Between Devotion and Dementia

A well-known Bnei Brak rabbi last week met with four daughters of the Beit Shemesh woman nicknamed the "Taliban Mother," after she was charged with abusing her children, in an effort to try to secure her release from detention. The woman is currently on trial.

The four young women, who represent seven of the 12 siblings in the proceedings, arrived at the home of Rabbi Yehuda Silman, accompanied by their husbands and children. The small room in the rabbi's apartment barely afforded enough space for all the baby carriages and small children. The women, who are in their 20s and 30s, were all wearing traditional ultra-Orthodox garb, with head coverings of the type worn by members of the Satmar Hasidic movement.

Although they are not accustomed to meeting with strangers, in recent days the women have nevertheless been knocking at the door of the state prosecution, with the rabbi's backing, to try to secure the early release of their mother, detained on suspicion of having abused a minor under aggravated circumstances. A number of other rabbis also support their cause.

The lawyer representing them, Zeri Hazan, says his clients are motivated by the fear that their mother could be sentenced to many years in prison. In addition, the women want to avoid sustaining any more trauma, after all the hardship they experienced as children. Over the past few months, the mother's lawyer, Gil Dahuah - the third lawyer to represent her - has been campaigning for her to be freed, saying she does not deserve to be in jail. He is backed in this effort by Dr. Yosef Laria, who heads the emergency ward at the Shalvata psychiatric hospital, and found the accused to be mentally ill and unable to stand trial.

"She was a good mother but she did crazy things because she lost touch with reality," Silman says. He says he decided to intervene because he knew the accused and her husband when they lived in Bnei Brak as a young couple. "They were considered a quality family here. The woman always wanted to help others, also because she had some kind of [homeopathic] medical background. Basically she is also a devoted mother and there was a time when she would make sure her children ate and drank and went to bed on time. But something illogical happened to her."

Even though her daughters still have difficulty accepting the psychiatric diagnosis, they are supporting the move, as are some of their siblings. However, two of the older children disagree - it was their testimonies that led to the mother's indictment.

Radical personality change

The alleged abuse came to light in March 2008, after the woman left her 13-year-old mentally disabled son outside the house for an entire night. Upon hearing the boy's cries, neighbors called the police. Under police interrogation, several other children testified that the mother had routinely abused some of them. She would beat them regularly with a belt, a rolling pin or electric wires. One of the young women attending the meeting at the rabbi's house had told police that her mother had punched her in the face several times and would wake her up in the mornings by throwing water on her. The mother was also charged with tying up the children, neglecting a minor, and extinguishing a burning match on the chest of one of the children. Most of the abuse took place more than a decade ago.

The prosecution charges that one of the young women present at the Bnei Brak meeting had also been a victim of incest. Today the same woman says it was a mistake to cooperate with the police, claiming that they told her it would help her mother, who would be released from detention sooner. The other girls also say they thought their cooperation would lead to their mother's release. "We didn't think it would lead to the opposite result," says one. "To testify against your mother is something abnormal."

More than a year after her arrest, the accused has not changed even one of her deviant religious habits and says she is determined to uphold them. Yet, her lawyer, the prison wardens and the few people who have visited her all believe her condition has deteriorated. When she has to meet her lawyer or go to court, the wardens have to drag her and she continually trips over her various layers of clothing. After her house arrest ended eight months ago, she was taken to Neveh Tirza prison until the conclusion of the proceedings. During her entire incarceration, she has refused to remove the dark blanket with which she covers her eyes.

Rabbi Silman's wife, an extremely influential personality in the Haredi world and the only person who visited the accused in jail, was amazed at what she saw. "It is shocking to see her being dragged around like a sack," she told her husband. She says she could not persuade the woman to uncover her eyes for even a moment to identify her. Because the accused refused to speak with her, they communicated in writing. "In Judaism there is no such thing as to cover one's eyes. She has gone overboard," the rabbanit said. She says the woman has "gone to the peaks of mysticism. She did not consult rabbis and so she got lost."

At home, the woman would speak only at certain times but since her arrest 13 months ago, she has stopped talking altogether. If she requests anything at all, she will only do so in writing. She continues to wear her clothes, which have become moldy, under the shower, fearing she will otherwise not be modest enough. She also puts a basket on her head when she showers. Due to her vegan diet, she hardly eats. She spends all her time in the cell praying and rocking incessantly. A psychiatrist might construe such behavior as evidence of a mental problem - not supreme piety.

In the past few months, as the trial is nearing a close, the accused's perceived personality has changed radically. Her new lawyer is trying to argue that she is no charismatic and zealous guru who managed to attract a sect of women who wish to bring about redemption, but simply a sick woman. Dr. Laria says she suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, expressed in her outlandish prayer ceremonies and clothes, as well as delusional disorder. In other words, she has a psychotic condition that finds expression in false religious thoughts. Laria believes the illness dates back to the birth of her mentally handicapped son, basing his diagnosis on the tests she underwent, her family history and the testimonies of family acquaintances.

Able to tell truth from lies?

In a series of meetings I held with the woman in the summer of 2008, both during the lessons she gave and in an interview, I got the impression that she understood my questions, although the content of her responses was illusionary. According to Laria, this is why the illness is so deceptive. "When someone is psychotic, this can manifest itself in a narrow field related to the illness. Other aspects of the personality may be completely normal," he says. "I also examined her religious behavior vis-a-vis other people in her social living environment," he adds. "Her religious ideology deviates from her environment's cultural and philosophical background - which indicates that she has deviated from society because of her false thoughts."

Rabbis in Bnei Brak also claim the accused has lost any connection with reality, but it remains unclear why they did not warn about this development before. "If you act in a certain way and go overboard it is a sign that you have made a mistake. Not only do we want our children to be ultra-Orthodox, we want them to live in a good atmosphere and to be healthy, and it should be good and fun for them to live that way. If you reach a point where the children are broken and every minute is a nightmare, you have to realize that you have reached the opposite educational outcome," says Rabbi Silman's wife.

A few days before the indictment was submitted to the court, during the extention of the woman's remand, magistrate Hagit Kalmanowitz said she believed the accused should not be detained because her problem was not criminal in nature but rather psychological and medical. Only after she violated the terms of her house arrest was she taken to prison. Now Judge Navah Ben-Or will have to rule on the intriguing matter of whether crazy religious behavior constitutes mental insanity.

The discussion of this issue arose because of the dissension between the state's position - based on the opinion of the Eitanim mental hospital, according to which the woman is a borderline psychotic but can differentiate between truth and lies, and can thus stand trial - and the position of the defense's psychiatrist, Dr. Laria - who says she is unfit to stand trial. The argument is not based on facts, but rather on the diagnosis of her thoughts.

Laria says he differs with the prosecution concerning the duration and strength of the thoughts and because he believes there are psychotic symptoms in the woman's case. By contrast, the state believes that while there is a disorder, she is not ill. If the court accepts the defense's position that she is not responsible for her deeds, then the brunt of responsibility will fall on her husband, who is also facing trial on charges of failing to prevent the abuse. That is also the reason why, even though he supports his wife, he did not join his daughters in Bnei Brak.