Op-eds

Rabbi Berland story has wider ramifications

  • Howard Feldman 2018
South African Jews are invested in the Rabbi Berland story. His arrival in the country a few years ago along with his supporters, divided the community. Some saw him as a person to be revered and lauded, while others viewed him as something of a cult leader who was in the country to evade the law. What everyone agreed on was that his followers were vulnerable and at risk even though they had made the choice to follow him around the world.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Feb 13, 2020

Penultimately, Rabbi Eliezer Berland confessed to sexual misconduct before the Israeli courts.

The story should have ended there. We shouldn’t have heard of Berland, because he had been rehabilitated, and was now living his life free of scandal.

But these stories rarely end as we hope they will. Last Sunday, Berland was arrested, along with his wife and a few supporters, for promising to heal desperately ill people in exchange for money. In one case, he allegedly convinced a woman to cease treatment for cancer and rather pay him. Unsurprisingly, she died.

The story is a terrible one. It’s appalling for the victims of the ruse who have suffered as a consequence. But we seldom focus on the unintended consequence of this type of behaviour. Deeply concerning is damage that is done in a broader context.

The disrepute that “naturally” results from this type of situation isn’t to be understated. Sadly, Berland provides ample opportunity for anyone who is either distrustful of religion or of rabbis to be used as an example. In this case, I’m not referring to someone who might be anti-Semitic (who needs no validation), but rather to Jews who either have had bad experiences or who might be fearful or resistant to engaging more closely with observance.

In essence, what it does is cause reputational damage to other rabbonim, most of whom live their lives in service to G-d, their families, and communities.

Those flirting with poor behaviour need to be cognisant of the responsibility they hold, and that the choices they make have an impact not only on the people they might harm directly, but on a circle so wide that the damage might never be quantified.

In no way does this suggest that people aren’t responsible for their own choices. There is little doubt that these situations are all too easily used as “proof” of an already established prejudice towards observant Jews, but there is little denying the negative impact that it has on the community. The mere fact that it’s so widely reported might be an indication of an anti-religious press, but it’s also an indication that there is something in these stories that intrigues and horrifies us.

Just as it might mean that religious people are held to a higher standard.

The idea can and should be extrapolated to men who wear kippot and to women who dress in observance of the laws of modesty. Like it or not, poor behaviour (especially in public) is viewed differently when perpetrated by someone who states outwardly that they are religious.

There are many stories recounted of how religious attire might have prevented someone from behaving in a manner that is counter to religious Jewish principles. I suggest that should it not be preventable, then perhaps all religious references should be removed to avoid even greater damage.

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