Rabbi Köves Talks About Foundations, Values, & Changing the Narrative.
Foundations- Remembering Your Roots
The first time I sat down to speak with Rabbi Köves, Tu BiShvat (15 Shevat) was just around the corner. Known as the Jewish New Year for trees, this holiday is a reminder that all life comes from God, just as the Israelites’ entire existence in ancient times came from the land. On this day, Jews are still reminded today, as then, that they need God’s blessing to live.
Israel’s economy is now focused more on pharma and technology than agriculture. Still, every year Israelis celebrate God’s blessing for the land to be “fruitful” by consuming the seven Biblical fruits that are both common in Israel as well as symbolic of the ancient Holy Land: grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat, barley, olives, and dates.
Trees are also planted on Tu BiShvat in a gesture to God’s purpose for man—as “a tree of the field” beautifully reflected in each of its sections. Man’s “roots” are his foundation and connection to “Mother Earth,” symbolizing the strength he derives from the Torah’s teachings. His “trunk” is essentially him, his personality, character, etc. Lastly, man’s “crown” (leaves & branches) is made up of his actions.
“Nothing to die for... nothing to live for.”
God may have placed man over nature, but Köves stresses that man must always be careful to not abuse or waste nature. This plays into man’s consideration for himself and also of that around him, as he must achieve a harmony to live and prosper. These teachings mirror the basic values of self-awareness and respect for others that many espouse today. Values—or morals—play a large part in Jewish life. The month of Shevat therefore takes on even more meaning as it was on the first of this month that Moses translated the Torah into 70 languages, enabling peoples around the world to gain the wisdom required to live per God’s word.
Values. What Happened?
Today, the subject of morality and values is really at the center of most conversations—whether people realize it or not. Amidst all the disputes we find in society and politics today, it all comes down to the way people see and determine values. And helping people understand Judaism’s rich history on the topic is one of Köves’ main motivations in reaching out to Jews and non-Jews alike. After all, becoming better acquainted with a religion that has called Europe home for over two millennia is important. But if you can also provide some much-needed guidance on life as well, even better. What is the basis of values? Where do they come from? Köves explains to me that some see values as determined axioms—others view them as more a matter of perspective or semantics.
“If you lose your determined set of values, you lose your base, and all falls apart.”
Per the first way of thinking, God created man with distinct pre-determined values and a very certain purpose. Those who follow such thinking, including most religious Christians and Torah-based traditional Jews such as Köves, believe that we thus clearly know the difference between what is right and wrong. Arenas pertaining to gender, marriage, and family are absolute and not up for discussion. One’s work also must prescribe to a certain meaning. That is, you cannot simply work to make money but must seek to contribute in a larger way as well. For those who view the world through a far more liberal lens, nothing is determined—nothing is absolute. And nothing is sacred. These “neo-rationalists” believe anything is up for discussion and debate, including many topics of “wrong vs right.” From sexual relations to one’s faith—or lack thereof—decisions between people can change the accepted standard at will. And this standard can therefore change as people see fit. The problem Köves (and many others) see with this second viewpoint is that once you lose your base, that determined set of values, everything else falls apart. Think of a tree with no roots. How can man live without his prescribed foundation?
The Problem With Liberalism
Liberalism today has pushed the line between “freedom” and “decency” too far for those who aspire to live according to what they see as God’s (or whatever other higher power you may prescribe to) purpose for man. Köves in fact believes that society in the US and the prevailing values there are not in such bad shape. “The US is not so bad,” he tells me, further explaining that he still thinks the basic Christian values instilled in the country by the Founding Fathers gave the country an advantage over European countries. In the wake of New York Governor Cuomo’s celebration of that state’s new abortion bill, one may seriously have to question this. Nevertheless, Köves cites the European continent’s “dirty and complex history” as a central factor for the loss of values he sees today—here in Hungary and elsewhere on the Continent. “There’s a lack of purpose, lack of mission. Nothing to die for, so nothing to live for.”
Challenges of a Judeo-Christian Partnership
Köves maintains that the history of Europe is indeed Christian. And he welcomes any efforts to promote Judeo-Christian values. After all, Christianity is based on Judaism. Still, such a “partnership” and common understanding has been far from present for a large part of Europe’s history. Aside from the known atrocities of the past century, Köves further points out that in everyday life during, say the 1930s, being Christian conveyed, more than anything else, that you were not Jewish.
“Christian used to mean you were not Jewish.”
Today, despite the myriad of efforts made by Hungary to defend Judaism, its own history plagues it. Köves tells me that he in no way envies the job of Fidesz. They are looking for heroes to celebrate, but most were tainted with anti-Semitism. Horthy himself is even more complex, since under his administration the Hungarian state establishment took an active role in the deportation of 600,000 Hungarian Jews to death camps after the Germans occupied the country. So, how do they put forth a strong national identity? Just this past month, Orban stated that protecting the country’s Judeo-Christian culture is a “political duty,” especially in the face of rising migration. Such rhetoric is certainly welcome in a country with purportedly some 50k to 100k Jews. And yet, despite recent improvements, anti-Semitism is still a problem here in Hungary and throughout Europe as well. It should be noted that in a recent FT article, citing the staggering reality of anti-Semitism in Europe, the primary centers mentioned were France and Germany. Hungary—a country the paper seems to love to bash whenever possible—was not even mentioned. Still, work to counter anti-Semitism locally has been a long haul. And Rabbi Köves has been at the very center of these efforts.
Changing the Narrative- The Good Fight
As Chief Rabbi of EMIH, the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, Köves leads the 200 year-old Grand Synogogue of Old Buda, an area outside of Buda where Jews settled in the early 1700s—a time when they were not allowed to live in Buda itself. Köves has taken on his role at EMIH with a strong focus on education and outreach. He himself did not grow up in a religious family. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors who remained in Budapest. As communism took over, many Jews assimilated and decided to never speak of the horrors of the past, his family included—his parents were atheists. But when the iron curtain came down, things changed. People started talking, started opening up. Köves made the decision to pursue his Jewish heritage full force, leaving Hungary at the age of 13 to study abroad in the US, Israel, and France. Today, back in Hungary and with a family of his own, he tells me, “People need to know more, the Jewish worldview. And more and more people are reconnecting to their Jewish roots; it’s less and less of a taboo.” Thus his work focuses on educating Jews who seek to reconnect with Judaism as well as those who are simply looking to better understand Judaism and perhaps gain some wisdom along the way.
"So what is 'far-right'?"
Köves founded the Open University of Jewish Studies (Zsidó Tudományok Szabadegyeteme), offering informal evening courses to all. The description for one course, “The Differences Between Jewish Monotheism, Communism, Socialism, and Islam” seeks to answer questions such as “..how can we remember the Holocaust as a Jew, or how has Jewish religion, politics, and culture contributed to the creation of a ‘Judeo-Christian’ Europe?’” These are critical questions for Jews and non-Jews alike to consider, as part of their shared heritage—questions that can help address the past and build a better future, together. EMIH also runs a local elementary school as well as an English-Hungarian high school and has just acquired the Milton Friedman University, which focuses mostly on secular business courses. Of the 1,400 Hungarian students currently attending this university, most are non-Jews. The idea is to create a space where Jews and non-Jews can study, live, and work together, creating positive personal experiences for the two groups to better understand one another and realize how they can work in partnership on questions facing society as a whole.
The Joy of Learning
EMIH is home to 15 rabbis and their families—not all originally Hungarian—who are continuously working on programs and publications to improve their current outreach. All of these activities fall under Chabad Lubavitch in Hungary. This comes as no surprise, as “Chabad” literally stands for “Chochmah, Binah, Da'a” or "Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge." Chabad is known for its commitment to spreading the joy of Jewish traditions to assimilated Jews around the world. Here in Budapest, there are plenty of joyous occasions for non-practicing Jews to participate in along with non-Jews who simply look forward to some fun and food. Two of the best known street fairs hosted by EMIH are the summer Solét (cholent or Jewish stew) Festival, which saw some 10k people on the street last year, and the MEGA Barhesz Akademia (Challah baking festival) in the spring. They even have an “Ask a Rabbi” booth at Budapest’s famous Sziget music festival every year. So, the outreach is nonstop; and we’ve only covered the “fun” and educational sides.
The Real Fight
Then there’s the real work that must be done in parallel to bringing people together: combating anti-Semitism. On this front, Köves founded the Action and Protection Foundation (Tett és Védelem, TEV) in 2012. The civil rights organization focuses on talking about and collecting data to properly monitor anti-Semitism via monthly reports. From public surveys on general attitudes towards Jews to pursuing legal action when necessary, the group has achieved a lot in just the past few years. Köves has even worked on improving Hungarian legislation, including in the 2013 Fourth Amendment pertaining to the dignity of religious minorities and communities. The resulting change means that people can start a civil case from remarks intended to hurt their dignity, such as being called a “dirty jew.” The penal code was also changed to allow pursuing criminal cases due to verbal incitement of hate; this means that if someone threatens Jews, they can be pursued even if no actions follow. Additionally, there is today a course on anti-Semitism for all police officers. And, in regard to the Hungarian Defense Forces, Köves is also the Chief Jewish chaplain there.
“More and more people are reconnecting to Jewish roots; it’s less and less of a taboo.”
EMIH’s social welfare division, CEDEK EMIH Izraelita Szeretetszolgálat (Israelite Charity Service), is dedicated to charity—a cornerstone of Judaism. Köves tells me that people often say how Jews care only about their own community. So it is important to him to show how they help non-Jews as well. CEDEK’s efforts include a charity store that sells mainly clothing and a soup kitchen, which serves 2000 portions a day primarily to non-Jews (no exact number is known as they don’t officially ask).
An Ever-Growing Partnership
All of this work is done in cooperation with the government, which even allowed EMIH to help oversee new state school textbooks to make sure the Holocaust and other periods were not whitewashed regarding anti-Semitism. The group regularly reaches out to Hungarian high schools as well to conduct informal classes on Judaism, and any high school is welcome to contact EMIH for such opportunities. Many have pointed to Orban’s growing friendship with Benjamin Netanyahu as the reason for his increasing support of Israel and protection of Jewish culture. Both men came to power around the same time and both promote more conservative religious values. But it has been in most recent years that Orban seems to have stepped up his efforts to fight anti-Semitism, and the influence of Köves’ work cannot be ignored. Some international moves of note have included Hungary’s support for Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel and efforts to block the EU from attacking Trump when he moved the American embassy to that city. Hungary also just recently pledged an annual $3.4 mln to fight anti-Semitism in Hungary and in Europe.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Despite so much work that remains to be done, there is still an overall feeling of positivity. At a Hanukkah lighting ceremony with Budapest’s mayor last year, Köves stated that “for nearly 30 years Hungary’s Jewish community has not only lived in physical safety but also had an opportunity to express its spiritual identity.”
Hungary’s President János Áder also wrote that Hanukkah “reaffirms each year that we want to live in a country where it is self-evident for all citizens that they can freely exercise their religion and foster the culture of their ancestors.”
Then there is the story of Csanád Szegedi. It is a somewhat well-known belief that many Hungarians are most likely somewhat Jewish. Szegedi, vice-president of the (once) openly anti-Semitic Jobbik political party was one such Hungarian. The former notorious neo-Nazi, however, found out that his maternal grandmother was a Jew—a Holocaust survivor—and was ousted from Jobbik. It was Köves who received the call from Szegedi wondering what he was to do. He ultimately embraced his heritage.
Anti-Semitism Still Has a Voice
The above is a beautiful story of redemption. Unfortunately, Jobbik, for its part, is still alive and well, and Köves maintains that the majority of anti-Semitism in Hungary stems from this group. Despite having decided to lose their ultra-nationalist cloak and move to a more centrist stance in a bid for more votes ahead of last year’s April elections, Köves is unconvinced—as are most others. “People can change; but can a political party?” he asks me. The rhetoric on the surface came to an abrupt halt (spawning an even more right-wing party in the process), but those who support them and their own personal views remain the same.
“People can change; but can a political party?”
Most poignantly, Köves informs me that Jobbik has never come out publicly and apologized for their monstrous statements in the past—utterly anti-Semitic and racist—nor ever seem to have realized how and why they were wrong. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly in the political arena, Köves points out that if they had truly given up such opinions, why didn’t they trash the party completely and start a new one? Some have complained recently, as certain new anti-Semitic actions have come to light on the part of Jobbik leaders, that Orban should have blocked one figure from becoming a Deputy Speaker in parliament. Köves snaps back, “Everything is Fidesz’ fault?” He then continues, “Hungary is a democracy. The people voted them (Jobbik) in.” Sadly, this is true. Jobbik rose to power, gaining critical seats in parliament, because there are those here in Hungary, especially in some rural areas, who remain staunchly anti-Semitic.
“Hungary is a democracy. The people voted them (Jobbik) in.”
Nevertheless, some have played into Jobbik’s new “look,” and the group has even gained trust inside the current opposition, who now openly aligns with a party known for its hateful stance against Jews. According to these groups, Fidesz and Orban now represent the far-right. Köves quickly replies to me bringing this up, “OK, so what is ‘far-right’?”
Indeed, the opposition often seems to be grasping at anything to frame Orban as an anti-Jew, despite his repeated calls to combat anti-Semitism, work on this front, and friendship with Israel. Last spring, just ahead of the elections, many outlets picked up on the below quote citing obvious anti-Semitism by Orban. “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Of course the joke is that Jews have had a “homeland” for thousands of years. Orban’s not talking about Jews.
The “Magic Tool”
“Parallels to anti-Semitism doesn’t mean it is anti-Semitic, and combating anti-Semitism means fighting the ‘magic tool’ of anti-Semitism.” It’s a tool that can be too easy to use for the wrong reasons, and when this happens it works against the very true efforts by Köves and others to fight real hatred. Köves assessed the situation in Hungary in the Times of Israel last July stating, “When I look at the Hungarian government today, I see that there is some criticism of a so-called democracy deficit and corruption, and all these important things, but I also see that Hungary is practically the only country today in Europe where the Jewish community is physically safe.” A recent report from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights also reflects how perception of anti-Semitism being a sizable problem has been decreasing in Hungary, while increasing in other countries, and stands on the lower end as a social/political issue overall, far lower than other countries, including France, Belgium, and Germany. The report even cited a 21% drop in those who feel anti-Semitism has increased “a lot” or “a little” in the past five years. There has also been a significant decrease in people here who reported personally experiencing anti-Semitic behavior (“offensive or threatening comments”) between 2012 and 2018. And the country racked up a 37% decrease between 2012 and 2018 regarding respondents who were “very worried” or “fairly worried” about “a family member or person close to them” being a victim of anti-Semitism. It is interesting to note that, per this report, Hungary also came out (per respondents questioned) with the least amount of reported discrimination in the past 12 months based on sex/gender, religion/beliefs, and ethnic origin/immigration background. Köves’ willingness to combat that which should not be called out as “anti-Semitism” is perhaps his most extraordinary move in changing the narrative. At the center of this lies the association of Jews with money and why this needs to always be a bad thing, when it isn’t. Additionally, just because there have been Jews have made it look bad by way of crimes and other questionable practices, this in no way implicates all Jews. God knows many non-Jews are guilty of such acts. In response to this, Köves asks, “You know what a slippery slope is?”
That Magazine Cover
We touch upon the now infamous Figyelő magazine cover from late last year, featuring the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities surrounded by banknotes. Köves has openly admitted that he also has been negatively covered at times, but as members of society, Jews too will be called out, criticized, and be held accountable for their actions. As he told Ynetnews.com, “Hungarian Jews are part of society and we must take into account that we are subject to criticism and questions will be asked of us." Köves points out that the real issue being highlighted by the magazine surrounds failing to account for funds received, pure and simple. Using the anti-Semitism card in no way dismisses concerns and only weakens the argument for actions that are truly troubling and serve as absolute attacks on a person’s Jewish identity. “The magazine that put Heisler on the cover asked him a number of questions and instead of responding, he boycotted and accused them of anti-Semitism,” Köves further expressed to Ynet in the wake of the incident last year.
“You know what a slippery slope is?”
There is much recent commentary that falls into the false-claim category. Attacks on Soros being characterized as anti-Semitic would certainly qualify.
“Soros in their eyes is not a symbol of the Jew, but rather of the rude capitalist,” Köves stated last year in a Times of Israel piece. Indeed. That article also critically pointed out that Köves’ TEV “found that only two percent of Hungarians related Soros with the Jews, and vice versa.”
Of course, Soros is a champion of “liberal” society. And thus, we come back to the question of values. Progressives claim that they are promoting “freedom.” Are they? And at what cost? When people scream that Orban is ‘far-right’,” what, as Köves wisely asked, does that exactly mean today. Pro-family? Pro-monotheism? Pro-Judeo-Christian values? Herein lies the issue of the day. Political attacks have become outright attacks on traditional values—in fact it seems that they attack any notion of determined values at all. Perhaps it’s time we reassess the meaning of “freedom” and what truly constitutes a violation of such freedom.
Köves consistently seeks to keep his work and the dialog in general away from personal attacks and political agendas. The focus needs to be on the traditions of Judaism and what it has to offer, and rightfully so. Ever since the fall of communism, Chabad, with which EMIH is affiliated, has been especially involved in openly celebrating Hanukkah every year. Its “Hanukkah on Ice” event has become a time for anyone to talk to a rabbi, learn a bit about the holiday, see the menorah lit, eat donuts, and, of course, ice-skate if you want. EMIH also hosts a photo contest with people sending in their personal take on the “Festival of Lights.” Back in 2017, in a piece on a Hanukkah lighting ceremony in Miskolc, Köves stated that “I think this is of great importance and very important… Europe and Hungary's values of civilization, which determine our everyday lives - family, neighborly love, value of work - are based on Judeo-Christian roots and traditions.” So back to the question of “freedom.” More and more Christians see their traditional values being trampled on in the name of “freedom,” with liberal ideology pushing the line of “acceptable” further out seemingly every day. As a Hasidic Jew, Köves most certainly lives by more conservative values—those of the determined kind discussed earlier in this piece. So what to do? How can such values be preserved for the benefit of both Christians and Jews?
Pesach- Reassessing “Freedom”
The next major Jewish holiday is Passover. As we look around Europe (and elsewhere) today, we witness hatred created by both the far-left and far-right. Both sides claim that they are exercising their “freedom” but teach only intolerance and fear of that which they find unacceptable. And this attitude comes from a very distinct lack of determined values in the Judeo-Christian sense. They have taken liberty with—per their own whimsical perspective—the traditional interpretation of wrong and right, good and bad. In fact, they often appear to have decided “values” as such should be thrown away all together, leading to more war, abortion, overt sexuality, and hate. Passover thus comes at a very fitting time. Passover, or Pesach, is a very essential chapter in Jewish tradition. Köves tells me that the Israelites’ redemption and escape from Egypt is mentioned almost every day in prayers and on all holidays. And this idea of redemption and freedom is at the center of Passover—Jews were slaves and left to claim their freedom. And yet, the act of leaving Egypt is not what made them free. This is something most miss. It was only the act of receiving the Torah and the 10 Commandments, following the direction of God, that allowed them to be free. Freedom is nothing without direction. God’s word and counsel, the values imbued upon the Israelites, are what enabled them to claim that freedom and move forward on their path. “Freedom is important,” Köves states, “but being free doesn’t mean being free of direction or God.” That is, set values are not what inhibit your freedom but in fact enable you to be free.
“Being free doesn’t mean being free of direction or God.”
This concept seems lost on many today given the news we face celebrating “victory” after “victory” of “progressive values.” An 11-year-old drag queen being applauded on Good Morning America is just one of many that come to mind.
Fighting the Circus
Those who see through the farce, even if not all traditionally religious, must at least pay respect to the fact that Judaism and Christianity represent the counterweight to the circus. And standing together in the face of this wave gives reason to be hopeful that Jews and Christians will safely continue on their path to living together in mutual respect and peace. Maybe, at least in Hungary, where levels of anti-Semitism are already reported to be lower than elsewhere in Europe, atrocities and mistakes of the past can serve as a foundation—never to be forgotten—for a friendship to be built upon. And with this friendship, actions can be taken to move in a positive direction, based on the shared values of both religions.
A New Narrative
Köves has been given his best opportunity for changing the narrative with the current Holocaust museum he is in charge of here in Budapest. In a Times of Israel piece, he noted how most projects focus on the actions of the Nazis. “In this narrative the spectator of the exhibit might deplore the Nazis, but definitely won’t look at the victims as people he can learn from,” he stated. This new museum—still in the works—seeks to change this angle by not merely giving visitors a much-needed education on the horrors of the past. It will also seek to offer inspiration from a people who have learned to survive through thousands of years of challenges by way of the beauty of their religion, culture, traditions, and values. The same determined, steadfast values that many Christians share, the same values that have formed the foundation of Judeo-Christian culture in Hungary, throughout Europe, and around the world today. Hungary continues to battle its demons, both past and present. In its fight to combat anti-Semitism, it should find that partners such as Köves, and the work he pursues, will hopefully serve to put an end to that narrative as well as give birth to a far greater one of which both Judaism and Christianity can be proud—a narrative to serve as a foundation for greater actions going forward and representing the interests of both Hungary’s Jews and non-Jews alike.