Who stole my Bible? That was the question that struck Yehudi Felman after he entered his Brooklyn synagogue on a recent Sunday for morning prayers.
After services ended Saturday afternoon, Felman, a Brooklyn dermatologist and Jewish scholar, left his usual eclectic collection of religious books and Torah commentaries in his personal book box underneath his seat at the Flatbush Minyan, an Orthodox congregation in the heart of Flatbush.
But on Sunday morning Felman, a longtime neighborhood resident and a graduate of Yeshiva University, discovered his book box had been tampered with.
There was only one book missing: His bright red copy of Etz Chaim, the highly publicized new Torah and commentary published by the Conservative movement.
But this Brooklyn mystery did not need the detective skills of a Rabbi David Small. It wasn’t the butler who did it: it was the synagogue president, under direction of Flatbush Minyan Rabbi Meir Fund.
Felman says when he inquired about his missing Bible, shul president Harry Klenosky admitted he had removed it from the book box Saturday night and taken it home.
When Felman confronted Rabbi Fund, "he responded that bringing a Conservative Torah commentary into an Orthodox synagogue is, in his eyes, like bringing a New Testament into the synagogue": a charge the rabbi denied, along with other particulars of the incident.
Felman says his rabbi banned the Conservative Bible explaining that he believes it denies that the Exodus story ever happened.
"You can’t expect me to allow a book in shul that says something contrary to the First Commandment" (which requires Jews to believe that God took them out of Egypt) Felman quoted Rabbi Fund as saying.
Felman says he tried to explain that the essay merely says that no archaeological evidence exists about the Exodus, but to no avail.
The Bible was returned to Felman several hours later on Jan 5, "on the condition that I never bring it into the synagogue again," Felman says. "As a Modern Orthodox Jew and a graduate of Yeshiva University. I am ashamed of this intolerance."
The incident, coming on the heels of the aborted tour promoting a book by a Reform and fervently Orthodox rabbi, highlights the widening gulf between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities, and even within Orthodoxy itself as it is has moved to the right. And ironically, it is being played out in the shul of rabbi with a reputation for being among the more tolerant and pluralistic of Orthodox rabbis.
The story has taken on a life of its own, after an angry Felman posted his version on several Jewish Web sites, evoking dozens of responses nationwide from rabbis and lay people of all Jewish streams.
Felman described the incident in a letter to The Jewish Week the same week that Mitch Morrison, a writer living in Passaic, N.J., described in a letter to the newspaper how an Orthodox rabbi in Passaic, after extending his condolences to the family of a deceased man who "gave generously to yeshivot and Jewish charities," left before the funeral began because it was held in a Reform temple.
Such conduct, Morrison wrote, "leaves me, a lifelong Orthodox Jew, mourning … for an Orthodoxy once imbued in civility and community, not outright hostility and isolationism."
In Felman’s case, he said he "considered it stealing when someone takes your book and takes it home without your permission. This was an abuse of rabbinical power," he said.
Felman says he was particularly shocked that Rabbi Fund is "censoring" his book, considering the rabbi’s reputation of being tolerant to different points of views, and his history of teaching Jewish studies classes and giving lectures at non-Orthodox synagogues and institutions, such as the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, and the 92d Street Y.
Indeed, Rabbi Fund made his reputation years ago for reaching out to non-observant Jews and guiding them into Orthodoxy.
"I think this is a symbol where this [Orthodox] community is going," Felman says, referring to increasing levels of intolerance and control. "His shul has become a right-wing Orthodox shul."
For his part, Rabbi Fund disputes Felman’s version of events and defends his own actions, as well as his reputation for tolerance.
Saying he has known Felman for 30 years, Rabbi Fund called him a "narcissistic and attention grabbing" man who disrupts his congregation, loudly discussing the Torah portion of the week with his tablemates.
"He was using the Conservative book as a springboard for the disruptive behavior," Rabbi Fund said. "He portrays himself as victim. It’s really we who are the victim."
Rabbi Fund said there are people in his congregation who "do not wish to be exposed" to the views in Etz Chaim, and it his responsibility under Jewish law to prohibit heretical texts from his synagogue.
He compared what Felman did (discussing Etz Chaim in his shul) with an Orthodox Jew entering Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (the Gay and Lesbian synagogue) and discussing the verse from Leviticus condemning homosexuality.
In discussing the Etz Chaim edition, which Rabbi Fund said he had "perused," he said that, "clearly parts of it are at variance with fundamental Jewish beliefs of Orthodox Judaism that puts it outside the pale," citing the Exodus essay and the expansive theological approach to divine authorship of Scripture.
"I do not believe a Jew has much of a Jewish future if he cuts himself off from the divine origin and authorship of the Torah, and therefore any book that expresses that doesn’t belong in any synagogue," he said. "In my opinion," he added, "it doesn’t belong in the Conservative synagogue either."
Rabbi Fund stressed several times that "I don’t believe what I’m doing here is different than what any Orthodox rabbi would do."
He strongly denied comparing Etz Chaim to the New Testament, which Felman claims was made publicly in earshot of several congregants, and the rabbi insisted he directed the shul president to take the book Saturday night in order to avoid causing Felman embarrassment. "It was not confiscated," Rabbi Fund argued. "I wanted to spare him any kind of public confrontation."
Synagogue President Klenosky did not return phone calls.
Meanwhile, the incident has generated much reaction in the Jewish community, with many respondents to Felman’s Internet postings and letter writing criticizing Rabbi Fund for taking the book.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement, said he was "appalled" by the incident.
Orthodox Rabbi Marc Angel, responding to a letter from Felman, stated that while he has theological problems with Etz Chaim, "We would certainly not prohibit anyone from bringing into the synagogue for personal study. Nor would we confiscate it."
Rabbi Saul Berman, founder of Edah, whose slogan is the courage to modern and Orthodox, told The Jewish Week he defended Felman’s right to bring the Etz Chaim text to shul.
"I think that any educated Jew has the right and responsibility to read as broadly as possible in order to refine the nature of his own convictions, even in shul," he said. "Absolutely he should be entitled to bring that chumash into the shul.
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- David Small
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- Flatbush Minyan Rabbi Meir Fund