The Voice of the Church, Part 4 – Hebrew in the Church

Is there any connection between the destiny of St. Sergius and St Vladimir Institutes of Orthodox Theology and, eventually the actual development of the Church in Israeli society? It is well-known that many Arabs from various Middle-Eastern countries were educated at St. Sergius and St. Vladimir and graduated, at times in both Institutes. Indeed, clergy and lay people of all origins study in the two educational theological establishments. I focus on Israeli society only with rejecting the Arabs. The Arab Christian Churches are very important and numerous priests were trained in France and in the United States.

In fact, St. Sergius and St Vladimir’s Institutes are somehow connected with the renewal or new possible to challenge the creation of “Hebrew in the Church” within Israeli society. To begin with, this is due to the reality that many theologians who taught or studied at the two institutes were of Jewish descent, converted Jews or married to people of Jewish origin. Many settled for a while in Israel and left the country for various reasons.

Firstly, in the middle of the 19th century, the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem did bless Fr.Levinson to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and the other Eastern Orthodox Service in Hebrew. The translation was given the blessing of the Moscow Synod in 1851 and I was given a photocopy of the text in 1980. It is sheltered at the present on a microfilm at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is in Slavonic and Hebrew. The Slavonic part includes prayers for the then-reigning members of the Czar. The Hebrew version is very rabbinical, which is quite overwhelming in the present. By the time the translation was officially allowed, the Russian Synod was somehow aware that the Hebrew language – as Arabic with regards to Qu’ran Arabic – must correspond with the native tradition of the speakers: Jewish and Muslim people. This corresponds with the Aleutian language used for the translation of the Divine Service in the Eastern Orthodox church by the time St. Tikhon was a bishop in Alaska and decided to allow the Services in the vernacular Aleutian language.

This confirms that – at that time – the decision was very forward and insightful. It was also correct and respectful of the meaning of the words. This is not the case at the present for the Hebrew text in use in the Roman Latin Rite translation of the Mass and the other prayers. So, it means that the Russian Church intervened in the process of Hebrew in the Eastern Orthodox Church of the then Holy Land. In 1851, Hebrew was slowly reviving. This is why Eliezer Ben Yehudah did find some speakers from Jaffa to Jerusalem. There is more: The Eastern Orthodox anaphora’s and Services have phrases that show very close to the Jewish roots of the prayers, in particular, those used in the Machzorמחזור [festive prayer-books] linked to Yom HaKippurimיום הכיפורים, the Day of Atonement.

It will certainly be possible in the near future to survey the existing connections in a similar way that has been used by the Western theologians and proved that Judaism and Christianity rely upon the same founding basements. It may take some time for the Oriental Churches and the present Jews because of the profound and real estrangement that separates Jewishness and Eastern Christianity. It should be interesting not to scan this connection with any missionary spirit. Many students of St. Vladimir’s Seminary do experience a unique possibility to be in a sort of “regular” soft encounter with the Orthodox Jews of New York. This would not be thinkable in any other place. Still, it is also the heritage of a close relationship that existed in the East-European countries and Jewish settlements and villages.

By the same time, the Church of England decided to assign Bishop Solomon Alexander Pollack who was the first Anglican (now Episcopalian) bishop in Jerusalem. He translated the “Book of Common Prayers” into Hebrew, also in accordance the the rabbinic roots. Fr. Kurt Hruby, whom I replaced at St. Sergius Institute for the “Journées Liturgiques de Saint Serge”, had given me a copy of the original book in 1978. The bishop is barely reminded in St. George Cathedral in Jerusalem. The Anglican-Episcopalian Services in Hebrew ceased in 1947. The Messianic movement took over the heritage of the movement that survived after World War II in Bessarabia and Siberia. I made a full “euchology” prayerbook [thanksgiving prayerbook] “Zevach todahזבח תודה – Thanksgiving Sacrifice, fruit of the words of our tongues” published at Peeters in the Orientalia, 1989. It is a proposal for a “native Hebrew prayer” on line with the Oriental fundamental traditions. it was used by some scattered groups of various origins.

On the other hand, it should be noted that shortly before the time of the perestroika and the fall of the communist regime in the Soviet Union and the satellite countries, some Russian and Romanian arrived in Israel and were willing to pray in Hebrew within the framework of the local Church that is under the omophoron of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. By that time, the two Russian Ecclesiastical Missions (Moscow Patriarchate and the Church Abroad) were not reunified as at the present. The Russian archives had no file with regards to the use of Hebrew in the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem in the19th and 20th centuries.

After the perestroika, some pious Orthodox believers arrived, in particular after 1988 and the big “rush” with numerous Orthodox newcomers. The goal of this part of the note is to show the involvement of the two Institutes. Thus, the local Patriarchate of Jerusalem accepted the presence of some priests and allowed them to celebrate in Hebrew. Interestingly, this has been possible 20 years ago though they had to face a lot of hardships.

The Church process is still intriguing and appealing. Archbishop Georges (Wagner) of Evdokia was born into a German Lutheran family in Berlin. He came to Paris and was ordained a deacon and a priest in 1955 by Metropolitan Nikolai of the Moscow Patriarchate in Paris. He was a specialist in Liturgics and Canon Law that he taught for years at the St. Sergius Institute. Indeed, he was in touch with Fr. Alexander Schmemann and the Board of Professors in the United States. He was tonsured a monk in 1971 and elected assistant bishop of Archbishop. Georges (Tarassoff) of Syracuse, head of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Russian Orthodox Exarchate. in Western Europe. He was consecrated as bishop in Paris on October 3, 1971. In May 1981, he was elected to be the successor of Abp. Georges (Tarassoff), a capacity in which he served until his death in Paris on April 6, 1993.

He ordained two priests so that they could serve in Israeli society. This was a meaningful decision. I do not discuss the context and circumstances. His follower, late Archbishop Sergei of Evkarpia, also took the decision to ordain me in the same move. I was sent to Jerusalem upon the personal blessing and recommendation of Patriarch Bartholomaios Ist, with the spiritual support of late Metropolitan Emilianos of Silyvria and several other theologians of various jurisdictions.

“Hebrew in the Church” will be one of the existing challenges that the future patriarch of Moscow and All Russia will have to meet with insights and adequacy. Late Patriarch Aleksii II was against Anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. In fact, the two words refer to two separate matters.

It may be a bit provoking, but the Russian Church enjoys, for the time being, the opportunity to expand and bring forth the real value of the Slavic and native Eastern Orthodox tradition as shown by the Slavonic heritage. This heritage has too often been barred and denied by force. Church Slavonic is basically a word-to-word translation from Church Greek into a pan-Slavic sort of Esperanto. Greek has to face the same problems and would need some “revamping updating”. Indeed, the Eastern Churches cannot avoid Greek. They implement something that has been carried by this special Mediterranean tongue, full of Semitic vernacular phrases.

The Russian Church reflects something of a widely open and broad-minded universal spirit that is unique. This is why it would be so important for the upcoming generations to overcome spiritual, theological, ethnic, cultural and linguistic prejudices against Jewishness. Many metropolitans, bishops and priests of Jewish descent have been ordained in the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, in the Church Abroad and various Russian jurisdictions over the past century till the perestroika and the fall of communism.

Interestingly, Hebrew disappeared in the two Ecclesiastical bodies that had viewed with favor the use of Hebrew in the 19th century in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Strangely, it took place at the dawn of the revival of Hebrew as a living tongue. Pioneering Church bodies like the Russian Moscow Mission and the Church of England (and Ireland, sic!) progressively and intentionally got astray from Hebrew way of living.

In the reports and articles that I wrote over the decade, I had the opportunity to describe with much precision the negative attitudes of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, in particular the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Russian Ecclesiastical Missions. I did it with the care to understand a process and definitely not to adopt any judgmental views or to convey any kinds of gossiping. I was told that “I got what I had been looking for” as said a very high-ranking Orthodox leader in the West.

Indeed, “Hebrew” is not the real question faced by the Russian Orthodox Church. There is a very serious theological interrogation about how to define present day Judaism with regards to positive existence of the State of the Jews (Judenstaat). The Russian Federation considers at the present that Israel would be the “second Russian country in the world”, as stated by Vladimir Putin some time ago. Israel cannot be “Russian” just the smae way it cannot be “Ethiopian”. It only seems to have some look but the society that is in the process of building is that of a full renewal and creativity of Jewishness as a society and also a part of the history of Redemption.

During the time of the communists, a lot of Jews found their way in serving in the Church at all the levels of the Russian hierarchy. This is still the case until now for the elder ones, in particular for some important bishops who would never speak of that openly. It has been a serious matter for the positive survival of the Russian Orthodox Church in many areas. The same phenomenon is known for Poland and Romania. Many “pnevmatiki – duchovniki – spiritual fathers” were and are still of Jewish descent and showed their heritage in the way they developed their ministry among the faithful. Late Fr. Elijah Shmain who was ordained by Archbishop Georgyi Wagner, served in Israel for years before he returned to Moscow via Paris was much aware of being a Jew… and an Israeli Eastern Orthodox priest. Nonetheless, he had spent many years in a camp. Still, he experienced the rejection of the Russian hierarchy, though was always supported by the Russians in the West. Before the perestroika was implemented, Fr. Alexander Men became a symbol of this hideous and uncontrolled hatred towards Jews and “aliens” in the Soviet society. The ax that killed him reminds both the pogroms and the murders of so-called “uniates”. I am totally baffled to meet with numerous clergy educated in the Soviet society that are systematically denied any ministry in the Church “at the present”. It is a period of transition.

The issue does not deal with individuals. The real question is to know how Judaism and the constant parallel development of the most important spiritual Chassidic movements inside of a profoundly Eastern Orthodox context can positively allow a mutual recognition between Israel and the Church.

This is why Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s 25th anniversary also makes sense in this view. It may appear that it is not a fundamental aspect of his theology. It is indeed. Fr. Alexander Schmemann – as the school that showed up in the West by the time of the “émigration” and the creation of St. Sergius Institute widely opened the scopes of the Russian Orthodox Church to universal and local, native and planetary envisioning of the plerome of redemption, the Ecclesia universa.

The approach of the “native” Churches as reflected in the West and North America should allow some in-depth reconsidering of the relevant value of Jewishness and Israelity today for the future of the Eastern Orthodox Church, in particular the Slavonic-speaking communities. There are numerous significant factors that should open the gates for overcoming hostility and estrangement.

It will take time. The passing away of late Patriarch Aleksii II of Moscow and All Rus, eternal memory, is a founding moment. I pointed out that there is some glimpse from Above. He was the patriarch who headed the Russian Orthodox Church from the time of communism over perestroika till the fall of communism. He maintained and enlarged the integrity and redeployment of the Russian Church inside of the former Soviet Union. He gained the return of the Church Abroad. Those who remained out of the Communion of the Russian Orthodox Church (Church of the Resistance, Fighting or Alternative Church, Church in Exile) still position themselves as somehow “linked from afar at the moment” from the Moscow Patriarchate. This means that he led a tantamount work that can show frail or dubious. His time was made of “incredible events and changes that only launched a tremendous process. Hopefully, the Russian Church will get astray from wrong-doers of all sorts that will give them the opportunity, for the first time after the atheistic period of apostasy, to meet with the Jewish and new Israeli body as survivors rescued by God’s Providence.

The Israeli Church reality is a basic notion that also relates to other Churches: the Romanian, Polish, Slovak, Serbian, and even Albanian new-released autocephalous or self-ruled or indefinite ecclesiastical Bodies. This also concerns, for instance, the Macedonian community as I have experienced in the past two years. At this point, this is coping with the discussions and research conducted by Fr. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff. I am convinced the Russian Church will show its “breadth, length, depth, profundity” provided she will not be denied or put aside by the others.

This will require more than patience. It will require a lot of quiet and peaceful spirit of pardoning actions. The Jews are the natives of the Church and they do remain according to Paul of Tarsus (Romans 9-4). We hardly can understand with exactitude what the apostle meant or how we can update it for the time being. The matter is new for the Russian Orthodox Church. And it will take time before they will accept that the former Soviets visiting Israel or birthing Palestine as pilgrims, or sick hosted in Israeli hospitals or tourists are not Russian anymore. It will pass rather quickly. Still, Jews and Russians are intertwined to bear witness of Divine Providence and loving-kindness.

av Aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]

December/ 9/November 26, 2009 – 12 deKislev 5769 – י”ב דכסלו תשס”ט

Russian monk [photo – a FB friend]
נזיר רוסי

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