Murder Worries Advice-giving Rabbis

'He was the kind of rabbi who runs your life,' says frequent visitor to Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira.

Last Thursday's murder in Be'er Sheva was a private tragedy, but it was also an unprecedented event. If, as police suspect, Asher Dahan indeed murdered Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira because he was upset over the advice the rabbi gave him, then the relationship between rabbis and their flocks has just changed: Previously, rabbis had no reason to fear that interacting with the public endangered their lives.

Seemingly, this was an extreme, possibly unique, case, and police are investigating whether the suspect had psychiatric problems. But might it also be connected to the reality that has developed over the years in the courts of rabbinic mystics, where arbitrary power and big money intersect with real human misery?

Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira
Kikar Hashabat

The rabbinic elite is in shock, uncertain how to deal with the murder.

Associates of the admor of Gur, who heads the Gur Hasidic sect, quoted him as saying he may stop meeting with his disciples one-on-one. An aide to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who has masses of people knocking on the door of his Bnei Brak home every day, told Haaretz that "ever since the murder, I've felt I need to watch the rabbi's back, and my own." Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, son of the kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri, even spoke of possibly hiring guards.

It's certainly not unprecedented for people to be upset after consulting a rabbi about a personal problem, and that also went for Abuhatzeira, known as the Baba Elazar. In 2009, a 47-year-old man was indicted for going to the rabbi's house with a knife and threatening to kill him. That man said he was angry because the rabbi made him a medical promise that hadn't come true.

That same year, a prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York began investigating Abuhatzeira on suspicion of defrauding dozens of people who sought his advice by demanding money in exchange for promises that they or their loved ones would recover from a terminal illness or have children.

One complainant, an ultra-Orthodox businessman from Brooklyn, said he gave the rabbi a check for $100,000 for a promise that his daughter would bear children despite her medical problems. The daughter died at age 24, still childless. According to the businessman, she died after hearing that the rabbi had cursed her because her father refused to keep giving him money.

Due to the investigation, which was still open when he was killed, Abuhatzeira stopped traveling to the United States.

A series of Haaretz reports back in 1997 revealed how the rabbi would demand that those who sought his advice give him large sums of money. And they did - partly for fear that he would either curse them or ostracize them if they didn't.

The reports, by Yossi Bar-Moha, also revealed that the rabbi had NIS 320 million in his personal bank account, as well as the way the authorities had bent the planning and building laws for him - for instance, letting him build a tunnel under the street where he lived so he could go from home to study house without seeing daylight.

Those articles prompted a police investigation, and police recommended that he be indicted for fraud. However, the prosecution overruled them. At the same time, the tax authorities reached a deal with Abuhatzeira under which he paid them NIS 20 million to avoid being prosecuted for tax evasion.

Abuhatzeira was one of Israel's leading kabbalists. He also appeared in TheMarker's list of the country's wealthiest people, with estimated assets of $80 million in 2011 - all donations from people who sought his blessing or advice.

His disciples acknowledge his wealth, but insist he used it all for the poor. For instance, he had a huge house on a 2.5-dunam lot, which included a soup kitchen where hundreds of poor people were fed every day.

"He was the kind of rabbi who runs your life," said a public figure who frequented his house. "He would tell you what to name your newborn child and which doctor to go to. For a certain type of person, that's good."

Over the last week, Israel's political leadership has flocked to Be'er Sheva to pay condolence calls on the family: President Shimon Peres, several ministers, opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned the widow. The fact that Abuhatzeira had a great many admirers has not escaped the politicians' notice.