1/26/10

WP: Rabbi Youlus' Triple Sacrilege Holocaust-Torah-Fraud

The Washington Post exposes an unfortunate misguided fraud. The story does not merit attention based on the amount of money involved. A rabbi sold valid kosher torah scrolls to various congregations and buyers. They received their merchandise. It is doubtful that there was a prosecutable crime committed here or that any of the parties would want to press for such charges.

From the story it is clear that the rabbi mislead good honest religious Jews about the origins of the torah scrolls that he sold to them. He told them the scrolls were rescued by him (dramatically) from mysterious places associated with the Holocaust in Europe. When pressed for evidence to back up his stories, he has none.


What makes this act and its tale annoying to us - and we could use stronger terms but choose not to - is it's triple sacrilege. A holy rabbi misrepresents a holy torah with a story about the Holocaust, tragic events of martyrdom that have a certain holiness associated with them.

Where on the spectrum of fraud does this sit? We are less annoyed when a secular professor makes unfounded claims about how an archaeological find is related to Jesus so that he can obtain a $500,000 book deal. We are more annoyed by religious authorities who falsely claim to have sacred relics, like the shroud of Turin, and profit greatly from that. We are much more annoyed by rabbis other holy folk who outright commit brazen crimes under the cover of their sanctity.

Rabbi Youlus no doubt believes that he created a win-win situation by telling lies. He benefited with income and notoriety, and his buyer benefited by the feeling that they had obtained a dramatic holocaust relic.

Here is a segment from the WP story, "Rabbi to the Rescue: Menachem Youlus is called the Indiana Jones of Torah recovery and restoration. But there are doubts about his thrilling tales," by Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden:
...Hantman also remembers Youlus telling her that her Westchester County congregation was receiving one of two Torahs from the mass grave. Youlus declines to explain how five parties believed they had one of these two Torahs. But Zitelman says: "There's a total of eight Torahs -- two that were in the mass grave and six that were from the general community. I don't know what Rabbi Youlus said specifically to anybody."

When Hantman hears about the mystically multiplying Torahs, she pauses and says she has to gather her thoughts: "I hope you've read 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' At the end, a truth is concealed for the better good of the community. ... If there is any deception going on ... also think about what he's done that's good." She wrestles with what she has heard. "Destroying this man, if he is guilty of what you suspect, may very well be in service of the truth but in disservice of a greater truth," Hantman says. What, for Hantman, is the greater truth? "The Jewish reverence for the past, for heritage and for those who suffered and died because of the Nazis."

Clark University professor Deborah Dwork, co-author of a history of Auschwitz, says she has an "allergic reaction" to the notion of a greater truth, because, she says, such tales can play into the hands of Holocaust deniers. For her, the historical record must be "absolutely crystal clear. Anything that deviates from that one whit does the memory of the Holocaust a huge disservice," she says.

So why have so many of Youlus's customers accepted his dramatic rescue stories without evidence? Is it because he carries the title "Rabbi"? Or is it because so many unimaginable things did happen during the Holocaust? Perhaps, as sociologist Samuel Heilman says: "There's a sensitivity because of Holocaust denial. If you say some stories aren't true, you may have to say that all stories are not true. So best not to touch on a sensitive topic." Heilman -- who has written numerous books about Jewish communities and is a professor at City University of New York -- suggests that some American Jews feel guilty: "They didn't manage to rescue the people, so they rescue the Torahs." Dwork has her own theory: "The loss was so devastating that we crave tales of survival."...more...

1 comment:

RZangpo2 said...

I am the "nephew" referred to in the first paragraph of the Washington Post story.

Like my Uncle Bob, I can't agree with those who call Youlus's stories "Midrash," or say that they serve a greater truth. On the contrary, it seems that he makes them up himself to create a market, and to inflate the prices of the Torahs he acquires who knows how - probably on the Eastern European "gray market" he himself refers to. The story of "corrupt museum curators" rings true to me. I know that curators of archives in Belarus and elsewhere did the same thing with pages of census records that were of value to Western genealogists. No doubt these curators were underpaid - if they were paid at all after the fall of Communism - but that IMO does not excuse their crime: the deliberate erasure of history.

If Youlus's stories are untrue - and the Post article certainly raises that suspicion - then he himself is guilty of the same crime. How ironic that he claims to be doing just the opposite!