Rabbi Eliezer Berland
Rabbi Eliezer Berland. Photo by Victor Mazuz / Kikar Hashabbat
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Just three days ago, the Hasidim of the Shuvu Banim Yeshiva, situated in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, were informed that their rabbi, Eliezer Berland, would be returning today from the United States in time to light the traditional Lag Ba'omer bonfire and celebrate with them on Mount Meron. Until now they hadn't known why he had made the trip or when he would be coming back. Nor do they know if he will lead the two mass convoys that will be visiting Joseph's Tomb in Nablus - with the authorization of the Israel Defense Forces - in the coming weeks. The purpose of knowledge is that we should not know, said Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.

Berland is an extreme mystic who aspires to be a tzaddik, a righteous person, in the image of Rabbi Nachman. His Shuvu Banim community of Bratslavers numbers more than 700 families. At Pesach one of the students, Ben-Yosef Livnat, was shot to death by Palestinian policemen near Nablus. Livnat's death (he and his friends had gone to visit Joseph's Tomb without IDF coordination or permission) did not deter the Hasidim. Rather, they promised to make more such visits, a pledge on which they are making good, with the support of the "hilltop youths" - young settlers, most of whom live in the so-called illegal outposts - and the encouragement of the rabbis of the settlements. Since Livnat's killing, there have been at least two visits to the tomb.

Not long after Livnat's death, Rabbi Berland apparently went to Miami, Florida, together with his wife and one of his assistants. According to one of his close followers, they went "to a place that specializes in alternative treatments." Berland, 74, had already been to the clinic in the past for treatment intended to help him get through the long fasts he imposes on himself - three days to a week at a time with no solid food - as a "ta'anit yahid" (a personal abstinence ).

Last November, the rabbi rebelled and fled from the "jail" in which he had been held for years, far from his flock, surrounded by mediators who supervised his movements and controlled him. Possibly they also got their hands on the donations that flowed into the yeshiva, to the tune of millions of shekels a year. The confining apparatus was controlled by the rabbi's son, Nachman, and grandson, Natan. "They chained me and suffocated me, and they also declared that I was mentally ill," Rabbi Berland told his followers. He dismissed the directorate of the yeshiva institutions and distanced his son and grandson, but afterward brought them back. According to N., one of the rabbi's closest followers, "Access to the rabbi is far easier today. People come to him, things get done. He proved that everything is under his complete control."

During the period of the struggle, the rabbi and his wife left Jerusalem and lived in Tiberias. From there he went on wild all-night excursions to the tombs of tzaddikim as hundreds of Hasidim raced after him in their cars. On the eve of the end of Passover, when he returned to his home in Jerusalem, his student Ben-Yosef Livnat was killed. A few days after the funeral, Berland paid a condolence call to the Livnat family, which lasted until 5 A.M. The next day he left for the United States.

The Israeli press has often described Berland as a radical nationalist and a messianic. After Livnat's death, members of the Shuvu Banim community said the rabbi had ordered them not to risk trips to the tombs of tzaddikim during the period of the counting of the Omer (the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot ), which is considered a time of calamities. But no one denies that Berland has for years urged the Hasidim to visit Joseph's Tomb and other dangerous places in the West Bank.

According to Dr. Zvi Mark, a scholar of Judaism and an expert on the Bratslav doctrine at both Bar-Ilan University and the Shalom Hartman Institute, Berland wants his followers to visit Joseph's Tomb precisely because it is dangerous, and not in spite of the danger. "Even people who view highly dangerous backpacking trips by their children to all corners of the globe as a healthy outlet of youthful energies, accuse the Bratslav community of being adventurers," Mark notes. "This is based on the concept of a separation between the vibrant secular way of life and religiously observant life, which must be spiritual and mystical, without earthly passions. Let them pray quietly in the synagogue and not disturb us during the siesta. But that dichotomy is remote from the Bratslav religiosity."

The Shuvu Banim community describes Berland reverently as the spearhead of the visits to the tomb of Rabbi Nachman in Uman, Ukraine, that began in the 1980s - with the aid of forged passports and the ability to give the KGB the slip. The Soviet authorities offered a reward of thousands of dollars to anyone with information that would lead to Berland's arrest. A similar mythology sprang up about his trips with followers to the graves of the patriarchs in the territories during the second intifada, under fire, and was bolstered by the more recent high-speed night rides across highways in northern Israel.

Some of the Hasidim said that Berland had instructed them to elude "dinnim," negative forces that try to stop their motion, such as traffic lights, road signs and policemen. According to N., Berland taught him that "the moment you undertake a practical endeavor that entails a certain risk, it connects you with the tzaddik at a higher level." And in the case of Nablus, with the biblical figure Joseph.

Another Hasid, Benny Mahleb, one of the organizers of the visits to Nablus, said: "When I go to Joseph's Tomb, I know that something is liable to happen to me, but I believe in the rabbi [Berland] and I have a sense of security. I call this the adrenaline of holiness. You enter a city where there are terrorists - and we have already encountered gunfire - but you enter with faith, pray at the tomb and understand that by means of faith and prayer it is possible to change even nature."

How many Hasidim have been hurt on the way to Joseph's Tomb?

"One was injured and he has been in a vegetative state since 2003, and one, Ben-Yosef [Livnat], was killed. With all the grief - both were my friends - you have to view it in relation to the level of risk and you understand that it's nothing, it's beyond nature."

Drawn to the Haredi world

The Haifa-born Berland is a product of the state-religious education system and the Bnei Akiva youth movement. He met his wife, Tehila, the daughter of the late Rabbi Shalom-Avraham Shaki - a Knesset member from the National Religious Party in the first half of the 1960s - when they were both members of a settlement group in the Nahal paramilitary brigade, bound for a religious kibbutz. Berland was already drawn to the Haredi world then, and no one was surprised when he entered an ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian yeshiva instead of the IDF.

Dr. Mark, who met Rabbi Berland a few years ago, says: "He has great knowledge. He interweaves material from different aspects of culture. In the course of a conversation he opens an encyclopedia and explains how storms happen and then switches to expert talk about a kabbalah manuscript. That is quite impressive." Mark adds that, in contrast to other Bratslav rabbis who saw themselves, at least implicitly, as reincarnations of Rabbi Nachman, "I did not find any such claim in Rabbi Berland. On the other hand, I have never seen another Bratslaver rabbi whose demeanor is so close to that of Rabbi Nachman. If you ask yourself how the Hasidic movement started, what it was that people looked for in the tzaddikim, why people went to them, suddenly you have a powerful living example of just that."

Mark points out that "some Bratslav Hasidim see Rabbi Nachman as being a saintly figure removed from them. Rabbi Berland sees him as a role model. He suddenly goes to Tiberias, suddenly goes to the United States - that is a very familiar pattern to those who know the behavior of Rabbi Nachman. Part of Rabbi Nachman's ethos was always to renew himself and to change. If you are drawn to something, take action, go with what you feel. 'Flow.' Rabbi Berland is exactly that kind of character. If he feels the need to do something in the middle of the night, he will not put it off until morning but will go and do it immediately."

Mark's book on revelation in the writings of Rabbi Nachman, which is forthcoming from Magnes Press (in Hebrew ), deals in part with the strong messianic affinity for Joseph in the esoteric writings of Rabbi Nachman, some of which are published for the first time in the book. Rabbi Nachman identified with the biblical Joseph and believed that they had both undergone similar experiences. So much so that he viewed his life as a "tikkun," a spiritual correction, for Joseph's flaws. This entails constant readiness to die a martyr's death. "As a boy, Rabbi Nachman prayed he would die as a martyr to God," Mark says. "He lived in Bratslav, but toward the end of his life said he wanted to die in Uman, because thousands of Jews who were martyred in pogroms were buried there. The whole ethos of Joseph and his devotion is interwoven in Rabbi Nachman's life from beginning to end, and is also interwoven in the life of Rabbi Berland - from his trips to Uman when it was under Soviet rule, to his forays to Joseph's Tomb."

Do the Bratslav Hasidim consider the Palestinians, or the IDF soldiers stationed around Nablus, as "dinnim," who need to be evaded or perhaps confronted?

"They don't throw stones and don't hurt anyone," Mark says, about the Bratslavers. "According to their ethos, if someone takes a knife with him, he is harming the faith. It is an ethos of confidence in God or in the tzaddik. They take a chance and rely on Rabbi Berland, but they have no intention of hurting a living soul. It's religious macho, not military macho. They say, 'We go about without weapons, defenseless, and place our lives in God's providence.'"