Opinion // An Abuse of Sacred Trust
What happens when rabbis prey on people’s need for holiness?
by Naomi Ragen
The wave broke slowly. First, one woman from a close-knit National Religious community in Safed approached the town’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Eliyahu, son of Israel’s former Sephardic chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, describing how the charismatic rabbinical head of her community, a man credited with “magical powers,” had raped her. Over the next month, more than ten women came forward. Their stories were shockingly similar: When they sought rabbinical counseling on marital and fertility issues, their rabbi/counselor advised them to submit to sexual acts with him.
Picked up by police on his way to Brazil, “the rabbi from the North”—as he was known before the courts released his name to the public—turned out to be Rabbi Ezra Scheinberg, the highly respected National Religious founder of the Orot HaAri community in Safed, which encompasses a pre-army program, yeshiva, Orthodox religious services, kindergartens and nurseries, much of it government funded. Its members were educated moderates and IDF veterans. With chilling calm, the cornered Rabbi Scheinberg told the police that yes, he had indeed slept with the wives of his students, but it was all “consensual.” The police disagreed, charging him with “rape by deception.”
There have been similar shocks after other revelations of sexual abuse by prominent rabbis and teachers—Moti Elon, once one of Israel’s foremost National Religious teachers of Torah to the masses, convicted of sexually abusing a yeshiva boy, and Rabbi Barry Freundel, longtime rabbi of the influential Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, caught videotaping women in the mikvah. Unlike Scheinberg, however, neither man claimed magical powers.
It’s this added twist that forces us to confront what can happen when evil is intimately bound up with what is most holy—particularly in an environment where, as in Israel, religious authorities benefit from government support and monopoly status that gives them nearly untrammeled control over believers’ lives.
The most shocking case of criminal rabbis’ claiming supernatural powers was in 2008, when a charismatic, self-styled mekubal or kabbalist named Elior Chen and four of his hasidim were accused of Israel’s worst case of child abuse, which left the youngest victim, a three-year-old boy, with irreversible brain damage. Newspapers exhibited front-page photos of spiral heaters, hammers, knives, alcohol and other materials used as instruments of torture on the child and his seven siblings in the guise of kabbalistic tikkunim, or rituals. All of this was done with the knowledge and full support of the brainwashed mother—who later turned state’s evidence—after the “rabbi” had banished the father and arranged for a quickie divorce to facilitate his sexual advances toward her.
Early on, this case struck a chord with me. I realized this was not an isolated incident but an indication of the unchecked power and influence of such mystics. I wound up writing an entire novel on the subject of the predators who lurk around the watering holes of holiness, calling it Devil in Jerusalem. I meant the title to be metaphoric: In the midst of the holy resides the purest of evil.
As a religious person, I have always found this truth difficult to accept. How can it be that religious Jews—whose entire raison d’être is supposed to be kindness, charity, purity and goodness—harbor wife and child abusers? Rapists? Pedophiles? More importantly, how can such people reach positions of leadership? And how can it be that people seeking holiness would be naïve enough to fall prey to them?
After diligent research, I realized that at their core, the criminals in the rabbinic fold were nothing more than psychopathic manipulators who used religion as a cover. The same kind of people were to be found among Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Hare Krishna and countless other sects. What they all shared were the mind-control techniques that are at the core of every cult, that reduce victims to robots willing to commit almost any atrocity. And the victims? They were normal people at vulnerable points in their lives who thought they were joining like-minded seekers of holiness. It could happen to anyone.
Now, eight years after the Chen case, the Scheinberg case is horrifying evidence that this variety of black magic, once relegated to the backwaters of fanatic enclaves in Meah Shearim such as Shuvu Banim—whose leader, Rabbi Eliezer Berland, is also on the run for sexually abusing young women enamored of his mystical powers—has jumped the firewall, infecting the mainstream of Israel’s modern Orthodoxy.
Given that Israel has no separation between church and state, this is particularly dangerous to the entire fabric of Israeli society. Scheinberg’s institutions are subsidized by taxpayers, and Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu also receives a government paycheck. Although Rabbi Eliyahu did turn Scheinberg in to police, he was recently quoted in Israel Today as saying, “Despite the allegations against [Scheinberg], it doesn’t take away the ability he was blessed with ‘to see the hidden.’”
The true danger of such irrational thinking goes way beyond politics, poisoning the very heart of the Jewish religion. As Shmarya Rosenberg, the well-known blogger at FailedMessiah.com who has been documenting crimes within the religious community for decades, points out:
“Jewish belief is based on a mesora, on tradition handed down from father to son, teacher to pupil, from Mount Sinai until today. But a mesora is based on trust, on the honesty and credibility of the fathers and teachers who pass it down…all those criminal convictions, indictments, investigations, abuse cover-ups and the like have real impact—they destroy the mesora, break the links in the chain, so to speak, that once bound us. If today’s rabbis lie to us, why not Rashi? Why not Moses?”
To those of us who love God and the Torah, every revelation of yet another atrocity committed in the name of both smashes what is left of our lingering trust, leaving us wary and leaderless.
Naomi Ragen is a novelist living in Jerusalem. Her tenth novel, Devil in Jerusalem, is out this month.