Monday, December 20, 2010

Kidnapping Rebbes Goes Viral

For the last two weeks a weird story has been playing out in the Breslov community of Shuvu Banim - a not too small newish Hasidish community that is made up of Chozrim Be'teshuvah. As reported in the Jerusalem post (and only about a week after every Hebrew paper reported it):

A scandal that is rocking the Breslov community of Shuvu Banim has taken another twist, with its spiritual leader Rabbi Eliezer Berland’s return to his Jerusalem home from his hiding place in the North on Saturday night, after breaking away from 10 years of captivity, during which he says he was little more than a marionette controlled by his son and grandson.
Some two weeks ago, prominent members of the small Jerusalem-based community found a DVD outside their homes, containing videos and documents proving that the 73- year-old Berland was in fact being controlled by his son, Rabbi Nachman Berland, and grandson Nathan Berland, who for years prevented direct access to the older man and dictated his every move and action.

Shortly afterward, Eliezer staged his kidnapping to flee to the North, where he took refuge in Moshav Amirim, initially not disclosing his whereabouts. In a phone call with some 20 of his closest hassidim, Eliezer recalled the torment he underwent.
“I was locked at home for 10 years,” he said. “They wanted to admit me to an insane asylum. Over the course of the last year, I’ve been admitted to hospitals every two weeks, because of the duress I was subject to,” he said. 
This story eerily mirrors the recent story of Ben-Artzi a so called miracle worker, who reported that he was kidnapped and controlled by his Hasidim for years. Where does all of this lead us? I have come to the conclusion that today no new "Ba'al Shem Tov" could possibly start a new religious renaissance - at least without getting kidnapped along the way. The reason is that today any charismatic rebbe who is going to start having Hassidim, will immediately start having someone lavish great donations on him and his cause. Where there are great donations, human greed will soon catch up. Soon after achieving any success, the new rebbe will have a faithful Gabbay who will start taking care of the financial side of things. Greed and easy temptation - with little supervision (hey I'm sure the rebbe is too holy to deal with the money) lead to corruption. The Rebbe becomes a source of income, a money tree of life and soon a holy cow to be milked. It won't take long before the Gabbay has his Rebbe locked up, controls all of his time (Time = $ after all) and decides who the Rebbe can meet.

I am not sure what has changed. Perhaps, this is just a natural scenario for Hasidic courts that has played out time and again, with a graveyard of Hassidiut  paving the path of history. However I suspect that there is some additional factor at play.  I would guess that today's technological means are allowing new religious leaders to gather a following (and with them the donations) at an unmatched pace. This doesn't allow the "Rebbes" to have enough time to put the right men in charge of their affairs. Additionally I suspect the sums of money involved are far greater then they would have been even a few decades ago, with the added simplicity of hiding money in today's electronic banking world making corruption the rule and not the exception. Regardless these two stories, show that being a Rebbe is nowhere near as fun as it used to be. 

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