Moshe Dror Tzanani, a senior rabbi in Rabbi Eliezer Berland’s Shuvu Banim Hasidic community, has been recorded trying to explain away the accusations of sexual assault for which Berland was imprisoned.
The recording, obtained by Haaretz, was made in the summer of 2016 – just a few months before Berland was convicted in a plea deal of assault and indecent acts against women. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, of which he served 10.
Berland is once again under arrest; the police suspect him of fraud, tax fraud, tax evasion, money laundering and exploiting his followers. Shuvu Banim is an extremist sect of the Bratslav Hasidim and Tzanani is considered Berland’s most likely successor.
The recording concerns an incident that was not included in the evidence used to convict Berland. In the defense brief submitted in a civil lawsuit filed against him by the person who exposed the Berland affair, Tzanani said he never justified Berland’s actions.
Two people are heard in the conversation: Tzanani and a man whose name has not yet been released. In the recording, the second man can be heard saying that a relative of his – now in her 20s – was sexually harassed when she met with Berland.
“A few years ago, she met with the rabbi; it was in Betar. She went into [the room with him] and the rabbi touched her,” the man said. “He put his hands under her blouse and groped. He gave her a kiss on the mouth and told her that, with this, he was correcting the sin of slander. She said she felt that this wasn’t anything impure, but it confused her a lot.”
The young woman’s relative told Tzanani that she did not attribute great importance to the incident at the time, but Berland's arrest caused her feelings to resurface.
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Rotem Tubul, Berland’s lawyer, told Haaretz for this article: “Such claims were made a few years ago and since then, Rabbi Berland has served a prison sentence, was released, and we know nothing about any claim in this matter.”
In the recording, Tzanani quickly denied the claims against Berland. “With us, even to look at a woman is forbidden, certainly not to touch in such a way,” he said. "But I’m telling you there are holy men who are entirely soul; it’s not a body at all. The rabbi has no connection to these things.”
The statement that Berland has no body was repeated many times during the conversation. “She needs to know: The rabbi is a complete ascetic, he has no body at all,” Tzanani said. “Sometimes he sees all sorts of things.”
Berland himself has made such claims over the years, including that he is God in the form of a man. Tzanani agrees; he has said the “holy spirit” rests in Berland, a man he says has immersed in a boiling ritual bath and suffered no harm, and “just a year ago revived a dead person – someone who was completely dead, and he resurrected him.”
During the conversation, Tzanani said that it was preferable not to discuss the matter at all, and that if there was contact between Berland and a female follower, it was justified because it was not sexual.
“It seems he saw some sort of thing and he needed to do this thing, but, God forbid, it was not anything,” Tzanani said. “I’m telling you that the rabbi has nothing concerning the body.”
When Tzanani's interlocutor once again noted that Berland told the young woman that he was touching her in order to correct “the sin of slander,” Tzanani responded: “Yes, it’s known that the rabbi understands transfigurations; maybe he saw in her a transfiguration, something. You understand?”
Tzanani was not immediately available for comment, but his statements in the recording could shed light on the role other people might have played in the Berland affair. In a civil suit filed in 2017, the plaintiffs said people close to Berland “approved of, justified and explicitly whitewashed the defendant’s criminal acts.”
At the time, Tzanani said he “never ignored and did not approve of, validate or whitewash any crimes.” Tzanani said he never justified a criminal act by Berland and never gave religious justification for any such act.
After Berland was released from prison early on medical grounds, he returned to lead his community, despite denunciations by ultra-Orthodox leaders. Two months ago, an ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court issued a harsh ruling concerning the sex crimes Berland was convicted of.
“Explicit testimony and evidence has been received about forbidden and most serious acts,” the court stated. “Those who guard their souls must stay away from him.”
The head of the rabbinical court, Rabbi Sariel Rosenberg, described in a letter that he had no doubt that Berland regularly “hugged and kissed women and virgins, and put his hands under their clothes, and there were testimonies about it that were not refuted at all.”
Regarding the corruption charges, the police suspect that Berland and a number of close associates collected money from people suffering from various diseases in return for promises that they would be healed. He also allegedly provided them with candy instead of medication.
The issue of healing also arose in the conversation between Tzanani and the young woman’s relative.
Tzanani described how someone once told him that Berland had met with his sick wife and he “kissed her on the shoulder. Two days later, the disease passed. Do you understand? There are holy men; it’s not on our level …. But you need to know that the holy man has no feeling at all. There is nothing.”