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Rabbi to the rescue: Recovering and restoring the Torah

Rabbi Menachem Youlus regales believers with dramatic stories of Holocaust-era scrolls he says he has rescued and restored. But are his tales true?

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Michael Berenbaum and Samuel Heilman
Holocaust Historian and Sociologist-Professor, City University of New York
Friday, January 29, 2010; 12:00 PM

Dubbed "the Indiana Jones of Torah scribes," Rabbi Menachem Youlus has regaled congregations and the media with tales of cloak-and-dagger adventures in Central and Eastern Europe in search of sacred Torah scrolls. The 48-year-old rabbi from Baltimore says he has found Torahs hidden in walls, buried in the ground, piled in basements of monasteries, even under the floorboards of a concentration camp barracks. He says he has been beaten up, threatened with jail in Siberia, and has had to smuggle out Torahs in false-bottom suitcases.

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But are his tales true?

Michael Berenbaum, a former director of the Research Institute at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and a Holocaust historian, and Samuel Heilman, a sociologist at the City University of New York who has written numerous books about Jewish communities, were online Friday, Jan. 29, at Noon ET to discuss the Post Magazine cover story about Baltimore Rabbi Menachem Youlus's search for Holocaust-era scrolls.

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Samuel Heilman: Hello, I Professor Samuel Heilman of the City University of New York and Co-Author of the forthcoming THE REBBE: THE LIFE AND AFTERLIFE OF MENACHEM MENDEL SCHNEERSON

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9117.html

and happy to talk about this article with you

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Washington, D.C.: Rabbi, have you found any Torahs at Theresienstadt, the Czech ghetto where the Nazis held prominent Jews?

Michael Berenbaum: Hi Michel Berenbaum here to discuss the story today. Look forward to responding to your questions.

I was asked to check the provenance of the Torah.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Thank you for hosting this chat, gentlemen. It is great to hear what you have to say about this fascinating subject, and divining 'the truth' from 'what is right'; we also need to know the facts, which unfortunately seem fungible at times.

To me, what struck the strongest chord was the quote by Deborah Dworkin about what does "the greater truth" actually mean, and how the business of 'rescuing' Torahs could really play into the hands of Holocaust deniers and other anti-Semites. The truth is the truth, and while life is always fraught with grays, we must live a life of 'Fact'.

Michael Berenbaum: I am less disturbed about how this will contribute or not contribute to Holocaust denial. The deniers need no evidence to make up their lies and the Iranian President's denial has nothing to do with the Holocaust. His reasoning is simple: no Holocaust therefore no Israel. Deny the Holocaust, deny Israel.

Michael

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Baltimore, Md.: I found this story incredibly disturbing. No one, I repeat no one, stumbles on valuable find after valuable find as Rabbi Youlus claims to have done. His inability to provide a provenance for a single scroll only adds to to the problem. I can't understand how an Orthodox rabbi, of all people, couldn't see that his actions could actually be handing Holocaust deniers a precious gift as in, "See, this guy made this all up...for money. It's all a lie."

Samuel Heilman: I suspect his motives are not only economic. I would guess he also thinks that by placing these scrolls he is 'inspiring' congregations in their religious life. But it is probably a strategy that will backfire if he is shown to be a fraud.

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Rockville, Md.: I am a rabbi of congregation that has purchased a scroll from Save-a-Torah. How can we get more information regarding the true origins of our Torah...or any information at all?

Michael Berenbaum: Michael Berenbaum:

I would have to know the details that were provided to you. A good scribe can tell you more of less, within an era and an region, when the Torah was written. As you know Torah's bear no signature and no dates and they also do not have a trail of ownership, so the rest depends of who sold you the Torah and what you were told.

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washingtonpost.com : The Rebbe:The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Princeton University Press)

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Silver Spring, Md.: While the story stresses whether the Torahs really had the history of tragedy claimed, the real issue and question is whether they are kosher Torahs and can be used for their intended purposes? If not, than a shameful fraud has been committed. If they are kosher then the rabbi should be praised for providing Torahs at deeply discounted cost to communities that would otherwise not be able to afford them. The Indiana Jones razzle-dazzle is a distraction and not basically important or valid.

washingtonpost.com : Rabbi to the Rescue: Menachem Youlus is called the Indiana Jones of Torah recovery and restoration. But there are doubts about his thrilling tales. (Post Magazine, Jan. 31)

Samuel Heilman: I am not certain the rabbi may be praised for providing a "kosher" Torah if he did this by way of a life. Is there not a principle in Jewish law that one may not fulfill a mitzvah by means of an avera -- commit a just act by way of a transgresive one?

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Washington, D.C.: If he's telling the truth, Rabbi Youlus has acquired several of his Torahs illegally. Have any of the scrolls' home countries moved to have them returned? How many Holocaust-era scrolls do you think are really out there?

Michael Berenbaum: Michael Berenbaum:

We know that Israel recently received some 300 Torahs from the Romanian government. The Ukraine is in possession of hundreds -- somewhere I remember the figure 600, but cannot vouch for it -- the Czech collection in London once numbered 1,000 and there are many more out there. Since every synagogue had at least one and often many more Torah's and there were thousands and thousands of synagogues. So we do not know the final answer. No government has yet asked for these back. The may technically now belong to the governments, but they ALL were once property of a Jewish community that did not surrender them voluntarily.

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Washington, D.C.: This was such an engrossing article; I'm very pleased that you're having this chat.

It seems pretty clear that the rabbi is playing fast and loose with the provenance of these scrolls. Have any of the purchasers you've spoken with indicated whether they've tried to get a refund, or the truth? Thanks!

Samuel Heilman: Why would they get a refund. They have a Torah -- it may simply not have the history they believed it had

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Our temple has a 'rescued' torah: It is technically no longer considered kosher to use because of the damage it has sustained, but once a year (on Yom Kippur) we take it out of its special case, parade it around the sanctuary, and read from it -- honoring it on the most Holy day of our year. It is a moving reminder that the citizens of the town that once used this Torah, are no longer here; all killed simply because of their religion.

Michael Berenbaum: Michael Berenbaum

I believe that this is an appropriate use for such a Torah. Your synagogue is making use of the Torah as a memorial and a lesson to a living community.

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North Potomac, Md.: It appears from the article that Youlus gave little to no defense for his actions. Was that a misreading? Did he ever argue or seem like he was concerned with his actions?

Michael Berenbaum: You would have to pose that question to the reporter who interviewed him at length. I met with him for a couple of hours and he seemed genuine in what he was saying. All efforts to check the details of the provenance proved futile.

Michael Berenbaum

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Michael Berenbaum: I think the readers should know there is a difference between a Kosher Torah -- one that has been checked by a reputable Scribe to see that it is complete, that every word of the Torah is present in the scroll and every word can be read clearly and is spelled correctly, which is arduous and detailed work -- and the claims of where the Torah has come from, its provenance. Torahs do not have dates on them or the signature of scribes. Nothing but the written words so checking who wrote them and when is difficult. Also where a Torah has been cannot be checked, at least not easily.

Michael Berenbaum

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College Park, Md.: Just wanted to inquire to see if either of you knew how a person becomes/maintains their status as an Orthodox rabbi. How does this man continue to hold that title, despite violating the trust of so many people?

Samuel Heilman: Someone is a rabbi either because he was ordained as such or because there are others who consider him to be a rabbi. Judaism has no central authority -- in contrast to the Catholic Church, for example -- that retains control. It is rather more like Islam -- decentralized and far less formalized.

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Washington, D.C.: What are Torahs usually made out of? Vellum, paper, that sort of thing? Is there a way to test those materials to get a sense of when it was written?

Michael Berenbaum: Torah's are hand written, word by word, on parchment that is made of an animal skin. One knows which animal skins were used in which countries and also how the writing was protected and the skin treated. We also can tell the number of lines per column and the ways in which each column begins. This offer us clues as to where and when a Torah was written.

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Samuel Heilman: I don't understand this question

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Victimization: Mr. Berenbaum,

The inherent problem is that our communities and congregations are being violated again; while it is definitely not the same type of victimization, it seems like the faithful are being preyed-upon by a slippery con man who is hiding behind religion. And forgive my ignorance, but carbon-dating has been used to suss out forgeries on documents and labels that are purported to be older than they actually are; could not the same be done for the Torahs in question?

Michael Berenbaum: I actually do not know what Carbon dating could do.

The Torahs in question have the appearance of being old, but the issue may not be their age, but where they have been, what communities used them, where they were during the Holocaust and where they were in the years in between and also where and how they were obtained.

Michael Berenbaum

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College Park, Md.: Follow-up question regarding becoming a rabbi -- what constitutes the formal ordination process? Does this vary by synagogue or by region (I come from an ELCA Lutheran background, which is more centralized.) Also, when you noted, "or because there are others who consider him to be a rabbi," does this mean he could theoretically attain the title through an Al Sharpton-style process? No offense to Sharpton or others given the title of reverend or rabbi in such a way, but to me, that sort of religious title connotes a deep degree of scholarship, meditation, and theological understanding not found in a lay person. What I'm trying to get at is, would the average Jewish synagogue, Reform, Orthodox or other, view what this man has done as a breach of the trust denoted in his rabbi-congregant relationship?

Michael Berenbaum: Ordination in the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist traditions is institutional. A rabbi complete a 4-6 year course of study at a Rabbinical Seminary and is ordained in the end. They then join an organization of Rabbis, which has the power to discipline them, expel them. There is no process for taking back ordination.

Some Orthodox ordinations follow the same model, except that progress is measure in levels of knowledge not whether courses have been taken and passed. Orthodox rabbis also have Rabbinic bodies. But some Orthodox ordination is personal, A Rabbi can ordained another Rabbi.

Rabbis are usually employed by a Congregation, which usually means that a breach of trust will create employment problems. IN this case, the Rabbi is an independent businessman, who runs a bookstore and repairs and writes Torah scrolls.

Michael Berenbaum

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New York, NY: When does the statute of limitations run out for the endless talk of the alleged holocaust?

Michael Berenbaum: We still discuss the French Revolution, the American Revolution, Magna Carta, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. There is no statute of limitation on the study and discourse of history.

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Princeton, N.J.: What is most damning about this is that there are no straight answers being provided. As academics and researchers, there needs to be a paper trail- and while the Torahs may indeed be coming from all kinds of locations under murky conditions, the scholarship behind documenting the finds, where the Torahs came from, and how they were obtained, is disturbingly lacking.

Michael Berenbaum: that was precisely the problem.

But you must understand that conditions during World War II and its aftermath were murky, communities were destroyed, people uprooted from their homes. I just attended a lecture yesterday on art sales and the Holocaust and the record there is equally murky despite major documentation.

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Northern Virginia: This story reminds me a great deal of the recently debunked "Holocaust Love Story" that was featured on Oprah. People want so dearly to believe. To touch a valiant survivor. But it's dangerous to go forward with these lies.

I see this Rabbi as wanting to be a "hero" and "important". No one has luck that good and that consistent. He's preying on people (no pun intended).

Thank you to the reporters who have written this story.

Michael Berenbaum: It is the same issue. People make a mistake when they dramatize a story that is already dramatic and embellish what they say they know.

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Michael Berenbaum: I am signing off. Thank you for your questions.

Michael Berenbaum

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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