Doubly Chosen III: A Great Men [sic]

In the last post reviewing Judith Kornblatt’s Doubly Chosen, I briefly re-sketched her description of the Russian-Jewish Soviet intelligentsia and their discovery of Orthodoxy in the search for freedom and truth. The appeal of the Orthodox Church to these people was, in many if not most cases, mediated by a most remarkable man: Father Alexander Men’ (1935-1990), a charismatic priest and martyr at once profoundly Jewish and profoundly Orthodox.

I won’t rehash Kornblatt’s compassionate and detailed presentation of the man, except for one vignette. According to Father Meerson, who was a close disciple of Father Men’, the latter told him he had had the following reaction to the declaration of Israel’s statehood in 1948:

I was terribly concerned with how I could contribute to the cause of Jewish survival. So I decided something very strange. I decided I’ll become a priest.

Father Men’ was thirteen years old at the time – the age of mitzvah.

If this seems like a counterintuitive decision for a person concerned with Jewish survival, that of Aron Jean-Marie Lustiger(1926-2007), Catholic archbishop of Paris for over two decades and later Cardinal, is even more so. Both Men’ and Lustiger as young boys saw the times when the “Jewish question” was most acute worldwide, when Jews had to gather as a nation and stand by one another, as also the times when Christ most clearly needed to be present among them.

Having spent summers in Germany in the late 1930s with boys his age who were in the Hitler Youth, thirteen-year-old (again that number!) Aron Lustiger, born in France of Polish immigrant parents, knew before many adults what Nazism would entail. It was in light of this profound awareness of the suffering about to befall the Jewish people that Lustiger sought baptism into the Catholic church and resolved to become a priest.

“It was in Germany,” Lustiger told Israeli journalists in 1981, “that I guessed why God has committed himself to the Jews because of the Messiah. It is the opposite of Gott Mit Uns on [Nazi] soldiers’ belts.” Only in Christ could the history of Israel – small as the mustard seed in His parable, humiliated and persecuted – be seen as “the history of salvation, as opposed to the history of damnation that the war was displaying at the time.”

As for Father Men’, Father Meerson writes:

Men’ thought that if Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, the time of the people of Israel to acknowledge Him as such will eventually come. The emergence of the Jewish state was a sign. Living in diaspora, the Jews had to preserve their identity… With the restoration of the Jewish state, the danger of assimilation would eventually disappear. The people, liberated internally from the fear of losing their national identity, would become ready to look at what Men’ considered the earliest Jewish legacy – the New Testament. At this point the need for Jewish priests and preachers of the Gospel would be felt.

For Lustiger, the Shoah made it both more necessary and more possible than ever for Israel to see itself in its suffering yet triumphant Messiah. For Men’, it was the triumph of Israel in its newly regained nation that called for preparations for the Messiah’s triumphant return.

(Incidentally, Lustiger shared Father Men’s view that an Israeli identity was conducive to Jewish openness to Christ in a way that a Jewish identity in the diaspora could not be. I was surprised and encouraged that my earlier post on this topic turns out to have echoed the same sentiment, however poorly.)

Note: My impressions of Lustiger’s conversion are based on the first of several interviews with him collected in this little book, which I highly recommend.

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About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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6 Responses to Doubly Chosen III: A Great Men [sic]

  1. Iraj Anastasius says:

    Thank for your thoughful review of the book. I read it some time ago and was similarly impressed by the author’s fairness – and even sympathy – with her interviewees, and in faithfully retelling their narratives. Such large-scale conversion of Jews to Christianity obviously makes her uneasy – and yet she faces the subject head-on, not batting an eye-lid. And mangages to write an insightful, even inspiring book.

    I first went looking for the book and found it after slowly becoming aware of – and being shocked by – just how many of the ‘Russians’ who attend our Church, are actually baptized Jews. And what’s more, I observed: They all retain, rather than reject, their Jewish identity after baptism.

    I couldn’t understand it — Among Jews that I’ve known throughout my life, however secular and non-observant, and even downright hostile to ‘Judaism-as-religion’, I’d always noticed the common knee-jerk contempt, not for Christianity and Christians, but specifically for Jews who convert to Christianity and become Christians, as sell-outs and traitors. One American Jewish (non-observant) friend of mine once told me that, for her growing up – even without any religious education – the message indirectly imparted from her environment was always to be on her strictest guard when it comes to Christianity – as the most dangerous and seductive of deceptions.

    What the book does well, is explain the unique historical factors that made such a large-scale conversion possible. What is perhaps most unique of all in this particular instance, as you pointed out — is that in most cases, baptism did not imply any negation of Jewishness.

    But I still have a hard time believing that most Jews, who still qualify by rabbinic standards as belonging to the Jewish people, wouldn’t read this book…and cringe throughout?

    Ironically, Soviet policy accomplished what pre-Soviet policy and pogroms never could: the total cultural ‘russification’ of Jews in Russia, the divorce of ‘Jewishness’ from any living Jewish religious tradition and culture apart from that of the wider Russian society – thus facilitating baptism. For the post-Soviet, culturally russified Jew, the Orthodox Church makes simply more cultural sense than rabbinic Judaism – which must at this point seems quite strange, exotic, foreign.

    Kornblatt is careful throughout not place all her cards on the table, but her skeptical attitute still shines through here and there: For her, these Soviet Jews only became Christians, because they were unnaturally severed from any link to living Jewish faith and tradition. It was only because they were unwilfully ignorant of Judaism, that they came to believe in Christ.

    Of course, you and I – and I think all the people interviewed in the book – would beg to differ.

    • I do think many Jews would cringe upon reading it. I definitely grew up with a similar bias against Christianity that your friend describes.

      The point that these people converted because they were ignorant of Judaism is interesting. Of course mere lack of exposure was an issue. But I think there’s another issue as well: Judaism is a very communal religion, whereas Christianity is more individualistic. Not that it shouldn’t be lived communally. But at the very least, the lack of rules that make it possible to eat only with one’s coreligionists and work only in places that accommodate Sabbath observance mean that it was much more possible for Christianity to survive – and to be appealing – under the kind of total persecution of religion that existed in the USSR. At the same time, the emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ and the importance of both divine and human personhood as such, rather than on communal practice of a particular lifestyle, made Christianity appealing to people who, as Father Meerson is quoted saying in the book, were desperate to protect their spiritual individuality against a crushing conformist regime.

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