Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

11 Tishrei 5766 - October 15, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network











"I Translated the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch into Russian"

By Binyomin Y. Rabinovitz

A few weeks ago the Jewish world was up in arms when the Moscow State Prosecutor announced that he was opening an investigation of the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch. The scandal made headlines in the Israeli media and abroad, and even nonobservant Jews came out against the announcement.

High-ranking figures from the entire public spectrum began a lobbying campaign that included harsh reactions against the extreme move, which served to highlight the antisemitic climate now prevailing in Russia. The brunt of the battle was aimed at the Russian government, which failed to reign in the State Prosecutor, thereby allowing various backward forms of antisemitic thinking to take root. Many said the State Prosecutor was "playing with fire."

The affair really began several months ago when 5,000 activists in a Russian Orthodox Christian organization signed a petition to outlaw Jewish organizations, claiming that Jewish holy books espouse religious hatred and racism. This petition followed soon after a similar petition signed by 500 activists, including 20 members of the Dumas, the Russian Parliament, demanding that the General Prosecutor open an investigation against the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch.

After that story broke, this reporter received a call from one of Moscow's leading askonim who revealed that one of main figures behind the affair was living in Beit Shemesh— an avreich who had translated the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch into Russian five years ago.

As the third edition was being prepared for release over a year ago, a group of Dumas members tried to ban its publication, but their demand was rejected outright. Together with a group of writers, army officers and other notable figures in Russia, they then contacted the General Prosecutor, demanding that he launch an investigation.

When we came to interview our avreich in Beit Shemesh he shared with us the fascinating story behind the affair as well as the story of his own personal transformation from a young Russian non-Jew studying in Moscow at one of the world's leading institutions for physics, into a Jew and Torah scholar.

Getting in touch with Rav Alexander Kotokov was not easy. All day long he sits and learns. In the evening he learns with young talmidim and then goes straight back to his learning in the little Chanichei Hayeshivos shul in Ramat Beit Shemesh Beit. In this article Rav Kotokov's story is brought in full, unedited. For obvious reasons we have avoided revealing the names of the rabbonim and other figures involved in the affair.

The Path to Judaism

I was born in Moscow to non-Jewish parents. At the age of 13 I transferred to a special institute for math and physics. My class had just two or three Russians—all the rest were Jews. When I continued my studies at the Advanced Institute for Physics, one of the world's top institutes for physics, most of the students were Jews too, so most of my friends were Jews.

I had close friendships with them. They were not observant, of course, but one day, towards the end of my studies at the Institute, a couple of friends invited me to hear a lecture on Judaism at the main synagogue in Moscow, then located on Archipova Street.

I went with them and heard a talk on parshas hashovua. It was parshas Vayeiro. Until then I knew a bit about Jewish philosophy but was unfamiliar with the real Jewish approach. I found the talk very interesting. That was at the beginning of Perestroika — the end of Communism. I was 24 years old. The rov said at the end of the lecture that there would be a "follow-up" and those who wanted to could continue and come to study at the yeshiva. He knew I was not Jewish and some of the guys with me were not Jewish.

I continued to come and hear the lectures on Judaism and over a certain period of time I attended the lectures given by HaRav Gedaliah Rabinovitz. I studied there for a year and a half until the place closed.

Later HaRav Chagai Preschel, a talmid muvhok of HaRav Hutner zt"l, arrived in Moscow. He took a real interest in me and at a certain stage asked me if I wanted to convert and become a part of the Jewish people. Of course that was my ambition and after a period of time I converted and went to study at Yeshivas Ohalei Yaakov under HaRav Eliyohu Svei and HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky.

Pressing Need to Publish a Halochoh Book in Russian

Over the course of several years I sat and learned there in the yeshiva, where HaRav Preschel was like a father and a mother to me. He took care of all my needs. I had no need to worry about parnossoh or anything else, just to sit and learn. Later I began to learn bechavrusa with Rav Yisroel Zalman, who eventually became the assistant to HaRav Pinchos Goldschmidt, the av beis din of Moscow. I began working at a Jewish newspaper, writing numerous articles on Judaism, mussar, holidays and kashrus. This helped me master the Russian language.

Once Rav Zalman invited me over and asked if I would be willing to translate a book from Hebrew to Russian. Of course I agreed in principle and then he put me in contact with one of the prominent rabbonim in the city who initiated the idea of translating the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch from Hebrew to Russian.

He told me one of the big contributors to religious institutions in Moscow had complained to him that he did not know how to lead his life as a Jew and how to fulfill the halochos in Judaism, saying there were many others like him. Therefore he asked him for a book with all of the basic halochos so he could become familiar with them.

The rov told him there was no such book in Russian but the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch could be translated and if he was prepared to fund the translation of the book he would have what he needed. This rov spoke with Rav Zalman, who told him he thought there were only two people in all of Russia who could do the job of translating the book into Russian: he and I were the only people who had a good command of Russian and Hebrew and the material. Rav Zalman said he didn't have the time and suggested I do the translation.

I began the work immediately and it did not take long. At that stage he asked me to remove three paragraphs from Section 167, "Avodas Kochavim Umazalos," Paragraphs 14, 15 and 17. He asked to hide the fact that we had removed these paragraphs, but I did not do so. Instead I intentionally made it apparent certain paragraphs had been taken out.

Correcting the First Edition

I finished the work of translating in '98. Since in Moscow it was hard to find someone to go over the book and I did not know rabbonim in Eretz Yisroel who could do so, we published the first edition as it was. I was pleased to see the book was studied at Yeshivas Shevut Ami and one of the rabbonim found a few errors, which I corrected for the second edition.

Two years ago we were asked to publish a third edition and then the same person who funded the original publication summoned me and said the book was not to be published any more. I asked him why. Then he told me several members of the Dumas had contacted him and said the book has racist content and propaganda against the goyim. All of the rabbonim and askonim wanted to publish another edition because there was much demand and great need for the book but he objected and therefore I was asked to go and persuade him.

When I came to him I said he had no reason not to print the book, but he then asked me to remove several other paragraphs from Section 167—Paragraphs 5, 11 and 19—based on fears a storm of antisemitism could form. "Let's just take out the whole section," he said toward the end of the conversation. In Section 182 as well (on the laws of stealing) he asked me to take out Paragraph 4 and in Section 183, Paragraph 4, and a few more.

In the conversations I had with him he kept claiming that if we printed the book he would get taken to court. I told him I was willing to appear in court and explain to the judges that what a Jew is required to do for another Jew goes far beyond what a goy has to do for another goy. I gave him an example, saying in Moscow that when an ambulance is summoned to handle an emergency even if the victim is dying he will not receive treatment without documents showing that he is from Moscow. This is the law there and every day people die simply because they are not Moscow residents.

I claimed that if it really did go to court we would be able to defend ourselves honorably. Eventually he was persuaded, and we published the third edition.

Just over a year ago we decided to make aliya. I moved with my wife and two children. At first I worked at Migdal Or, a school for boys in Afula, and later we began to look for an apartment, eventually arriving in Ramat Beit Shemesh. I began studying at a kollel, at first an evening kollel and then at a daytime kollel. Now all the money I brought from Russia is finished and in the near future besiyato deShmaya I will start learning and teaching at Shevut Ami and I will also continue the work of translating books from Hebrew to Russian.

By the time the whole affair blew up I was already in Eretz Yisroel and when I heard from a friend there that the affair had been closed without an investigation and trial I regretted not having been there to explain the whole matter in the best way possible. I think we lost a lot because it will come up again and again, and this way we could have explained once and for all that in all of the halochos of the Jewish religion there is no racism or hatred toward goyim. I saw this as an important forum from which to explain the matter to the world and I have no doubt we would have won in court.


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