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Cults: Warning Bell Or False Alarm?

Halachic Musings

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Recently, the Torah community has experienced what can be described as the “War of the Magazines.” Mishpacha magazine ran a 15-page “exposé” a few weeks ago about a group that calls itself Lev Tahor, led by a certain Shlomo Helbrans. The article essentially described Lev Tahor as a cult that has had some serious issues involving medicating children and behavior that resembles child abuse. The article explained that authorities in Canada are investigating Lev Tahor and have also placed some of the children in foster care pending the outcome of further investigation.

A short while later, Ami magazine ran an article that claimed the exact opposite. It said there is no evidence at all of child abuse and that the movement is not, in fact, a cult. The article was accompanied by the following sentence directly below the headline: “The unjust persecution of a group of pious Jews, and the unsettling silence of the Jewish community.”

The Ami article claimed that the allegations are all spurious and that it is anti-Semitism that lies behind the removal of children from these pious families.

The turnaround is a bit shocking, because Ami itself ran a three-page description in a previous issue delineating in detail what happened to one family, from the perspective of the brother. That issue, a number of months ago, featured Rav Kahaneman on its cover. That first Ami article explained that many of the families are lacking in basic nutrition, while Helbrans sits at lavish five-course meals, after which he closes his eyes and explains that he ascends to the Heavens to talk to malachim.

May readers of the latest Ami article were incensed and claimed that the article did not fully address many of the allegations brought up in the Mishpacha article, as well as in two documentaries produced in Canada—by episodes of the television series 16×9 and The Fifth Estate. The allegations encompass a broad spectrum of issues, including that the children are raised with a lack of hygiene and are generally treated poorly. The Canadian courts were investigating allegations of child abuse and under-age marriages.

Lev Tahor representatives and members have denied the allegations.

Older readers will recall how, many years ago, Helbrans was arrested for allegedly kidnapping 13-year-old Shai Fhima. Shai later disappeared from his mother for over two years. Although Helbrans was convicted and Fhima was later found in France with a false passport, Helbrans successfully convinced the Canadian Immigration Refugee Board that the boy had never been kidnapped. He showed a video of Shai Fhima saying that he had not been kidnapped. Later, it was reported that “Fhima said that he regretted making this false statement, that he was indeed kidnapped by Helbrans, and that he received $5,000 for making the film.”

This author checked with some gedolei ha’poskim who were quite wary of the Lev Tahor group. One Rav even expressed the possibility that the Eidah Chareidis of Yerushalayim may have previously come out against them. This author checked with the Eidah Chareidis, and in fact this was not the case. However, the sentiment that this group is not normal was clearly expressed. Ami Magazine, however, did quote some rabbis who allegedly claimed that this group has been unjustifiably singled out.

Some of the issues that cause eyebrows to be raised among those spoken to by this author are the fact that the leader of this group does not have any authoritative contemporary Rabbinic leader to whom he defers, allegedly does not have semichah from any Torah authority, runs his group in somewhat of a cult-like manner, and has encouraged the women in Lev Tahor to wear Burka-type clothing and to dress all in black. In this author’s opinion, and in the opinion of many gedolei ha’poskim, this latter position runs counter to halachah. The Gemara talks about bigdei tziv’onim, colored clothing, as being completely permissible and all this runs against the mesorah of thousands of years of Torah practice.

How do we differentiate a “cult” from a legitimate Torah organization? Much of this revolves around how we define the term “cult.” Chazal do speak of cults that existed in the time of the Beis HaMikdash and do refer to the cult of Essenes found in Yosifun (see, for example, a fascinating Maharsha on Kiddushin 71a). Chazal also reference a cult of misbodedim. There are also numerous peshatim in why Moshe Rabbeinu’s name is not mentioned in a number of places so that the religion would not take on the characteristics of a cult of personality.

But aside from the issue of how a cult is to be defined, it is sometimes not so easy to tell. The International Cult Studies Association (ICSA) believes that a group that displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, is one such indication. This, however, can easily be confused with legitimate emunas chachamim. To differentiate, we can perhaps add the caveat that applies when this is being done against the belief system of the leading sages of Israel and against a clear indication in Torah sources.

A second indication is when questioning and dissent are discouraged or even punished. Although this too can be found in some of our circles, the differentiation can be made in the degree of discouragement and punishment. It is not normal to lock children in a basement, and there have been a few such allegations here.

A third indication is the implementation of mind-altering practices that are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). Were medications given to children without doctor approval to keep them in line? There are allegations of such practices here.

A fourth indication is when the leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel. This happens to a degree in some of our circles as well, even though many gedolei Torah believe that it is very unhealthy and should be discouraged. The difference between a legitimate Torah group and a cult would seem to lie in degrees here.

‪ A fifth indication is if the group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader and members, and has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. This latter point is the crux of the issue. The excessive practice of the burka here has created that.

A sixth indication is when the leader is not accountable to any other religious authorities.

The ICSA lists other indications, too. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group. The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. ‪Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. The group is preoccupied with making money.‪ Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members. The most loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

However, labeling an entire group of people “a cult” can very well be a violation of the laws of lashon ha’ra, which are simultaneously both quite serious and complex. The ramifications of a violation of lashon ha’ra can often be very devastating. Entire reputations can be destroyed in a matter of days. Indeed, Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, wrote (Mishlei 18:21), “Maves v’chaim beyad lashon—Death and life are in the hands of the tongue,” which refers to the terrible consequences of lashon ha’ra (Arachin 15b).

At the same time, however, an incomplete understanding of these laws could also lead to some dire consequences on the opposite end of the spectrum. When people erroneously forbid information from being disseminated on account of thinking that it is lashon ha’ra and forbidden, people cannot take protective measures. At times this can be quite devastating.

A case in point: Gedaliah ben Achikam was one of the gedolei ha’dor of his generation. He was a navi. Indeed, the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 18b) explains that Hashem Himself (Zechariah 8:19) equates the death of this great tzaddik with the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash! Rarely do we find such testimony as to the stature of any individual.

The future of Klal Yisrael was in the hands of this great tzaddik and gadol. His decisions were of paramount importance. Notwithstanding his greatness and piety and the fact that he was a prophet of Hashem, he made a crucial error in halachah and in its application. He refused to take protective measures against Yishmael, when he was warned by Yochanan ben Korayach of Yishmael ben Nesanya’s malevolent intent (Yirmiyahu 40:16). The consequences were quite grave indeed. Gedaliah and all his men were brutally murdered (Yirmiyahu 41:2).

The Gemara tells us (Niddah 61a) that Gedaliah ben Achikam erroneously applied the halachic concept of lashon ha’ra. It was a tragic error that resulted not only in his death, but in the scattering of the nation and in the loss of Klal Yisrael’s independence as a nation. Indeed, the repercussions of his error are still felt to this day.

The repercussions are felt in two ways. Firstly, they are felt in exact ramifications of his miscalculation—that the nation of Israel ceased to be an independent nation. But secondly, we still have not learned from his example. To this day, there are many well-meaning people who misapply the notion of lashon ha’ra in ways that can cause Klal Yisrael to err and err again.

The results of Gedaliah’s inaction were so grave that the Mesilas Yesharim (chapter 20) notes that the Gemara (Niddah 61a) considers it as if Gedaliah himself had killed all of his people! This is a remarkably thought-provoking notion.

At times, the sin of incorrectly “sounding the lashon ha’ra warning” and ignoring the information is so grave that one who does so is considered the actual perpetrator of the repercussions that have transpired on account of the silence, whether theft, molestation, or even murder.

The conclusions from this are clear.

There are times that information must be given to ward off potential harm to others, in order that they be able to take self-protective measures. At the same time, there are situations where it is forbidden for people to believe the information, even though they may act upon it to protect themselves.

Is there enough information here to be concerned? Of the 127 children in the group, seven were taken away by the Canadian equivalent of Child Protective Services and placed in religious, Yiddish-speaking homes. As of this writing, one of the children was released back to her 17-year-old mother but with the caveat that the father cannot see the child. The court case for the 17-year-old mother will resume in July.

The cases for the six other children taken by Ontario Child Services will be heard May 7.

What is the Torah view on taking children away when they may be in danger? Of course, whenever it comes to pikuach nefesh, where life is endangered (even emotionally), we must be stringent. But we must also make sure not to do more damage in the process of helping. In a halachic p’sak printed in Yeshurun Volume 15, page 642, Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, does take into account the issue of over-cautiously removing children from their home environs if it could lead to removal of children from an observant Jewish home environment. Here, the Canadian authorities ensured that this did not happen. There may also be differences between the secular definition of “abuse” and what would be a halachic definition. Not knowing who the Prime Minister of Canada is can readily be said of children in numerous Torah observant circles. It is not a reason to take children away.

In the past week, former members of Lev Tahor have come out forcefully against the Ami Magazine article as a complete whitewash.

When safety of children is a concern, we cannot ignore a multiplicity of evidence indicating dangers— even if the sources of these indications come from venues that do not fit the criterion for Torah testimony. Halachah recognizes the notion of raglayim l’davar whenever such issues arise.

In short, if there is in fact neglect here, and evidence of this will be presented to the Canadian courts, it is this author’s view that the Torah community should support the Canadian government’s placement of these children in mainstream Torah observant homes. Like they have been doing. v

The author can be reached at

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Posted by on May 1, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.