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Hiding Behind a Torah Scroll

It’s Sunday, September 3. Outside my window a great shout has gone up from loudspeakers and the line of cars traveling to Tel Aviv is completely still.

Aryeh Deri is on his way to jail. Finally.

When the Supreme Court rendered its recent final judgment on the former Minister of the Interior, convicting him of bribe-taking, corruption, and misuse of public office, many people, including Mrs. Deri, proclaimed that it wasn’t fair that poor Sephardi Aryeh had to go to the slammer while Ashkenazi former President Weizman (who allegedly also accepted money while in office) went scot free home to Caesaria.

Yaffa, dear, I’d like to point out that former President Weizman was never indicted, and never even had a trial, let alone a conviction and countless appeals. Aside from that niggling point, there is another important difference between the two: unlike our President, your husband Aryeh did what he did hiding behind a Torah scroll.

For myself, as a religious person, that makes it worse. Much worse.

The Talmud teaches us that a person is not allowed to ask any kind of material or other benefit from his Torah learning. That to derive this kind of benefit is a great sin, an evil. But the entire platform of the religious parties in Israel is based on doing just that: exploiting Torah learning, and its practice, in order to earn special monetary and social privileges denied to the rest of the population. The Ethics of the Fathers has a name for this: it’s called “making the Torah a shovel to dig with.”

Aryeh, from an early age, turned this kind of digging into an art-form. As a young yeshiva student, he reportedly organized his classmates into a money-making machine for saying kaddish at the kotel. When the time came to marry, he demanded, as is the custom these days among certain Talmud students, a marriage partner whose family would provide a “full arrangement” (siddur maleh), meaning a house, income,furniture, wedding expenses. Poor Yaffa almost didn’t get to meet him when he found out she was an orphan living in an institution. But when they explained that Yaffa had a rich American couple ready to “adopt” her and finance the shidduch, he changed his mind.

Those poor adoptive parents! American Holocaust survivors whose only wish was to help a young woman and perhaps have her name grandchildren after them, they found themselves caught up in the whole dirty business of Aryeh’s dark financial wheelings and dealings, pressured to provide him with an alibi for all his new-found wealth. They never did so, despite great pressure. And the adoptive mother was (suspiciously, the police thought) run over and killed by an Israeli driver in New York before she could testify.

Since his conviction and sentencing, the performance of Aryeh Deri and his wife, and now even his poor children — who have been disgracefully exploited by their father in public displays of tearfulness at enormous rallies — has made every sensible religious person in Israel cringe. Literally clutching a Torah scroll, which they thrust before our astonished faces, they tell us that this is the reason Aryeh is being sent to jail.

Excuse me? As I recall, excess love of Torah wasn’t on Reb Aryeh’s bill of indictment. And the money he took wasn’t given to Torah institutions (that’s the next case he’s being indicted for); it reportedly bought him a $400,000 apartment and a Landrover, among other things.

And when he finally exhausted all avenues of escape, and all that was left was to decide where to serve out his three-year sentence, Aryeh proclaimed, he “preferred the religious wing in Maasiyahu prison to Caesaria.”

As one who has had occasion to visit the “religious wing” in an Israeli prison, I can say with some certainty that here, at least, Mr. Deri and I agree. He will feel much more comfortable there than in Caesaria. For amid the Hasidic pedophiles, and ultra-Orthodox-garbed rapists, perverts, thieves and murderers, Aryeh will be among his own: people, who until their last breath, will clutch onto the Torah, demanding special privileges for themselves. People for whom making the Torah “a shovel to dig with” is an avocation.
Aryeh, whatever you were tried for and convicted of, your most heinous crime will always be the contemptible way you dragged our Torah and our religion through the mud to save yourself. The noted rabbis who stood beside you at the prison gates, blessing you and comparing you to Joseph, undermined any reason for women to continue honoring a patriarchy whose male leadership behaves so disgracefully.

As for the rabbis who stayed away, perhaps even shaking their heads privately at this sorry spectacle, their silence roared with cowardice in the face of this public besmirching of our Torah. To borrow the words of Aryeh’s well-oiled, publicly-financed media campaign: “We will not forget. We will not forgive.”

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