I greedily read with a lump in my throat (not to mention a certain frisson of fascination) about the trial of Rabbi Fred Neulander of Cherry Hill, N.J., who is accused of having his wife killed in order to carry on with the host of a radio talk show in Philadelphia. At least this murder is not about random revenge, the jealousy of an entire civilization or rage at another’s nationality or religion. It is not beyond our grasp. Getting rid of the inconvenient wife is, like war, a story as old as time. It is only the husband’s profession in this case that makes it news in the man-bites-dog sense. Is the hired killer lying? Is the rabbi merely a philanderer and not a murderer? The presumption of innocence is a worthy part of our legal system, but it doesn’t stop us from making assumptions-and I am assuming that, at the very minimum, this rabbi is the husband from hell. But at least he isn’t a terrorist bent on spilling smallpox into our milk.
It is said that Rabbi Neulander was a charismatic leader of his congregation. Charisma requires a certain hubris, a certain love of the limelight, a kind of manic energy and a sense of one’s self as special that can sometimes tempt a person across the line of human decency. Many middle-class killers have great smiles.
I admit I’m surprised that a religious leader could be such a cad-and probably a murderous one at that. More sophisticated friends have laughed at my naïve expectation that he should be a good man simply because he’s a rabbi. But just because he went to rabbinical school and learned how to marry and bury and comfort the sick and knows how to read Hebrew and can find his place in the Torah and knows when to open the arc and when to sit down does not mean that he knows that his wife should not die, as I imagine her, on the rug she bought at a New Jersey outlet store at an amazing discount. Maybe I was fooled by the fact that the Hasidic branches of Judaism have rabbis who become revered like saints and found holy dynasties that last for a hundred years. I guess I thought that all rabbis were in the mold of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King. You’d think I hadn’t read The Scarlet Letter or Elmer Gantry or known of errant priests and fallen televangelists with their hands in the pockets of the born again and many-times-fleeced.
They serve kosher food in jail for a reason. There are souls behind bars who won’t mix meat with dairy but who have cheated, stolen and probably murdered. Religious behavior has nothing to do with purity of soul, obedience to the Ten Commandments, love and respect for others. George Bush, are you hearing me? Still, one likes to think that serving as a religious leader would at least reduce one’s chances of being a rapist or paying someone to kill your wife when she becomes a burden.
These days, the mixture of religion and murder seems especially significant. When the spiritual leader of a community appears to have offed his bride, we can try to puzzle out the murderer’s human failure. We can recognize his sin in our own nasty thoughts, dramas and movies. None of us are beyond imagining murder. This case is a welcome diversion, because when we think of those fellows putting anthrax into envelopes, we cannot fathom our common humanity. We cannot picture them playing ball or flying a kite or learning to use the potty. We cannot understand what drives them. We do not have the vocabulary to describe or the ability to truly understand this kind of mass killer, the anonymous murderer who hates us for what we represent. The terrorist is neither mad nor without conscience. His pathology is that of a large group whose interests he serves. He isn’t really a madman or a sociopath. He is a soldier in the army of his people who behaves like a madman or a sociopath from our point of view, but from another vantage point is seen as a battlefield hero. Let’s hope we never see the world as they do. Can you imagine a TV series called Band of Brothers about suicide bombers broadcast every Sunday night years after the fall of Israel and the defeat of the West? Can you imagine the stoning of adulterers in Shea Stadium and the closing of university doors to women, or the cover of Vogue showing simply a pair of eyes in a veiled face? No wonder I’d rather read about the rabbi and his girlfriend.
Since divorce is permitted to rabbis and no longer causes such a scandal in the Jewish community, one wonders why Rabbi Neulander did not simply leave his wife, hire a lawyer and enjoy the rest of his days frolicking on the Jersey Shore with this sweetie or the other women who might have followed? The answer has to be that he didn’t want to make the financial sacrifice that a divorce would have required, or that he couldn’t face the public failure of his marriage because he thought of himself as perfect. It is also possible that he hated his wife and wanted to remove from the world her breath, her footprints, her presence. He might have needed her to die. Years of a bad marriage can do that. We don’t know how she made him feel-small, short, rotten?
I am not defending him. There are no meannesses in marriage that justify murder. It’s all right to tear up the wedding album or to hire the fiercest lawyer you can find, but to hire a killer crosses the line into the lurid light of tabloid fever. Our legal system has such a limited definition of madness-the inability to distinguish right from wrong-that we will never know if this man is missing a piece of his head or his heart.
Nor will we know whether this rabbi was a lifetime fraud or a believer in God who lost control of his soul when lust and pride overthrew the more common virtues of the more common man. Of course, such questions do not really matter today. The rabbi will be forgotten with the turn of the page. We are reminded that holy men are not always holy, and that God would do better to remove the middlemen and speak for Himself. Biochemical fears are upon us now, and our individual failures, our sins and our virtues, will neither save us nor kill us. Our bodies are caught in a new political swamp, one crawling with dangerous creatures that threaten to turn us all into faceless, powerless victims of people who cannot truly hate us because they do not know us.