Shabtai Tzvi Syndrome comeback?

The primary manifestation of this can be seen in the case of disgraced charismatic leader Eliezer Berland, arrested last week in Jerusalem. He has not yet stood trial, but many of his followers are rationalizing evidence that has been made public.

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

OpEds Demonstration in support of Rabbi Eliezer Berland
Demonstration in support of Rabbi Eliezer Berland
צילום: PR

The devastating pain Shabtai Tzvi(1626-1676) and his followers inflicted on the Jewish people have lasted for centuries. Presenting himself as the Messiah, garnering the support of hundreds of thousands, Tzvi’s eventual misconduct and conversion to Islam, has scared the Jewish people for centuries. Much of this pain could have been prevented by addressing this charlatan and likely psychopath earlier. Sadly, we have seen in the past year, a wave of deja vu Shabtai Tzvi ideology flourishing in the past five years in the Jewish community— without much religious opposition. 

The primary manifestation of this can be seen in the case of disgraced charismatic leader Eliezer Berland, arrested last week in Jerusalem. His seemingly open disregard to at least two of Judaism’s three most cardinal sins can be seen on video alongside other widely available incriminating information. Similar to Shabtai Tzi, Berland’s seeming disregard for the laws of morality is public, and often rationalized by his followers. Recently, Berland was taken into custody for allegedly advising a cancer patient to quit life-saving treatment in favor of giving him
The late Yaakov Weinrot, someone who was Israel’s most prominent lawyer and a devout Jew, lamented the devastating impact of Berland’s behavior on an entire generation . He referred to Berland as a as a Choteh U’machti
money, resulting in her tragic death. 

What is disheartening is not Berland’s alleged immoral behavior and lack of self-awareness; it is the devotion of his followers and lack of more significant protest from within our community. The fact that when the police went in to arrest him in the heart of heart of Me’ah She’arim—a deeply and sincerely religious community— they were not greeted and welcomed, but rather had his followers, members of Shuvu Banim, throwing themselves under the wheels of the police car making the arrest. This shocking devotion to a man accused of being a shameless sinner is all too reminiscent of the days of Shabtai Tzvi, days in which a response from within the Jewish community was far too delayed and at an incredibly painful price.(Information received has it that Meah Shearim residents are strongly against the group, but fear their retribution and are secretly pleased that the authorities arrested him.)

Followers of Berland can be divided into two groups. The first denies all allegations even in the face of mounting evidence. The second, far worse than the first, agrees with the facts that took place, yet cite Kabbalistic explanations to rationalize his actions as being spiritually necessary. Sounds familiar? Shabtai Tzvi? 

The late Yaakov Weinroth, someone who was Israel’s most prominent lawyer and a devout Jew, lamented the devastating impact of Berland’s behavior on an entire generation . He referred to Berland as a as a Choteh U’machti—a sinner who causes others to sin; Berland’s damaging actions in the field of moral decency will destroy a generation of his students.

The noticeable silence from so many religious Jews, in the face of such horrors is deafening. We cannot allow for a situation in which as long as someone is dressed a certain way, and wears the “right” kippa, to literally get away with murder. We cannot allow the use of Kabalistic and spiritual reasoning to be used and abused for the fulfillment of the worst possible sins. 

Berland is not the only embodiment of communal silence in the face of distortion. Shmuel Tal, a prominent Israeli rabbi was recently accused of highly inappropriate conduct. His justification? The Holy Spirit has instructed him in that direction. While an overwhelming number of rabbis and students in the Religious Zionist sector he comes from have courageously condemned Tal and called for his resignation, a few defended him, some citing spiritual secrets to justify Tal’s transgressions. Sounds familiar?  

It is unthinkable that such behaviors should earn anything less than widespread outrage and condemnation. It terrifies me to know that some in Shmuel Tal’s community who came out publicly in opposition to him and his behaviors have been pursued, excluded, and targeted by those who either still believe in him or feel the community in which he lived must deal with its own transgressors and not publicize the issue - as kibbutzim did for years .

Toleration of the abuse of Torah, Mitzvos, Kabbalah, and spirituality to justify transgressions of Judaism is a crime against the Yiddishkeit we all love and cherish. We must never allow our religion to be used for the justification of the worst of all sins. 

There will always be corrupt, sinful, or mentally unstable individuals who seek to get their way at all costs. Sadly, that is the reality of life. The real tragedy—and danger—is when such perpetrators are not ejected and condemned by the wider community. The fact is that after all this information has been public and before it is made clear through a thorough investigation, Berland was still honored with the annual lighting of the fire in Meron on Lag Ba’omer, alongside the greatest Rabbis and Tzadikim of our generation. The incredible damage caused by the rise and fall of Shabtai Tzvi was not done merely by the actions he took, but by the failure to recognize him for who he was. 

Seeing the dedication of Eliezer Berland’s followers to him, I asked a well-respected Israeli educator what would happen if Berland converted to Islam the way Shabtai Tzvi had. Without blinking, he assured me that those who follow him with devotion would continue to follow him.  Of course, we are living in different times and the chances of that are nil.

It is time we speak out against those who use and abuse Judaism for their own use and condemn them. It is time we stand for what is right and not tolerate the use of religion for the rationalization of their darkest aspirations. The sooner we do so the better. The longer we take to condemn such manipulative behavior the greater the damage done to an entire generation. 




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