In My Own Write: Material man?

There’s something about the phrase 'rich rabbi' that doesn’t sit right.

(photo credit: OFIR AVITAN)
If there’s one thing my husband cannot abide, it’s waste; particularly wasted food – an aversion he attributes to being raised by parents who struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression.
For decades before his aliya, he would visit Israel for long periods, spending a significant amount of time volunteering. And for years, one of his regular places was the Hazon Yeshaya soup kitchen, part of an extensive international charitable foundation.
The popular soup kitchen in downtown Jerusalem served hot lunches to the capital’s many needy, and my husband was one of a group of dedicated volunteers who gained considerable satisfaction from helping to prepare the food and making sure that all comers were served promptly and efficiently.
But, as he complained to me in 2010, the one thing he couldn’t make his peace with was how much food got thrown away, food simply left uneaten on people’s plates.
This bothered him so much that he shared his feelings with a visitor who dropped in one day to take a look at the operation.
Shortly afterwards, he was pulled aside by the manager and informed that the “drop-in” had been a prospective major donor to the soup kitchen and that, as a result of my husband’s complaining, he would now be directing his donation elsewhere. The implication seemed to be, my husband added ruefully, that his presence at the charity was no longer regarded as an unmitigated blessing; and, indeed, he never went back there.
I WAS reminded of this episode last week when “celebrity” Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, who ran the vast Hazon Yeshaya charitable foundation, was sentenced in Israel’s Supreme Court, as part of a plea bargain, to the prison term he had done everything in his power to avoid, together with a NIS 1 million fine. The charge on which he was found guilty was attempted bribery of the head of the police’s National Fraud Squad, Ephraim Bracha, with $200,000 in return for information about an ongoing criminal investigation into Hazon Yeshaya.
The investigation had begun in early 2012, following numerous complaints about the charity’s financial activities which included allegations of embezzlement and money laundering.
Beleaguered by the allegations, the charity ceased to function that same year – and my husband, disconcerted until then that a word from him in the “wrong place” had prevented money going to such a worthy cause, was now able to take a more philosophical view.
BUT WHAT really caught my attention in last week’s report of Pinto’s sentencing was an accompanying headline saying he had been listed by Forbes as “the seventh-richest rabbi in Israel.”
According to The Forward, while most Israeli rabbis make modest salaries, in 2013, “the 10 wealthiest Israeli rabbis owned a combined fortune of over $620 million, according to a recent ranking by Forbes Israel.”
Some inherited their wealth, but “superstar rabbis...
can collect large sums in return for advice, blessings, amulets, and attending their followers’ family events.”
Several members of the Abuhatzeira family – descendants of the Baba Sali, a famed Sephardi religious leader who died in 1984 but is still widely revered in Israel – feature largely on Forbes’s richest rabbis list.
Rabbi and kabbalist Pinto, a cousin of the Abuhatzeiras, is described as “one of Israel’s most highly sought-after rabbis [who] directs an international network of yeshivas and charities.”
Two members of the Ifargan family are on the Forbes list: Rabbi Yaakov Israel Ifargan (No. 5) and his sister Rebbetzin Bruria Zvuluni (No. 10), who together are said to possess over $30 million. “Known as the ‘X-ray’ by those who believe he can diagnose illness by eyesight only, Ifargan, like Pinto, advises high-profile Israeli politicians, businessmen and celebrities – for a fee.”
Two powerful hassidic leaders who rank high on the list of Israel’s wealthiest rabbis are the Rebbe of Gur (No. 2) and the Belzer Rebbe (No. 3); most members of their communities subsist below the poverty line.
THERE’S SOMETHING about the phrase “rich rabbi” that doesn’t sit right. A rabbi should be rich in wisdom and knowledge, in patience and compassion, in empathy, in spirituality, in Torah scholarship to underpin all of these – but in money to the extent of being ranked in Forbes’ annual listing of the world’s wealthiest people? As they say in Yiddish: “Pas nicht” (It isn’t proper).
A man may already be wealthy and decide to become a rabbi, in which case his wealth shouldn’t raise any eyebrows; but one might reasonably expect that some of it was being used to improve the lot of others less fortunate.
In his two-volume Seventy Faces – Articles of Faith, Norman Lamm, himself an Orthodox rabbi and American Jewish communal leader, writes that he believes a rabbi should be “a man of integrity and spirituality... whose ideals and practice transcend his self-interest, whose deportment and, indeed, very presence symbolize the values of Torah....
“By all means,” says Lamm, “a rabbi should have a good living salary, no less than others, but his material ambitions should never be his priority. A rabbi should always have his hand stretched out to his laymen to solicit their help and substance for tzedakah [charity] – but never, ever may he have that hand stretched out for a personal gift or fee.”
"I don't really think of these guys as rabbis,” opined a friend who had been given an opportunity to observe Pinto from close up during his court sessions. “They want to lead cults, and they happen to be Jewish – so they become rabbis. If they were Christian, they’d head mega-churches.”
Certainly there is something mega about wonder-rabbis like Pinto, whose staunch adherents – all the way up to government ministers and billionaire businessmen – venerate them as possessing miraculous prophetic and curative powers and regularly seek their blessing or counsel.
“People who do not wait in line for anything wait in line for Rav Pinto,” wrote a reporter who waited several hours to gain an audience with the rabbi.
CAN PINTO perform wonders? Many swear he can. But there is something of the cult leader – or “godfather” – about him that sits uneasily with the image of wise rabbi and spiritual guide.
Top police investigator Ephraim Bracha, who broke the case against Pinto after he recorded the rabbi offering him a hefty bribe, shocked the nation by committing suicide following a public campaign of attacks against him by Pinto followers on a number of fronts, including social media. He had been close to the rabbi and reportedly hated having to turn him in; Pinto supporters saw him as a traitor.
“[Pinto] has more bodyguards than Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu],” The Jerusalem Post’s chief photographer Marc Israel Sellem commented darkly after he and some dozen colleagues were attacked by 18 Pinto supporters while trying to photograph the rabbi as he left the courtroom after the sentencing. They pushed him to the floor and broke his camera.
PINTO’S NIS 1 million fine sounds like a drop in the bucket for the seventh-richest rabbi in Israel. His fortune is likely to remain intact. But after a year spent in an Israeli prison rather than in his opulent Ashdod villa, will the rabbi still agree with the Greek playwright Sophocles that “profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception”?