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Doubly Chosen: Jewish Identity, the Soviet Intelligentsia, and the Russian Orthodox Church. By Judith Deutsch Kornblatt. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. 203 pages. $29.95.
Since the death of Stalin, a significant number of Soviet Jews converted to Christianity in the Russian Orthodox Church. Such a move is difficult to comprehend at first glance, given the legacy of antisemitism in Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church; alienated from other Jews, neither were such converts fully accepted by Russians. Moreover, in the Soviet Union any expression of religious faith was regarded as dissident behavior and brought activists into conflict with the authorities. Given all these negative consequences, why would Jews seek to become Russian Orthodox? What are the implications of such conversions for an understanding of Russian Jews in the Soviet period and, more broadly, for the interplay of ethnic and religious components of Jewish identity? These are the questions Kornblatt seeks to examine in Doubly Chosen based upon thirty-five interviews with Jewish converts to Russian Orthodoxy. Kornblatt, a professor of Slavics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a specialist in Russian religious thought. Her monograph approaches the thorny issue of Jewish out-conversion with remarkable sensitivity while offering some provocative insights into the relationship of national and religious identity.
After an introductory chapter that discusses the nature of the problem and the methodology, Kornblatt provides a background sketch of the formation of Jewish identity in Russia and how this differs from Jews elsewhere. Most significantly, the overall effect of Imperial Russian and, particularly, Soviet policies toward the Jews resulted in a strong separation of national and religious identities. This is reinforced linguistically, where the term Jewish (evreiskii) has only [End Page 224] an ethnic meaning, with a distinct term referring to Judaism in the religious sense (iudeistvo). In particular, Soviet antireligious policy repressed Jewish religious belief and practice while ethnic identity was reinforced by their identification as Jews on the "fifth point" (nationality) on internal passports. Soviet Jews were "acculturated without being assimilated" (48), that is, they were Russian culturally but Jewish officially and socially. As a result, the notion of a Jew converting to Christianity was much less shocking for Soviet Jews than it would be for American or Israeli Jews, for whom conversion to Christianity typically means ceasing to be a Jew.
The book focuses on two distinct sets of Jewish converts to Russian Orthodoxy: the generation of those who were baptized during the mid-1960s and early 70s, and those who were baptized during the late 1980s and 90s. The first generation came to maturity during the decade after Stalin's death, when the dismantling of the cult of personality around Stalin resulted in a disillusionment with Soviet ideology among the intelligentsia. Many of the intelligentsia—and Jews were over-represented in the Soviet intelligentsia—came to Russian Orthodoxy because they were seeking an escape from the spiritual vacuum of Soviet society. These Jewish converts sought something that would give them an inner strength to maintain their personal integrity in the face of Sovietization. In their search for a spiritual alternative to Soviet ideology Russian Orthodoxy was the only viable alternative because few encountered living Judaism. Instrumental in their attraction to Orthodoxy was the personal and intellectual influence of Father Alexander Men, the charismatic priest who himself was of Jewish background. According to Kornblatt, their baptism was not a conversion "from" Judaism, because they no longer had a connection to the Jewish religion.
The second generation treated in the book, those who were baptized during the 1980s and 90s, converted to Russian Orthodoxy as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Their explanations for their conversion were similar to those of the earlier generation; that is, they were also seeking a spiritual alternative to Soviet reality, though in their case because Soviet reality was actually disintegrating. Kornblatt finds a significant difference between the two generations, however. For the first generation, "Judaism simply wasn't an option" (91). In the period between these two generations, however, emigration for Soviet Jews had become a real possibility with which every Soviet Jew was confronted, and therefore the second generation had to come to terms with their Jewishness much more than the previous generation. Precisely here Kornblatt discovered "a central paradox of this study: most of the Russian Jewish Christians I interviewed began to feel more, not less Jewish after their baptism than before" (96). Before their conversion, Jewish identity had been something negative, something imputed to them by others. Through Christianity, paradoxically, they discovered the Hebrew Scriptures; they discovered the Jewishness of Jesus' message and came to regard the Gospels as a continuity, rather than rejection, of Judaism. And this gave them a positive sense of being Jewish for the first time.
Kornblatt then turns her attention to how her subjects developed after their conversions, the different paths they followed both in terms of faith and in terms of location, as many emigrated to the United States or Israel. After their conversion, [End Page 225] most encountered antisemitism within the Church. Given its historical connection to antisemitism, Kornblatt questioned why these Jews would seek baptism precisely in the Russian Orthodox Church. Many respondents indicated that language and culture were of primary importance: since Soviet Jews felt themselves to be Russian, culturally and linguistically, Russian Orthodoxy already felt familiar to them; "it is my language," according to one respondent (105). For someone brought up in Russian culture of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, Orthodoxy was something they felt was already a part of who they were. For others, the draw was Russian religious thought—many noted the importance of reading Berdiaev, Vladimir Solovyov, or Pavel Florensky. For still others, it was the aesthetic element or mysticism of Orthodoxy that appealed to them. How, then, do these Jewish Christians reconcile themselves to remaining in the Russian Orthodox Church, despite its antisemitism?
Many consider that such antisemitism is not inherent in Orthodoxy but a kind of disease within the Church. As one respondent puts it, "authentic Orthodoxy is not exactly what they call Orthodoxy today: an ethnic, narrow faith. But authentic Orthodoxy is, essentially, universal" (103). Thus those Jewish Christians who remain active in the Russian Orthodox Church embrace a view of Orthodoxy, derived from Solovyov and Alexander Men, that regards it as broad and universal and do not consider it a contradiction to critique the narrow and antisemitic elements in the current Church (an approach which is certainly not limited to Jewish converts to Orthodoxy, though Kornblatt does not note this). Some have left the Orthodox Church for other churches while others (especially in Israel) have come to a more personal vision that attempts to bring together Christianity and Judaism; all, however, embrace some variant of an ecumenical perspective.
The title of the book derives from the notion of the Jews as the chosen people, and the conviction among Russian Orthodox from the Muscovite period that the Russians were also a "chosen people." For Jewish converts to Russian Orthodoxy, Kornblatt argues, there is a sense of "double chosenness." For many, this carries with it a special sense of mission or responsibility, particularly within the Church itself, to heal it of the "disease" of antisemitism. In short, Kornblatt's argument is that some Soviet Jews converted to Russian Orthodoxy in a search for a spiritual alternative to Soviet reality; they chose Russian Orthodoxy because it was the only viable alternative and because they already felt a connection with Orthodoxy through language and culture. Because Soviet policy had effectively separated religious and national identity for Jews and because Judaism virtually ceased to exist as a religious alternative, such conversions were not a rejection of Judaism or their Jewishness, but paradoxically resulted in a deepening of their sense of Jewishness.
One shortcoming of the book is that it offers a "negative" analysis for understanding these conversions: these Jews converted to Russian Orthodoxy by default, as it were, because it was the only option available to them. What Kornblatt fails to consider seriously—despite the responses of some of her interviewees—are aspects of Russian Orthodoxy that would attract Soviet intelligentsia (Jews included) to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, particularly in terms of theological [End Page 226] content and Russian religious thought. This is a particularly strange omission coming from someone who is a specialist precisely in Russian religious thought. A second puzzle is that Kornblatt queries why Jews would convert specifically to Russian Orthodoxy, with its antisemitism, rather than another form of Christianity—as if antisemitism were not something that historically existed to an equal, if not greater, degree in Protestantism and Catholicism (though perhaps antisemitism is stronger in Russian Orthodoxy than in other Christian confessions today). Finally, students of comparative religion might wish for a deeper engagement with the theoretical literature on conversions.
Despite any shortcomings, however, the book provides provocative insights into the nature of religious versus ethnic identity and the fluidity of multiple identities in a postmodern world, as well as deepening our understanding of Soviet Jewry. The book will be of interest to a broad range of students and scholars interested in Jewry, conversions, and Russian religious history.
Scott M. Kenworthy
Advance Access publication January 10, 2006