JERUSALEM — The head of Lithuania’s Jewish community has sent a blistering letter to Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yonah Metzger, telling him to butt out of local Jewish communal affairs in Lithuania, the Forward has learned.
Metzger sent a letter last month to the president of Lithuania, Rolandas Paksas, praising the Lubavitch rabbi in Vilnius, Rabbi Sholom Krinsky, and stating that “it is appropriate that he serve as the chief rabbi of the Jews of Lithuania, and this is with the full agreement of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel,” according to a translation received by the Forward.
Until now the Jewish community in Lithuani has operated without a chief rabbi. But leaders of the Lubavitch chasidic movement are pushing for the creation of the post and want one of their own to fill it. The move to install Krinsky is similar to action that Lubavitch has taken in Russia and Ukraine. In those two countries, Lubavitch leaders have brought their community under one umbrella group and named their own chief rabbi to serve alongside the community’s existing chief rabbi.
Some 6,000 Jews live in Lithuania, with roughly 4,000 living in the capital Vilnius, formerly Vilna. Vilna was the birthplace of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, who was the leader of the mitnaged stream of Judaism which opposed chasidism.
Shimon Alperovitch, chairman of the Jewish Community of Lithuania and of the Association of Jewish Religious Communities of Lithuania, sent a letter to Metzger last week sharply criticizing his interference in Lithuanian Jewish community issues. The letter cited the community’s opposition to Krinsky’s appointment as chief rabbi and its insistence on its right to determine its own communal leadership.
“We are astonished, surprised and offended by your intervention in the internal affairs of the Jewish Community of Lithuania,” Alperovitch wrote. “With all due respect, the rabbi of Israel has no jurisdiction whatsoever over the Jewish Communities of the Diaspora… In the Jewish tradition, as you well know, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is not the Vatican, and every community is entitled to choose its own rabbis and leaders.”
Alperovitch went on to say that the community is “aggravated” that Metzger did not consult the local leaders before writing his letter; that “on numerous occasions we rejected Mr. Krinsky’s appointment” because of his “belonging to a stream of Judaism that is opposed to the Lithuanian tradition”; and that in writing to Paksas, Metzger was “ignoring the Jewish tradition that our internal issues are dealt with internally and not with the intervention of gentiles.”
Jewish leaders in Lithuania said that they are negotiating with their own candidate, but declined to identify him.
Alperovitch requested a formal acknowledgement from Metzger stating “that it is the only and exclusive right of the Jewish Community of Lithuania to appoint their rabbi and leaders.”
A spokesman for Metzger said that the community had misunderstood the purpose of the letter. He said the letter spoke only of Krinsky’s worthiness to serve as chief rabbi, but did not urge Paksas to appoint him. “He wrote a letter of support because there are voices that say that Rabbi Krinsky is not good and cannot be a chief rabbi,” said Chaim Eisenstat, an assistant to Metzger. “So the chief rabbi wrote a letter saying that Rabbi Krinsky could be the chief rabbi, but he didn’t say he has to be chief rabbi, he didn’t say make him the rabbi.”
One Krinsky foe told the Forward that such interference “creates a split in the community, at a time and in a country when the community needs a lot of unity, especially when there is an upsurge in antisemitism.”
His letter to Metzger was sent also to Paksas, in addition to the prime minister of Lithuania, and to Rabbi Aba Dunner, secretary-general of the Conference of European Rabbis.
Dunner said the Jews of Lithuania are opposed to the appointment of a chasid as chief rabbi because of Vilna’s historic place as the center of opposition to chasidism; most community members consider themselves to be exponents of the rationalist mitnaged tradition.
“The Conference of European Rabbis resents any interference in the appointment of rabbis in any individual countries, and believes that this should be left to the local community,” Dunner told the Forward. “We certainly don’t see the role of the chief rabbinate in Israel as being one that should appoint or interfere in the appointment of rabbis in the Diaspora.”