Argentina's President-elect Javier Milei has offered glimpses into how his seemingly contradictory spiritual practices -- including a recent embrace of Orthodox Judaism, the Catholicism embedded in Latin America and his own right-wing liberal philosophies – influence his idiosyncratic worldview.
The 53-year-old economist, whose inauguration is set for December 10, has mentioned several times that he studies the Torah – the Jewish scripture which is also the first part of the Christian Bible. In the past, he has called himself a Catholic and has said that he believes in God. He has stated that in some way the natural and spontaneous order is “anarcho-capitalist” and God is a “libertarian” like him.
In late 2021, when he was sworn in as a national deputy, he took the protocol oath invoking “God, the Homeland and the Holy Gospels” of the Christian faith.
That was also around the time Milei first met Axel Wahnish, an influential Sephardic Orthodox rabbi from Buenos Aires, whom the president-elect consults regularly.
The rabbi helps him “understand the situation on a deeper level,” according to Milei's own words. In particular, the La Libertad Avanza leader highlights that he is attracted to the dialectic of the Talmud as a way to analyse things.
Keeping Sabbath as president?
"The rabbi who helps me study says that I should read the Torah from the point of view of economic analysis," Milei told El Païs newspaper in July.
He has also expressed appreciation for the back-and-forth analytical format of Jewish law.
Despite this enthusiasm for Jewish thought, Milei has remained non-committal about the prospect of converting from the Catholicism he was raised in.
He acknowledges the difficulties of a potential conversion if he wins the presidency.
“If you’re Jewish because your mum’s a Jew, you’re not bound by the precepts of Judaism. If you convert, you are. If I am president [on the] Sabbath... what do I do? Disconnect from the country from the first star [in the sky] Friday until the first on Saturday?" Milei asked.
"There are some issues that would make that incompatible," he explained, though not all Jews strictly observe the custom of avoiding technology and work on the Sabbath.
Two months later, in a television interview with the LN+ news channel, he said: “I don’t go to church, I go to temple. I don’t talk to a priest, I have my rabbi. I study the Torah. I’m internationally acknowledged as a friend of Israel and a student of the Torah. I’m this close to [being converted], I just need the blood covenant."
So much so that for his first trip abroad since being elected president, Milei last week flew to New York, where he visited the tomb of a revered Lubavitch movement leader – a popular spiritual pilgrimage destination for some Jews.
a close contact of Milei's – Tomás Pener, a 24-year-old religious man who brought him into Rabbi Wahnish’s community, where he has given talks to the Betar youth movement – has ruled out that the future head of state is in the process of a conversion to Judaism.
"Currently he is not in a conversion process," Pener told AFP Tuesday.
“He wasn’t looking for a conversión and he is not currently in the process. His interest was in the studies. He won’t make any political decision based on the Torah. To him, studying the Torah is purely spiritual, out of interest in knowledge,” he added.
Milei went to a Catholic school and says he has always believed in God, but in those days, religion was a subject that was “a burden” to him and he was neither interested nor uninterested.
Amends with Francis?
Argentina, with a primarily Catholic population (75 percent of the population still identify with the religion), has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, some 250,000 people. In 1994, a constitutional reform eliminated the requirement for the president to be Catholic.
Regardless of his spiritual inclinations, Milei calls himself a friend of Israel and has assured his willingness to move Argentina's Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The likely foreign minister for his upcoming government, Diana Mondino, has said a switch is not immediately likely given Israel's war with Hamas.
According to political analyst Carlos Fara, Milei's openness about his spirituality is "an atypical situation in Argentine politics, something totally foreign to tradition."
In contrast to Milei's other controversies – he has questioned the official toll of disappearances during Argentina's military dictatorship and brought a chainsaw to campaign rallies – his stance on Israel has not caused a stir, Fara said.
Still, his focus on the issue could generate concern among what the analyst called a "quiet" Argentine Jewish community.
“The way things are won’t make a lot of noise,” said Fara.
Religious controversy would come as no surprise to Milei. Until he was elected on November 19, Milei referred very harshly for Pope Francis, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, slamming the pontiff as “the evil one,” “nefarious” and an “imbecile” who "promotes communism."
Yet a week ago there was a reconciliation. During a telephone call, Francis congratulated him for being elected and Milei invited him to visit Argentina, his homeland, where he has not returned to since becoming pontiff in 2013.
“I told him he would be received with all the honours worthy of a head of State and spiritual leader of Argentines, because Catholicism is the majority religión in Argentina,” the president-elect stated.