With Shavuot on the horizon, I have been reflecting (perhaps even dwelling) on a news item from early February. It’s not that I’m having trouble staying up-to-date. Rather, the episode has regained its relevance, and even possesses newfound importance, as our annual reacceptance of the Torah draws near.
The news story I can’t seem to shake is the public ruin of Rabbi Menachem Youlus, dubbed the “Jewish Indiana Jones” by friends and admirers for his remarkable – and entirely falsified – tales of rescuing Holocaust-era Torah scrolls.
On February 2, Youlus pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court to defrauding more than 50 victims, misappropriating donations from his charity, Save A Torah, Inc, and secretly depositing them into the bank account of his Wheaton, MD store, The Jewish Bookstore. According to prosecutors, Youlus defrauded his victims of well over $862,000.
Preet Bharara, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, expressed satisfaction in knowing that Youlus “would be punished for his brazen fraud.”
But Youlus getting his just deserts is simply not enough for me.
“Rabbi” Youlus played his friends and supporters in the Baltimore-Washington area – my family included – for fools, and made a mockery of the Torah. While I might (one day) be willing to forgive the theft of so many happy childhood memories of our family’s interactions with the “Jewish Indiana Jones,” I will never pardon him for exploiting our love for the Torah. Some things are just inexcusable.
So, I’ve been considering the next logical step. (It’s an important one.)
Over the last year, the international headlines have been dominated by stories of Jew-on-Jew violence. Ever since ultra-Orthodox extremists looking to “maintain the purity of the their neighborhoods” began harassing young girls at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh last August, there has been a seemingly uninterrupted string of hate-filled, “religiously motivated” incidents throughout the Jewish world.
In most cases, these clashes were instigated or protracted by those who dared to actually blame the Torah for their misconduct or unlawful behavior. Though Menachem Youlus committed his unforgivable misdeeds while quite literally hiding behind the Torah, I believe that those who misappropriate the words of the Torah to promote their own twisted agendas – those who hide behind the Torah in other, more dastardly ways – are truly beyond the pale.
While I believe that there are many valid interpretations to the Torah, I am quite certain that not one of the Torah’s “70 faces” is hate or intolerance. As King Solomon assures us, all of the Torah’s ways are “ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17).
As we ready ourselves for Shavuot, it is important that we remember this simple truth: the Torah is perfect; Jews are not. As a manifestation of G-d, the Torah is flawless. It is G-d’s creations, the individuals who intentionally misinterpret the Divine will, who are to be blamed for the flaws.
But instead of looking for someone else to blame (as we so often do), let’s resolve to get our own houses in order. We may not think of ourselves as religious extremists, but some serious introspection may reveal quite a few things we do “in the name of the Torah” that are actually motivated by self-interest.
It’s imperative that we never blame the Torah for our misdeeds. The eyes of the world are always upon us, and we wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about our most sacred text, our guidebook for enlightened Jewish life. After all, our ultimate goal is for our people – the “People of the Book” – to become a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49:6).
But before we can achieve that, we must first succeed at inspiring each other, fellow Jews of all stripes. To be better people. To be more committed to our faith. To stop hiding behind the Torah, and start embracing it.