Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Vandalism? Please leave Rabbi Illowy's grave alone, thank you.

A friend of mine is researching R. Bernard Illowy (נ"א Bernhard Illoway), so I was poking around for some info about him, and came across this.

It features the precise location of Rabbi Illowy's tomb, as well as a picture of the gravestone, a wonderful service from an important web site:

In the comments I was horrified to read the following -- well intentioned -- exchange:

  • Rabbi J Klein // Jan 22, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    Wow, I have been looking for his kever for many years. It's a shame that its fading away. Do you know what it would cost to replace?

  • 5 Baruch A // Jan 22, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Rabbi Klein:
    Around $5,000.

  • 6 Rabbi J Klein // Feb 16, 2009 at 3:29 am

    A little steep, I'll see what can be done.

It's unbelievable. Apart from the fact that the picture probably does not convey the true state of the tombstone, and in fact seems to have been scanned from a poorly printed photograph, what a terrible, even vulgar idea this is! Sure, why not replace an historically significant monument with a flashy new stone. Who gets to keep the old one? Do they grind it up and make cement with it? I stress that I realize the idea is well intentioned, but I feel like someone with such an inadvertently cavalier attitude would find the Dead Sea Scrolls and make shoes out of them. Maybe Montefiore shouldn't have added rows to the top of the Kotel, he should have just replaced the whole thing. This is like inadvertent Wahhabism:

In 1803 and 1804 the Saudis captured Mecca and Medina and destroyed historical monuments and various holy Muslim sites and shrines, such as the shrine built over the tomb of Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad, and even intended to destroy the grave of Muhammad himself as idolatrous. link

Be that as it may, here are a couple of Illowy items:

His responsa and miscellaneous Hebrew, English and German writings, Hebrew poems, etc. were published by his son Henry (Dr. H. Illoway הק' צבי בן מה"ר יששכר דוב זצ"ל המכונה) in 1914 under the title מלחמות אלהים. It looks like this:

Henry Illoway (he spelled it this way) closes his loving tribute to his father with the following highly interesting note:

I don't know the precise circumstances surrounding the disclaimer, but evidently there were those who accused Rabbi Illowy of using his rabbinic position to enrich himself. Now, I have no idea if he was even wealthy, but of course that wouldn't stop tongues wagging anyway, as they do. I do know that in Harold Scharfman's book about R. Abraham Rice, "The First Rabbi" he reports that in 1861 Illowy's salary at his Baltimore Hebrew Congregation reduced his salary from $1500 to $600; his friends took up a collection and raised an additional $400. It seems that the New Orleans congregation Shanarai-Chasset , pleased with his -- how shall I put this, not anti-slavery position -- offered him the vacant pulpit for $2000, but he declined.

Incidentally, while it is certainly a shame that Rabbi Illowy missed a noble opportunity to condemn slavery, rather than the opposite, it bears clarifying what his position was. Firstly, he was opposed to Washington's approach to the South, and sympathized with the Secessionists. Secondly, he raised the following point about slavery: "Why did not Moses, as it is to been seen from his code, was not in favor of slavery, command the judges in Israel to . . . take forcibly away a slave from a master? . . . Why did Abraham, Ezra, etc., not free slaves? . . . All these are irrefutable proofs that we have no right to exercise violence against . . . institutions even if religious feelings and philanthropic sentiments bid us disapprove of them. It proves, furthermore, that the authors of the many dangers, which threaten our country with ruin and devastation, are not what they pretend to be, the agents of Religion and Philanthropy . . . " (Quoted in pg. 683 of Scharfman; read the full text of the sermon here.)

I will leave it to the reader to judge if this position was evil. Calling his position neutral is charitable. I of course have my own opinion, and am mindful of what Dante felt about moral neutrality:

But I also never lived in Baltimore in 1860.

Finally, an expert explains why tombstones are important: Dr.Leiman's post here. Note: we seem to be in minor disagreement, as he seems unconcerned about the stones per se, as he is about the content. I would preserve both. In any case, I look forward to the fruits of my friend's research.

UPDATE 11.02.09

As I mentioned on Friday, this post needs some updating and clarification.

I received an email from Baruch Amsel, the webmaster of who explained to me that in previous cases when headstones were replaced due to the shabby condition they're in, the old ones were actually lain as footstones rather than discarded or, you know, stolen. An example of such spruced up graves include those of Rabbi Rice of Baltimore. Thus, the commenter was not looking to uproot history but rather to preserve it. I guess I owe an apology for assuming that I was had come across good, but boorish, intentions. Furthermore, the photo is new and the stone really is in bad shape (at least in the judgment of those who've seen it).

Secondly, I have been thinking about whether or not it is fair to have even used the word "evil" in describing the non-abolitionist position of a Baltimore spiritual leader in 1860. While it is true that I noted that I could not place myself in his shoes and guarantee that I'd have taken what I believe was the correct moral choice even then, perhaps I should not have even suggested that the reader should decide if his view was "evil."

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