Notes on a scandal
The discovery of an archive belonging to the late disgraced Neturei Karta leader Amram Blau sheds new light on the rabbi's 1965 marriage to a French convert to Judaism - an act that led his community to wage war on him
By Yair Ettinger • Ha'aretz
For the past 17 years, journalist Shmuel Chaim Pappenheim has been racking his brain, trying to figure out how to finish his biography of Rabbi Amram Blau (1894-1974 ), the legendary leader of the extremist, ultra-Orthodox group Neturei Karta.
"I have writer's block; I simply do not know how to navigate through this narrative," he laments.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish journalist, Pappenheim feels morally obligated to skirt around sensitive issues. However, in this particular instance, such maneuvering is virtually impossible: How can you write about Blau's life without mentioning his scandalous marriage to a convert in the last decade of his life? Pappenheim, who is in his 40s, fears that even if he simply omits the episode from the biography, "someone might react and, in this way, I will inadvertently cause this matter to rise to the surface. Four different investors are pressing me to finish the book, but I just cannot solve this problem."
This certainly is a juicy problem, although the episode itself is over 45 years old. At the time, it was reported - with great relish - in the non-ultra-Orthodox press that the leader of Neturei Karta had married a convert named Ruth Ben-David, who was many years his junior and that, by doing so, he had chosen to ignore a ruling by Neturei Karta's supreme judicial body, the Eda Haredit's Badatz (the high court of the Haredi community ). He paid dearly for this action: He was deposed as leader, ostracized and forced to go into exile with his bride.
Despite this black hole in his personal life, Blau, the most radical of all the ultra-Orthodox, who took to the streets to demonstrate against the Zionist state, was a legend in the Haredi community during his lifetime and beyond. His hatred of Zionism was so intense that, in the late 1930s, he severed all ties with his own brother, Moshe, at the time chairman of Agudat Yisrael, which was playing an active role in Zionist politics. Yet, this staunch opponent of Zionism would regularly host Israeli soldiers in his home and even corresponded with secular kibbutzniks.
In the protest demonstrations he organized, in his refusal to even touch any state monies or any printed forms on which Israel's state symbol appeared, in the many days he spent behind bars, in the hymn he composed ("We do not believe in the heretics' regime" ), and in his clashes with the Israel police - Blau shaped the ethos of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealot, an ethos that to this very day condones setting dumpsters on fire in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood.
Ruth Ben-David herself wrote about her marriage to Blau in 1965, in the memoirs she published privately after her husband's death, "Shomrei Ha'ir" ("Guardians of the City," the literal meaning of the Aramaic term "Neturei Karta" ). However, only now, and 36 years after Rabbi Blau's death, has a private archive in which he kept his important documents been discovered. Today, for the first time, his "voice" on the matter can be heard: The three bulging cardboard boxes were handed over, following Ben-David's death 10 years ago, to her relatives, who live on Kibbutz Yavneh, a religious kibbutz. A few years ago, they transferred them to Boston University's Judaic studies center. There, they have been studied by Bar-Ilan University Jewish history lecturer Kimi Kaplan, who will soon publish a scholarly article on his findings in Iyunim Bitkumat Israel, an annual published in Hebrew by Ben-Gurion University's Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism.
In the boxes comprising Blau's private archive, Kaplan discovered documents, pashkevilim (wall posters ), private correspondence relating to the wedding, and Ben-David's ketubah (official religious marriage contract ). Born to Catholic parents in France as Madeleine Feraille, Ben-David (1920-2000 ) played an active role in the French resistance during World War II, attended university, married and gave birth to a son. It was only at that point in her life that she began to show a deep interest in Judaism. In 1952, she converted and divorced her husband.
In her frequent visits to Israel, Ben-David and her son, who also converted, lived on Kibbutz Yavneh. Nonetheless, she also maintained contact with ultra-Orthodox rabbis who were members of anti-Zionist factions in the Mea She'arim neighborhood. Because of these ties, in 1962, she assisted in smuggling out of Israel an Israeli child, Yossele Schumacher, who was kidnapped and taken abroad by his grandparents, with Neturei Karta's help. The grandparents abducted the child in defiance of a court order: They wanted to continue raising him as an ultra-Orthodox Jew in light of the fact that his parents were no longer religious. Interrogated by Israeli security officials, Ben-David broke down and the Mossad found the child, who was returned to Israel and his parents' care.
In Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, Ben-David became a heroine and was thus much sought after as a prospective match. In an interview she gave to Yedioth Ahronoth many years later, she said she had been introduced to Blau in 1963 by a matchmaker. Apparently, they became engaged clandestinely, and only after a certain time did they hold an official engagement ceremony of a binding nature (known in ultra-Orthodox circles by the Yiddish term "Vort ") before witnesses. According to Ben-David, they became engaged secretly because Blau wanted time to tell his 10 children about the impending marriage. This was especially important because he and Ben-David became engaged less than 12 months after his wife's death.
Since they were adamantly opposed to the match, it is possible that Blau's sons applied to the Eda Haredit's high court with the request that it disallow the marriage. However, according to a number of sources, the crisis erupted even earlier, almost accidentally, when an ultra-Orthodox matchmaker sought Blau's counsel.
The matchmaker asked Blau whether it would be permissible for a rabbinical judge serving on the bench of the Eda Haredit's high court to marry the famous convert. Blau was forced to admit that he had already made a commitment to marry Ben-David and had already "set the [prenuptial] conditions."
The matchmaker immediately applied to the Badatz, requesting the court nullify Blau's commitment of marriage to Ben-David. The court complied, but Blau refused to accept the verdict. The Boston archive includes a copy of an angry letter that he wrote in response to the court's ruling. The rabbinical court judges, Blau writes, think that the marriage "will be a desecration of God's name. In other words, people do not hold this convert in high esteem; thus, if I, whom the rabbinical court judges consider to be a distinguished Torah scholar, marry her, people will gossip about me and that will be a desecration of God's name."
Rejecting this argument, Blau declares in the letter that Ben-David is a "righteous convert and a God-fearing woman of valor, according to the clear testimony of the righteous individuals and great scholars in whose houses she dwelt for several years and who are very familiar with her character and conduct."
In the letter, Blau refers to the fame she had earned "throughout the world for her actions with regard to the Yossele incident, where she has shown supreme self-sacrifice in seeking to save him and enable him to become a Torah scholar and a faithful Jew." Although he tries to ask the high court to display compassion, to "give me the benefit of the doubt and forgive me," he lashes out at his critics: "The masses who do not hold the convert in high regard and who thus allow themselves to gossip about her not only violate a number of mitzvot that are specifically mentioned in the Torah; their behavior is diametrically opposed to the view of our holy Torah and to God's will."
Responding to the claim that the age gap between them - Ben-David was 44 and Blau was 70 at the time - was far too great, he cites a midrash according to which the biblical Boaz was twice as old as Ruth the Moabite, and writes that "Boaz, who considered this point irrelevant and who ignored the gossip, married Ruth." Blau also adds a very strong hint aimed at the judges, noting that the gossip did not lead the nation's leaders in Boaz's time "to be influenced in any way by the gossipers' stupid views, which amounted to a violation of the Torah's instructions."
Finally, Blau points out that a commitment exists between himself and Ben-David with regard to their determination to be married and that this commitment is binding in terms of Jewish law. Perhaps in an attempt to appease the rabbinical judges, he reminds them that he does not intend, or that he is not able, to have more children with Ruth. The court, however, was unwilling to change its verdict.
During this same period, in the summer of 1965, Blau's fiancee adopts a different tone when she writes, in Yiddish, directly to the leader of the Satmar Hasidic movement. In her letter which, according to Kaplan, was written a short while before the wedding, she notes that peace "is not bestowed upon the wicked" and she accuses the rabbinical court judges of a display of envy. In another letter, which she sends to the leader's wife, Ben-David describes how she was harassed by members of the Eda Haredit community, noting the humiliation to which she was subjected and the insidious epithet with which she had been labeled: "hutzpedicke, schmutzedicke giyoret" - that is, a "brazen, dirty convert." (Kaplan uses the label as the title of his article. )
The Satmar leader intervened, offering Ben-David 25,000 Israel pounds if she would only waive Blau's commitment to marry her. The leader also attempted to get the wedding date postponed while, at the same time, he urged the rabbinical court judges to cancel, or at least soften, their verdict. In the end, the only compromise that was reached was that the wedding would take place outside Jerusalem and that the couple would live in another community, "until the storm blows over."
On the night of September 2, 1965, the wedding was held in a Bnei Brak yeshiva, in the presence of 30 guests.
"Rabbi Amram marries the convert in a midnight wedding ceremony," reported Yedioth Ahronoth in its banner headline. The entire country, including the readers of Haaretz and Maariv, already knew who "Rabbi Amram" was and the identity of the "convert." The journalists, who did not conceal the fact that they liked Blau personally despite his anti-Zionist stance, considered the wedding ceremony to be the happy ending of a story they had feverishly covered for many weeks.
After living in Bnei Brak for about a year, Ben-David and Blau returned to Jerusalem, moving into the Batei Ungarin neighborhood. Blau's sons, who lived nearby, totally ignored him. One of them, Uri, was appointed to succeed his father as Neturei Karta leader, and, after this appointment, Neturei Karta subsequently severed its ties with the Eda Haredit, after which it became plagued by inner squabbling and factionalism.
Moshe Hirsch was the leader of one of Neturei Karta's factions for many years - right up to his death this past May 2. Actually, he headed a tiny group of people that itself later broke up into different factions. The most recent dispute that caused another split in his own faction revolved around the participation of a small group of members in a conference organized by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran with the intention of debunking the Holocaust.
Price to pay
In Kaplan's view, Blau did not know in advance what price he would pay for his decision to marry Ben-David.
"The incident," says Kaplan, "tells us a lot about this extremist group [Neturei Karta]. It tells us what happens when one of its leaders sharply deviates from a group norm. We can see that, when such a thing happens, all the members take off their kid gloves and wage an all-out war against the wayward leader. The interesting point here is that, at no time, does somebody stand up and shout: 'Hey, aren't we forgetting that this person is Amram Blau?' The Ben-David incident also helps us to understand the dualism of religious zealotry. On one hand, Neturei Karta is a herd. On the other, the members of that herd are fully capable of biting their leader and of shattering that leader's authority."
One of Blau's great-grandchildren, who demanded anonymity, told Haaretz that he remembered Ben-David, his step great-grandmother, and also that he was forbidden to even talk to her: "We knew who she was, but we never went to visit her. She was denied the status of a grandmother. We all knew she had no status in our family. Period."
Pappenheim, who also grew up in Mea She'arim, remembers Ben-David as well as Blau. In his opinion, "the ones who started this war were Rabbi Amram Blau's own sons. They were the ones who went to the Eda Haredit's high court, asking the court to stop him. Afterward, when the whole thing began to snowball, some of the sons regretted their having gone to the court and even admitted that the move was uncalled for. But it was too late. Rabbi Amram Blau was deposed as leader and became a persecuted individual. People even spat on him in the street, and his most loyal students betrayed him. I remember how the front doors [of his homes] in Jerusalem and in Bnei Brak were just torn off their hinges.
"There are many theories," continues Pappenheim, "as to why this story took the direction it did. Some people will tell you it was a war that broke out because two men wanted the same Frenchwoman. I believe that the blame should be pinned on inciters, who were driven by the envy they felt when they saw how much power [Blau] had. He did not deserve such treatment, and she most certainly did not. She was a very good person and the community respected her."
In Pappenheim's eyes, the whole affair "destroyed our sense of solidarity, our single backbone. This is our punishment, a punishment that God has meted out to us." He feels that many religious fanatics falsely claim to be Blau's disciples, especially when they hurl rocks in Jerusalem or Jaffa during demonstrations over construction on ancient graves or other matters.
"Amram Blau was a God-fearing Jew," says Pappenheim. "He would never shout out any pejorative word at the Jewish people. He would never say anything in order to hurt someone else's feelings. He was a person who loved life and he was also a great Torah scholar. You can't find people like that around here anymore."
[Hat Tip: Joel Katz.]