From Russia, With Love
Jonathan Schwartz Special to the Jewish News
Jonathan Schwartz’s surprise trip fortified his appreciation of Jewish law and informed his worldview.
In early 2018, I received an invitation from Professor Howard Lupovitch, director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University, and U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn to attend the Jewish Law Association’s (JLA) 20th International Conference in Moscow, Russia.
The JLA is an international organization of lawyers, legal scholars and judges (including Cohn) that works to promote the study and research of Jewish law. A few years prior, Judge Cohn expressed an interest in connecting the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan (JBAM), an organization I co-founded in 2014 and currently serve as president, with the JLA to help form bonds between Michigan’s Jewish legal community and others across the world.
As grateful as I was for the opportunity, I had reservations about traveling to Moscow given the current political climate and the state of U.S./Russia relations. Like many Americans on both sides of the aisle, I’ve been outraged by reports of Russian government meddling in the 2016 election among other activities on the world stage. Despite my concerns, I was excited to participate, meet Jewish legal practitioners and academics from around the world, and visit a country spotlighted in the news every day.
As it turned out, the conference location was deliberate and important. One hundred years ago, during a Russian renaissance, a group of Russian Jews, running the spectrum of religious to secular, formed the Mishpat Ivri Society. Mishpat Ivri is a field of legal scholarship examining the similarities, differences and interplay between traditional Jewish law (Halachah) — primarily based upon the Torah, laws and opinions issued by rabbis (often functioning as judges) and long-standing Jewish customs — and secular modern laws.
The study of Mishpat Ivri also aids in the effort to utilize Jewish law to inform and shape current legal decisions and lawmaking, although whether and to what extent that should be done has been a topic of contention since the Mishpat Ivri Society’s founding.
Mishpat Ivri scholarship should be recognized as playing an integral part in Jewish history, wisdom and identity.
— Jonathan Schwartz
Mishpat Ivri scholarship covers various legal subjects, from family to criminal law, business law, contracts and real estate, to personal injury and international law, among others. The study of Jewish law and its connection to secular law continues at law schools around the world, primarily in places with strong Jewish communities and where educational institutions see the benefit of tapping into historical religious legal sources. For example, the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, one of the JLA conference sponsors, offers classes taught by experts in Jewish, Christian and Islamic law.
Outside the ivory tower of academia, Jewish law and Mishpat Ivri are being utilized by judges to decide cases in the real world to varying degrees. In Israel, where Mishpat Ivri played a key role in establishing the country’s legal system, nearly 10 percent of decisions from the Israeli Supreme Court reference Jewish law scholarship.
The rich body of Jewish law generated over our history is an incredible, yet undervalued treasure trove of Jewish wisdom, which deserves continued attention and study. That is the essence of Mishpat Ivri. For these reasons, the JLA made the decision to honor and highlight the Mishpat Ivri Society on its 100th anniversary.
IMPRESSIONS OF MOSCOW
After several months of working through the visa process and making travel arrangements, I took the long flight to Moscow, arriving in the afternoon on Sunday, July 22. The conference was to begin the next afternoon, so I had plenty of time to explore the city. While I imagined run-down apartment blocks, unhappy and downtrodden people and an imposing military presence, the reality was much different.
Moscow, an enormous city of more than 13 million residents, turned out to be beautiful, modern, clean and safe. The streets were alive with activity, filled with tourists who remained after the recent World Cup soccer tournament.
While it was impossible to miss the seven sisters — imposing Stalinist-style skyscrapers built in the late ’40s and early ’50s that ring the city — there were few other outward signs of the country’s communist past. Instead, capitalism was in full swing. Moscow has many high-end stores catering to wealthy and fashionable Muscovites, and countless small businesses selling Matryoshka dolls, replica Fabergé eggs and more.
Russian millennials were everywhere, looking identical to young people in any U.S. city. Despite reported government- sponsored discrimination, I was proud to see LGBTQ couples openly showing their affection, including in Russia’s famous Red Square. Locals filled the city’s many parks, strolled the manicured path by the Moskva River (similar to the Detroit RiverWalk) that includes a skate park, and enjoyed the many bars and restaurants. While traditional Russian food was readily available, the McDonald’s, Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafe and Hollywood-themed diner were always full.
While guidebooks warned that Russians were unfriendly and intentionally stoic in public, I did not encounter any unpleasantness. Most people spoke English and were happy to help. I never saw any machine gun-toting soldiers and never felt as though government informants were hiding in the shadows. I was treated respectfully by everyone during the trip. Importantly, when traveling as an easily identifiable Jewish group, nobody experienced a hint of discrimination.
On July 23, conference participants met at Moscow State University’s (MSU) Law School. MSU is considered the most prestigious university in Russia, and its campus includes the largest educational building in the world (one of the seven sisters), in addition to a modern law school. Along with the JLA, MSU and Emory University’s Law School, other conference sponsors included the Buchmann Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the Embassy of the State of Israel in Moscow.
We were greeted by a banner displaying the formal title of the conference: “Mishpat Ivri: Past, Present and Future. 100 Year Anniversary of the Establishment of the Mishpat Ivri Society in Moscow.”
Attendees came from Austria, Brazil, Israel, Russia, South Africa, and a handful from the U.S. I was the only Midwest participant. Most were lawyers and legal scholars, but the group also included historians, authors, rabbis and government officials, such as Israeli Supreme Court Justice Daphne Barak-Erez and Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Gary Koren. Media was also present to cover the conference, the first of its kind in Russia.
Religious observance varied but tended to skew more Modern Orthodox than Reform. At 35, I was on the younger end, causing one American law professor to explain that the study of Mishpat Ivri is usually undertaken by professors after they obtain tenure and are free to engage in passion projects. Presenters included a mix of men and women, many of whom brought family members who joined us at various activities and meals. Despite these differences, this diverse group of Jews enjoyed eating kosher Russian food, praying, and discussing religion and law together.
The important BDS-rejecting message sent by Russia’s preeminent academic institution hosting a Jewish Law conference, with many Israeli academics in attendance, deserves to be recognized, encouraged and celebrated. To my surprise, we were not faced with one anti-Israel protester — a nice departure from the campus environment at many U.S. colleges and universities, including several in Michigan.
The lectures and panel discussions were fascinating. Presenters traced the history and use of Jewish law and study over thousands of years, including the current use of Mishpat Ivri scholarship by Israeli judges. Panels covered a variety of legal topics, showing how legal theory developed in Jewish law could be utilized to inform modern judicial decisions and help resolve current disputes.
Importantly, attendees also did not shy away from criticizing anti-Jewish discrimination by the Russian government and society in the past, or the disparate impact that restrictions on religion in general are having today on Moscow’s Jewish community. A Russian attorney passionately explained that a recent law discouraging “missionary activity” has been unfairly applied by certain local police and prosecutors against Jews wearing yarmulkes, and advocated for legislation further protecting the Jewish community.
The group also took a guided walking tour of Moscow; visited a museum to see artwork by Jewish artists murdered under the post-WWII Stalinist regime; dined at the Choral Synagogue of Moscow, where Golda Meir, the first Israeli representative to the Soviet Union, paid unannounced visits to celebrate the High Holy Days in 1948; and attended a gala at the Jewish Museum.
During conference breaks, I visited the Kremlin fortress, which houses the presidential residence and functions as the government headquarters, took a scenic tour of the Moskva River and stopped at history and art museums.
After several weeks of processing the trip, I have several takeaways.
The study of Jewish law and Misphat Ivri is important and deserves more attention. Much like Jewish art (Marc Chagall was part of the Russian renaissance at the time of the Mishpat Ivri society), music, movies and food, Jewish law and Mishpat Ivri scholarship should be recognized as playing an integral part in Jewish history, wisdom and identity.
- Metro Detroit, filled with some of the brightest Jewish minds in the world, should play an important role in its study and discussion, in addition to debates over its application to current legal issues. Consequently, I will be working with the Cohn-Haddow Center, the JLA and JBAM to host events and bring in relevant speakers, including participants in the JLA conference. In the future, Michigan law schools should consider hiring a full-time Jewish law professor who can teach and produce scholarship on Mishpat Ivri (in addition to scholars studying other faiths’ legal traditions).
- Moscow was very different from the authoritarian society I had envisioned, and the lives of people in Russia are not so different from our own. While we should continue to take a firm stand against harmful conduct of the Russian government — especially attempts to interfere with U.S. politics — and advocate for increased protection of Russia’s Jewish minority, it is also important to build bridges with the Russian people, who can make positive change from within. We should also applaud positive behavior, including the Russian government’s cooperation with Israel and rejection of the anti-Israel BDS movement exemplified by hosting the JLA conference.
- There are international Jewish legal professionals who want to work together to accomplish larger common goals for the Jewish people. At the conference, I discussed and received offers to help with JBAM’s recently launched initiative to help recover still-unreturned artwork looted by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
- I plan to attend JLA conferences in the future and will encourage other Jewish lawyers from this community to attend as well.
See videos of the conference sessions at bit.ly/2OuKdr0. Schwartz will lecture on his trip 1 p.m. Dec. 5 at WSU Law School. University.
Jonathan H. Schwartz is a partner at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss P.C. He serves as president of the Jewish Bar Association of Michigan (JBAM) and is a NEXTGen Detroit executive board member.