The New Sabbateans

Yair Sheleg
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yair Sheleg

At first glance, the police complaints lodged against Rabbi Mordechai Gafni constitute one more case of sexual exploitation. Once not so long ago, it was enough for a rabbi to be accused of a fraction of the number of the suspicions raised against Gafni for the walls to tremble. In our present era of progress, statements by two dozen victims can be airily dismissed until the legal system steps in (because a few of the women finally dared to complain) before the community leaders realize that they will not be able to continue enjoying the rabbi's "spiritual abundance."

At first glance this is an individual case, and the fact that a rabbi is involved is merely coincidental. Or not: Gafni has a friend, the co-writer of two of his books, named Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi. Ezrahi is a newly observant Jew who was once secretary to the extreme right-wing Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg. A few years ago he left his previous pursuits and established a commune based on the study of love and sex "in the spirit of the ancient myths" (including kabbala.) And within the rather small community of teachers of "Jewish Renaissance" (the revolution of non-observant Jews studying Judaism) in Israel, there are at least two other prominent teachers who had extensive extramarital relationships that caused a storm in their communities.

But surely each case should be judged on its own merits and is connected to the personality of each teacher. Still, perhaps these coincidences point to a common denominator. It does not take much effort to find one: The aspiration toward spirituality that characterizes the "new religiosity" (in its secular version, too) is a very emotional aspiration that can involve primal instincts and urges, and in any event it automatically rejects "bourgeois" baggage - at first that of halakha and Jewish law, and later those of basic human morality. That is how the New Age version of the "ubermensch" is created, the one who is "above" the common morality of the common man.

Yes, Jewish history has seen this phenomenon before; it is called Sabbateanism. Its prophet, Shabbatai Zevi, believed that spiritual elevation and the desire for redemption released him from the mitzvot, and particularly from the sexual prohibitions. Ohad Ezrahi speaks explicitly about Shabbatai Zevi and his follower Yaacov Frank as a model. But apparently the others are also persuaded to follow this course, even without explicitly championing it. In truth, all those who ignore moral distortion in the name of spiritual exaltation are active partners in this worldview.

In one sense, it is apparently an inseparable part of the affair that Western culture, including Judaism, is having with Eastern religion. The story of Gafni and Ezrahi are very reminiscent of a few prominent Eastern gurus who ran sex communes, and the line of admiring female students in their bedrooms was an integral part of their "spiritual" activities. The conclusion: The romance with the East has some unsavory characteristics. The "liberation" that it provides is too great ? this liberation first brings moral liberation from the need to deal with the material hardships we face, while focusing in a self-centered manner on "spiritual elevation" and then on the "liberation" from moral norms.

Many of us, whose spiritual world is defined by the boundaries of Judaism, occasionally complain about the nature of the bonds of halakha. Now it turns out that even if the very detailed character of the prohibitions is sometimes infuriating, there is deep justice in the principle that seeks to bind life in general, and spiritual ambitions in particular, within the bounds of moral and religious rules. It is precisely because spirituality is so enchanting, so groundbreaking, that great danger can arise if it is not anchored with a few ironclad moral principles. Therefore it is precisely because the "Jewish Renaissance" movement is so important that it must not take on a New Age tone that focuses on emotional spirituality, and it must be clearly identified with moral responsibility toward the surrounding community as well as toward the lifestyle of its leaders.

Comments