Israeli lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are moving forward with legislation that would outlaw sex between a religious or spiritual leader and one of his believers, comparing that situation to sexual relations between a therapist and a client, which is a criminal offense.
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The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will soon discuss the bill, which was initiated by MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) and passed its preliminary reading in January. Legislators from Habayit Hayehudi, Kulanu, Yesh Atid, the Joint Arab List and Zionist Union all support the legislation, part of a broader effort to address the phenomenon of cults and the role of rabbinic leaders in the country.
According to the proposal, sexual relations would be deemed a criminal offense if they take place as part of a relationship in which “ongoing advice or guidance is passed on through face-to-face meetings,” and if the sex acts are carried out “during or right after a period in which guidance or advice is given, exploiting palpable emotional dependence that results from the advice or guidance.”
The legislative effort derives, among other things, from Israel Police and state prosecution efforts to indict cult leader Goel Ratzon, who lived in Tel Aviv and had multiple wives and dozens of children, for sexual offenses and enslavement. It took years of unsuccessful investigations before he was finally arrested, in 2010, and charged.
For its part, the state tried to create a legal precedent that determined that Ratzon held his wives in what was called “spiritual slavery.” The prosecution argued that he emotionally controlled 21 adult women with whom he had sex, taking away their freedom of choice and making them enslaved to him. The Tel Aviv District Court convicted Ratzon on rape and sexual offenses counts, but acquitted him of the enslavement charges, rejecting the prosecution’s broader interpretation of the offense.
Prosecutors have tried to equate such relations to sexual ties between psychologists or psychiatrists and their clients, as in the case involving Ofakim resident Shimon Amar. Amar was indicted last October for having sex with women and girls during personal consultations while posing as a rabbi.
Other cases, such as that of Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg, head of the Orot Ha'ari yeshiva in Safed, involve rape resulting from fraudulent behavior – i.e., a situation in which the perpetrator uses deceit to obtain consensual sex. Sheinberg was charged last July for having sex with 12 women after “exploiting the fact that he is considered to be a righteous person with special powers, that they had unconditional faith in him, and that they saw what he said to be the words of a living god.”
“We’re talking about emotional dependence just like that existing between a therapist and a client,” says MK Rozin. “It’s the legislator’s place to determine that sexual relations through such dependence cannot be legal and needs to be outlawed as a crime.”
Attorney Liat Klein, legal adviser of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, which was a partner in formulating the bill, asserts that the number of instances in which such relations occurs is significant.
“Rabbis and people with spiritual powers create great dependence among those who turn to them, mostly at times of distress and crisis,” Klein explains. “It is extremely difficult for people to report such incidents, so it is important to encourage such complaints so that those same religious leaders who exploit their authority to hurt their believers will be punished and justice will be served.”