Opinion // Rip-Off Rabbis and Sacred Scammers
Several high-profile Israeli rabbis have come under fire for less-than-holy schemes.
By Naomi Ragen
On November 17, 2013, to the disgust and embarrassment of Jews all over the world—but particularly religious Jews in Israel—Israeli police arrested the former chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger. The former occupant of the highest official rabbinic office of the land and also a dayan, or judge, on the Rabbinical Supreme Court, Metzger was accused of receiving bribes, money laundering and fraud amounting to millions of shekels. He is accused not only of pocketing money earmarked for charity, but also of accepting bribes to forge or falsely sign religious documents.
What I personally found most disturbing was the allegation that four and a half years ago, when Metzger surprisingly supported the outrageous cancelling of hundreds of conversion certificates issued by a religious panel headed by Rabbi Chaim Druckman—thus, as Haaretz reporter Yair Ettinger put it, “spitting in the face of the government system, [and] sucking up to his Lithuanian haredi patrons who were waging an all-out war against rabbis suspected as Zionist”—his real motive was outright greed. As Ettinger wrote: “While loftily joining the choir of haredi black hats who claimed Druckman’s conversions were unacceptable because they did not require taking on all religious commandments, he was secretly involved in a system of issuing conversion documents, propelled mainly by cash flowing into his pocket.”
The disgraceful spectacle of rabbis using their position to acquire riches is not new. Before the Metzger allegations, there were the Sephardic “wonder-working” kabbalists, who give out advice, blessings and amulets while attending their followers’ family events, and who collect sums for these and other services so mind-boggling that several of them were featured on a 2012 Forbes list of the 10 richest rabbis in Israel.
Heading the list was Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira, worth an eye-opening $356 million. Several other family members also made the list, all direct descendants of the revered Baba Sali, who died in 1984. Uncle Yekutiel Abuhatzeira is worth more than $7 million. Their cousin, rabbi and kabbalist Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, is No. 7 on the list. He has also been the subject of a police investigation for allegedly questionable financial conduct and real estate deals.
Two members of the Ifargan family also made it onto the Forbes list with a combined worth of $30 million: Rabbi Yaakov Israel Ifargan (No. 5), known as the “X-ray rabbi” for his supposed superpowers of divining and healing illnesses and providing impeccable advice and blessings, and his sister Rebbetzin Bruria Zvuluni (No. 10), known as the “CT” (as in scan).
Like Pinto, Ifargan advised some of Israel’s most important businessmen and politicians—for a fee. These included Nochi Dankner, who was—until his spectacular recent reversals—chairman of the IDB group responsible for about 5 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product. Dankner was once ranked as the third most influential person in the economy, behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. In a 2010 film, Dankner spoke of his long relationship with Rabbi Ifargan, attesting to the rabbi’s “abilities in areas that certain people think incomprehensible or difficult to explain, but for many others, they seem natural, what they call the supernatural.”
In recent municipal elections held in Netivot, hometown to the Ifargans and Abuhatzeiras, scandal raised its head again when another charismatic “wonder worker,” Rabbi Yoram Abergel (worth $9 million), was apprehended at the airport on his way to China. He was accused of having played a part in suspected mobster Shalom Domrani’s alleged extortion and intimidation campaign against supporters of a rival mayoral candidate. (One such supporter and alleged target was Ifargan, the X-ray rabbi.)
Like the recent elections, which ousted religious deal-makers, the recent tsunami of rabbinic scandals has shaken up even the most fervent believers, paving the way for much-needed reflection and reform among Israel’s most religious citizens. I saw concrete proof of this just the other day during a chance stroll along the old cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem’s Knesset Israel neighborhood, directly across the street from Mahane Yehuda’s bustling shuk.
Joining old women in colorful Sephardic headdresses, long-skirted English-speaking Breslover adherents and black-coated haredim, I wandered past the century-old homes, stopping to read the wall posters. One outdated poster read: “Issued by the Beit Din Tzedek Haredi Sephardi [a religious court]. It is completely forbidden for men or women to participate in elections which are connected to many sins and forbidden acts, all of which are outlawed by earlier sages.” But the admonition that struck me most was a handwritten poster hanging outside a modest house in the area, which proclaimed: “All the blessings you are seeking, all the success, healing, income, marriage partners, everything you could want in life rests with God alone, and not with any earthly man. Pray to Him alone.”
I took this to mean that, as I was taught many years ago in the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Long Island where I spent grades 1-12, any intermediaries between ourselves and God are idolatrists and should be avoided. And this includes kabbalist wonder workers.
This advice might come a little late for some adherents to wonder workers. Dankner, for instance, might want to rethink all that advice he got from Ifargan. This December, by order of the Tel Aviv District Court, he lost control of his IDB holdings—which include corporate giants Cellcom and the Supersol chain—following debts that had reached $486 million to bondholders and $300 million to banks.
Perhaps Rav Ifargan will give him a refund, or at least offer more advice, this time free of charge? Dankner is going to need it. For in addition to his corporate woes, he now faces personal bankruptcy to the tune of one billion shekels, which will likely leave him homeless and penniless.
Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Jerusalem.