Beth Duren Lancaster contributed to the writing of this post.
Yesterday I posted the video clip from a January 29, 2012 service at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church featuring Rabbi Ralph Messer and New Birth pastor, the embattled Bishop Eddie Long. During the bizarre service, Messer wrapped Long in a scroll–purported to be a rare, uninsurable copy of the Torah, recovered from Auschwitz death camp after World War 2. Long was then enthroned as some kind of king, lifted from the stage in a “throne,” and carried around the stage.While watching the spectacle, I was struck immediately by Messer’s consistent mis-pronounciation of the former Nazi concentration-extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau as “Birkendaal.” This seemed, considering enduring impact of the Holocaust, a little strange to me. I’m not Jewish or German, but I was pretty sure he was swinging and missing every time. (This German example is rendered yerkinau.) The largest Nazi concentration camp was Buchenwald. My initial thought was perhaps he was merely conflating the words, but the differences between the German renderings of “Birkenau” and “Buchenwald” are not remotely close.
With that less than persuasive beginning, the story of the Torah scroll felt increasingly suspicious. Smuggling a scroll that big inside one’s clothes seemed a rather unlikely happening, given what usually happened to people as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz. All those shoes, eyeglasses, suitcases and such did not make it into the barracks. When arrivals were taken directly to be gassed, it was in supposed showers where they were nude. Except in the most extreme circumstances it would have been rather hard to hide a scroll under that condition.
I did find a story of one of the two scrolls ever known to have made it into Auschwitz. One, pictured in the link below, is much, much smaller than the one Messer wrapped around Long. In order to hide it, the owner did not just put it under his clothes, he actually crafted a fake jacket sleeve into which he sewed the scroll. His name was Yaakov Helman and you can read his story here.
Another puzzling element to Messer’s story is how did the material of the 312 year old Torah scroll end up so well preserved only having, as he insisted, some dust from Auschwitz? [The original post has been changed at this point to reflect updated information.]
In a phone interview with Maureen MacLaughlin, Archival Assistant and Librarian at the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta, she informed me that there were many “Holocaust scrolls” but her description differed somewhat from Messer’s. According to MacLaughlin, the Nazis confiscated any number of scrolls at the gates of the various camps and warehoused them. Their ultimate aim was to create a “museum to an exterminated race” of which scrolls, and other Jewish possessions would be used. Scrolls were also smuggled through the ghettos. Numbers of these kinds of scrolls were retrieved after the war and restored to use in synagogues. (There are complicated consecration and un-consecration rituals to determine what scrolls can be used. Just because a scroll is rescued does not mean it can be used.) Some scrolls were smuggled out of Europe before the Nazis invaded and wound up in safe countries.
Unfortunately, there are Torah scrolls, as with a tremendous amount of antiquities, that are utterly fraudulent. One of the most well known was the “bone box” purported to be the burial box–“ossuary”–that once held the remains of James, the brother of Jesus.
One may find links to a number of stories about a Torah scroll that was supposedly found in a cemetery near Auschwitz. The man who eventually found it (Rabbi Menochem Youlus, the “Jewish Indiana Jones”) claims to have initially searched the cemetery, only to find nothing. Later after discovering old maps demonstrating that the cemetery was once much larger, he found a box containing the scrolls. The Torah that was “found” was missing 4 panels. Youlus claimed to have located them after putting an ad in a Polish newspaper. These panels were purportedly folded, hidden and taken into Auschwitz, yet survived intact.
The Torah was restored by Youlus’s Save a Torah Foundation, then bought by billionaire David Rubenstein for $32,000, and donated to the Central Synagogue in NYC. According to this article, the Torah was taken to another synagogue and the congregants each had a chance to kiss the Torah. (This, and additional information below, contradicts Messer’s teaching that only those of great authority could touch it.)
All of this happened around 2007-2008. In 2010, the authenticity of the Auschwitz scroll was openly questioned since Youlus had no proof of any of his claims, and there was no record to be found of this cemetery ever being larger than its currently size. Problematic for both Youlus and the scroll, he has changed his story a few times. Other Holocaust scrolls Youlus was to have rescued are also suspect.
The director of the group that maintains the cemetery claims no knowledge whatsoever of the scrolls being found there. By the time these concerns had been raised, the Washington Post was questioning the authenticity of several other Holocaust scrolls (not related to Auschwitz apparently) among the more than 500 scrolls Youlus claims to have found. In August of 2011, Youlus was charged with wire and mail fraud and faces up to 20 years in prison for and then siphoned thousands of dollars given to the foundation into personal accounts.
If any Torah scroll had been found at Auschwitz-Birkenau, as Messer seems to say, I cannot find a story about it. Judging by the volume of articles from 2008 when the Youlus Torah was “found”, it should have made the news if others had turned up before it or since. I am open to correction on this point.
In addition to the historical questions, there are other statements Messer makes in the first few minutes of the video (before the parade starts), with plenty of strange biblical and biological claims and theological assertions. In a Huffington Post article, Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. listed 27 different errors (as she judges) made by Messer in his monologue. Gafney, the Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is also a member of the Dorshei Derekh Reconstructionist Minyan of the Germantown Jewish Center in Philadelphia. She also has co-taught courses with and for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Wyncote, PA. Among the problems listed:
1. The claim that Holocaust Torahs cannot be insured “because there are no more” is patently false. They are regularly insured as are other one of a kind objects d’art, i.e. the works of Picasso.
2. The Torah cover is not a “foreskin.”
4. The Torah wrapper is not referred to as a “belt of righteousness.”
6. The claim that “only one of great authority” is given a “finger” to touch the scroll is patently false. Any bar or bat mitvah, girl or boy, woman or man, who has completed the rite of passage, can chant the Torah according to the (minhag) custom in their congregation. Torah scroll pointers, called “hands,” (yadayim), not “fingers” are common gifts and possessions in Jewish families and communities.
10. The point that “these” — presumably Torah scrolls or just Holocaust Torah scrolls are only given to “cities in need of anointing” is false. Individuals, families and religious communities own and commission Torah scrolls and keep or give them as they see fit, to synagogues, Jewish seminaries and other schools and museums.
16. While there are some traditional reflections on the human body — including DNA and chromosomes — in the mystical Kabbalistic tradition, the speaker is crafting a verbal montage without reference to the classical texts or their theologies.
17. He attributes a quote to “Jewish doctors” stereotyping an entire community as conflating cellular biology with his Hebrew mysticism without actually naming or quoting any single “Jewish doctor” who holds such an opinion.
19. The claim that the kings of Israel were crowned with Torah scrolls wrapping them has no foundation in the biblical text. According to the bible’s own chronology the written Torah did not come into existence until the reign of King Josiah in the sixth century BCE (2 Kgs 22), some four hundred years after the time of David. However, the great second century rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, was however wrapped in a Torah scroll and burned alive in his martyrdom. Perhaps he has confused or conflated the traditions.
25. The elevation of Long lifted in the chair by four men seems to have been borrowed from Jewish wedding festivities and has noting to do with coronation; there is no evidence of this practice among Israelite or Judean monarchs.
26. The Aaronic blessing (Num 6:24-26) is a blessing for the people and not a putative leader.
Gafney further notes:
[Messer] may well be some sort of Messianic Jew, a person who claims Jewish heritage and recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, but who is not part of one of the major Jewish movements: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal. He does not, however, represent recognizable Jewish thought or practice in his (mis-) representations of the Torah and other Jewish sancta — or for that matter, New Testament and Christian biblical interpretation and theology.
By his own words Rabbi Messer is a prosperity preacher working from the Torah. From his Facebook page status on Tuesday, January 25, 2012, he says:
The Torah Principles produce LIFE! If you have been undecided, unfocused, and unexcited, then start learning about Principles of God. You can Succeed! You have been Redeemed! Yeshua (Jesus) has a plan for your life! It is called the Torah. You have been Redeemed to walk out a Redeemed Lifestyle. You can learn more about your Hebrew Roots by calling, 1-866-867-2488 or by emailing us at Support@STBM.org. You can also visit us online at www.STBM.org. Remember, a Torah Principle applied accurately will cause you to prosper Financially, Emotionally, Physically and Spiritually.
Can I just say here that you really might want to consider what the New Testament says about the law bringing life?
What I see in Messer is a fellow who is theologically aberrant, historically questionable, and is propagating historically inaccurate or incomplete information about this scroll. In any event, the folks in the service who cheered this mess should be the focal points of much prayer and strongly encouraged to read deep into their Bibles and read up on Rabbi Messer’s stories.
Since this was written, Bishop Eddie Long issued an apology, and a number of Messianic Jewish Rabbis (those who are believers in Jesus as the Messiah) have distanced themselves from “Rabbi” Messer, calling into question his credentials and his teachings.