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Religious groups and nonreligion

Judaism in Lithuania

Judaism in Lithuania has a rich history, going back to the 14th century and flourishing during the epoch of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1569 with Poland created the Polish-Lithuanian (...)

Judaism in Lithuania has a rich history, going back to the 14th century and flourishing during the epoch of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1569 with Poland created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Vaad arba aratzot – Jewish Council of Four Lands – was formed in 1580 and it lasted till 1764. Half a century later, the (Jewish) Council of Lithuania was created in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Vaad Medinat Lita, 1623-1764).

During the last decades of the Commonwealth in the 18th c., religious Jewish life was shaked by the rise of Hassidic movement, and an opposition (Mitnaggedism) to that movement rose up in Lithuania. Lithuanian Jews became consequently known as Mitnaggedim (plural from mitnagged), and the term mitnagged became synonym for Litvak Today, the “Lithuanian form” of Judaism is worldwide known as the Lithuanian branch of Jewish Orthodoxy (Haredim), and it originates from the “school of thought” of the Gaon of Vilna (R. Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720-1797). Among several transformations of religious landscape of Lithuanian Jews during Russian tsarist regime in the XIX century, one of the most renowned is reorganization by the hands of rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (disciple of the Gaon of Vilna) the highest rabbinic learning institutions, yeshivot. For the final impact on the process of the formation the Lithuanian Orthodox Judaism, the Mussar movement, initiated by rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), was substantial too. During the Holocaust, about 95% of Lithuanian Jewry was annihilated by the Nazis and their collaborators. The Lithuanian yeshiva world has flown the country and today lives in other countries.

In the WWII and its aftermath, Soviet authorities destroyed thousands of synagogues – material remnants of the history of Judaism in Lithuania. A handful of buildings of former synagogues was abandoned or transformed into buildings of industrial functionality, sport halls, or provincial cultural centers. The majority of them are still waiting for restoration.

Judaism in Lithuania today is confronting many problems, trying to revitalize religious practice after the Holocaust and devastating decennia of Soviet Regime. During the Soviet period, religious practical life was almost paralyzed, with only two (choral) synagogues left functioning (in Vilnius and Kaunas) and persecuted.

From 1992, the Lithuanian Jewish community began restoring religious life by inviting Orthodox (mitnaggedic) rabbis (the longest period of rabbinate here belongs to a rabbi from Moscow, R. Chaim Burstein), who tried to find resources and organize people for practices. In 1994, a rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch Hassidim, Rav Shalom Ber Krinskiy, also came in for a missionary activity. He started many activities here, also trying to animate the Jewish religious life. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet regime, many Lithuanian Jews left Lithuania for Israel. Approximately 2,800 core Jews live in present Lithuania (from about a total Jewish population with identity based on Jewish parents of 4,700, according to Berman Jewish Databank 2015). The majority of Jews in Lithuania is secular, and only small groups, not very much exceeding 50-60 of adult people in Vilnius, attend synagogue during major calendar festivals. In other cities, such as Kaunas, Šiauliai, and Klaipėda, the number is even smaller. Years after the fall of the Soviet regime, it is still a serious problem to manage to gather ten adult men (the minyan) in the synagogue or elsewhere every day. There is still no mikveh - ritual basin, and kosher food is not easily available.

The small number of practicing Jews does not allow them to afford a rabbi, a yeshiva or a Beth midrash in any city, and the appointment or dismissal of a rabbi depends on the considerations of the Head of the Lithuanian Jewish community. Is such a situation, rabbis change more often than would be necessary for practicing members of the community. Many people are secular or do not have enough experience in the religious practice, although some of them were introduced to the practice by Chabad or became acquainted with them by relatives and friends in Israel. Despite many sporadic fiery clashes that occurred during decades in the aftermath of arrival of r. Sh. B. Krinskiy, between him and local Jews, mitnaggedim, in 2017 he was appointed by the Head of Lithuanian Jewish community and accepted by the Head of the Religious community of Lithuanian Jews (Litvakes) as the rabbi of the only functioning synagogue in Vilnius (after dismissal of two rabbis of the mitnaggedim, R. Calev Krelin and R. Shimshon Isakson), thus provoking discontent and split in the mitnaggedic community of Vilnius. Informal group of mitnaggedim have organized informal “Beth midrash of Vilna Gaon”, which includes several people in the process of giur, as well. This community is organized by utilizing new communicative possibilities, occasional meetings for festivals, friendly support, attending lectures by occasionally invited guest rabbis.

During the last three decades, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only and same two synagogues are still functioning (in Vilnius and in Kaunas). Several formal and informal religious communities and groups also exist in Vilnius – the Religious community of Lithuanian Jews (Litvakes), and people associated with Chabad Lubavitch Hassidim around Rabbi Shalom B. Krinskiy. In Kaunas, there are also two registered religious communities (“Religious community of Kaunas’ Jews”, and another one registered as Hassidic of undefined affiliation, with their own prayer hall, and there exists a third, unregistered community, formed by students from Israel with their own rabbi). Other informal religious communities exist in Klaipėda and Šiauliai. During pandemia of Covid-19 mitnaggedic Jews from Vilnius, Klaipėda, Palanga, Šiauliai had an opportunity to have regular zoom Torah classes with their informal rabbi Calev Krelin every week, and are looking for registering by Ministry of Justice in Lithuania.

Available websites:
Official site of Lithuanian Jewish community; official site of Religious community of Kaunas‘ Jews; an independent site of historical, cultural information and actual controversies.

D 13 July 2021    AAušra Pažėraitė

Contemporary Paganism in Lithuania – the Romuva movement

Today the Romuva movement is one of the main contemporary pagan denominations in Lithuania. Based on local ethnicity and folklore, the Ancient Baltic faith Romuva movement is focused on the (...)

Today the Romuva movement is one of the main contemporary pagan denominations in Lithuania. Based on local ethnicity and folklore, the Ancient Baltic faith Romuva movement is focused on the ideal of the reconstruction of a pre-Christian religion. “Ancient Baltic faith” is a term often used to describe Lithuanian, Latvian, and Belarussian pre-Christian religion.
Christianity became the official religion in Lithuania in 1387. Between the 15th and the 18th century, traditional (i.e. pre-Christian) religious change (destruction) processes have ended with the phase of destruction of paganism – religion which had turned into a form of compliance of customs.
Visible attempts to reconstruct the traditional religion of pre-Christian Lithuania began in the 20th century. The first Romuva communities (a big one in Lithuania and a smaller one in the USA) had been formed in the 1930s by Domas Šidlauskas-Visuomis (1878-1944) who sought to establish a new religion, which he called Visuomybė (i.e. universal faith). He also established a Romuva sanctuary for his religion in 1929 in Dusetos (northwest Lithuania), which existed for 10 years. According to V. Dundzila, Visuomybė “combines and reinterprets a few mythic notions from Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Paganism in an overly complicated personal mythology” (p. 10). Contemporary Romuvians consider Visuomybė as a precursor to a pagan revival. However, Visuomis borrowed only a few elements from pre-Christian religions to build his religious system and did not discuss the reconstruction of the old Lithuanian faith in his works. Romuva first existed until the Soviet occupation, when many members were executed or deported to Siberia. Underground Romuva group existed in a labor camp in Inta, Russia (Trinkūnas 2011).
During the 1970s, under the conditions of the Soviet regime, the first alternative cultural movements began to appear. Such movements, in their self-presentation and self-understanding, relied upon the perceived failure of the cultural mainstream in Lithuania (as well as the Soviet Union) and the turn to variously understood individual self as critics of the Soviet ideology-based society. One of them was Ramuva – an ethnocultural organisation established in 1967 by Jonas Trinkūnas (1939-2014) and aimed at preserving ethnic culture. Ramuva had no institutional ties with the Visuomybė that existed during the 1940s. However, many Romuvians consider the name “Ramuva” as a synonym to “Romuva”, because this term was used during the Soviet regime to hide its initial religious meaning.
In the movement, the name “Romuva” generally refers to the main ancient Baltic sanctuary Romovė or Rikojotas, situated in Prussia, which was active in the 6th century. Therefore, Romuvans refer to contemporary “Romuva” a “sacred place, sanctuary,” or “light and peace”. The word “Romuva” does not refer to the native Lithuanian religion in general, but only to a particular one, which is one of the biggest pagan organizations.
The activities of Ramuva served as a basis for developing an ethnic religion movement, where the first religious community Romuva was registered by the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Lithuania on 20 May 1992. Romuva’s leader Jonas Trinkūnas was ordained as the krivis – the supreme priest of the old Baltic faith community – in Vilnius in 2002. In this way, the ancient tradition of the institution of the krivis (the supreme priest of Lithuania) was restored. After J. Trinkūnas passed away, his wife, Inija Trinkūnienė, was elected as the krivė – the supreme priest of the community – on 23 November 2014. Romuva gained recognition as a “non-traditional” religion in 1995, when the Law on Religious Communities and Associations was passed in Lithuania. Currently, Romuva is involved in actions to obtain the status of State-recognized religion. This process of recognition is about to get finalised (Lithuanian law requires a minimum of 25 years of existence before a denomination can receive the status of State-recognized religion, as well as to receive financial support from the State).
Today, according to the leaders of the community, Romuva consists of around 30 officially registered or informally existing community centres (also called Romuvas) situated in various towns and peripheries in Lithuania and abroad (communities established by Lithuanians in Great Britain, Norway and the USA). Communities are represented by the elders (vaidilas) who belong to the Vaidilas Circle. Members of the movement claim that vaidilas are experts of ancient belief and rites. They lead rituals and perform family rites for wedding, name-giving, and funeral ceremonies.
Although Romuva unites people of various ages, youth prevail in the movement. They attend subcultural events and rituals the most actively. According to data of the Lithuanian population census of 2001, 1,270 from 3,483,972 citizens (0,04% of the population) considered themselves believers of the ancient Lithuanian religion. In the 2011 census, 5,118 from 3,043,429 citizens (0,17% of the population) considered themselves believers of the ancient Lithuanian religion. Nevertheless, since there is no mandatory membership in Romuva, the number of its members (as of Lithuanian paganism believers in general) is not precise.
Romuva is also involved in a wide range of cultural activities. It is a member of the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER, former World Congress of Ethnic Religions, WCER), a gathering of representatives of ancient European religions which was founded at its initiative in June 1998 in Vilnius. J. Trinkūnas was elected the chairman of the organization at the meeting, and remained until he passed away. Since 2014, the president of the organisation is Andras Corban Arthen (Anamanta, Spain/U.S.A.). The primary goal of the organisation was to strengthen indigenous ethnic religions and to foster religious tolerance. In a meeting, which was held on August 26-29, 2010 in Bologna, the title of the organisation was changed to the European Congress of Ethnic Religions (ECER). The official purpose of the ECER is “to serve as an international body that will assist ethnic religious groups in various countries and will oppose discrimination against such groups”. Its members understand ethnic religion as the “religion, spirituality, and cosmology that is firmly grounded in a particular people’s traditions”, which “does not include modern occult or ariosophic theories/ideologies, nor syncretic neo-religions” (ECER website), the latter (e.g., Wicca, the Pagan Federation, etc.) being understood as eclectic New Age type nature-based spiritualities.
Individual Romuva communities focus on celebration of the calendar (related to the cycle of astronomic solstices and equinoxes), family (weddings, name-givings, and funerals) and national holidays, organizing summer camps which are usually held in Romuva’s alkas (the old Lithuanian sacred place) in the family homestead of Jonas Trinkūnas and Inija Trinkūnienė (in the village of Dvarciškės, of the Švenčionys region), as well as hosting scientific conferences and organising seminars in order to learn more about the Old Baltic faith.
Other pagan groups exist in Lithuania, that do not belong to Romuva: esoteric groups – with a strong orientation towards the New Age spirituality; pagan groups (Ožnugario Romuva, Kuronas, Druids, etc.); Baltic warcraft brotherhoods (Vilkatlakai, Kovarnis, Varingis, Karionys, etc.); post-folk music groups based on the Baltic culture (folk metal groups Žalvarinis, Obtest, and Poccolus, a folk rock group Atalyja, men’s folk groups Ugniavijas, Karužė, etc.); ethnic craft groups; and others.

 Dundzila, V. R. 2007. “Baltic Lithuanian Religion and Romuva.” Tyr: Myth-Culture-Tradition 3. Ultra Press.
 Trinkūnas, J. 1996. “Lietuvių senojo tikėjimo pradmenys.” [The Principals of Old Lithuanian Belief.] Druvis.
 Trinkūnas, J. 2000. Baltų tikėjimas. Lietuvių pasaulėjauta, papročiai, apeigos, ženklai [Baltic Faith. Lithuanian Worldview, Customs, Customs, Signs]. Vilnius: “Diemedžio” leidykla.
 Trinkūnas, J. 2011. Baltų religija šiandien [Baltic Religion Today]. Vilnius: Senovės baltų religinė bendrija.

For more information see the article by Orinta Labutytė, "Ritual meals in the ancient Baltic religious community “Romuva”: an analysis of perspectives on community religion and meals", December 2023.

D 3 January 2024    AOrinta Labutytė

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