Shlomo Köves: Our only goal is Judaism

Shlomo Köves gave us a glimpse into his life and explained in detail his relationship with the Hungarian government and Viktor Orbán. According to him, antisemitism can be interpreted in many different ways, and each narrative leads to a very different conclusion. The Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (EMIH) under his leadership is, in his view, steadily increasing its influence., Hungary’s leading news site interviewed Rabbi Köves.

How did you become a rabbi?

When I was 11 or 12 years old, there was a change in my life, which coincided roughly with the regime change. I think my interest was also due to the period itself, as Judaism had previously been a completely taboo subject.

The other thing is faith. I was very attracted to the big questions of existence, which usually don’t interest a teenager very much. When I was 11, I started going to Sunday Jewish services, which is how I first came to Israel. And when I came back, I met Rabbi Baruch Oberlander – and then I progressed quickly. Then at the age of 13, I went to Israel to a Yeshiva, a rabbinical academy.

Looking at being a rabbi as your career, can you describe a moment when you felt a turning point in your life?

The Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox religious movement, of which I am a member, and which is best known for its openness and community mission, is in fact a school of deep religious philosophy. Its teachings are summed up in nearly 300 years and over 2,000 published works. The philosophical school itself teaches that it is the duty of every human being to immerse himself, within his means, in the deepest philosophical teachings. I have always been very interested in philosophy; in fact, it led me to religion. So, I think that’s what really got me. In school in Israel, from the age of 13 or 14, we studied philosophy for 3 or 4 hours a day.

I have heard from several people that you start every day at 4:30 in the morning with philosophy.

It’s true, I get up at a quarter to five every morning. Then from 4:30 to 5:30, I get ready for my daily Talmud lesson. Then from half past five until half past six, I have a student with whom I have been studying for years. I think these classes are the best part of my day.

If we look at the Chabad Lubavitch movement that you lead, and the Hungarian part of it, on a Central and Eastern European level, how strong is the Hungarian movement?

I think it is excellent, but there is a premise that is independent of us. There are Jews in Hungary. There are Chabad rabbis in Slovakia, Poland, Croatia and practically everywhere in the surrounding countries, but there are significantly more Jews in Hungary.

That said, I think that if we compare ourselves with countries where there are also many Jews — France, Germany, for example — we also have nothing to be ashamed of. We have a whole system of institutions under our auspices in Hungary: from kindergartens to universities, social institutions, restaurants and much more, not to mention more than 10 synagogues. This number of activities and institutions attracts many thousands of people in one form or another, and the reach is growing.

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Your community activity is very strong. Some rabbis have more followers than some politicians.

Yes, which is a huge thing. Even as a case study, it could be interesting. There are community, religious events that have been viewed by half a million people on Jonathan Megyeri’s online account. The most interesting thing about this for me is that the majority of the viewers are probably not Jewish. Among other things, this is a sign of interest in our culture.

People are looking for ways to get involved in authentic community life where they can get something from it on a communal and spiritual level. All this at a time when traditional religious values have been declared obsolete and irrelevant for the umpteenth time. My experience is that there is now a backlash to this. If we look at our movement globally, we see an expansion in America. Man is fundamentally a spiritual being and is constantly looking for points of connection.

Can this openness also reduce antisemitism?

I think it’s a positive thing in terms of antisemitism, I’ve seen it empirically. But I don’t think it can make it disappear forever. At the same time, in many cases, it is a much more effective weapon than the bludgeon.

Interpreting the existence of antisemitism has become a narrative in all corners of politics. In international politics, left-wing and right-wing parties have different interpretations of antisemitism. Can you help us to understand this?

The fact is that this is now also the subject of endless polarization. Left and right opinion-formers tend to spot the “antisemitism” of the other side and ignore “their own.” Some people point to the high prevalence of antisemitic views in Hungary, others to the low numbers of antisemitic hate crimes in Hungary and the high numbers of these in Western Europe.

The truth is, they are all correct.

As the joke goes, „Grün (a typical Hungarian Jewish name – editor’s note) comes to the rabbi and tells him what a scoundrel Kohn is. And the rabbi says: You’re right, Grün. Then Kohn comes to the rabbi and tells him what a scoundrel Grün is. And the rabbi says: You are right. Later, the rabbinical student, who was sitting there the whole time, asks the rabbi: How can both be right? And the rabbi says: You know what? You’re right too.”

The truth of the matter is that everyone is right a little bit. If you do a sociological survey in Hungary, where you ask people about their opinion of Jews, you will find that a higher proportion of people hold antisemitic views than in France, for example.

On the other hand, if we look at the extent to which Jews experience antisemitic incidents in Hungary, we see that the figures are not comparable, since they are a thousandth of what they are in France, for example. So, both sides can be right.

What is the reason for this?

The majority society in France presumably does not hold extremist views. Or at least they have learned that it is “not appropriate” to report them in a poll. There is, however, a minority that has a violent core, mostly Islamic fundamentalists, who cause the Jews there to suffer on a daily level. Thank God this is not the case in Hungary.

In Germany, by the way, violent antisemitism is not only perpetrated by Islamists. Unfortunately, German neo-Nazis are also a serious problem. The issue is therefore much more complex than simply tackling Islamist antisemitism to deal with the appallingly high number of hate crimes.

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How do you assess the Hungarian government’s work in tackling antisemitism?

It is a huge achievement that our country is slowly becoming the only place in Europe where you don’t need a daily survival strategy if you want to live as a Jew. We have to appreciate this, and the government’s current policies and active cooperation with Jewish communities play a big role in this. Here I think I must highlight in particular the professional work of the Action and Protection Foundation, which has been active for almost a decade.

The government is nowadays often attacked for rehabilitating Horthy, which perhaps casts a different shadow on the previous statements.

This is a difficult question. After all, on the one hand, the essence of any conservative community is to seek continuity with the past. Now, in a country with a history where it is virtually impossible to find positive role models for continuity that can be presented as impeccable, this is particularly difficult. So, in looking for role models of the past, the attitude cannot be that everyone here is persona non grata. So, we have to use magnifiers to find those personalities who can be presented as role models, while at the same time saying that certain phases of their lives are not worthy of a role model. But debates of this nature exist in other countries too.

I don’t think there is an active Horthy rehabilitation going on in Hungary.

However, I think that in the early 2010s there was a tendency on the part of Fidesz to change the often unreflective, one-sided view of history, the representation of which — even continuing the traditions of the Kádár regime — was channeled into the shaping of daily politics by the so-called „advanced intellectuals.” I can even partly identify with this endeavor, with the proviso, of course, that you mustn’t go too far, but the lack of reflection remains. At the same time, I think that this topic has been on the agenda less and less over the last five or six years, and I am glad about that. I too had moments in the post-2010 period when I felt uncomfortable.

Have you had moments like this?

There were, but I wouldn’t confuse that with antisemitism. For example, when I saw members of the government at István Csurka’s funeral, I can’t say that it didn’t bother me. That does not mean that I think these government members are anti-Semites, but Csurka was a symbol of antisemitism in the 1990s, and today it cannot be separated from that.

You often appear at conservative conferences. To what extent is this due to the fact that you are an Orthodox rabbi and therefore, by definition, you are also a traditionalist?

For a rabbi, leading a community can only mean representing Jewish values and interests. The aim is to create a secure framework for the Jewish community, for its religious and community life. The philosophy of traditional Judaism is that in order to achieve these goals, the community leader must create every opportunity for cooperation with the powers that be. We have no political goals. Our only goal is Judaism.

It doesn’t matter with whom, as long as it does not go against that goal.

That an Orthodox rabbi’s choice of values is in many ways in line with conservative values is another matter. So, there are some life choices or even public value choices that are easier to identify with, but no matter what kind of government Hungary would have, my job would be to find the points of connection.

With the current government, that has worked out quite well.

It has not gone badly, but that does not mean that I should not think carefully each time about what is the responsible course of action in this cooperation.

You are quite often involved in public issues, is that the reason?

In a country where, also because of the historical role of Judaism, a rabbi can receive considerable public attention, I am obliged to use this as an opportunity to give voice to the deep teachings of the Jewish religion that are still relevant today, to draw attention to the universal values of the rich Jewish culture.

How often do you talk to the prime minister?

Every three or four hours. (laughs) I’m joking. It’s not like we’re in daily contact, but I guess I can’t be dissatisfied with the special attention I get from the prime minister and his entourage. Understand, that this is personal only on a secondary basis. The primary gain is for the community and the values that I represent. It is quite certain that without the openness and support of the prime minister and the government, there would be far fewer opportunities for the resurgent Hungarian Jewish community in the areas of religious life, education, and community life.

How do you assess Viktor Orbán’s political role and successes?

My personal perception is that he is one of the few people who can consistently combine his profound reflections on the world with practical, hands-on action. This is a gift not common in a person. It is certainly a great blessing for him.

A man who actively shapes the politics of a country for 30 years cannot fail to be a great figure.

Precisely because of this, the pressure and the responsibility he bears are enormous. As King Solomon says in his parable: “Hearts of kings are in the hands of the Lord”. I trust that the divine hand will always find its way to his heart.

I get the impression from our conversations that the Prime Minister has an above-average interest in Jewry, as an ethos. He knows a lot more about this community and culture than one might first think.

Can it be said that the congregation you lead, EMIH, has become the leading Jewish congregation in Hungary?

I would rather say that we have made significant progress in shaping the Hungarian Jewish identity.

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