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Jews: The Lost Leader

4 minute read

“A man who has no wife lives without joy, blessing and good,” says the Talmud. Amram Blau might also add: “But be careful of the wife you pick.” A 65-year-old widowed Reb, or teacher, and 50 times a grandfather, Blau has been forced to surrender leadership of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox sect known as the Neturei Karta (Guardians of the City) for the scandal and sin of marrying shy, devout Ruth Ben-David, 45, who is not only a divorced woman but a convert from Catholicism as well.

For more than 40 years, Reb Blau has been revered by his followers in the sect for his spiritual zeal against the impieties of the age. Time and again he was jailed for trying to halt traffic in Jerusalem’s main streets on the Sabbath. Blau even refused to recognize the existence of Israel, on the ground that only the Messiah could restore the Promised Land; he never handled Israeli money or submitted the fiery pamphlets he edited to government censorship.

Resistance Fighter. Two years ago, when Reb Blau’s first wife Hinda died, some of the steam went out of the old man’s protests. Eventually, some of Blau’s disciples decided that what he needed was female companionship. A shadchan (marriage broker) knew just the woman—Ruth Ben-David. Her original name was Madeleine Feraille. Born in Calais and Sorbonne-educated, she helped save the lives of several Jews while fighting with the French Resistance during World War II, and became interested in Judaism. Later she converted to Orthodox Judaism, divorced her merchant husband, changed her name, and moved to Jerusalem.

It was there, last year, at a brief, carefully chaperoned meeting, that Ruth met Reb Blau. Apparently, it was love at first sight. Ruth shyly told the shadchan: “I’d be greatly honored if he would accept me as his wife.” Blau himself was all for it, but when news of their betrothal got out, members of the Neturei Karta were horrified that he should even think of marrying a shikse (Gentile), even if she was a convert who shaved her head and kept it covered in anticipation of the marriage.*

Orthodox women began to picket the Reb’s house, shouting “Whore-lover!” and demanding to know why their daughters were not good enough for him. Summoned before the sect’s religious court, Blau refused to abandon Ruth because his vow of betrothal to her could not be broken without her consent—something she would never give. Blau also raised a canny theological argument. His sexual organs, he explained, had been injured slightly by shrapnel during the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. Yet the law (Deuteronomy 23:2) says that no one who is “crushed or maimed in his privy parts” can marry within the congregation. This meant that he was barred from marrying a Jewess. But, added Blau triumphantly, there was no reason, according to rabbinical commentaries, why he could not wed a convert. “And God,” he said proudly, “has sent me a convert.”

Righteous Man. Unimpressed by this elaborate reasoning, the judges of the court ordered Blau to break off with Ruth. Instead, he quietly packed his few belongings and, despite his vow never to leave the holy city, fled to the safety of a more tolerant Orthodox community near Tel Aviv. There, last week, he and Ruth were married.

Blau has said that he will never return to Jerusalem. It is just as well, since a majority of the Neturei Karta bitterly condemns him as a social outcast. But while other elders of the sect are squabbling to see who will replace the lost leader, a loyal handful of Blau’s followers pray silently for his return. “In the Talmud,” says one, “it is written that a city can breathe only through its righteous man. Now that Amram has left Jerusalem, I cannot sleep at night, for the city is no longer safe.”

*Female hair supposedly has an erotic effect on men, so pious Orthodox wives traditionally shave their heads and wear kerchiefs or wigs.

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