Friday, August 05, 2011

Asking Advice from Rabbis

Last week there was yet another tragic and shocking murder in the Jewish world. It too was committed by a religious Jew. Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira (pictured) was murdered by Asher Dahan – a petitioner who asked him for advice and didn’t like the advice he was given.

Obviously the man who murdered him is sick. And as in the Leiby Kletsky murder this was an anomaly. It should not really change the way we do things. If someone ones to visit a Rabbi for his advice on any matter he ought to do so – and rabbis ought to not worry about the consequences of giving unwanted advice .

Nonetheless, Ha’aretz reports that two towering rabbinic figures, the Gerer Rebbe and Rav Chaim Kanievsky have altered their behavior following this event:

Associates of the admor of Gur, who heads the Gur Hasidic sect, quoted him as saying he may stop meeting with his disciples one-on-one. An aide to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who has masses of people knocking on the door of his Bnei Brak home every day, told Haaretz that "ever since the murder, I've felt I need to watch the rabbi's back, and my own." Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, son of the kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri, even spoke of possibly hiring guards.

I can’t really say that I blame them. Even though this is a rarity – so rare that I do not recall it ever happening before – I suppose it is better to be safe.

The question arises as to why mere advice – even if it is not the advice he expects - draws such reactions. What causes anyone to contemplate murdering the person who gave it to them?

I believe that the kind of thinking that raises a human being to the level of near God-like proportions that can cause a petitioner to harbor such thoughts if things don’t work out like they expect.

Even though this murder was obviously an extreme over-reaction that will probably never happen again, it nevertheless represents this underlying problem that could in some cases give rise to very negative and visceral reactions. Especially if the advice is in the form of a promise based on an ultimatum involving money:

In 2009, a 47-year-old man was indicted for going to the rabbi's house with a knife and threatening to kill him. That man said he was angry because the rabbi made him a medical promise that hadn't come true.

That same year, a prosecutor in Brooklyn, New York began investigating Abuhatzeira on suspicion of defrauding dozens of people who sought his advice by demanding money in exchange for promises that they or their loved ones would recover from a terminal illness or have children.

One complainant, an ultra-Orthodox businessman from Brooklyn, said he gave the rabbi a check for $100,000 for a promise that his daughter would bear children despite her medical problems. The daughter died at age 24, still childless. According to the businessman, she died after hearing that the rabbi had cursed her because her father refused to keep giving him money.

First let me be quick to point out that I am not judging Rabbi Abuhatzeira's innocence or guilt with respect to fraud. He may very well be innocent of it. Being investigated in not proof of guilt. To the best of my knowledge, he was never charged with a crime. But in any case this post is not about that. It is about how people saw him as a rabbinic figure with connections to God.

I can certainly understand the anger directed at someone giving a Brahca for cash and then having it backfire in the way it did for that ultra-Orthodox businessman from Brooklyn. But had he not put so much faith into the power of a human being, he would not have had the reaction he did... and saved some money.

It has become increasingly popular to go to Rabbanim not just for advice but for Brachos with a donation in hand. It used to be just Chasidic Rebbes and Sephardi Mekubalim. But now it is also Lithuanian style Roshei Yeshiva too.

That kind of faith in a rabbinic figure inspires overconfidence in a desired outcome. An individual may walk away believing that his prayers have a much greater chance of being fulfilled if the Mekubal, Chasidic Rebbe, or Lithuanian style Rosh HaYeshiva prays for him too.

This is what happens when people put too much faith in the spiritual powers of others. If things don’t go as promised, the feeling of disappointment is palpable. And sometimes the person giving the advice is blamed for the outcome… or for taking advantage of their predicament for cash!

There is of course nothing wrong with someone taking donations from an individual making a prayer request of him. But I find it very off-putting that they actually request the money - as in one case I know.

A young girl who asked a Rosh HaYeshiva for a Bracha to get married was actually asked to donate money to his Yeshiva. This is almost as bad as those phony baloney ad campaigns selling Segulos for Kupat Ha’ir or similar Tzedakos. In both cases they are taking advantage of desperate, vulnerable people!

Getting advice or blessings from pious people is not a bad thing in and of itself. But when that advice is elevated to having some sort of spiritual power, it is easy to see how some people believing this can be so disappointed that they become outraged. Especially when it is used as a fundraiser.

Great people - whether they are secular or rabbinic - usually provide great advice. That is a no brainer. A great person is at the very least someone who is honest, wise, and unselfish. But occasionally in some cases their perception of how others see them (as close to God) ends up in their seeing themselves that way. But even if they don't see themselves that way - they do little to discourage this grandiose image others have of them.

This is a fundamental flaw in how to view great religious figures. Many people have come to believe that - instead of just being advice from wise people - it is Godly advice. They see their Brachos as being more effective since the pious have so much more piety than themselves... and thus a greater connection to God.

This is wrong. Great as they are, they are human beings. They cannot divine God’s will. They have no control on the future. They are not Nevi’im that can prophesize. Their advice should be taken seriously but not as an ‘absolute’ to the exclusion of all other factors. They should certainly not be seen as a direct connection to God.

Any advice sought from a pious individual should be seen as that and only that - to be considered along with many other factors, including one’s own common sense. Their Brachos are not guarantors of outcome.

One final thought. The more a perceived pious person starts talking about what God wants from the petitioner in exchange for His (God’s) blessing, the further you should run away from him.