Jerusalem & Babylon / Dangerous: the rabbi as idol
The murder of Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira throws an unwelcome spotlight on the often unhealthy connection between rabbis and their followers.
A Haredi website had an exceptional scoop this week, photographs of Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira showing his entire face. It's not clear where the website obtained these pictures. No doubt they had them before the rabbi's violent death last week, or they would have not had the temerity to publish online. The Baba Elazar's holy visage was not to be seen by mortal eyes. Even in meetings with other rabbis, his dark cape was always drooping over his forehead, his head bowed away from the light. He almost never exposed himself to sunlight. A special tunnel was dug so he could walk underground between his home in Be'er Sheva and his adjacent yeshiva, where he received believers and met his death. If that sounds outlandishly expensive, bear in mind the Baba could afford it, as he accumulated hundreds of millions of shekels from believers who sought his advice and his blessings.
I have no reason to dispute with the the rabbi's lawyers who told the tax authorities that he enjoyed not a shekel of this money, his days devoted to fasting and prayer, that it all went to his organization, which fed and supported thousands of the needy. But it's ironic that one of those poor believers who sought succor from the holy man fatally stabbed him.
Abuhatzeira's alleged killer, Asher Dahan, may be mentally unstable. This murder, however much a freak occurrence, throws an unwelcome spotlight on the often unhealthy connection between rabbis and their followers. Among the Haredi community the murder provoked discussion of the need to protect rabbis who daily receive hundreds of Jews, eager for a timely blessing, sage wisdom, a promise of a better life. Will these private visits continue? Is there a need to hire security guards?
Debate on the parameters of this relationship has been muted. Unlike other established religions, Judaism has no rules on the roles and duties of its holy men. The Chief Rabbinate administers exams in four key fields of religious law, but that's just a technical necessity for a state-paid rabbinical job. Most of those who are called or call themselves "rabbi," especially in the ultra-Orthodox world, achieved the status without taking any exam. Once you are a rabbi, no one can take that away. There is no Jewish equivalent to a defrocked priest.
The Torah does not mention rabbis, only arbiters of the law, commanding us to "not decline from the sentence they shall show thee, to the right hand nor to the left." Many have taken this to mean that Jews must do and believe whatever a rabbi tells them, citing the principle of "emunath hachamim" (belief in the wise ), though it's only one of the 48 ways in which Pirkei Avot tells us we can achieve knowledge of Torah.
The title of admor - master-teacher-rabbi - originated in Hasidism and imbued the rabbi not only with wisdom and knowledge, but also with inherent holiness and a special connection with God, a connection so strong he could control his followers' lives and pass this power to his sons, creating hereditary rabbis. This Eastern European title has been eagerly adopted by other communities. Baba Elazar was born in Morocco, but his followers called him admor, the same title they posthumously conferred on his grandfather, Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira, the Baba Sali, and greatest of the Moroccan mystics.
What are their qualifications? Most of them don't lead communities in any real sense. Few of them have written groundbreaking tracts or brave halakhic rulings. All they offer is an aura, an impression or illusion of intimacy with the higher being; a channel through which lesser mortals can also connect with the eternal.
Some 250 years ago, in the miserable shtetls of Galicia and the Pale of Settlement, this connection gave immeasurable comfort to Jews suffering abject poverty and pogroms. It seems many still need that comfort in the 21st Century. How can we explain the massive cult around the late Lubavitcher Rebbe or the multimillion dollar industry of Kabbalist sages of which Baba Elazar was one of the most prominent, but only one of hundreds of practitioners? There's also the immensely powerful courts of Hasidic dynasties such as Ger, Satmar, Vizhnitz and Belz.
Jewish papal infallibility
Even Orthodox groups that reject Hasidism, such as the "Lithuanian" Ashkenazi stream, which elevates learning above all other values, have indulged in rabbi worship in recent generations, ascribing to certain rabbis Ruach Ha-kodesh, a sixth sense of holy spirit, and a Jewish definition of papal infallibility. Eight years ago, Nitzan Chen and I wrote a biography of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, probably the greatest Torah scholar and Jewish religious leader of our age. We invited his well-known followers and admirers to the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. It was a most unusual book launch.
Speakers queued up to lambaste the authors for detailing Yosef's often problematic relationships with his family and his complex and contradictory personality. Afterward, Professor Aviezer Ravitzky came up to me and said, "Why were they attacking you? Do they really believe Rabbi Ovadia was born an angel? He is a giant precisely because he is a human being with all his failings."
But this is the way Orthodox Jewry has ultimately responded to the challenges of the last two and a half centuries; ranging from the Enlightenment of secularism to the temptations and openness of the Internet age. They attribute godly qualities to their rabbis, accord them impossible supernatural capabilities and total authority over their lives. The cult of an all-powerful, all-knowing guru is incredibly alluring, and not only to the devout.
Many successful and ostensibly secular businessmen and politicians also seek out rabbis, their wealth and position assuring them an exclusive private audience. The cult surrounding charismatic miracle workers has been the main draw for thousands of baalei teshuva, so-called penitents seeking to escape the rat race and subsume doubts and frustrations in reassuring belief.
Asher Dahan was one such devotee, until he found that his chosen one, Baba Elazar, did not provide the answers he needed. Disillusionment is devastating but integral to life. It is part of our evolving relationship with our parents, spouses and children. We routinely suffer disillusionment with politicians, military commanders, educators, intellectuals and every other form of wise men and women in whom we believed. It can be a healthy and character-building process, but it can also destroy, lead to depression, suicide and, in Baba Elazar's case, murder.
The best way of preventing such an outcome is beforehand to curb the tendency of admiration to transform into idolatry. For many rabbis though, their followers have put them on pedestals so high there is no way down. Once their faces are finally exposed to sunlight, it may be too late.