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The Antisemitic Rabbi Who Became a Priest

Well, maybe

Gabriel Kanter-Webber
September 30, 2021
'Forverts,' Feb. 26, 1923
Rabbi Judah Elfenbein‘Forverts,’ Feb. 26, 1923
'Forverts,' Feb. 26, 1923
Rabbi Judah Elfenbein‘Forverts,’ Feb. 26, 1923

“Rabbi puts head through glass door and disappears,” reads a 1923 headline. The news story that followed, which took place in New York City on Feb. 19 of that year, is the one fixed point in the life story of Rabbi Judah Elfenbein. His life before that day is shrouded in mystery and befuddled by conflicting accounts. His life after that day is equally mysterious.

The glass door in question was the exit route from a disciplinary hearing held in New York City by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of Canada. Elfenbein was charged with being none other than Father Stanislaus Tillinger, a Greek Orthodox priest who had testified in an Austrian court that Jews use Christian blood to make matzo, and subsequently sent an innocent man to prison. Universally dubbed the ‘rav m’shumad’ (“apostate rabbi”) by the Yiddish media, Elfenbein tearfully confessed and swore never again to work as a rabbi.

“This is the most contemptible, the most despicable creature on God’s earth,” wrote Rabbi Dr. Mendel Silber of the New Orleans Jewish Ledger. “His unmasking,” confidently proclaimed the Oakland Tribune, “aroused more attention among followers of the Jewish faith throughout the world than any other single happening of the last four centuries.”

Why, then, have few people ever heard of him? The last time Tillinger’s name appeared in print was in 1929. He doesn’t feature in a single book, nor a single journal article. By coincidence, earlier this year the Yiddish magazine Der Gluck featured this story, but it’s fair to say that Tillinger has all but entirely dropped out of Jewish history.

Feb. 19, 1923. The hall of a synagogue in New York City. Ten rabbis, solemnly dressed in black, sit behind a long table. In one half of the room, a queue of witnesses; at the back, a gaggle of journalists; in the other half, an empty chair. The subject of this conclave, Judah Elfenbein, rabbi of the Jacob H. Schiff Center in the Bronx, has not appeared. But the hearing goes ahead regardless.

The star witness before this special beit din session was Gershon Bader, a journalist who identified Rabbi Elfenbein as a man called Judah Tillinger whom he’d known “back home” in Chernivtsi, Galicia. According to Bader, Tillinger had grown up Jewish, but only passed his high school exams with the help of the local Greek Orthodox Archbishop Vladimir de Repta. He traveled to Vienna, where he began training for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Institute. His classmates included Moses Schorr, who was later to become chief rabbi of Warsaw. But then, suddenly, in 1899 or 1900, he got himself baptized—possibly as a token of gratitude toward Archbishop Repta—and changed his name to Stanislaus. He also, continued Bader, wrote about a dozen hideously antisemitic articles for a Jesuit newspaper called Przedświt. These articles, written by “a former rabbi,” propagated the age-old blood libel, and had a far-reaching impact, influencing the trial of Leopold Hilsner.

The mention of Leopold Hilsner must have caused a collective intake of breath in the hearing room. Hilsner was a Jewish man in Polná, Bohemia, who had been unjustly imprisoned for 19 years for the so-called ritual murder of two Christian women in 1899. Other witnesses testified that Tillinger himself had given live evidence at Hilsner’s trial.

But the shock at the mention of Hilsner was nothing compared to the one that happened just a few minutes later when the door creaked open. In walked a heavily built, heavily bearded man of middle age. “That’s him!” spectators hissed. “That’s Tillinger! That’s Elfenbein!” A press photographer tried to take his picture, and the new arrival, startled, tried to hide his face, inadvertently smashing the glass panel in the door and cutting his head.

After he calmed down and was helped into a seat, the man was asked to confirm his identity—either of his identities—but he would not. He simply sat in the courtroom, looking into space and listening as the hearing went on around him, declining to answer any questions, refusing to admit or deny any of the charges.

In due course, the panel of rabbis announced that proceedings would pause for mincha. They led the entire room in afternoon prayers. “Forgive us, our Creator, for we have sinned; pardon us, our Sovereign, for we have done wrong.”

Some of those present began muttering that this would be an ideal opportunity for the man to confess. And, sure enough, with a trembling hand, he picked up his pen and wrote: “I testify and confirm that I am not deserving of being a servant of the sacred profession. I pledge myself never to accept a religious position either as rabbi or teacher in a religious school, on account of being unfitted by the deeds of my youth, which are widely and generally known. Signed, Judah Elfenbein, formerly Tillinger.”

Someone who had been looking over his shoulder whispered the contents of the confession to their neighbor. They whispered it to theirs. Quickly, as the revelation spread, a tumultuous din swept the room. A kind soul led Tillinger out of a side door—on his way, he told a journalist that he was going to go “where nobody could find him”—and that was the end of the hearing.

What happened next is not entirely clear. Tillinger gained an Elvis-like notoriety, and while many assumed he’d committed suicide, there were speculative “sightings” of him from time to time in the following months.

In May 1923, a dishwasher at a café in Oakland, California, was thought to resemble him. When interviewed by the marvelously named Rabbi Rudolph Coffee, he claimed to be uneducated, but, apparently, “occasionally would forget himself and would let fall veritable pearls of wisdom from the Talmud.”

Two months later, the Jewish Ledger claimed to have found him attending Presbyterian services in New Orleans, waiting for approval on a Brazilian visa so that he could take up a rabbinical post in South America and blaming his downfall in New York on “atheists and bolshevists.” (Rabbi Silber sternly reminded him, “The Union of Orthodox Rabbis represents the very antithesis of atheism and bolshevism.”)

Seemingly for no reason other than to befuddle historians, Die Neue Welt, an Austrian Jewish newspaper, published two completely contradictory articles at the start of 1929. The first claimed that Tillinger had told its journalists he had been beaten to within an inch of his life by a group of New York Jews after being manhandled into a candlelit room for a “trial” and spent nine months recovering in hospital. He then wandered in Cuba and Mexico but was tracked throughout his travels by vengeful Jews, so he fled back to Europe to spend his final days living quietly with his sister. This story was quickly followed with an article written by Tillinger’s solicitor, unequivocally denying the previous story and insisting that he had in fact been living in Panama at that time, working at the National Library there on a history of Purim.

He briefly returned to Europe in the late 1920s, still protesting his innocence and still failing to find a community that would accept him as rabbi. Even after he began using the name Judah Steiner, he could not remain in any one place for long before being recognised and, according to one account in Forverts, “all but lynched by angry congregants”.Tillinger’s final destination was, of all places, the staff of the Brazilian Senate, where he spent a number of years as head librarian, before dying alone, desperately poor, in a shack outside Rio de Janeiro, aged 70.

These conflicting articles speak to a larger truth about Tillinger’s story. Upon closer examination of the historical record, one thing—and only one—is clear, which is that confusion and contradiction are the hallmarks of every single account of the rabbi-priest.

‘The Jewish Press,’ March 1, 1923

Dozens of journalists sought to piece together details of his early life, but none of the historical accounts are consistent. Some say he left rabbinical school voluntarily, others say that he was expelled for “immoralities,” which are never specified. Some say that he was a Catholic priest, others that he was a Greek Orthodox priest, one that he started out Catholic before switching to Greek Orthodox as a way of explaining the fact that he was married, another that there was no proof he was ever a priest at all. Maybe his son paid for his passage to America, or maybe a Galician Jewish charity put the funds together.

There is a general consensus about a few things: Most sources agree that he came from a devout, but poor, Hasidic family in the tiny village of Zabloto and attended school in Vienna, where his classmates looked down on him for his inferior clothes and pauper’s mannerisms. He seems to have been married to the daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant and to have had four children, before divorcing her and disappearing. It seems clear that he spent time working as a schoolteacher; one article claims that he taught Hebrew to students in a Greek Orthodox seminary. There is some suggestion that his family refused to take him back after his exploits.

But the most serious, and most widely known, charges against him do not relate to his time as a Christian priest, but to antisemitism and blood libel and his testimony in the Hilsner trial.

Yet Hillel Kieval, a professor of Jewish history at Washington University in St. Louis, tells me that the allegation about the Hilsner trial just isn’t true. Neither Tillinger, nor Elfenbein, nor any articles authored by anybody with such a name, appear anywhere in the court records. (Some of the press suggested that Tillinger’s articles were used by the prosecution in the similar ritual murder trial of Mendel Beilis in 1913, but Beilis’ grandson got in touch with me to point out that, again, this is not reflected in the transcript.)

In fact, a Catholic newspaper called The Tablet (no relation) did an investigation at the time and found no antisemitic articles by Tillinger whatsoever (and for that matter, no record that he had ever been ordained as a priest).

After my own extensive searching, I found a grand total of one possibly offensive piece by Tillinger. Written in Polish in 1901, during his Christian phase, it doesn’t refer to ritual murder or blood libels at all. The worst it does is describe Jews as “mistaken believers” who stubbornly persist in rejecting, and in using scripture and Talmud to seek to persuade others to reject, Jesus as the messiah. This is hardly serious antisemitism, if it could even be called antisemitism at all.

Not only is there little hard evidence of Tillinger having done anything really wrong, there is in fact considerable evidence that he was a good rabbi (and he certainly appears to have had a legitimate semicha, rabbinic ordination). Teaching Hebrew in a Christian seminary, helping to make Jewish texts accessible to priests, is no bad thing. Article after article in the secular press acknowledged his scholarship and eloquence and conversational skills. He was a passionate anti-racist, and the Buffalo Times praised him for helping to rid the city of the Ku Klux Klan. Articles were uncovered in a Polish newspaper in which he had compared the various sorts of prejudice faced by Jews to those faced by the Chinese.

But despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of true historical evidence, Tillinger dealt with all sorts of extreme allegations. At the hearing in New York, a witness speculated that Tillinger was responsible for much of the antisemitic content in the Detroit Dearborn Independent, his reason being that Detroit is fairly close to Youngstown, Ohio, where Tillinger had served as a rabbi. (In fact, it is over 200 miles away.)

Journalists relentlessly pursued Tillinger, following him home and door-stepping him at his synagogue until he was forced to call the police. People who claimed to have known him in the old country were shipped over in order to “recognize” him in his new life. He was forced to leave his job in Youngstown after being outed and accused of consorting with Christian missionaries. His classmates from the Vienna seminary fell over themselves to give lengthy interviews to the press, telling journalists that they’d always suspected he was too dim to have passed his high school exams without help from the Church. Claims began circulating that he had attempted to blackmail a Czech newspaper editor into campaigning for him to be readmitted to rabbinical college, and that he kept special worn-out, raggedy clothes in the seminary attic in order to go out begging at night.

The press coverage had all the elements of a moral panic, with Tillinger as the target for Jewish communal anger which had no other outlet. The real villains—the antisemitic government officials who allowed things like blood libel trials—were beyond the reach of the American rabbinate. Tillinger wasn’t.

So what actually happened? We don’t know, but this is my theory:

Tillinger was a deeply troubled individual. He found it difficult to settle in any one place, and he suffered from the twin character traits of a victim complex and an inability to let go of past slights, real or imagined. His obsessive claims that the Jewish communal infrastructure was “out to get him,” and constant legal threats, are typical of a disturbed mind; as far back as 1900, an Austrian newspaper expressed concern that Tillinger was unstable, and liable to be manipulated by antisemites seeking to take advantage of his grievances against the Jewish community.

That said, some of his grievances are understandable. His classmates at seminary seem to have looked down on him for his poor, rural background, and they certainly rushed to denounce him to the press at the first opportunity (perhaps their rabbinical training hadn’t included the ethics of talebearing). He was denied work in Berlin because as an Austrian citizen he needed a work permit. He blamed its refusal, in turn, on the Berlin police, the Austrian Embassy, and, finally, on Berlin’s senior rabbi, Dr. Sigmund Maybaum, about whose alleged lack of support Tillinger seems to have had a particular fixation.

So, through a combination of his own personality flaws and communal snobbishness, he never managed to find a place for himself in any of the great centers of European Jewry. His antipathy toward the Jewish leaders, who he viewed—somewhat justifiably—as standing between him and his chosen career, and his closeness with the Christian colleagues whom he taught, and with whose religion he, for a time, identified, led to his being labeled an enemy of the Jews.

Either way, he was spiritually homeless in Europe and moved to the United States, hoping for a fresh start. But the Jewish world was too small to give him one. Again and again, he was recognized and hounded and labeled and had to keep moving. The crescendo came when he was hauled into the disciplinary hearing in February 1923, to face censure by yet another communal leadership body. No wonder he was so terrified of his photo being taken: That would have made it impossible for him to find a home anywhere.

Finding no peace in America, and unable to enter any synagogue in his home country without being recognized, he was forced to live the rest of his days quietly and anonymously, doing repetitive work: the very life he’d hoped at age 18 to leave for the rabbinate.

A German monograph called Die flüchtige Hagar (“the fugitive Hagar”) was published in 1910 under the name of Stanislaus Tillinger. This work was an erudite, 34-page close textual reading of Genesis chapter 21, the story of how Sarah cast her handmaid Hagar out into the desert.

It is impossible not to imagine that our Tillinger, when he spoke of Hagar, was also speaking of himself: mistreated on account of low social status, never accepted as a “real” Israelite, rejected by the community, wandering from place to place, finding God in the wilderness.

“Sometimes, one does not understand one’s path in life at all,” he wrote, “and not infrequently believes that one is sailing in the opposite direction to that intended by God. This may have depressed Hagar. Yet we nonetheless find this slave twice in the company of angels, and see her doing things that are right, which do not offend the powers above.”

“All her life,” the monograph concludes, “this socially-inferior, but intellectually-superior, slave will have thought of the place in the wilderness where such inspiring thoughts came to her.”

Gabriel Kanter-Webber is a student rabbi and writer based in London.