Sunday, December 01, 2013

Are They Really That Pure?

Lev Tahor founder,Moshe Helbrans - Photo credit: Canadian Television
Sainte Agathe. I have fond memories of that little hamlet in the Canada’s Laurentian Mountains on the outskirts of Montreal. I spent a lovely summer vacation there in 1968 with my parents my older brothers and their families. But one thing was missing for me on that trip. The sect that currently resides there, Lev Tahor.

First let me state unequivocally that Lev Tahor (Heart  of Purity), which was founded by Moshe Helbrans is so extreme that their behavior exceeds even the most extreme elements of Judaism. I think I can safely say that even Neturei Karta, leta alone Satmar, Toldos Aharon, or Eida HaCharedis would probably condemn them.

A sampling of their troubling behavior can be seen in an IsraelHayom article from about a year ago: 
According to witnesses, cult members — who number around 250 people, 100 of whom are children — are coerced through the use of extreme violence, mind-control and various methods of manipulation. 
Israel Hayom has heard the unwavering testimony of people who have fled the cult, viewed documents witnesses have provided and heard recordings of vicious beatings of children. There were also documented incidents of weddings involving 14-year-old children and forced marriages and divorces of cult members. 
Helbrans has been known to encourage obedience to his demands through methods such as extreme ostracism, excommunication, monetary penalties, food deprivation and the confiscation of holy books. He has also, on occasion, forcefully separated parents and children in what he considered to be defiant families.
The cult leader conducts "psychiatric evaluations" of members on his own and orders his patients to take medication he himself prescribes. Former cult members say the rabbi has total control over his followers, including how they spend their days, what they eat and when they sleep.
The community is said to abide by unusual customs based on traditions of various Hasidic sects, including an extreme dress code which has young girls from the age of three and above donning a head covering similar to the Muslim hijab. 
Lev Tahor is in the news again. This sect has finally raised the ire of Canadian authorities and a judge has ordered the removal of 14 children from the parents. They were placed in foster care while their youth protection officials investigate allegations of extreme neglect or worse..

I think it’s pretty safe to say that all Jewish denominations and all Orthodox Hashkafos are on the same page here. This sect is vile. Period. I would even go so far as to say that those who joined this sect are mentally unstable and are in serious need some of psychotherapy and/or medication.

But aside from the obvious, there are couple of things that need to be said here. One cannot overlook the fact the basis for this sick behavior is in the loyalty in the extreme of the normative values of Chasidic sects like Satmar, Neturei Karta, and Toldos Aharon. In fact founder Moshe Helbrans says that his sect is modeled on Satmar Chasidus. (I’m sure that Satmar is ‘thrilled’ to know that.)

Rav Aharon Teitelbaum, Satmar Rebbe (Kiryas Joel)
It isn’t really too hard to see this group is the reductio ad absurdum of Satmar. The neglect and abuse by Lev Tahor of their children is another matter which is probably unrelated to the sect they claim to model themselves on. But their look, manner of dress and extremes of Tznius is another matter. One can see by the above photo that Helbrans has the look of a Satmar Chasidic Rebbe. In fact he almost looks like one of the Satmar Rebbes.

Now it is true that one does not judge a book by its cover. But the fact that he chose that look and claims to be an extention of Satmar is not insignificant. His antipathy for the State of Israel is identical to that of Satmar.  And their mode of dress for men is that of Satmar.

But what crosses the line of even the extremes of Satmar is how their women dress. They essentially wear Burkas. While even the Eida Charedis condemns that look, it really is not all that far off from the normative look of women one typically finds in their neighborhood, Meah Shearim. They do not wear the Burkas. But their manner of dress is to make sure that their feminine features are completely hidden. They are fully cover – neck to toe in very loosely fitting clothing. Their hair is fully – usually some sort of turban. The face is the only part of their body that is exposed.

The newest custom is for women to wear a shawl so as to add an additional layer of covering to their female form. If one pays such extreme attention to covering up the female form, it is not too much of a stretch to go the extra step of wearing a Burka… one that even covers the face! This facet of Lev Tahor’s abberative behavior is based on the extremes of Tznius that is extant in the more normative Chasidic sects.

I don’t think I can emphasize enough how ruinous extremes like this are to Judaism. When rabbinic leaders over-emphasize Tznius and blame every ill in the world on it, and continually exhort their flock to upgrade their levels of Tznius, is it an wonder that extremists sects like Lev Tahor have gone off the deep end? They attract followers that have been inundated with these messages. And if hey are the slightest bit obsessive compulsive, it is not that hard to see why they would be attracted to this group.

Which is why they ought to be severely condemned by every religious leader in Klal Yisroel- especially by the right of which this group claims to be a part. And those condemnations ought to be at least as strong as their condemnations of Open Orthodoxy. Because whatever condemnation they give to them (which in my opinion goes way too far) goes double for this group. And then they ought to stop haranguing their flock about Tznius and start blaming the ills facing Judaism on things other than that.