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Torah with mysterious background remains kosher

Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 14, 2013 02:02


Courtesy of Greenslade Special Collections and Archives

Kenyon’s Torah was donated by trustee Deborah Salzberg and her husband Michael in 2007. It was purported to have been lost during the Holocaust and recovered by Rabbi Menachem Youlus, but its history became uncertain when Youlus was arrested for fraud. Peter Haas spoke on Tuesday about the conundrum.


In the fall of 2011, the origin of Kenyon’s Torah, which was donated four years earlier by Michael and Deborah Salzberg P’09, was called into question. The Salzbergs contributed the funds to acquire the holy Jewish text from Rabbi Menachem Youlus’ Save A Torah foundation, which claimed to have recovered Kenyon’s Torah after it was lost in the Holocaust. But Youlus was arrested in August 2011 on several counts of fraud, and it became uncertain whether Kenyon’s Torah had the history the Salzbergs thought. 

Still, a Torah with questionable origins is a Torah all the same. On Tuesday night, at an event in Gund Gallery’s Community Foundation Theater, Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University Peter Haas, encouraged the Kenyon community to embrace the Torah itself despite its uncertain past.

“I tried to distinguish, first of all, the holiness or the sacredness or the importance of the Torah scroll itself as a legitimate, kosher Torah scroll that was of use to the worshipping community, and then this odd story of its provenance and what happened,” Haas said. While origin controversies are common in the art world, Haas said he had never heard of a situation involving a Torah. Despite its checkered background, though, Haas supported the Kenyon Torah’s legitimacy. 

 “My basic message was that the Torah scroll is still a kosher Torah scroll and deserves respect and honor for that reason alone, but now it has a very unusual story attached to it as well,” Haas said. He called the story surrounding the Torah’s background “a teaching moment … about the importance of memory, the importance of survival, why it would be important to have a Holocaust-surviving scroll.” 

Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies Royal Rhodes found Haas’ description powerful, because it “provides an opportunity for people to actually talk about … the connections between the sacred and the everyday.”

Jessica Lieberman ’14, who has been involved in Jewish life on campus since her freshman year and co-managed Hillel House last year, is adamant that having a Torah at Kenyon is a necessity. “It is crucially important for Kenyon to have a Torah,” Lieberman said in an email. “Every Jewish community requires one to operate.  The Torah is the absolute core of the Jewish tradition, textually and symbolically.” 

After charges were filed and the controversy became public, Professor of Religious Studies Miriam Dean-Otting began searching for an artist who could design a new cover for the Torah. “The Torah scroll does not become less sacred without a cover, but the [old] cover advertises an organization that is under suspicion,” Dean-Otting said in 2011. As the Collegian reported at the time, documents filed in court indicated that Youlus had never been to the sites of his Torahs’ alleged recoveries. 

Dean-Otting’s Judaic Tradition class participated in the sacred process of restoring some of the letters of the “restored” Torah under Youlus’ instruction in 2007, and on Tuesday she gave the introduction to Haas’ talk. “I thought [Haas] had a good approach to talking about it,” Dean-Otting said. “It has a history in the sense that it’s used here and also we had a lot of ritual and celebration when we had it come into the College.”

Rhodes added that, in a way, the mysterious nature of Kenyon’s Torah echoes the theme of brokenness that pervades the Jewish tradition, calling it “part of the narrative.” 

“[The Israelites] worshiped the golden calf and then that’s broken,” Rhodes said. “Then the tablets of the law are broken in the process of removing that impure corruption, and when the Arc of the Covenant was carried around later it contained the broken fragments.” 

In the question-and-answer session that followed Haas’ remarks, students and faculty discussed the importance of looking at the situation in a positive light. Haas suggested that the Torah could serve an important educational purpose. “I thought it gave Kenyon a very interesting artifact that could become part of its general consciousness,” Haas said. According to Rhodes, the audience seemed to agree with Haas’ conclusion that the Kenyon Torah’s dubious background was ultimately just a chapter in its story. 

“Nothing can detract from the sacredness of the Torah. It is in and of itself a sacred object quite apart from the story that was concocted about it,” Rhodes said. “Some people in the audience said, ‘Well didn’t finding out that [Youlus] was an embezzler … diminish in some way the special status of it?’ But by and large [the answer] was no.”

Andrew Pochter ’15, one of the heads of Hillel House, said, “It’s good for the Kenyon community. … I think treating it like any other Torah is really important. As long as there’s a Jewish community, I think that there should be a Torah at Kenyon.”

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