Israelis are going through another encounter with the hold that religion has on many of us, and its implications for government, law, and the economy.
We''re trying to plumb the details surrounding charges by, and about a charismatic rabbi, whose activities touch individuals at the pinnacles of business, government, and crime, as well as many others, in both Israel and the US.
The rabbi--Yoshiyahu Pinto--does good for himself as well as others. He began as a yeshiva student in in Ashdod, which is not at the center of distinguished religious circles. Its students do not go far in the murky world of becoming recognized as leading figures. Yet he acquired two expensive residences, one in Ashdod and one in Manhattan, and has collected donations from followers that finance himself and a number of charitable ventures, said to involve aid to needy widows, soup kitchens, as well as grants and loans to individuals who approach him with stories of misfortune, need, or promising business opportunities. He has mediated business disputes between followers, including those who are prominent in Israel''s underworld, and look to the rabbi to settle things before they turn into wars, or to end their wars honorably.
Among his followers have been two of Israel''s leading entrepreneurs, who are said to have relied on the rabbi''s advice for matters personal and commercial. Either due to that advice or some other bad moves, they got themselves in trouble and cost investors in their companies--including some of the major banks and pension funds--large write-offs of debt.
The rabbi has been pictured in the company of leading politicians and government officials, including a senior member of the police now under investigation for charges of leaking information about investigations into the rabbi and his followers. There are pictures of that police officer out of uniform, with skullcap, and in a group surrounding the rabbi and waiting his word or blessing, and the opportunity to kiss his hand. We hear that the rabbi is under investigation for involvement in blackmail, perhaps both as perpetrator and victim, bribery, influence peddling, illegal campaign contributions, and money laundering, including involvement with a US Congressman that has made him a concern of the FBI.
The cartoon in Monday''s Ha''aretz poked fun at the phenomon of Sephardi rabbis claiming mystic powers.
One of those rabbis goes by the name "The Rentgen" (X-ray), perhaps in reference to his penetrating insights. The cartoon shows his picture on the wall, along with pictures of other rabbis for whom the artists creates the labels The MRI, The Ultrasound, and a new rabbi being named The Colonoscopy.
Judaism has a long tradition of rabbis who gain reputations for their wisdom or claims of mystical powers. It is no easy task to explain the source of their appeal. There is no single hierarchy, and considerable dispute among the congregations of religious Jews as to who are the leaders in the present or past generations with respect to their knowledge of religious law, their wisdom in finding the right source for answering one''s question, as well as advice on personal or family matters, politics, or business. In some communities the designation passes from father to son. There may be competition between several sons for the mantle, as in the family of the recently deceased Ovadia Yosef.
While some rabbis'' claims to leadership, especially among the Sephardim, rest on their knowledge of Kabbala and other mystical features in Judaism, that of others--more likely among the Ashkenazim--rests on reputations begun in their youngest days demonstrating unusual facility with the complexities of religious law found in the Torah, Mishnah, Talmud and subsequent commentaries of two thousand years.
Yet the traditions are mixed. Rabbi Ovadia reached the pinnacle of Sephardi Judaism on the basis of his Talmudic knowledge, while both Sephardi and Ashkenazi congregations send thousands to visit the graves of notable rabbis, sell pictures of rabbis, framed quotations, or religious articles and amulets said to have been used by them or blessed by them, all of which may be said to pass on the rabbi''s power to cure disease, assure success in business or the pregnancy of barren women. Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox are prominent in the masses adhering to authoritarian rabbis who tell them how to vote, when and where to demonstrate in behalf of whatever is the issue of the moment, and what to think about work, military service, having lots of children who will be brought up to do the same, and whether to respect Israel Independence Day or the Day to Remember the Holocaust.
Charismatic rabbis who attract high ranking followers as wonder workers are only part of the economy and politics of Israel touched by--or immersed in--religion. No less heavy is the burden carried on account of ultra-Orthodox who insist on avoiding of military service, modern education, work and taxes, and whose rabbis demand control of who may marry who, rules of divorce, definition of who is a Jew, procedures for conversion, and the ability to declare the de-conversion of a convert found to be not following their rules about observing Shabbat or kashrut,
Defense Minister Ya''alon inserted himself into world headlines by charging Secretary of State John Kerry with messianicism for the obsession with which he is seeking to bring Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement that neither can accept. No less messianic are the Jews who insist on a God given right to the entire Land of Israel, which in some views extends east of the Jordan as well as everything between the river and the sea.
It is appropriate to express all the conventional reservations about generalization, especially in the case of beliefs among Jews. Membership in the nation from birth, and affiliation with one or another cluster (ultra-Orthodox and a particular congregation among the ultra-Orthodox; Orthodox, liberal or secular) has traditionally been more crucial than the explicit acceptance of creed.
It has become the role of secular Israelis who concern themselves with Judaism and the non-messianic among the Orthodox to keep alive what is apparent in the later sections of the Hebrew Bible, i.e., a conception of the Almighty that is abstract, without human form or the capacity to communicate with humans, along with the morals articulated by prophets.
One metric that indicates something about the emotions associated with religious and political leaders are the numbers who assembled for the last rites of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the late General and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The crowds for the Rabbi were estimated in the hundreds of thousands, jamming several blocks in the area of the cemetery, climbing trees and lamp posts and crowding balconies and roof tops for a view, while a few thousand walked quietly by Sharon''s casket while it lay in the courtyard of the Knesset.
The United States is the democratic society closest to Israel in being affected by religious fervor. One can argue as to which is more God-soaked. The American mantra of having a constitutional separation of religion and state goes considerably beyond the actual language of the Constitution, and overlooks substantial benefits provided to religion via the tax free status of property and buildings, the government support to religious schools, and the prominence in political discussion of religious issues.
Among the manifestations are America''s distinction from other western democracies in the phenomena of mega churches, television evangelists, and the politics focused on abortion, homosexuality, school texts concerned with evolution, creationism or intelligent design, the historical issue of Prohibition, and something that warms the hearts of Israelis but not liberal American Jews--the intense support of Israel shown by Fundamentalist Protestants..