Dibarti dofi: I defamed a dead man

His name was Rabbi Judah Tillinger

My rabbinic (Master’s) dissertation is about the defrocking of wayward rabbis. In total, I’ve identified just seventeen rabbis, from the whole of Jewish history, who were stripped of their status. I’ve found a 21st-century rabbi who lost his title for stealing Torah scrolls, and a 19th-century rabbi who lost his title for the grievous sin of waxing his hair during Sukkot. But by far the most interesting, and least known, was Judah Tillinger.

I pieced together part of his completely-forgotten story from 1920s newspaper archives, and revealed it in a Twitter thread. In summary, I said:

He struggled to find rabbinic employment. Penniless, he converted (or went through the motions of converting) to Christianity at the behest of a kindly Greek Orthodox prelate who who supported him in his poverty.

He then popped up, under the name of Father Stanislaus Tillinger, spreading blood libels in more than a dozen articles for a Jesuit newspaper in Lviv, Ukraine, in 1899. His stories of how Jews used Christian blood for ritual purposes earned him a place as a key prosecution witness at the anti-Semitic trial of Leopold Hilsner, an innocent Jewish man who was framed for the ‘ritual murder’ of two young women.

In 1920, he emigrated to New York and held a series of rabbinic posts in Orthodox shuls throughout the US northeast under the name of Judah Elfenbein. (Astonishingly, while working in a shul in Youngstown Ohio, someone from ‘back home’ recognised him on the street, so he had to flee the city.)

He fled to a job at a shul in the Bronx, but rumours about his past soon began circulating in the kosher delis of Second Avenue, and eventually he was outed, and summoned to a public disciplinary hearing of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis.

A journalist present at the 1923 hearing later wrote that “Tillinger-Elfenbein, if not mad, is a case for the Freudians”.

I posted this Twitter thread the day after I first stumbled across this man’s name. It went viral. It was viewed more than 20,000 times. It was retweeted by academics and rabbis and genealogists and historians. And I can understand why: what a sensational tale (or “breath-halting”, as some of the American newspapers put it).

Very quickly, I began to hear from researchers and journalists around the Jewish world wanting to hear more. Articles about him quickly appeared in several local Jewish papers around the United States, plus a 19-page job in Ami Magazine.

All of this coverage came from the angle, naturally, that Tillinger was guilty as charged.

Unfortunately, it was only after Tablet magazine commissioned me to write a piece on the Tillinger affair that I began to have doubts about whether or not the wild accusations made by the 1920s Yiddish press were true.

He was definitely innocent of the most serious charge, that of having helped to put the innocent Hilsner in prison. The trial records show that conclusively. And while I can’t be certain about the wider allegations, anti-Semitic newspaper articles and the rest of it, I’m fairly confident that they were both false and hysterical. You can read more about my reasoning and my assessment of Tillinger’s personality here.

This blog post is my personal supplement to the Tablet piece. It’s something of a confession, because honestly, I feel really bad.

I rushed in, taking the sensationalist 1920s press coverage at face value, without stopping to think critically. If it was a living person, subjected to outrage by the Jewish Chronicle, I think I would have approached it critically. But for some reason, in this case, I didn’t.

The philosopher Nicholas Griffin once wrote that “a historian is accountable for the reputation of the dead whom they describe, and if they mistakenly or maliciously holds up to posthumous ridicule the character or actions of their subject, they commit an evil action and in addition mislead and poison the public mind”. I worry that this is what my Twitter thread did.

Until I stumbled across the story of Rabbi Tillinger’s hearing in February 1923, in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency archives, he was all but forgotten. I brought him back.

Tillinger spent his life being ‘found’ by people who claimed to recognise him, people who chased him from place to place, people who denied him a moment’s respite – and then, after he was finally at rest, I ‘found’ him, and dug him up, and outed him, and held him up to public obloquy yet again. I gave him a fresh place in the world of the living, but I did so with stories of him that others had written, stories that perhaps don’t reflect who he actually was.

Dibarti dofi: I spoke, and I wrongly damaged his reputation.

Nicholas Griffin always felt that, whenever he ‘discovered’ a new figure from history about whom to write, his consciousness “seems to function for a time as a surrogate home for the revitalised nature of a being who once lived”.

That puts it perfectly.

I feel a deep connection with Rabbi Tillinger. This partly comes from the fact that I identify somewhat with his story: I too was refused entry to rabbinic college (before re-applying, successfully, two years later) and felt deeply rejected. I too have been the victim of Jewish communal bullying, hysteria and hatred. I too have been labelled as the enemy, and the target of slanderous campaigns.

But what Tillinger suffered was, of course, on a different level altogether.

The true basis for my deep concern with Tillinger arises because it was my research that rescued him from historical obscurity. It was me who gave him a place in the modern world. I feel almost parental towards him now: as Griffin says, a like surrogate. This feeling is so strong that, when I eventually found out how and when he died (a very impressive online researcher found his coronial records: he died alone, in poverty, in a shack outside Rio de Janeiro, the only place he could find safety and solace) I shed a genuine tear.

I hope, now, that my Tablet article has at least given Rabbi Judah Tillinger-Elfenbein a fair(er) hearing, and that the amazing life of this adventurous, hopeful, hopeless man can re-enter the historical record with some of the dignity that he deserves.

Zichrono livrachah, may his memory be a blessing.

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