Israel's Celebrity Rabbi Problem

Monday, January 27, 2014 |  Tsvi Sadan

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto became a household name when a week ago he came under suspicion of attempting to bribe a senior police officer, Menashe Arviv.

Rabbi Pinto represents a relatively new religious phenomenon – the celebrity rabbi. Where up until recently a few rabbis were known to be the rabbis of celebrities, a rabbi who is himself the celebrity is a new and disturbing phenomenon.

Forbes Israel magazine recently published a list of some of the richest rabbis in Israel. Rabbi Pinto's estimated worth is 75 million dollars, and he is not at the top of the list.

These rabbis have amassed so much wealth not because they are exceptionally good businessmen, but rather because of their followers' contributions. And though most initially became known for their religious prowess, their newfound fortunes and the "friends" they have acquired have transformed these rabbis into powerful political figures.

Rabbi Pinto, many say, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Since Rabbi Pinto, like many celebrity rabbis, is a Kabbalist - someone who deals in Jewish mysticism - he strikes both awe and fear in the hearts of many, who in turn are prepared to justify even the unjustifiable.

It was for this reason that it was refreshing to read the open letter by Yehuda Yifrach in the Orthodox Jewish news website Kooker. Yifrach is the head of the legal desk at the Israeli newspaper group Maariv-Makor Rishon. The following is my translation of what I felt was the essence of Yifrach's letter, which undoubtedly spoke to many Israelis who regularly seek out a Tsadik, "Righteous One", for personal gain:

"The attraction to the Tsadik did not initially rise out of infantile excitement over signs and wonders. It rose out of the yearning for transformation that occurs when encountering a marvelous figure. The trembling encounter with this individual changed you, shook your beliefs and exposed within you a spiritual core that caused you to be born again. This figure challenged your frozen religiosity... The Tsadik didn't turn you from non-religious to religious, from rationalist to mystic ... what he did was transform you from one state of being to another ... he inspired you and settled the contradictions that tore you apart.

"However, spirituality creates power, and power attracts un-spiritual people. Many little people were unable to grasp this idea, and built instead a statue, prostrated themselves before it and shouted, 'this is your god, O Israel.' The more talented [among those new 'Tsadiks'] quickly identified the alchemist's path to turn metal into gold. They channeled the light of the Tsadik through their prisms and collected the fruits into their bank accounts.

"They became an ATM, a kind of machine that with the press of a button spews something out … you know that the tycoons sought the Tsadik primarily for tangible financial results, and that they cared nothing for spirituality. As one famous businesswoman expressed it, 'Just as I need a lawyer … [and] a good accountant … I need someone who will tie up for me all the loose ends of uncertainty, who will not allow me to make bad investments.'"

One can only hope that the Pinto affair will help this new phenomenon of celebrity rabbis quickly disappear.

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