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.