Truth and the Desecration of God’s Name

Written by Behrman House Staff, 07 of February, 2012

By Jeffrey Spitzer

In 2005 and 2009, Babaganewz ran stories about Rabbi MenachemYoulus, a sofer (scribe) who rescued, repaired, and sold Torah scrolls from around the world, including concentration camps like Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. Youlus’s stories were exciting and dangerous, earning him the title “the Jewish Indiana Jones.” He ran a big tzedakah fund called Save A Torah Inc. to support his work of unearthing and restoring Holocaust Torahs. Think of how meaningful it was for the b’nai mitzvah and others who read from these Torah scrolls that were saved from the Nazis.

But the stories Youlus told to Babaganewz and to dozens of Jewish communities and donors were lies. On February 2, 2012, Youlus admitted in court that he had lied and defrauded his customers and donors, pocketing over a million dollars.

“Rabbi Admits Torah Tales Were a Fraud” (New York Times)

“Wheaton Rabbi pleads guilty to fraud in Torah scheme” (Washington Post)

“‘Jewish Indiana Jones’ admits to Torah fraud” (Associated Press)

If all of those Torah readers had a more meaningful experience because of what they thought was true, was Youlus’s deception that bad? After all, the value of emet (truth) in Judaism is not absolute. For the sake of peace, one may “bend the truth” (Maimonides, Laws of Character Development 5:7). One could argue that Youlus was just enhancing the importance of Torah by telling some untruths about his particular scrolls. But there is a crucial difference between a slight deception to maintain peace and telling lies to convince people to buy something, to pay more for something, or to make a donation to a fake tzedakah.

According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pe’ah 8:6), when Rabbi Haggai would appoint tzedakah officials (gabbai’im), he would have them lift a Torah scroll in order to demonstrate that their authority is given through the Torah, as it says “through me, kings reign...through me, princes rule” (Proverbs 8:15-16). Lifting up a Torah was a dramatic way to demonstrate both to the tzedakah collectors themselves and to the community donors that the gabbai’im were expected to uphold the values of the Torah. If people lose faith in the collectors and distributors of tzedakah, the consequences can be dire; people will stop giving and the poor will suffer. Save A Torah collected lots of money as tzedakah that could have gone to other worthy causes.

As bad as misusing tzedakah money is, a scandal like this has other significant consequences. When Jews behave poorly, it reflects on the entire Jewish people. Since Jews see themselves and are seen as people who try to act according to God’s will, deceitful acts like those of Menachem Youlus make God look bad as well. This is called a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. And when a rabbi behaves in a corrupt way, Jews and non-Jews alike question the value of Judaism. Some might be tempted to sacrifice the value of emet and hide the truth of an act like this in order to prevent the public shame of a rabbi and of the Jewish community. But as the Talmudic rabbi Shmuel said, “In a case of Hillul Hashem, we don’t pay attention to the dignity of a rabbi” (Sanhedrin 82a).

Who is at fault for this Hillul Hashem? Certainly Menachem Youlus, who deceived so many and enriched himself in the process, is responsible for his actions. But the Jewish community, willing to be duped because of the emotionally charged feelings we have about the Holocaust, is partially to blame for failing to investigate his claims. Even Babaganewz can share in the blame.

Recently, Jews have been involved in far too many acts that make God and the Jewish people look bad. Corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Ponzi financier Bernie Madoff immediately come to mind. Menachem Youlus won’t get as much “bad press” as they have, but seeing an ordained rabbi confessing to charges of fraud over selling Torah scrolls not only makes Jews look bad in front of non-Jews, it makes us look bad in front of ourselves.

There is no clear and obvious remedy to Hillul Hashem. Hiding the truth to prevent embarrassment is not a solution. The only real response is to act with Kiddush Hashem, to make God’s name holy, by acting in ways that make people proud of being Jewish and proud of the Torah that serves as a guide to a Jewish life.

GENERAL DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1.      How do you feel when people you respect disappoint you?

2.      Should we hold religious and political leaders to a higher moral standard than others?

3.      How does the Jewish community benefit when Jews in the public eye achieve success?

4.      How is the Jewish community harmed when Jews in the public eye violate the law? Can you give examples?

JEWISH TEXTS

Jerusalem Talmud Pe’ah 8:6

When Rabbi Haggai would appoint tzedakah officials, he would have them lift a Torah so as to say that all authority is given through the Torah, “through me, kings reign...through me, princes rule” (Proverbs 8:15-16).

תלמוד ירושלמי מסכת פאה פרק ח דף כא טור א /ה"ו

רַבִּי חַגַּיי כַּד הֲוָה מֵקִים פַּרְנָסִין הֲוָה מַטְעִין לוֹן אוֹרַיְתָא לוֹמַר שֶׁכָּל שְׂרָרָה שֶׁנִיתְנָה מִתּוֹרָה נִיתְנָה "בִּי מְלָכִים יִמְלֹכוּ ... בִּי שָׂרִים יָשֹׂרוּ" (משלי ח:טו-טז).

What did the act of lifting a Torah represent?

How do you think the new tzedakah officials felt when lifting the Torah?

What does it mean that “all authority is given through the Torah”?

Do you think this ritual should be reinstated today? Explain your answer.

 

Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 82a

Shmuel said, “‘There is no wisdom, no understanding, no counsel which can contradict God’ (Proverbs 21:30) [which teaches that] any place there is a Hillul Hashem(a desecration of God’s name), we don’t bother showing deference to a rabbi.”

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין דף פב.

שְׁמוּאֵל אָמַר "אֵין חָכְמָה וְאֵין תְּבוּנָה וְאֵין עֵצָה לְנֶגֶד ה'" (משלי כא:ל) כֹּל מַקוֹם שֶׁיֵשׁ חִלוּל הָשֵׁם אֵין חוֹלְקִין כָּבוֹד לְרַב.

 

What does it mean that no wisdom or understanding can contradict God?

Under usual circumstances, how should we treat a rabbi?

What does it mean to desecrate God’s name? What does it mean to sanctify God’s name?

How can we act with Kiddush Hashem?