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The New Head of Ukraine’s Church Council Is a Brooklyn-Born Rabbi

‘All this divisive stuff is going on and so they decided to put a Jew in charge!’ quipped Rabbi Bleich

Vladislav Davidzon
December 21, 2018
Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I (right) speaks to Rabbi Yaakov Bleich (left) at Hebrew University in Jerusalem on Dec. 6, 2017. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I (right) speaks to Rabbi Yaakov Bleich (left) at Hebrew University in Jerusalem on Dec. 6, 2017. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

Observers of international politics have been captivated by the geopolitical maneuvering currently going on within Orthodox Christendom, as a national Ukrainian church fulfills its long-held dream of separating from under Moscow’s domination. What few have noticed, however, is that the incumbent head of the ecumenical council overseeing church matters in Ukraine is not a priest but a rabbi.

Brooklyn-born Yaakov Dov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, took over the automatically rotating chairmanship of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations at the beginning of July. He will hold the post at least until the end of this year. Thus, the first Christmas celebrations (on both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars) to be held by a unified and independent Ukrainian church, will be celebrated under the auspices of a church council headed by a rabbi.

Last Saturday, a Ukrainian church “Sobor” or cathedral was officially created in Kiev after decades of lobbying for independence from Moscow and protracted negotiations with Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople. The decision was the culmination of a concerted process of lobbying in Kiev and Istanbul and is widely seen as a serious blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions of reconstituting a “Russki Mir” or “Russian world.” Yesterday, amid soaring oratory and fierce debate, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law requiring the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to rename itself in order to make it clear to Ukrainian parish goers that the church is headquartered in Russia. The vote was followed by a scuffle on the floor of parliament between pro-Russian and patriotically minded MPs.

Ukrainian church politics are—pardon the pun—famously Byzantine, but as my friend Matthew Kupfer explained yesterday in the Kyiv Post:

According to the new law, any Ukrainian branch of a religious organization with a center in a state legally recognized by Ukrainian law as an aggressor must indicate its origins in its name.

The name change appears to come at the request of non-Moscow Patriarchate Ukrainian Orthodox clergy. In November, Filaret—then the patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate—announced that his organization would ask the Verkhovna Rada to pass a law renaming the rival church the “Russian Orthodox Church,” the Ukrainska Pravda news site reported.

On Dec. 15, during a unification council in Kiev, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and several bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate moved to form a new united church. The bishops elected Epiphanius (Serhii Dumenko), Metropolitan of Pereyaslav and Bila Tserkva, to serve as primate of the church.

The new Ukrainian Orthodox Church is now waiting to receive a decree—or tomos—of Autocephaly, a document conferring canonical independence, from the Constantinople Patriarchate. On Jan. 6—Christmas Eve according to the Ukrainian Orthodox calendar—Epiphanius will receive that document from Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, at St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, Ukrainian Archbishop Yevstratiy Zorya told journalists on Dec. 13.”

The Ukrainian church council has a total of 18 members, representing every major religious denomination in the devout, multinational and traditional country. Evangelicals, Adventists, Roman Catholics, Greco-Catholics and all the various denominations of Orthodoxy are joined by a pair of imams (both the Crimean Tatar and majority Muslims are represented). On Bleich’s initiative, the first meeting of the council of churches recently took place outside of Kiev in Ternopil earlier this year, with the next such traveling meeting likely to take place in February in Israel.

The usually contentious Ukrainian polis has been especially divided over the last year as the ruling Poroshenko administration made a concerted push for church independence in the midst of a fiercely contested presidential election. The creation of an independent church is a serious electoral victory for the embattled president who lags in the polls three months before the first round of the presidential election is due to take place.

“There is indeed a lot going at this moment and as chairman of the council I have been heavily involved in many of the different aspects of the political process that is taking place now,” Rabbi Bleich told Tablet. “As I see it, my mandate is to do something that unites all the different religious leaders of the Ukrainian churches, so that the council retains its relevance. It was important to keep some semblance of peace and dialogue going between the various churches of Ukraine.”

The irony of the formation of an independent Ukrainian church taking place under the guidance of an ecumenical Council of Churches chaired by a Brooklyn-born Jew is not lost on the funny and streetwise Rabbi Bleich.

“All this divisive stuff is going on and so they decided to put a Jew in charge!” he quipped.

The rabbi did not mince words however in confirming that he found some of the practical political consequences of the church split that have emerged over the last few days to be a disturbing assault on the values of the separation of church and state. The law that the Ukrainian parliament voted in yesterday included provisions for excluding priests of what will most likely be known as the “Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine” from serving as chaplains in the Ukrainian army.

“I do personally think that some of the things that are going on now are very much beyond the mandate of what should be happening,” Bleich said. “The government should not be getting into the matter of naming and renaming churches. They are outlawing chaplaincy for members of particular churches? That is one of the most absurd things that one can imagine!”

Many of the most serious predictions of politicization as well as violent side effects that critics predicted in the wake of a church schism now seem to be coming to pass.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.