This week the former chief rabbi of Russia (the title is disputed), Adolf Shayevich, admitted that he supports the hanging of gays in an interview with television host and socialite Ksenia Sobchak in the Russian glossy Snob. Alongside Sobchak was journalist and gay right’s activist Anton Krasovsky. Sobchack, the daughter of a prominent former St. Petersburg mayor, has taken a prominent place in the liberal opposition to the regime of the man who has long been rumored to be her godfather: Vladimir Putin.
The interview’s conceit is that Sobchak is following in the folkloric footsteps of Vladimir the Great, who converted the tribes of Kievan Rus to Orthodox Christianity in 988 after having chosen Russia’s religion in a fairly pedantic manner. In the Snob interview, a Priest, a Rabbi and an Imam are asked questions in succession. The Shayevich interview follows the launch of an investigation of Sobchak posting pictures of herself online wearing the robes of an Orthodox priest along with a false beard, under the same law offending the sensibilities of Christian believers that had ensnared Pussy Riot in 2012.
The tone of the interview, while impertinent and bordering on the malicious, is undeniably funny. The register is likely untranslatable: published in English it would doubtless raise cries of Anti-Semitism. There is a certain register in the Russian public sphere of cavalier jocularity which translates into competitive aggression carried out in linguistically tony tones. The Russian orthodox priest and the Imam in the interview were equally jeered, but the content of the journalists questions to Shayevich included a litany of the standard misprisions and accusations leveled at Jews. Especially in Russia. Shayevich, who is out of favor with the Kremlin is considered to be chief Russian rabbi, while others hold their allegiance to Italian born Lazar (Shayevich refers to him as an agent of the Kremlin in this interview).
During the interview, Shayevich , 77, is asked why the Jews keep to themselves in such an elitist manner (you can join if you want to is the reply). He is also asked why there is no stoning for adultery in Judaism when the Torah demands this. (Why all the rules, Torah!?) And there are follow-up questions as to what the interviewers see as double standards in adhering to law in Judaism, to which Shayevich gives needlessly nuanced answers about the division of Jewish laws to be followed in Israel and in the Diaspora e.g., Russian Jews in Russia must follow Russian law. One can easily imagine the mocking grins on Sobchak and Krasovsky’s faces when they interrogated Shayevich on whether Putin’s law is higher than god’s law.
Sobchak and Krasovsky continue interrogating Shayevich: What about stoning adulterers? Mary of Magdelene was stoned… To which Shayevich replied: “First of all, those are your books [i.e. Christian ones, rather than Jewish ones], and secondly, they didn’t stone her did they?” Sobchak also demands to know why women need to sit in the upper galley in the Synagogue (Shayevich’s response: “A hygiene question”), to which Sobchak ripostes, “So you are thinking of the woman’s good when you put her on the galley?” (Shayevich’s response: Women are a distraction during prayer). About this “monstrous sexism,” Krasovsky says, “You are not the Islamic state after all!” In response to this Shayevich mumbles something about women’s domestic responsibilities.
It is when Shayevich is asked about gay parades in Israel, and he answers that “the religious community is against all this, this is a great crime,” that one feels an intuitive surge of disgust at what is incoming. “Orthodox society has a very negative attitude to all these phenomena,” he said.
The critical part of the conversation comes when Shayevich voices his approval of “Muslims’ relation to homosexuals, to sexual minorities.”
The shocked Krasovsky demands: “So this is normal? To hang? You would hang them yourself?’’
Shayevich replies that he would not do it himself, but would support those who do so.
In the color commentary that wraps up the interview Krasovsky turns to Sobchak and concludes that now he understands “that the conflict between Jews and Muslims rather resembles the conflict between Ukrainians and Russians. It’s the same garbage, only viewed slightly differently. I don’t even need to dig very deeply, leave them to their own devices and they will throw both you and me right off the roof of the Tel Aviv Hilton.”
The gruesome comparison is to the summary executions of men rightly or wrongly alleged to be gay by Hamas and ISIS. Yet having listened to rabbi Shayevich’s opinions, one cannot entirely fault Mr. Krasnovsky for his conclusions.