prohibited incitement. The affair has been covered widely by the Russian news media, eliciting sharp reactions from Jewish organizations in Russia.

The state prosecutor's last move has increased Israel's concern for the Jews in Russia, following the recent increase in anti-Semitic incidents there. These incidents include attacks on Jews and damage to Jewish property.

The inquiry was launched following a letter signed by 500 public figures, including some 20 members of the nationalist Rodina party, urging the state prosecutor to outlaw the Jewish religion and all the Jewish organizations operating in Russia.

The prosecutor rejected requests of Jewish organizations to open an investigation into those who had initiated the letter.

Rodina's leader, Dimitri Rogozin, sent a letter to Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt over the weekend, criticizing the anti-Semitic displays in his party. "Theological sources cannot be subjected to judiciary procedures," he wrote.

Goldschmidt told Haaretz that he welcomed Rogozin's statement, but called on Rogozin to take firm steps against his party members who signed the letter.

Alexander Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities told a Russian news agency: "We are shocked by the very examination. The fact that books from the 16th century, which have become part of Jewish heritage, are subject to investigation shows the short-sightedness of the state prosecutor's people."

Part 2:

Russia ends probe into claims of incitement in Jewish text

By Amiram Barkat, Haaretz Correspondent, Haaretz Service and Itim
Wed., June 29, 2005 Sivan 22, 5765

Russia's state prosecutor announced Tuesday afternoon that he is canceling an investigation into claims that a 19th century abridged code of Jewish law (halakha) contains incitement against non-Jews.

The preliminary investigation of the Jewish umbrella organization for distributing a Russian translation of the text has also been dropped. The lawyer for Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar was informed of the decision.

"There's no reason to persecute a whole sector of society because of religious texts held sacred to them. The decision to launch an investigation was a mistake," said a source at the attorney general's office.

The report of the investigations, first revealed Monday in Haaretz, sparked widespread expressions of concern from Israel as well as Jewish and human rights groups worldwide.

The decision to cancel the probe came following a meeting Tuesday morning between Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.

Olmert, who is on an official state visit to Russia, told Fradkov that Israel expects Moscow to take substantial steps to combat anti-Semitism in the country, and not suffice with verbal condemnations.

In a personal letter to Putin, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abe Foxman, wrote Tuesday that the probe evoked the anti-Semitic persecution of the Stalin era.

Israeli and Jewish officials, human rights activists and Russian journalists have spent the last few days trying to understand what has caused the prosecutor to order the preliminary investigation of the Jewish umbrella organization for distributing a Russian translation of the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh.

They want to know whether it is an expression of anti-Semitism in the Russian prosecution or an investigation ordered by the Kremlin.

The Shulhan Arukh was compiled by Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid-16th century and is considered to be the authoritative text on Jewish law.

On Thursday, attorneys from the Moscow prosecutor's office questioned Rabbi Zinovy Kogan, the chairman of the Congress of Jewish Organizations. The prosecution, which is subordinate to Russia's state prosecution, said it summoned him to discuss the text, and the meeting was described as a preliminary investigation of the congress and its leaders, who are suspected of racist incitement, a criminal violation.

Prosecution officials asked Kogan questions regarding the identities of those responsible for translating, printing and distributing the book in Russia. They also asked him about his editing considerations.

Jewish groups in Russia were angered and shocked by Kogan's interrogation.

"We're trying to clarify what is behind the decision," Rabbi Lazar said.

Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinhas Goldschmidt said he was "astonished" by the prosecution's actions.

Israeli government officials believe that Kogan's interrogation cannot pass unquestioned. They said that for state officials to question a Jewish religious leader on the content of religious writings is "an event the likes of which have not occurred for decades, not in Russia and not in other countries with which Israel has diplomatic ties."

What makes the case even worse in Israel's view is that the Russian Foreign Ministry has until now ignored requests for an explanation of the interrogation. Political officials in Israel said Monday they think "the Kremlin expects gestures from Israel in exchange for the elimination of the affair."

Some Russian analysts support this interpretation. Anton Nosik, a well-known independent Russian journalist, said the current situation is comfortable for the Kremlin. He expects Russian President Vladimir Putin to increase the price he plans to extract from Israel the worse the problem is depicted.

"When you ask the Kremlin for a favor, it can be assumed that the Kremlin will ask favors in return," said Nosik. However, he thinks that in this case the investigation does not come from the top. "The assumption that the prosecution got instructions from above cannot be reconciled with the inconsistent behavior it has shown throughout the affair," he said.

In January, the Russian state prosecution was asked in a petition to open an investigation into the Jewish organizations in Russia suspected of spreading hate via their sacred texts. Some 500 people signed the petition, about 20 of whom are members of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

Those who submitted the petition retracted it and submitted a second one about a month later, this time with 5,000 signatures. On June 10, the prosecution said the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh is injurious to the feelings of non-Jews, but that there was no reason to open a criminal investigation against the Jewish group that distributed the book. But Wednesday the chief prosecutor of Moscow called for a renewed assessment of the case.

Part 3:

A dark reminder of the Dark Ages

By Yair Sheleg
Wed., June 29, 2005 Sivan 22, 5765

Russia's examination of the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh - the abbreviated codex of Jewish law - to ascertain whether it constitutes racist incitement gave Prof. Yisrael Yaakov Yuval, who researches Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages, the feeling of a "return to the 13th century."

Like Yuval, others who know Jewish history could only be astounded by the sensation that the Dark Ages are making a comeback. The probe of a Jewish umbrella organization in Russia for distributing a Russian translation of the book, reported in yesterday's Haaretz, is only the latest incident in a history rife with investigations of Jewish religious books containing phrases thought to be "against non-Jews." These have generally ended with mass book burnings, pogroms and anti-Semitic decrees.

The best-known such incident took place in Paris, in 1240, when Jewish apostate Nicolas Donin complained of anti-gentile comments in the Talmud. Apostates often figured in the troubles afflicting the Jews, as they were able to tell the Christians all about the Talmud. The Roman Catholic Church ordered a religious "disputation," a type of public trial in which the Jews had to defend their texts against the Christians. A short time later, the pope ordered copies of the Talmud to be captured and handed over to Dominican monks for examination.

In the decade following this edict, many copies of the Talmud were publicly burned across Europe. In 1241 the tempest led to Jewish riots in Frankfurt.

But in 1247 the Jews managed to extract an agreement from Pope Innocent IV that the Talmud, which was agreed to be essential to the Jewish faith, would no longer be burned.

In 1413 another Jewish apostate, Joshua Halorki from Spain, brought charges that the Talmud contained anti-gentile texts. Once again the Jews were summoned to a public trial in the city of Tortosa. The trial, which lasted for two years, dealt with the Talmud's purported "mistakes and heresy and insults to the Christian religion." The trial ended with decrees discriminating against Jews.

In 1509 Johanne Pfefferkorn, who had also converted from Judaism, came out against the Talmud in Germany. But this time the Jews were defended by a Christian scholar, Johannes Reuchlin, who argued that the Talmud was full of evidence that validated the truth of Christian beliefs, and this time the Talmud was not burned.

There is no doubt that Jewish law (halakha), especially that which is expressed in the Talmud, relates to Jews differently from non-Jews. This contrast is particularly evident in the Mishne Torah written by Maimonides, in which he organized all the halakhic rulings of the Talmud. For instance, it's forbidden for non-Jews to study Torah or keep the Sabbath, since these are sacred elements created for the Jews; the sentence for non-Jews who violate these injunctions is death. According to other rulings, Jews must not return lost objects belonging to non-Jews, or at most should return them only to maintain good relations.

Kabbalistic works and the writings of those influenced by the kabbala contain even more essential distinctions between Jews and gentiles. In the 20th century Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote that "the difference between the Israelite soul... and the souls of all non-Jews, no matter what their level, is bigger and deeper than the difference between the human soul and the animal soul."

The Shulhan Arukh, a code of halakha compiled in the 16th century, is actually considered fairly free of these kinds of comments and rulings. Here and there some remnants exist, like the ruling (on which the Russians are apparently basing their claim) that the baby of "a non-Jewish woman should not be delivered on the Sabbath," since doing so would entail the violation of the Sabbath, and it must not be violated for the sake of a non-Jew.

Yuval, the professor of Jewish-Christian relations, said the Shulhan Arukh has been edited by Jews and by Christian censors, which was made possible by the printing press, which allowed for greater supervision of content before books were published.

The internal and external censorship has increased since the publication of the code of Jewish law, said Yuval, with the 19th-century Kitzur ["Abridged"] Shulhan Arukh, the subject of the Russian probe, even freer of anti-gentile comments than its predecessor.

"This is the first time I have come across polemic against the Shulhan Arukh," he said.

Jewish commentators have tried to remove the sting from rulings against non-Jews. In the 13th century, Rabbi Menachem Hame'iri wrote that such rulings don't apply to monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Islam, only to idol worshipers.

In any case, the discussion of Jewish law should be left to Jews, without the involvement of Russia's state prosecutor. The issue that requires reaction is the return of the darkest kind of anti-Semitism.
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