I will wrap up this (over)extended book review of Judith Kornblatt’s Doubly Chosen by focusing on the observation that surprised the author the most. Again and again in her interviews, Kornblatt heard statements like this:
Before [baptism], to be a Jew was a negative. [First], when someone in Russia called you a Jew, he meant to put you down. Secondly, I knew that many famous people were Jews, and, on the one hand I was proud of that, but I also couldn’t include myself in that group… It’s interesting that in the course of our study of Christianity, of Orthodoxy, we entered deeper and deeper into a different understanding, that Jews are precisely the chosen people. After baptism, we began to feel ourselves more deeply Jewish.
If Jewish identity in the Soviet Union was purely negative, after baptism it became imbued with spiritual meaning. Though a kind of spiritualized ethnic pride may have been one component of this new sense of identity, Kornblatt writes that, for most interviewees, “the Gospels are a refraction, not a rejection of Hebrew scriptures. They see no incongruity, and only historical and theological logic in this reading.”
In other words, in becoming Christian these converts felt that they have finally began to practice the Jewish religion. They had come home.
Those carrying this new understanding found themselves – as converts generally do – under attack from both sides. On one hand, in both Russia and Israel, they encountered an Orthodox church that was anti-semitic not only in the notions and behaviors of many of its adherents, but even in some of its theology (my Holy Week posts here and here comment on the more disturbing highlights). The Church in which they worshipped more or less explicitly told them that their Christianity meant putting Jewishness, not just Judaism, behind – and, just for practical purposes, making sure few knew it was ever there.
On the other hand, as the 1980s generation became more exposed to Judaism of the conventional sort, the question of who was really practicing the Jewish religion – the converts or the reverts from among Soviet Jewry – became acute (leading some of the converts, indeed, to apostasize to Judaism).
Those Christian converts who did not apostasize or become apathetic found a response to both sets of challenges that not only protected their own fragile identity as post-atheist Jewish Christians, but also posed a challenge to each side. Kornblatt’s interviewees not only refused to buy into the anti-semitism within Orthodox theology, but insisted that it is the Church, not the Jews, who is undermined by it: one said that insistence on the rejection and replacement of the Jewish people was “suicide for the Church… destroying the Church from the inside.”
As for the Jews, one of her subjects pointed out that living as a Christian Jew in Israel is “very Jewish”: it is a pressure on one’s sense of identity and a social inconvenience no smaller than that of living as a Jew among Christians. When these converts discovered Judaism, they knew they had diverged from it ideologically; but they did not believe themselves to have diverged from the experience of living as a Jew – or the meaning of that experience from the standpoint of sacred history. If the first chapter of Jewish history was resisting God and killing His prophets and the second chapter was waiting for God’s redemption in the midst of exile and persecution, the Soviet converts saw themselves as heirs to this history and its promises – to no lesser, if no greater, a degree than those practicing Judaism. Here it is worth recalling noting that the only positive dimension of Jewish identity in the Soviet Union was its association with fidelity to one’s nation in the face adversity.
The ability of these converts to defend themselves with so much spunk seems to have its root in the fact that, as Kornblatt observed, they associate Jewishness, especially in the dissident generation, with spiritual vitality – yet another way in which they see themselves, with their intense spiritual search resulting in baptism and their commitment to the Church despite its anti-semitic forays, as meaningfully Jewish. Kornblatt writes: “The concepts of ‘Jewish’ and ‘ideological vitality’ or ‘spiritual strength’ are all connected to the understanding of the ‘true’ Church for these baptized Jews.”
I will end with this startling quote from one of the interviewees:
It is interesting in Orthodoxy, among the high officials [in the Russian Orthodox Church], that if a priest become very spiritual, then they attach the label “Jew” to him.
When your enemies agree with you, you know you are on to something.