Monday, January 25, 2010

The Lies Shall Set You Free

Rabbi Shoshana Hantman of the Reconstructionist Group of Southern Westchester, on justifying what is almost certainly a contrived provenance for the sefer Torah that she purchased from Menachem Youlus:
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."
I recently re-read Terry Pratchett's novel Small Gods and was struck by how much her statement reminded me of this one by Vorbis (head Quisitioner):
"And so it is with truth," said Vorbis. "There are some things which appear to be the truth, which have all the hallmarks of truth, but which are not the real truth. The real truth must sometimes be protected by a labyrinth of lies."
Of course, Vorbis' "real truth" are actually lies while Hartman's "greater truth" are honorable pursuits, but both Hantman and Vorbis consider it proper that deception may be in the service of the greater truth. Both would make great kiruv workers.

Full article on Youlus here.

(By the way, Pratchett is always amazing, but this novel is particularly ripe with passages that will hit home with any religious skeptic. Expect more quotables here!)


G*3 said...

Of course, neither the "real truth" or "greater truth" are the actual truth, and the use of the word "truth" should not be used in that context.

That a lie can sometimes be the right thing to do does not make it the truth. It is still a lie, for all that it falls on the "good" side of the moral divide. It is only those who insist that a lie must always be a bad thing that will want to play with words so that they can pretend that they didn't tell a lie after all.

lostgod said...

Pratchett is amazing, good omens and everything with Death also deal with ideas of god. The 'Truth'is that that we all need to be wary of anything that has the label 'True'.

MKR said...

I understand the words "contrived," "provenance," "sefer Torah," and so on -- I even looked up "Menachem Youlus" and learned who he is -- but I cannot make sense of your first paragraph or of the first quotation. Maybe I'm just not part of your target audience, but it would be nice if you would explain what this is about.

Very catchy title, anyway.

Frum Heretic said...

MKR - it seems that Menachem Youlus is making up stories about where he is getting his Torah scrolls. He supposedly "rescues" many of them from locations that were somehow related to the holocaust, and finds many willing buyers who want to be part of this historical connection. However, so far he has not been able to document a single find. Hantman is making excuses for what seems to be lies by Youlus, because she is afraid that by "destroying" him (her choice of words for "exposing" him), it will somehow compromise the memory of those who suffered at the hands of Nazis. Strange logic...

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!

MKR said...

FH, thanks for the explanation of Rabbi Hantman's "logic," which certainly is twisted! It is one thing to make the argument that it is best for all concerned not to expose the truth about a certain matter (see Ibsen's The Wild Duck). But Hantman's reasoning seems to be: to expose the truth in this matter would be more harmful than condoning a lie; therefore condoning the lie serves a "greater truth." Even if it serves greater interests (which is already a dubious claim), it is chicanery to call that "serving a greater truth."

I am reminded of an episode of The Simpsons in which Leonard Nimoy appears in a parody of his role as host of the series In Search of. He says: "The following tale of alien encounter is true. And by true, I mean false. It's all lies. But they're entertaining lies. And in the end, isn't that the real truth? The answer—is no."

Frum Heretic said...

RZangpo2 - You mentioned "inflated prices". $15K for a used sefer Torah is not unreasonable. Perhaps his fables (which they seem to be) allows Youlus to more easily sell a Torah, but it doesn't seem that he is charging a large premium for the (probably) contrived history.

A typical reader of the article may not have realized how much a sefer Torah - even a used one - costs.

RZangpo2 said...

FH - maybe I didn't word my comment correctly. My problem with Youlus isn't whether his prices are "inflated" or not. It's his abuse of trust and, as I said, his deliberate erasure/falsification of history.

Youlus played on the emotions of my Uncle Bob like a violin. As the Post article says, Bob was deeply moved at the thought that this Torah may have come from the very grave containing his aunt's body - may indeed have been the very Sefer Torah his father read from at his Bar Mitzvah. At the very least, he thought it was a sacred relic of the very community his father came from, and so it had a deep, particular meaning to him.

Yes, it's still a sefer torah - kosher or not, I don't know - and my Uncle Bob did donate it to his synagogue in memory of his father. That's good. But that Youlus could reduce my Uncle Bob practically to tears with his phony story, just to get him to buy his wares - that's heartless. And that's the real answer to those who stick up for Youlus and call him an erlicher Yid and a baal chesed.

Frum Heretic said...

It's a sad story. It almost makes one wish that the victims didn't learn the truth.

Anonymous said...

I'm Hantman. I have to say this. The two reporters came to my house last August. For the first half of the interview, I had no idea what they were really writing about; I thought they were just there to ask about our Torah scroll, which so many others have done.

When they explained their theory, I was dumbfounded. I absolutely did not know what to think. My first instinct was to be cautious; that they should publish precipitously, without being sure what they were saying.

So they published the remark I made moments after they sprang this concept on me. My attitude has evolved considerably since then. I sort of wish you had checked on this.

MKR said...

Rabbi Hantman, as a participant in the foregoing discussion I am very sorry if your views have been misunderstood or (worse) misrepresented here. Of course, an impromptu comment should not have been subject to the same kind of critical analysis as a written publication, say; and I know from experience that journalists cannot be relied on to report someone's spoken words accurately, much less to give a fair account of the context of utterance. I think that those of us whose knowledge was confined to the written reportage quoted by Frum Heretic saw in the words attributed to you an instance of an intellectual vice into which many people do fall, and we responded to that. I appreciate that we ought to have taken better account of the fact that we were talking about an actual human being without necessarily giving that person, you, a fair hearing.

Frum Heretic said...

It's absurd to think that most bloggers (especially very sporadic part-time bloggers like myself) can get involved in fact-checking and contacting individuals mentioned in articles from presumably legitimate sources. Interested readers can refer back to the original Washington Post article linked in the post. Presumably Rabbi Hantman has contacted them or at least responded in the comments there.