In June 2012, Forbes Israel published the list of the richest rabbis in Israel. Inadvertently, it touched one of the most disturbing aspects of Judaism; one that crosses frontiers between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. These are less obvious than often portrayed. In Israel, there are almost one hundred Jewish groups—call them tribes if you want—and several of them cannot be categorized as either Sephardic or Ashkenazi. The Mountain Jews are probably the best known group in this category, while Bulgarian Jews are on the cultural borderline between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Other complexities exist; take, for example, Moroccan Jews, some of them arrived there after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, others after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. They intermarried, creating further intricacies. The same happens in Israel where mixed marriages have created a new reality. We are speaking here of a cultural continuum with no sharp delimitations. The creation of the Ashkenazi-ruled State of Israel polarized the fringes, but a common cultural denominator exists as Forbes kindly reminded us this week. While counting coins, Forbes looked into the Jewish heart.
Belz World Center - Inside
I won’t keep the readers in suspense since this article is not about the list itself; the following rabbis’ titles refer to the towns in which their congregations originated. The fourth place, with a fortune of over $50 million, belongs to Belz Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach. Right above him is Gur Rabbi Yaakov Arie Altar with over $90 million in his vaults. The first two places belong to members of the Abuhatzeira clan. Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira owns about $400 million; his uncle, Rabbi David Hai Abuhatzeira, has just below $200 million. Forbes Israel collected information from Israel Police, Israel Tax Authority, and sources in the ultra-orthodox communities. However, it must be said that many of the rabbinical activities are hard to monitor by tax authorities and take place in the realm of the black market (see Rabbi accused of bribery appointed Head of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court); it is safe to assume that the actual fortunes are much larger. How come the performers of religious rites have amassed such fortunes?
The Jewish ultra-Orthodox world is divided into hundreds of courts; the main division is between the Haredim and the much smaller Hasidim. For the sake of this article, it is enough to know that Hasidim are led by charismatic leaders, while Haredim stick to the Talmud. An important characteristic of Hasidim is that they create dynasties of charismatic leaders, allowing the accumulation of wealth through several generations. Usually, this is not the case for Haredim; yet, when a Haredi leader—Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira—managed to create a charismatic dynasty, he easily won the list’s first place. The first two places in Forbes list belong to Haredim, the third and four places to Hasidim.
One would love to say that these respectable fortunes were achieved through hard work and personal merit, but that is not possible. These charismatic rabbis are notorious for having transformed religion into a rentable business. This behavior is not limited to the names in the shortlist; recently, Rabbi Yisrael Yifrah was appointed Head the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court despite being accused of bribery, extortion, and refusing to compel abusive husbands to grant their wives a divorce. Since Jewish law requires the consent of both spouses before granting a divorce by a rabbi, the latter have enormous weight in divorce cases; bribery cases thrive. This could be seen as a modern rendering of Esau selling his Birth Right to Jacob, who later became Israel. Esau renounced eternal glory for a lentil stew, while Jacob mercilessly stole his twin brother's birth right. Another infamous case of trading on religious rights and rites is the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church; this led to the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther in 1517. Yet, modern rabbis have improved on these; taking the selling of charms, blessings and prayers to new levels of glory. They created a money machine almost unmatched in size in the Israeli market, with a formal annual turnover of over NIS 1 billion, and unknown black market revenues.
Esau sells Birth Right to Jacob
Recently, a secular Jew who openly committed a technology theft reached global headlines after a disappointing NASDAQ IPO (see Facebook IPO Fails Mossad). Mark Zuckerberg set another example of Jewish morals, but he didn’t invent anything, he just adapted old crimes to the internet revolution. The same is true for Baba Sali, the popular name of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira. “Baba Sali” means “Praying Father,” a name that refers to his alleged ability to perform miracles through his prayers. He was the grandson of Yaakov Abuhatzeira, a prominent Moroccan-Jewish rabbi of the 19th century. The Baba Sali transformed a regular family of rabbis into a rich dynasty by the clever transformation of their activities into a trade. After his death in 1984, his empire was inherited by his grandson Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira, who was murdered in 2011. The inheritor of the latter—Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira—leads now the Forbes list of richest rabbis in Israel.
Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira became notorious for failing to evade publicity of the frauds practiced by the clan. In 1997, journalist Yossi Bar-Moha from Haaretz disclosed several incidents of corruption by Abuhatzeira, claiming that Abuhatzeira persuaded people in exchange for a blessing, and threatened them with a curse if they refused. This is usually known as “extortion,” and is not part of any religion. It was disclosed that the rabbi was evading property tax and that his bank account contained NIS 250 million in gifts and contributions. In 2003, following a police investigation, Abuhatzeira was ordered to pay NIS 100 million to the Income Tax Authority, but a settlement to pay NIS 20 million to charitable organizations was reached. In 2009, a man was indicted for threatening to kill Abuhatzeira, claiming that the rabbi made him a medical promise that hadn’t come true. In 2010, Rabbi Abuhatzeira was accused by New York Jews of charging hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for promised miracles that never came to fruition. He was murdered in July 2011, by a man who was unhappy with the marital advice the rabbi had given him. This sad saga disclosed how old cultural practices, which undermined religion even in the days of the Prophet Isaiah, had been adapted in Israel in the era of ATMs.
The Abuhatzeira clan is not the only one to have corrupted religion, but certainly is the greediest, has no scruples, and is the most charismatic, at least if you are a fan of black-felt hats. This is typical of the ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Haredi or Hasidic. The Sephardic-Ashkenazi boundary is inexistent here. The first and second place in the list belongs to Sephardic-Haredim; the third and four to Ashkenazi-Hasidim. All of them are more than happy to sell amulets and charms.
The man in the fourth place—Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach—is famous for his sharp statements. In 1990, he said: “But even when Jews do not behave quite as they should, then the Holy One, Blessed be He, compares His nation with the nations of the world. And when viewed together, He finds that the Jewish people are the acme of perfection. ... For the Jewish people, when measured against the nations of the world, are absolutely flawless.”
Honorable rabbis, let me summarize this article by saying that the only perfection I have seen until now in your extraordinary noble and selfless activities is the perfection of theft. May God reach you.