The big Jewish crime news today is that of the “Indiana Jones Rabbi” arrest. R’ Menachem Youlus, who told grand stories of recovering Torahs that survived the Holocaust, has been indicted for having allegedly woven false stories, and inflated invoices and personal financial claims to get more money than he was entitled to from the Save a Torah organization (overall, he’s been found to have received more than $1 million of the $1.2 million the organization raised from 2004 to 2010).
Now, a leading rabbi in the liberal Orthodox movement that describes itself as “Open Orthodoxy” is taking to Facebook to defend Youlus in multiple posts over the past 24 hours. First, R’ Shmuel Herzfeld linked to the WSJ account and stated “Rabbi Youlis [sic] is in my prayers.” Herzfeld elaborated on his sentiments in a comment to that thread, saying:
if we are going to charge rabbis for fraud for embelleshing stories when they fund raise…oh my…the prisons will be filled with fundraisers from all different faiths
That was on Wednesday afternoon. Later on Wednesday, Herzfeld doubled-down on his statements with a new post on Facebook linking the WJW account and writing:
if fundraisers can be charged with fraud for exaggerating their stories, then perhaps rabbis can be charged for fraud for telling a story in a synagogue appeal/dvar torah that is not exactly true
At this point, some of Herzfeld’s Facebook friends began to push back against Herzfeld’s repeated defenses of Youlus. Andy Marcus wrote in Herzfeld’s thread that “these allegations go way beyond a fundraiser exaggerating stories…these are accusation of lying and stealing a lot of money.” Roy A. Ackerman chimed in, “I’m with Andy, Rav. Did you read the story in the Washington Post a few months ago?”
Though these comments were posted 16 and 5 hours ago, respectively, Herzfeld has yet to respond to either. Instead, earlier today, Herzfeld posted yet again about the Youlus case, to point out an inaccuracy in the NYT’s story in a new Facebook post:
nyt is wrong. “Instead, prosecutors accused him of selling fake Torahs”– The Torahs are all %100 kosher, its their historical origins that are being questioned. should we question the claim the Church makes about relics as well?
Herzfeld was again challenged by two of his Facebook friends, Andy Marcus and Adam Seth Bashein, the latter of which wrote, “The challenge is that the stories gave the Torahs added meaning and potential value to the buyers.”
Herzfeld is a leading rabbi in the movement that’s trying to change various of Orthodoxy’s fixed ways, and of particular relevance here, is trying to instill a greater degree of social responsibility among the Orthodox overall. Herzfeld, for example, has endorsed the Open Orthodox-led group Uri L’Tzedek, which has led boycotts and other campaigns against the slaughterhouse that was owned by the convicted bank fraudster Shalom Rubashkin: “Just like we are careful that the food that goes into our mouths is Kosher, so too we must be careful that the person who is bringing us our food and preparing our food is treated in a manner that is fully consistent with Halakhah.”
Herzfeld achieved a greater relevance in this movement with his 2008 NYT Op-Ed, in which he wrote of the unfolding immigration case against Agriprocessors:
Unfortunately, the responses of the leading Orthodox organizations, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union, have, in my opinion, fallen far short of what is needed to be done and have done little to diminish the extent of the desecration of God’s name. I am a member of both groups, but I am dissatisfied with their stance, which asks us to sit back patiently and wait for the results of a federal investigation. On some level, this might be prudent, but on another it is unacceptable.
In a summer that’s seen a great quantity of ultra-Orthodox crime news, a major topic of discussion has been the position maintained by many leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis that alleged abuse and similar crimes should be reported first to a rabbi, who can then determine if contacting the police is appropriate and necessary. The obvious concern is that a rabbi is not capable of conducting criminal investigations, and will tend to have a bias toward other rabbis.
For many years, I’ve argued that any effort at rabbinic oversight is only as strong as any one rabbi’s willingness to condemn their closest colleague.
Herzfeld’s advocacy here reveals just how the world of Open Orthodoxy is open to these same problems we see in the ultra-Orthodox world.