Russian Chief Rabbi, Seen as Putin Ally, Calls for End to Ukraine War

The leader's remarks come one day after Ukraine's chief rabbi denounced Russia's Jewish community over its inaction: 'If God forbid I will have to die, let the curse be on those who are silent,' he said

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar during a ceremony at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, 2019.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar during a ceremony at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, 2019. Credit: Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via REUTERS

Russian’s Chief Rabbi spoke out against his country’s invasion of Ukraine on Wednesday, offering to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow and declaring that it is the duty of every believer to “do everything in his power to save human lives.”

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“Yes, we are different people, we can have completely different views on many problems. But in one thing we must be united: our duty to God is to strive with all our might for mutual understanding, for mutual respect, and in no case raise a sword against our brother,” said Rabbi Berel Lazar in a statement posted to a major Russian Jewish website.

Lazar, who heads the Chabad movement in Russia, is considered close to Putin and is often accused of supporting the president unconditionally in exchange for his regime’s seal of approval for Chabad.

Citing reports of civilian casualties he has received from Ukrainian rabbis in recent days, Lazar said that “the continuation of the current situation cannot be allowed,” adding that “any conflict can and should be resolved only by peaceful means.”

Stating that while he encouraged prayer, such an approach is insufficient, he asserted, stating that God expects every believer to “do everything in his power to save human lives.”

“I myself am ready for any mediation, ready to do everything in my power, and even more, just so that the guns fall silent, the bombs stop exploding! But now is the time for joint action. Therefore, I appeal to all religious leaders – in Ukraine, in Russia, in Europe and on other continents – with an appeal to come together for peace, for an immediate cessation of bloodshed.”

Ukrainians arrive at the Medyka border crossing, in Poland, Sunday.Credit: AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu

Lazar's comments were published one day after Ukraine’s chief rabbi condemned the leadership of the Russian Jewish community, declaring that their failure to denounce their government’s invasion of his country was tantamount to complicity.

“I appeal to the rabbis of Russia, to Russian Jews, to the Russian people with one message: people, stop the war!" declared Rabbi Moshe Azman in a fiery video message posted to Facebook following a Russian missile strike on Kyiv’s primary television transmitter. "Don’t watch TV, they are lying to you! War crimes are happening here! The Russian army that beat the fascist in 1941 today is bombing Kyiv.”

The iconic tower stands adjacent to the Babi Yar massacre site, where tens of thousands of Jews were killed by the Nazis and their local collaborators in 1941, and officials said that the bombing, which killed several people, also reportedly damaged a Jewish cemetery on the grounds.

Stating that he had received sympathy calls from around the world, the St. Petersburg-born rabbi complained that he had barely heard from friends back in Russia.

“I can’t keep silent for much longer. I am talking to [you] dear Russians, dear Jews, dear Russian people. Those who are indifferent, remember that one who is indifferent and one who silently agrees, and not silently, is an accomplice in crime, to war crimes, crimes against humanity,” he stated emotionally, clutching a Torah scroll in his downtown Kyiv synagogue.

A couple sits in an underground metro station used as bomb shelter in Kyiv, Wednesday.Credit: Aris Messinis / STF / AFP

“I didn’t think in my worst nightmare that I might die under shells from Russia, where I was born, where I attended school, where I have a lot of friends who won’t speak up. Almost no one called me. People are calling from all over the world: Jews, non-Jews, even Israeli Arabs call me for support.”

Azman said that members of his synagogue were suffering from a lack of medication and food and that community volunteers were “risking their lives” to bring them aid, and that he, personally, did not intend to abandon his flock.

“I bless everyone who is indifferent and if God forbid I will have to die, let the curse be on those who are silent and silently participate in this horrible crime. I stand with the holy Torah that was given us by the God and I tell you to wake up,” he said.

“And I will say the words that our ancestors used to say when they were taken to Babi Yar. They were saying ‘Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.’ These are the words the Jews say before death. I will live. I want to live. I want to help people, I am not afraid of death, I know and believe that if we all will follow the light then a little bit of light will chase away a lot of darkness.”

Mere hours after Azman’s comments, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is also Jewish, issued a similar plea, calling on “millions of Jews around the world" to “shout about the killing of civilians.”

Responding to Azman’s harsh criticism, Boruch Gorin of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia told Haaretz that his community was doing everything it could to help, but that the rabbi was asking for more than they could give.

“All that we can do, we are doing, and the things that we can’t do we are not doing,” he said, citing a Talmudic dictum advising silence when one’s criticism will not be accepted.

“We are sure that his demands from the rabbis of Russia can only hurt the Jews of Russia and the Jews of Ukraine as well. We are trying to help however we can and to save people wherever we can.”

In a statement two days before the outbreak of hostilities, Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar told Haaretz that “in general the Jews and communities in the former Soviet Union are still very close to each other and help each other. So wherever and whenever a Jew will turn to us for help, we will do our best to support him.”

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