Rabbi, Tycoon, Tax Evader

Forbes' list of the 13 richest rabbis in Israel stirred in me rage, sadness - and optimism.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

My first reaction upon reading the Forbes Israel list of the 13 richest rabbis in the country, published Tuesday, who together are worth over $1 billion, was rage. Why is Israel's tax authority so over-efficient in subtracting an ever-growing portion of my meager earnings, and so lax when it comes to holding these holy tycoons to account?

Not only have most of the rabbis on the list succeeded in blocking the tax collectors by using a potent mix of political pressure, slick PR, kabbalistic incantations and legal obstructions, but at the same they preside over yeshivas and other institutes that are bankrolled by the state. Some of them, like No. 3 on the list, Gerrer Rebbe Yaakov Aryeh Alter, also wield considerable power through Knesset members, such as deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman, who are their self-avowed servants.

After the rage came sadness. Is this what has become of an ancient religious tradition that revered, above all, learning and knowledge l'shma, for it's own purpose? None of the rabbis on the list are renowned scholars or thinkers. Only two, yeshiva heads Yoram Abergil and Reuven Elbaz, can be called educators in any sense of the word, and Elbaz's riches are tainted by his involvement in two major corruption cases involving his proteges, both of them Shas Knesset members convicted, among other crimes, of funneling funds illegally to Elbaz's network.

Ten of them are members of rabbinic dynasties, five are scions of the Abuhatzeira voodoo clan, and would never have attained a standing in the Torah world if not for their illustrious forebears. They may have done well in business, though. Nine of them are mekubalim, kabbalistic miracle workers, or at least so they would have us believe, while two are hereditary leaders of large Hasidic sects. Even the only woman on the list, Rabbanit Bruria Zvuluni, No. 13 with an estimated worth of NIS 20 million, is no source of pride. Her main draw, aside from her family connections - she is the sister of "The X-ray," Rabbi Yaakov Ifergan, No. 6 - is that the heads of Israel's organized crime families come to her with their disputes and respect her rulings.

Who are the people who have given this group of charlatans so much of their hard-earned money? Naturally the great majority of them are the thousands of ill-educated, superstitious men and women who have been fleeced out of sums they can ill afford. In return they have received muttered blessings, holy water, letters in Torah scrolls and folded scraps of parchment with a few scribbles, to be worn under the clothes as an amulet. Whether out of simple faith, or in the hope of deliverance from illness, a decent match or a long yearned-for child, they forked out whatever was demanded of them.

But it isn't just the poor and the credulous, who may be deserving of our pity; some of the most powerful politicians, senior police, military officers and business magnates in Israel and the Diaspora are regular pilgrims to the courts of kabbala. Some discuss with them confidential matters of state and complex financial dealings, seeking guidance and affirmation before making a crucial decision.

When ministers, generals and bank owners put so much store in the advice of the miracle men, you have to wonder who is setting interest rates and whether it is just the cabinet members who get to decide on bombing Iran.

Many of those beating a path to the wizards' doors are not overtly religious. And by putting a kippa or scarf over their heads, and crouching close to hear the rabbi's every word, they are not committing themselves to keep Shabbat or kashrut. Of these rabbis, only the acid-tongued Alter and Amnon Yitzhak, who is famed for his fire-and-brimstone speeches against the evil secular leftists, will ever castigate a sinner asking for an audience. All the rest will receive them with respect and humility before their largesse and celebrity demands.

There is no sense in moralizing here. There is nothing new about those who are outwardly rational, successful and clever being riddled with superstition. And the confluence of power, religion and money has always bred venality and corruption. It would be surprising if it was otherwise. As much as some of us may yearn for the days when Israeli prime ministers sought advice from philosophers and scientists and the leading rabbis were ascetic scholars, in the age of mass media celebrity culture, these are probably the rabbis we deserve. Their riches and the reverence in which they are held are obscene, but no more than the adulation and mega-salaries that sports and film stars expect as their just due.

There are also some sources of optimism here. First, the willingness of the Israeli media to tackle this issue and highlight the fact that these vast fortunes have been amassed in large part through tax evasion and money laundering. Second, it proves that not only is an official separation of state and religion in Israel possible - the religious establishment obviously has sufficient resources without state funding - it is crucial if Israel is to remain a viable democracy where no one is above the law. Third, the fact that the more "serious" rabbinical leaders and Torah scholars have failed to stem the tide of superstition and warn the faithful away from the charlatans is proof that the hold of the religious establishment is a lot shakier than meets the eye.

And on a different note, our readers contest. I have received some intriguing answers to the question I posed to readers last week - "Why are some people prejudiced against Jews?" - and almost all of them took the challenge seriously, even those who added a good dose of Jewish humor. So we are allowing another week for more entries. Once again, this is a no-holds-barred contest, so feel free to write whatever you really think. The only rule is that you answer "briefly" - in under 100 words. A bottle of fine (kosher ) wine goes to the winner. The two runners-up will get honorable mentions in next week's column.



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