A recent news story about the wealthiest rabbis Israel raises questions of when rabbinic behavior becomes unacceptable. Even the most tolerant of people recognize that at some point they must object to deviant, borderline criminal, behavior. However you define your red line, there is some person or group who lies beyond it, past the threshold of unacceptability. Engaging in that tricky business of rejection is a necessary part of tolerating those within the bounds. If every group is acceptable, even cults and criminals, then inclusion is meaningless. A little over ten years ago, R. Shlomo Aviner published a collection of his letters against a cult rabbinic figure in the book Bein Or Le-Choshekh: Bein Chakhamim Amitiyim Le-Admorim Mezuyafim. Without naming anyone (in the book), R. Aviner reproduces his attempts to convince adherents that the charismatic leader of a specific religious group is a fraud. Watching R. Aviner walk this tightrope of opposition is a profound lesson in the limits of tolerance.

The Limits of Tolerance

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I. Tolerance and Boundaries

A recent news story about the wealthiest rabbis Israel raises questions of when rabbinic behavior becomes unacceptable. Even the most tolerant of people recognize that at some point they must object to deviant, borderline criminal, behavior. However you define your red line, there is some person or group who lies beyond it, past the threshold of unacceptability. Engaging in that tricky business of rejection is a necessary part of tolerating those within the bounds. If every group is acceptable, even cults and criminals, then inclusion is meaningless.

A little over ten years ago, R. Shlomo Aviner published a collection of his letters against a cult rabbinic figure in the book Bein Or Le-Choshekh: Bein Chakhamim Amitiyim Le-Admorim Mezuyafim. Without naming anyone (in the book), R. Aviner reproduces his attempts to convince adherents that the charismatic leader of a specific religious group is a fraud. Watching R. Aviner walk this tightrope of opposition is a profound lesson in the limits of tolerance.

II. Special Powers

The specific leader claimed paranormal powers, the ability to see into people’s lives, tell the future and communicate with the dead, which he attributed to prophecy and messianic claims. I would have objected that he is merely tricking people but this would probably have proven unsuccessful. R. Aviner, instead, accepted that he performs these amazing feats. However, he argued, it is all irrelevant because it proves nothing.

Paranormal powers are documented among many different people, including those non-religious and non-Jewish. Police investigators sometimes even consult with such seers. This man’s abilities only demonstrate a rare gift, not prophetic power. R. Aviner quotes two incidents of apparent prophets, one from Vilna and the other Kovna, about which R. Chaim Volozhiner testified that the Vilna Gaon denounced as non-prophetic activities (introduction to Sifra De-Tzeni’usa; Keser Rosh, Ma’amarim 6-8). Similarly, a student of R. Tzvi Yehudah Kook was amazed by someone who could tell him intimate details of his private matters. R. Kook dismissed the entire matter.

Additionally, communicating with the dead is halakhically forbidden. R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook was asked by a Romanian rabbi whether he may influence wayward Jews to return to the fold by impressing them through communicating with the dead. R. Kook (Da’as Kohen 29) responded that the ends do not justify the unholy means.

III. Religious Leaders Must Be Torah Scholars

What prompted R. Aviner to speak out publicly against this fraud? R. Aviner witnessed the many people who suffered from his bad advice. Like many rebbes and kabbalists, this man freely offered his advice on a variety of subjects–marital harmony, business ventures, medical problems, and more. However, unlike many such advisors, this man lacked the Torah knowledge to offer religious guidance. Instead, his advice often led to disastrous conclusions, including many destroyed marriages that R. Aviner saw collapse. R. Aviner’s outspoken opposition to this religious fraud was in response to the human damage he witnessed.

R. Aviner repeatedly charges this man with ignorance of Torah. His bluntness is sometimes painful but necessary. You cannot claim the mantle of Torah leadership without excelling in Torah knowledge. Its wisdom can only enter your judgment if you master it. This man was not a Torah scholar, despite his other remarkable abilities. This disqualified him from Torah leadership and certainly from the status of a prophet, for which Torah scholarship is a basic requirement.

His advice was not based on Torah wisdom or any other wisdom. And here we find a tension in R. Aviner’s position. On the one hand, he upholds the guidance of true Torah scholars, who often offer advice on a wide variety of life issues. On the other, he insists that you only obtain medical guidance from doctors and educational advice from educators. You look for a spouse through natural means, not based on kabbalistic concerns. And you never pay for Torah advice. Real rabbis don’t give easy paths to success; they demand spiritual work. They don’t take money from the needy but rather distribute it to them.

Yet this latter set of advice, which I wholeheartedly advocate, seems to me to contradict the common practice among many acknowledged Torah scholars who advise on a wide variety of technical issues, often for a fee. R. Aviner deflects their precedents by pointing out that the target of his criticism is not a Torah scholar like they are. However, I wonder whether their scholarship frees them entirely from criticism.

IV. Tricks of the Trade

R. Aviner demonstrates the danger of this group by revealing their devious tricks. They invite recognized Torah scholars to speak with their leader and then publicize these meetings as endorsements. Very few great rabbis will take the time and effort to publicize their opposition to some ignorant man whom they see as an obvious fraud. And those who do will be explained away as manipulated by handlers or swayed by politics.

The followers speak in two languages. To outsiders, the speak of their leader’s greatness with vague terms that can be innocently interpreted. But internally, as R. Aviner learned from defectors, they use specific terms of prophecy and messianism. This two-facedness is a blatant attempt to deceive the world about their deviant beliefs.

They also speak in apocalyptic terms, about how terrible the world is and how redemption must be around the corner. Their cynicism about the present and pessimism about the future are self-serving and unrealistic. We are living in wonderful times, full of troubles but less so than many past years. Even worse, they use this to intimidate questioning members, telling them that they will be “left behind” in the redemption if they fail to follow their leader.

V. The End, Or Is It?

In the end, this leader’s messianic predictions failed to materialize and many of his followers eventually recognized his failures and abandoned him. He took R. Aviner to a rabbinical court which forbade him to declare himself the messiah or offer marital advice. He disappeared from a number of years and, after his return, was rejected by his followers.

R. Aviner’s criticisms show how to argue forcefully against ideas without, or with minimal, attacks on the person. He shows courage in the face of intimidation and uncompromising devotion to consistent principles. He loves his fellow Jew but not every manifestation of Judaism.

While the specific cult against which R. Aviner campaigned disappeared, I wonder whether his arguments have wider application. Does the increasingly common cultic devotion to purported kabbalists and charismatic rabbis deserve condemnation? Should we be denouncing rabbis who offer medical, business and marital advice with no training but for large fees? I often write about the red lines on the left but we must set red lines elsewhere, as well.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

18 comments

  1. It seems like there are two possibilities to deal with superstitious people. One is to try to convince them that these things are nonsense, and the other is R. Aviner’s choice, to work with them, allow that these things are real and convince them to nevertheless eschew them.

    Guess what? They won’t. People who believe you can commune with the dead are not going to *not* try to avail themselves of this option, nor are they going to *not* avail themselves of the holy help of a kabbalist who charges them money for peace of mind. Only the rarest of the rare is the person who will believe such things are true yet nevertheless turn their back on it. At least if you try to convince them it is nonsense you may succeed and then they will eschew this stuff. Try to convince someone who thinks you can pay for blessing in their life not to do it.

  2. Another thing to consider, particularly when we are talking about people who extract money from their followers and others and give harmful advice, we are discussing ‘tolerating’ people who are guilty of harming other people, not merely people who are engaging in religiously improper thoughts and teachings.

  3. It is easy to denounce a cult-leader with bizarre practices and methods. We can ask about his Torah knowledge credentials without fear. The internal question is “Are the leaders of the ‘normal’ world Charedi or MO displaying their credentials clearly?” I have yet to see someone prove the scholarship of their chosen Gadol without defensive yelling or threats. Ask this question about everyone, absolutely everyone. Where can I see his scholarship objectively?
    Don’t be scared. If someone asks me this about Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the answer is easy. If you need proof of Reb Moshe Feinstein, it is available for any serious researcher. It is when it comes down to some others that we may find ourselves in a pickle.

  4. Paranormal powers are documented among many different people, including those non-religious and non-Jewish. … This man’s abilities only demonstrate a rare gift, not prophetic power.

    RYBS once said that it was necessary to learn gemara using the Brisker method because otherwise modern people with a scientific education would not be able to take gemara seriously.

    If statements like the above become accepted in our community, it will not be possible for people with scientific education to take any of Judaism seriously.

    You should at least make clear that this is R’ Aviner’s argument and not your own.

  5. “While the specific cult against which R. Aviner campaigned disappeared, I wonder whether his arguments have wider application.”

    Did it? According to this Maariv article, the fellow against whom Rav Aviner wrote Bein Or Le-Choshekh about is one of the aforementioned wealthiest rabbis in Israel, and he still maintains his cult:

    מנהיגה הרוחני של ש”ס, הרב עובדיה יוסף, צירף את חתימתו לגילוי הדעת. גם הרב אבינר באיגרת נוספת, עוד אחת מתוך 36 שכתב בנושא ושקובצו לספר בשם “בין אור לחושך – בין חכמים אמיתיים לאדמו”רים מזויפים”, טרח להתייחס “לטענה שיש לו רוח הקודש והיא המדברת מתוך גרונו”. הוא קבע על בן-ארצי: “אחר ששמעתי שתי קלטות מהרצאותיו, אוי ואבוי לנו אם לזה ייקרא רוח הקודש, לדברים שטחיים שיביישו ילד קטן שלומד בתלמוד תורה”. באיגרת אחרת הדגיש את עמדתו כי בן-ארצי הוא “ברמה של כיתות נמוכות של בית ספר יסודי”, וכי “אין מדובר בתלמיד קטן שלא הגיע להוראה, אלא בעם הארץ גמור שלא למד מאומה, שלא מסר נפשו על לימוד תורה בישיבה ואף לדרגת תלמיד לא הגיע”.

    Did he really write it about a different person?

    kol tuv,
    josh

  6. No, that’s him. I thought he got kicked out of his community.

  7. Gil — Do you think this is a top-50 problem for Orthodoxy? It seems to me that how the normative Rabbinate deals with bodily abuse issues will have a far greater impact on what Jews think about the Rabbinate than the money shenanigans of the fringe Rabbinate.

    It is also not clear to me where the red line is in telling someone how to spend their money. One person’s view of rational behavior is another’s view of foolish belief.

  8. “Paranormal powers are documented among many different people, including those non-religious and non-Jewish.”

    No, they’re not. They are claimed, not documented.

  9. I’m not sure of all the specifics. I know that he still has an active website and is producing “parsha” sheets, which a Rabbi in Israel is religiously translating, week by week. His “followers” were crowing last year that he predicted the earthquake in Japan. And he held some event in Bnei Brak last year. And here is a <a href="http://www.tairneri.tv/video.php?video_id=27813"video from today, a speech on Chayei Sarah, where at the 86 minute mark he is greeting his followers.

  10. MiMedinat HaYam

    the million dollar comment is “R. Kook (Da’as Kohen 29) responded that the ends do not justify the unholy means.”

    2. some groups (sephardim, make believe sephardim (i mean various charedi types, yeshivish in particular) and extremely wealthy people) respect these types of figures who gain their wealth by means as described. the extremely wealthy (for lack of a better term right now) are not stupid, they know who these …charlatans… are and are not bothered by it.

  11. Gil, Josh,
    I know some people who were in that cult to varying degrees. There was a big scandal a while ago when it turned out that the cult “leader”, who seems not to be very bright, was actually used by some of his followers, who used the cult for their own profit. That caused a split in the cult. The organization seems to still be around, but a lot of the followers (including my acquaintances there) left.

  12. Speaking of the devil…

    http://www.inn.co.il/News/News.aspx/246611

    American Jews beware 😉

  13. Yehoshua Friedman

    What about rabbis with legitimate learning credentials who have been involved in ethically despicable actions such as leading a fake struggle against the expulsion of Jews from their homes when it later became manifest that he was cooperation with the authorities because he felt it was too dangerous to have an open rebellion against the holy state. Had he said so openly it would have been something one could agree or disagree with, but young people burned themselves out in what turned into an exhausting march in circles at Kfar Maimon while the troops moved in. In the following years some youth became more extreme and others went off the derech. That is what bothers me, not the kabbalistic charlatans who are much more transparent.

  14. Thomas Macaulay wrote about this in his review of Montague’s biography of Bacon. He basically shows what we in the orthodox world know all to well, that when we appreciate someone’s genius or contributions to scholarship [like Bacon], we often tend to either overlook or outright explain away their deficiencies in charachter, rather than come to grips with the truth, that the genius was simply not a role model to emulate, or at best, was simply an ordinary fellow, no better or worse than anyone else. The truth is, it’s not just the current individuals in this article with whom we can quibble about their charachter traits. It goes back a LOT further than that, VIACOM”L. . . .

  15. Fotheringay-Phipps

    “Should we be denouncing rabbis who offer medical, business and marital advice with no training but for large fees?”

    IMO, many of these rabbis have no “training” in the college-educated sense, but much more in the way of extensive real world experience. This experience is made up of the collective experience of thousands of people consulting them about their own situations.

    This contrasts with many people with “training” consisting of unproved theories from contemporary theorists and other phony blather, but with official degrees.

    People who have been programmed to only respect secular society and education naturally feel that whatever counts as “training” in that world is the be-all and end-all of training. But it’s not so.

    I don’t know about the “large fees” part. That’s another issue. Note as well that not everyone who learned some Talmud or halacha has the real world experience that I allude to. You need to check who you’re asking, whether rabbi or “expert”.

  16. Real-world experience is often useless, if you don’t follow up to see how well your advice turned out. Giving bad advice for decades does not make you an expert. You need both training in theories (i.e. the cumulative experience of thousands of people) and real-world experience.

  17. Fotheringay-Phipps

    I’m not saying the advice itself is the experience. But people asking advice describe their own situations, and a popular advice-giver hears a very vast and broad spectrum of situations. That counts as experience.

    And generally, the people who get famous as good advice givers are the ones whose advice tends to be succesfull. Ironically this is not true of people with formal training, since those tend to rely on paper credentials and salesmanship.

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