Sunday, April 08, 2018

Why A Convicted Felon is Treated Like a Celebrity

Eliezer Berland (Arutz Sheva)
I wish I could day I am surprised by the scene depicted in the video (below) in the Jerusalem Post.  It records Rabbi Eliezer Berland visiting the Kotel. Unfortunately I’m not surprised at all. It is the nature of charismatic leaders to retain followers even after admitting to rape and other sex crimes and spending time in prison for it. To his followers it doesn't seem to matter. He is treated like a rock star.  And yet despite my lack of surprise by any of this, I still wonder where the rational mind of these people went. What is it about Rabbi Berland that allows them to venerate a man that has admitted to and was convicted of rape?!

The answer is that this is the nature of a charismatic personality. It was probably his charisma that attracted people to his outreach based Yeshiva, Shuvu Banim in the first place. That is why it is so shocking when prominent, highly accomplished people are caught literally with their pants down.

This is the reason it is so important to report suspicions of sexual abuse directly to the police. The accomplishments and accolades a successful person receives for his accomplishments make it nearly impossible to see them in the negative light that reality shines upon them. It is instead rationalized as lies or as misunderstood behavior. Even after personally admitting to what he did serving time and apologizing for it. It is as if he never did anything wrong. He is comes off as a hero for ‘suffering’ time in prison as a means of atonement for the sins of his followers. (Sound familiar?)  

Added to this phenomenon in the case of people like Berland whose appearance is that of a pious leader in Breslov with his long beard, Peyos, traditional White Breslover Kipa and Kapoteh. It is therefore just plain hard to picture an 80 year old  man who looks like this, ever having done what he was accused of, admitted to and convicted of. They simply don’t believe it.

His charismatic ways insured a large following. His public persona must have conveyed a strong aura of piety of the type seen in other religious leaders with a large following. If one does not know about his sex crimes, he is deemed comparable to them.

His pious image did not go unnoticed by legitimate religious figures like Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman and Rav Chaim Kaneievsk. How could a man like Berland have raped anybody?! Denial is a natural response to someone whose history, personal conduct and achievements are so clear. They must have believed that it is all a bunch of lies; pure gossip or Lashon Hara which at best was half truths with more to the story that would explain and exonerate him. In other words what had been reported couldn’t possibly be true or taken at face value.

In the end it was a faรงade. But I don’t think Berland started out that way. He probably actually was good at reaching out to non religious Jews – bringing them to observance. It’s quite possible that until he fell victim to his own lust to the point hurting others that he was sincere in what he did.

His early life had no incidences like that. At least none that have been reported. It was typical of the stories one hears about how how great people become great. He studied in the finest Yeshivos and Kollels in and at one time had as a Chavusa, the Steipler Gaon, one of the truly great Torah luminaries the 20th  century. The Steipler was a man whose behavior defined refinement and humility! Although his path to greatness was not unlike many others that achieved it, he was ultimately flawed and in the process allowed his lust to lead him to sexual gratification at the expense of others.

So it is understandable that a man with his educational influences and history of good works – a man that until he committed those crimes might have had an ArtScroll biography written about him, still retains his followers. He certainly still looks the part! Which may be why he got preferential treatment at the Kotel. And probably why he has retained the venration of many of his followers (if not all of them).

One lesson to be learned here it is the one issued by Chazal: Al Tamin B'Atzmencha Ad Yom Misecha - Don't believe in yourself until the day you die. It is pure folly to be overconfident in your own piety. Of course in  Berland’s case , it became more than about succumbing to his lust. he became a predator.

Another lesson is that one must never place all of his marbles in one basket. Do not rely on one individual for your Judaism.  One must face the truth when it confronts you and not run away from it. No matter how much it distresses you. You must throw away the chaff and retain the wheat. In this case the ‘chaff’ is Berland and the ‘wheat’ is the Torah values you attained. Those values are real despite the medium in which your discovered them.

And prehaps the most important lesson to learn here is  that no matter how great someone seems to you, not matter what his achievements are in life... if he is accused of any kind of sexual misconduct, do not be blinded by his past contributions to the world. By destroying one soul he has destroyed the world. That is how he should be viewed now. Unless he does real Teshuva  which means going to every individual he hurt and asking for Mechila (forgiveness) and then asking God for it - he should be shunned. It’s too bad the Kotel authorities don’t feel the same way.