By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Aside from the issues discussed in last week’s article (“Cults: Warning Bell or False Alarm”) in how to differentiate between a genuine Torah chassidus and a cult leader, Rachmanah litzlan, other indications may exist as well.
1. A cult leader will also often show deep intelligence as well as strong familiarity with the holy texts of a religion, and will often implement his interpretations among his devotees. These innovations involve things that are not practiced at all by the normative followers of that religion.
2. There can also be a paranoia, where the cult leader will allege seemingly bizarre things, will create an infrastructure that will try to protect him, and will create rules that are somewhat odd.
3. The cult leader will not necessarily have peers or ties to others, living in a form of isolation where he will interact only with devotees. The leader will have a remarkable, almost unexplainable, ability to charm others.
When speaking with former members of Lev Tahor who have left the group, and with family members of Lev Tahor devotees, all of the above and more have been alleged. To be fair, supporters of the group have countered that this is all lashon ha’ra and that they are lying. While this could be true, it is very unlikely that those who have left the group can be so sophisticated in their descriptions. One of the best books on the subject was written by Madeleine Landau Tobias, called Captive Hearts, Captive Minds. These people hardly seem the type to obtain and read such a book, and yet there is an extraordinary correlation between what they allege and what is found in the book.
Let us examine each of the points made above.
• The former devotees have described Lev Tahor’s leader as a highly intelligent man. Indeed, he obviously impressed even the editor of Ami magazine, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter. One of the innovations of Lev Tahor is to try to reach the “ideal” of early marriages. Ignoring the Birchei Yoseph’s and the Tzitz Eliezer’s understanding of the Shulchan Aruch’s first chapter of Even HaEzer, the leader of Lev Tahor is attempting to re-implement early marriage. The Birchei Yoseph writes that in our times it should not be done, and the Tzitz Eliezer contrasts it with what the Shulchan Aruch writes elsewhere regarding Torah study and states that this was never the intention in the first place. The Canadian authorities have found this in practice among members of Lev Tahor, and there are numerous other alleged cases of it, despite denials of it from Lev Tahor. Other innovations include the wearing of burka-like clothing, which is something that has never been done among Torah-observant peoples.
• Former member have alleged that the leader “claimed to have killed the pope.” They have also stated that the leader has created an infrastructure where devotees spy upon each other. Some claim that he has told devotees that he would urge their family and spouses to leave them unless they sign documents that they will never leave the group or reveal its secrets. There are further claims that the leader of Lev Tahor has attacked the conditions in the foster homes where the Canadian authorities have placed 13 children (now 12). These are conditions of which he has no knowledge. It is also alleged that he made remarks about how the president of the United States and the prime minister of Canada have amassed an arsenal with which to attack Lev Tahor. Once again, these are all allegations and it could very well be that they have been made up or warped by those who have been making them.
• The leader of Lev Tahor has charmed the women in his group to follow his views on clothing. He has created a following of close to 40 families. He has even, apparently, charmed Rabbi Frankfurter, a talmid chacham and editor of a leading magazine.
Rabbeinu Bachya in his commentary on Vayikra (4:22) discusses the inevitability of regular leaders sinning (to say nothing of people that apparently have a type of personality disorder). The verse states, “Asher nasi yecheta—when a leader will sin.” Rabbeinu Bachya writes, “It does not state ‘If a leader will sin’; rather, it states, ‘When a leader will sin’—the matter is one of certainty. The reason is that the leader’s heart is filled with conceit and haughtiness.” Rabbeinu Bachya goes on to explain that the Torah (Devarim 17:20) provides a counterbalance for the haughtiness of a king: he must carry a sefer Torah with him at all times so that his heart does not rise above his brethren.
The nesi’im were also provided with a counterbalance. They were instructed to bring the precious Avnei Shoham stones as a gift (Sh’mos 22:27). These precious stones were the same type that were found on the breastplate of Aharon HaKohein—the stones that were designed to achieve atonement. They thus had a humility-inducing effect to them, according to Rabbeinu Bachya. (The Netziv also interpreted the verse “Asher nasi yecheta” in the same manner—that the Torah is predicting the certainty of the leader stumbling.)
In our times, matters are slightly different. We have neither the directive for our leaders to carry with them a sefer Torah, nor a directive to bring the humility-inducing Avnei Shoham stones. What, then, will provide the necessary counterbalance to the inevitability of haughtiness and sin?
True, there are halachos about initially introducing a student who has personality issues into Torah study, but by and large, we as a Torah society need to take greater steps to ensure that we do not foster the growth of such movements within Yiddishkeit.
Excessive piety in not acting against a threat to Klal Yisrael can be wrong and is often destructive. The Gemara (Gittin 56a) concludes that the Beis HaMikdash itself was destroyed because of excessive piety in how the Sages dealt with Bar Kamtza.1
The Mesilas Yesharim (Chapter 20, “Harei Lecha”) concludes that in regard to these issues, one cannot blindly adhere to one side. Rather, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto states, “All factors must be weighed carefully on both sides as far as a person can determine, to see which is the proper way to act—the doing or the refraining from doing.”
It has been reported that at least one of the Chassidic Rebbes in New York has described the movement as a modern-day Shabtai Tzvi movement. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.
1. Initially, some rabbis [correctly] thought to allow a dispensation to bring an imperfect sacrifice because of the serious circumstances. The excessive piety of Rabbi Zecharya ben Avkulos prevented that, because he feared that people would erroneously conclude that one is permitted to bring imperfect sacrifices. It was next [correctly suggested] that Bar Kamtza be killed to prevent his further traitorous and destructive actions. Rabbi Zecharya ben Avkulos prevented it, saying that people would think that the punishment for one who damages a sacrifice is death. Rabbi Yochanan concluded that Rabbi Zecharya’s excessive piety caused the destruction of the Temple, the burning of the Heichal, and our exile.