Rabbi Eliezer Berland at Ramat Gan Stadium last week.
Rabbi Eliezer Berland at Ramat Gan Stadium last week. Photo by Hadar Cohen
Text size
Hadar Cohen
Secular Israelis came to hear the rabbi, alongside ultra-Orthodox. Photo by Hadar Cohen

A leading rabbi in the Breslav Hassidic community has publicly called on the Israeli government to intervene in Syria, or at least demand that other countries intervene, to prevent the slaughter of children, “even if some of them will grow up to be terrorists.”

Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who heads the Shuvu Banim yeshiva for newly observant Jews, made this call at a revival gathering held last Thursday at the Ramat Gan Stadium that attracted between 6,000-7,000 people, who paid between NIS 100 and NIS 500 per ticket.

Men and women were seated separately, but that didn’t keep numerous traditional and secular people from attending the event, which was officially titled “There are no secular people.”

While half the world was watching the Euro soccer semifinals, they came solely to hear the rabbi speak. There were no other performances or gimmicks, or even an emcee.

During his address, Berland discussed his radical religious vision, in which there are no boundaries or inhibitions. All people are created in the image of God, and all have a Godly spark; therefore solidarity between people was essential whether they are Jew, non-Jew or even “Ishmaelite.”

Indeed, Berland devoted much of his speech to the situation in Syria.

“They are butchering people there every day under our noses,” Berland said, after a brief review of the bloodbaths that had taken place there during the previous few days. “The nations of the world are silent, and we, the Jewish people, the people of justice, the people of conscience and integrity, are the conscience of the entire world."

“We must stand before the entire world and demand immediate intervention in Syria, to stop the terrible massacre, to stop the terrible oppression by the ruling cult and the army and stand up for these miserable, desperate people. It doesn’t matter that they are Ishmaelites and it doesn’t matter even if some of them grow up to be terrorists; the first thing is to save the unfortunate children, babies, women – that’s the first mission.”

He referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad, as “the chief terrorist.”

No other ultra-Orthodox rabbi has publicly expressed an opinion on the upheavals in Syria, certainly not to demand that Jews take responsibility for non-Jewish victims across the border.

It isn’t clear why Berland has done so, but it is known that this particular rabbi relates to breaking boundaries in general as a religious principle.

For example, his yeshiva is located in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. For another, his followers are among those who regularly make unauthorized forays to Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, against Israel Defense Forces regulations. Last year one of his students, Ben-Yosef Livnat, was shot dead while doing so.

Berland’s public appearance last week also constituted a breaking of boundaries or sorts – those of his own Shuvu Banim community. Though he is considered an Israeli pioneer in bringing secular Jews to observance, over the past 12 years he has not appeared at any event not related to the community, which numbers some 700 families.

The community underwent an upheaval around two years ago when the rabbi came out against his son and grandson, who he claimed had seized control over his court.

In his address, Berland raised some other ideas that from a Haredi perspective would be considered revolutionary, such as “there’s no such thing as secular people,” and “essentially, there are no ‘goyim’ in the world; everyone is essentially a Jew, all of them have a Jewish spark; beloved is man, who was created in the image [of God].”

According to Dr. Zvi Mark, an expert on the Breslav community, these ideas are reminiscent of those espoused by Chabad, another popular Hassidic movement that reaches beyond the boundaries of its own community. He noted that Berland had ended his speech with the Chabad slogan, “We want the Messiah now.”

In his Ramat Gan speech, Berland was clear about crossing the boundaries posed by the roadblocks outside Nablus, along the route to Joseph’s Tomb, which is of supreme importance to Berland.

“When I come to Joseph the Righteous, and I see how [IDF soldiers] are standing there with M-16s [rifles], I say to them, ‘Aren’t you ashamed? This is Joseph the Righteous, why are you standing there with M-16s?’”

He decried the fact that coordinated visits to the tomb are permitted only at night.

“People should be able to go there in the middle of the day – there’s nothing to be afraid of at all. The Ishmaelites are our cousins, we’re all children of [forefathers] Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we all have the same father and the same God; we all come from the same roots.”

Even as the crowd applauded, one man, sitting in a place of honor near the VIP section, was sitting quietly in a wheelchair. One of the hassidim whispered that the man had been seriously wounded in a Palestinian attack on a group of Shuvu Banim people who snuck into Joseph’s Tomb in December 2003.

Read this article in Hebrew