Sunday, July 31, 2011

Losing my Religion; part one. An occasional series documenting my disaffection with organised religion.

It was a friend of mine whom I met at the gym the other day who brought to my attention the murder of Rabbi Abuhatzeira in Beer Sheva the night before. Apparently, someone came in while he was hosting guests for consultation at a yeshiva near his home and stabbed the 70-year old cleric to death. “How could this have happened?” my friend asked, “who would want to kill a rabbi?”

Surprisingly, I wasn’t surprised. I replied that it must have been someone who had been given some bad advice by the rabbi. Many of those that seek help from religious leaders are not altogether mentally stable and who knows what could happen if one of them should be given advice or an assurance by a rabbi that turned out not to solve a problem.

When I got home, I went to the Ha’aretz website ( and read up on the case. It seemed that I had guessed correctly. The alleged killer had said on being apprehended that Rabbi Abuhazeira “had failed to solve his marital problems.”

Ok, let me get one thing straight before I launch into my tirade; I am in no way justifying the murder of rabbis. However, in a way, I am quite surprised that this had not happened before.
In certain circles, rabbis have become ultimate authorities on every subject under the sun, regardless of whether or not they are qualified to pass judgment on them. They are ready to hand out advice on medical, financial, marital and even military matters in spite of the fact that they might lack the necessary background to do so.

Just after the first Gulf War, for instance, in 1991, I found myself invited to a Brit of ultra-orthodox friends of ours. The seating was separate and I knew no one there apart from the wife who wasn’t allowed to sit next to me (the harlot.) I had nothing to do but to eavesdrop on a conversation held amongst several yeshiva bochers sitting nearby. They were praising their rebbe for his foresight as he had told them not to shave off their beards contrary to the instructions of the Israeli military authorities. Before the war began, there was a serious chance that Iraq would launch missiles with non-conventional warheads at Israel. Gas masks had been handed out; however, these would be ineffective if the wearer had a beard which would prevent the mask from being hermetically sealed. For children who would have problems in keeping the masks on hooded masks were provided. When haredim announced that they would not shave off their beards in spite of the warnings of the military authorities, they too were given these hoods. This led to a shortage as the IDF had not taken into account that grown men would need these too. Some children had to go without.

As we all know now, the gas masks, luckily, were not needed. This happy coincidence seemed to give those yeshiva students’ rebbe guru status. He knew better than the generals and had prevented the Desecration of G-d’s name which would have been caused had these young men had to walk around bare-faced for a month. It must be pointed out that the judgment of this and other ultra-orthodox rabbis in this case was questionable. Halachically speaking, there is nothing wrong with shaving off a beard (it’s how it is shaved off that is the problem,) especially as people’s lives were at stake here. 

Haredi rabbis have a problem when it comes to their followers listening to secular authority which could detrimentally affect their own influence.  In this instance, the rabbis who instructed against the shaving off of beards were simply very fortunate that their uninformed advice did not cause a major tragedy.

Tragedies, however, have been known to be the result of bad rabbinical advice. When my wife gave birth to our second child, 19 years ago, she was placed in an obstetrics ward. The birth had gone off without any hitches, but there was simply no room in the maternity ward. She was in a room with women who were under supervision due to problems with their pregnancies. One ultra-orthodox woman was there pending her eighth or ninth child. She told my wife that after she had given birth to her last one, she was instructed by her doctor not to get pregnant again as this could endanger her life. She was even asked to sign a document attesting to this to prevent a malpractice suit. This instruction, which in itself carries much halachic weight, was not enough for her and she went to consult her rabbi who told her to ignore the doctor’s advice. Although I don’t know the outcome of this story, several years later, I recounted it to a colleague at work who told me that he personally knew of an identical story in which the woman, who had followed her rabbi’s advice contrary to what her doctor had ordered, died.

Yet, it is not always the rabbis’ fault. Many people turn to rabbis for advice under the na├»ve assumption that rabbis are, like the Pope, infallible. All professionals, in any field, who are called on to give guidance to the general public, have to choose their words very carefully in order that their advice should not be misconstrued as a fail-safe guarantee that everything will turn out fine in the end. As a teacher, I never tell a parent that if their son studies harder, he will definitely succeed in his matriculation exam. I know that there are too many variables affecting the eventual outcome. All I say is that if he doesn’t study, he will most likely fail.

Rabbis, however, especially those who dabble in Kabbalah such as the late Rabbi Abuhatzeira, are regarded as the supposed custodians of the Divine Truth and will be seen by their parishioners as incapable of being wrong. This means that when their advice doesn’t work, it can lead to a serious crisis of faith amongst those who consulted them. The rabbi may understand that his guidance will not guarantee absolute success and may even try to make that point clear. But the chances are that the consulter will not see this in the same light. He has gone to the rabbi in the belief that the holy man can work miracles; otherwise he would merely have turned to a marriage guidance counselor, a doctor, a lawyer or a financial advisor to help him with his troubles. These are all people who know their onions but are, of course, fallible.

The situation, at present, is not helped by the charlatans posing as rabbis and Kabbalists who claim to have miracle solutions and cures. They play to the poor and gullible, the weaker strata of society who are looking for their quick fix. How much damage these imposters have done is impossible to know. Now and again, stories of people who have been taken for a ride by them reach the press, but I assume that many, many more are kept hidden by the victims who still believe that the “rabbi” has some mystical power and bad things will befall them should they say anything.

The whole situation, in fact, can be summed up in a joke I once heard (well I assume it was a joke) about a rabbi who can help your wife give birth to a son. You go to him, pay him $100 and he blesses her. It’s okay though because if the blessing doesn’t work, you get your money back.