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Rabbinic Abuse Clothed in Mystical Language is Still Abuse

The responsibility for addressing the problematic phenomenon of charismatic rabbis engaging in exploitive relationships and abuse – from spiritual to sexual – rests with all of us.
©Heiko Küverling/
©Heiko Küverling/
Dr. Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel (Ph.D. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010) is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Jewish History and Thought at the University of Haifa. She also serves as Research Fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis and at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Her research deals with intersections between mysticism, gender, and psychoanalysis. Dr. Kara-Ivanov Kaniel was a postdoctoral fellow at New York University, the HBI center at Brandeis

Disguised as authority, protection, and holiness, incidents of exploitation take place under the auspices of halakha. The responsibility for this rests with the entire society.


Great power and magic are inherent in Kabbalistic theories about redemption growing out of sin, theories claiming that precisely through breaking boundaries and the reversal of good and evil are found the means for redemption. This dialectical theme cuts across the Zoharic literature and the writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ARI) and appears in many Hasidic sermons. Paradoxical Kabbalistic approaches contain the principal according to which not only did God “created worlds and destroyed them” (before creating our world, as described in Genesis Rabbah 3, 7) but human beings also destroy while completing their task of repair (tikkun). In fact, as early as rabbinic literature we find sayings such as, “greater is a transgression performed with good intent than a commandment performed without good intent (Gedolah aveirah lishmah me-mitzvah she-lo lishmah),” sayings which were later woven into Kabbalistic and Hassidic messianic mythology.

A clear example of these approaches are the writings of the Mei HaShiloach, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Isbitza, who developed an in-depth theory dealing with the greatness of the sinner’s soul. His thought has gained increasing popularity in the world of Zionist-religious yeshivot, especially in the “spiritual” streams (in yeshivot such as Otniel, Eli, Siach Yitzhak, and even in streams like Merkaz HaRav and Har HaMor), and also in new-age culture, in the neo-Hasidic space that has developed in recent decades. Elsewhere I discuss in detail the Zoharic background of the Mei HaShiloach’s Judaic and antinomian messianism and its influence on contemporary spiritual approaches. The discussion is to be published as an article in a collection of studies edited by Eli Holtzer, under the auspices of the David Ochs Chair (Bar Ilan University). My thanks to Naama Cifrony, Biti Roi Ariel Levinson and Omri Shasha for their advice and comments on this short essay. The discussion is to be published as an article in a collection of studies edited by Eli Holtzer, under the auspices of the David Ochs Chair (Bar Ilan University). My thanks to Naama Cifrony, Biti Roi Ariel Levinson and Omri Shasha for their advice and comments on this short essay. Exceptions in this context are the articles by Naama Cifrony, “Come and I will hypnotize you,” Eretz Aheret 73, September 2014 (Hebrew); and her article about Carlebach and his successors, “If you can’t believe in God,” Eretz Aheret 70 (Hebrew).

In this essay I will briefly address the danger of copying mystical and spiritual language, whose goal is cleaving to the divine and attainment of holiness and God, into exploitative relationships, which take place in the context of gender-based power hierarchies and bonds between teacher and student and whose goal is achieving sexual, emotional and other satisfactions.

These words are not written in a vacuum. In recent years the public has been made aware of painful incidents of charismatic spiritual leaders, some of whom have come from the Kabbalistic-Hasidic and neo-Hasidic world, who through the power of their teachings and authority disgracefully exploited women or young students. Has the myth of the “holy sinner served as an example in our world? Should we view with suspicion groups of men studying in hevruta, fascinated by the theory of redemption borne from sin? It should be noted that in research on neo-Hasidism and these issues there is scant treatment – and often complete disregard – of ethical questions and of the use of the rhetoric of holiness for the purpose of exploitation. Exceptions in this context are the articles by Naama Cifrony, “Come and I will hypnotize you,” Eretz Aheret 73, September 2014 (Hebrew); and her article about Carlebach and his successors, “If you can’t believe in God,” Eretz Aheret 70 (Hebrew).

The secret of the attraction of the Mei HaShiloach’s thought is the freedom he assumes for himself as an interpreter and the freedom he thus bestows on his students. These are joined by originality of thought, extreme creativity and proficiency in the teachings of Zoharic and Lurianic Kabbalah.

From the time I first encountered his teachings in my youth, I also admired the teachers

who revealed to me the dialectic of the reversal of good and evil, redemption and sin. Later on, I devoted my first book to the study of this topic in the Midrash and the Zohar, in order to explore the multifaceted messianic myth that was developed from the stories of the house of David. Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel, Holiness and Transgression: Mothers of the Messiah in the Jewish Myth, Academic Studies Press, New York 2017. In this study, I sought to address the price women pay for redemption, alongside a recognition of their contribution to Jewish history. One of my claims was that in the face of death, exploitation, sexual abandonment and harm, David’s foremothers – the daughters of Lot, Tamar, Ruth and Batsheva – choose to give birth and bring life. Indeed, in this messianic lineage, the journey to giving birth passes through use of women’s bodies and sexuality, for this is the only resource available to these women as an expression of freedom and as a tool for survival and struggle against the patriarchal reality. In the conclusion of my book, I proposed that perhaps the myth has been inaccurately understood by men who sought to use it to develop a theory that glorifies sin and transgression of boundaries. When considering the contemporary context, it is valuable to make use of psychological theories that have been developed to further explain the kinds of boundary violations we see in traditional sources and contemporary society.

Confusion of tongues

Many cases of sexual violence can be attributed to exploitative relationships that take place between teachers and their students or young women in their communities. Such, for example, was the case of Rabbi Ezra Sheinberg from Tzfat, who committed sex crimes against many women on the pretext that he was providing therapy and helping them heal. In order to explain the victims’ submission and the way in which in practice the transition is made from enchanting, subversive thought to examples in practice, I will utilize the psychological theory developed by Sandor Ferenczi. Ferenczi, a Hungarian Jewish psychoanalyst, coined the term “confusion of tongues” to describe the mechanism of exploitation in the family and therapeutic structure. Sandor Ferenczi, “Confusion of Tongues Between Adult and Child -(The Language of Tenderness and of Passion)”, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 30 (1949): 225-230.

A typical way in which incestuous seductions may occur is this: an adult and a child love each other, the child nursing the playful phantasy of taking the role of mother to the adult. This play may assume erotic forms but remains, nevertheless, on the level of tenderness. It is not so, however, with pathological adults… They mistake the play of children for the desires of a sexually mature person or even allow themselves—irrespective of any consequences—to be carried away. (Confusion of Tongues, p. 227).

According to Ferenczi, the conflict in the soul of the child between love and identification with the adult who protects him, and the assault that he experiences, causes him confusion, until “his trust in the testimony of his senses is broken.” This deluded and deceptive state is the key to why the victim cannot be mentally rescued. In this imbalanced and manipulative relationship, the child is not able to believe (or perceive) how the adult with whom he identifies and to whom he directs his love is the one who harms him with cruel exploitation. In fact, he is in a state of “paralyzing confusion.” The breaking of his trust in the testimony of his senses may cause him to perceive the horrific deeds done to him as benevolent and generous gestures.

Using Ferenczi’s example of the confusion of tongues between children and adults, in our context we can describe cases of sexual exploitation of another type that are not frequently discussed: seduction that relies on the confusion of tongues between spirituality and lawlessness, holiness and licentiousness. The theory of redemption borne of defilement may distance a person from his gloomy life and daily hardships; for some it may provide a solution to the sense of guilt involved in sexuality and the weakness of sexual urges, and for shame regarding acts that are perceived as taboo from a Kabbalistic perspective, such as “spilling of seed.” Glorification of the sin may provide a person with a sense of mythologization and an aura of radiance, an illusion of omnipotence, rescue from emotional suffering (however temporary), or integration into an anarchistic, nationalist and cosmic movement.

An example of this is the case of the Breslov leader Eliezer Berland who fled to Holland after he was arrested for sex crimes, and who continues to this day to lead the Shuvu Banim community (after he served a short time in prison and was released on a plea bargain). Some of the women who testified against him said that he promised “to raise them to the world of Atzilut (nobility),” and forced them into sexual relations while reading the Tikkun HaKlali of Rabbi Nachman. Not surprisingly, in cases like this spiritual concepts are used as a means of seduction in the service of authority figures. Presumably these were women who were steeped in the concepts and ideals related to the world of nobility and in the meaning of the Kabbalistic Tikkun (repair), and these positions helped to anesthetize their power of opposition and to bring them into submission to the charismatic authority figure who was the leader of a community of staunch followers.

I myself can testify that I have met rabbinic figures who claimed that they were reincarnations of Rabbi Nachman or the Baal Shem Tov, permitted themselves what they forbade to others, and adopted “messianic” customs, while using concepts such as “transgression for its own sake’ and hora’at sha’a (“the demands of the hour” (to explain their exceptional acts. While reading sermons that glorify the power of the sinner’s repentance, both students and teachers are tempted to say to themselves “I am not a regular person. The law and the limitations were intended for simple people, but not for a great and deep soul such as mine. Crossing a boundary is my way to personal redemption, and from there also to general redemption.” In such cases, there is danger both to the person himself and to those surrounding him.

On the one hand, within such a person there is a rise of narcissistic position, and the language about crossing boundaries and prohibitions overcomes his inhibitions and permits him to transgress. On the other hand, his behavior toward those who surround him is characterized by instrumental and abusive treatment.

The appreciation and admiration of a student for his teacher and the charismatic aspect in the leader’s persona are constantly in the background of learning relationships, but it seems that the danger is especially prevalent in study halls (batei midrash) in which the main work is based on emotional experiences, and the learning process is built on what Levinas termed “the temptation of temptation.” Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, Indiana University Press 1990, pp. 30-50. In these cases, the occupation is not with the content of the Torah itself, but with the way in which it attracts a person to be tempted to follow it, transgressing the Torah’s own boundaries and the individual’s boundaries.

Spiritual Harassment and Emotional Perversion

Every artistic and creative experience is built on the willingness to stand in areas of nothingness, to encounter empty space. How seductive is the connection with a teacher who promises his students – frequently without words – experiences of walking on the edge of the abyss, experiences of exaltation and excitement that intermingle holiness and sin, loftiness and erotic transgression. However precisely in these liminal spaces, faithfulness to ethical and humane values is necessary, a strong grounding in the soil of the real world and growth from there to the domains of the infinite.

In the era in which we live, we must be alert to abuse of spiritual ideals in order to achieve control or satisfaction of desires. An example of this is the proposal of a man to a woman to “serve” him in order to reach exalted ideals such as “devotion” or “submission,” or the proposal of a teacher to a young student to have sex with him so that something of his spirit can be transmitted to her. Another example is spiritual teachers who make their students write and create for them and appropriate the fruits of their labors while erasing their names. This is done while using Kabbalistic terminology and on the pretext that this is part of the “process of repair (tikkun),” “descent for the sake of ascent,” or the nullification of self for the sake of the tzaddik and the great one of the generation, the unique chosen one.

Indeed, the history of Jewish messianic movements shows multiple instances in which women’s activities were appropriated by men: women prophets and mystics who did not leave a record because their teachings were transmitted orally; women leaders and heroines whose labors were erased. Ada Rappaport-Albert, Ada. Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666–1816. Oxford and Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011. Even in the field of art, history shows many women authors, poets and playwrights whose works were attributed to male figures throughout the generations, while their names were not recalled.

We should listen carefully when charismatic leaders talk about “being a vessel for the infinite” or “a conduit for the overflow” that descends from above. Sometimes these words are said in innocence, but sometimes with the power to “train” the other to become accustomed to instrumentalization, and the meaning is that the other will indeed think that if others use him as an object, the matter has spiritual, noble value. These instances and similar ones testify not to holiness but to perversion.

The pervert enjoys or gets his satisfaction from enslaving the other to his needs and entrapping the other in his world, a world built mostly from distorted perceptions. This is the reason that it frequently seems to us that the pervert not only uses his victim but even destroys his soul. Marie-France Hirigoyen writes about this double injury, the spiritual and the social, in her book, “Moral Harassment”: “This is clear, albeit hidden, violence, violence whose goal is to harm the identity of the other and to deprive him of any trace of self. This is a process that causes real emotional destruction.” This destruction also undermines the ability of the society and its leaders to distinguish between good and evil, since

every pervert, sexual or narcissistic, seeks to draw others into his behavioral pattern, until they themselves distort the rules they used to follow. The destructive power of the pervert is increased by his tendentious statements…sometimes he succeeds and creates for himself allies, who are drawn against their normal path toward disparaging discourse that scorns every moral value.” Marie-France Hirigoyen, Moral Harassment, Ramat Gan 2002, pp. 17-18, 129 (Hebrew).

This process is an assault on the individual through dismantling personal and moral boundaries, and implanting a fantasy of a symbiotic world without separations, prohibitions or limitations. The psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel claims that the pervert seeks to deny the very concept of boundary, the boundary between parents and children, between male and female, and between permitted and forbidden. Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion, London 1985.

Ruth Stein notes that perversion, “is the attempt to penetrate into the other without being penetrated by him.” The pervert identifies the needs of the other with his sharp senses, “and he fills them, but not in order to create a real connection with him, but rather to strengthen the covenant of bondage.” Stein Ruth, “False love – Why not? Fragments of an analysis”, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 1(2) (2000), pp. 167-190.As Dana Amir, following Stein, emphasized, the goal of the pervert is to arouse the other, to excite him and shake him up. The collar by which the other is led is the source of the pervert’s excitement, and he achieves his goal through “the language of the chameleon,” which is also a double language: he “adopts the syntax of the other and uses it to entrap him and activate him.” This allows for a “smooth” infiltration into the soul of the other and his dispossession, without any warning signs being activated. Dana Amir, Cleft Tongue (Jerusalem 2013), pp. 53-75 (the quotation is from page 58) (Hebrew).

Similarly, the Kabbalistic and Hasidic myth of “redemption through sin” expresses the wish to mix between the divine and the human, between fantasy and reality, and the attempt to break the boundary between self and other and to disrupt the order of existence. The pseudo-spiritual messianic pervert leaves the seduced other defenseless, vulnerable due to his wish for redemption, which exposes his brokenness and his sincere request for healing and repair (tikkun).


Reflection on the scope of harms currently taking place in the religious community and in spiritual circles indicates multiple instances of “social confusion of tongues.”  The strength of the power relations, authority and superiority of rabbis, alongside the clear hierarchy between men and women, lead to additional confusion of tongues: under the guise of authority, protection and holiness integrated in the discourse about repair (tikkun) of the nation and the cosmos, instances of exploitation occur under the auspices of halakha. In the lack of institutional attention to this matter, a burden is unfairly placed on the victims. It seems there is an undeclared expectation

that the student will be smarter than the teacher, that he will know how to identify manipulative use of charisma and neutralize the power position of the other. However, in all honesty, the responsibility lies with the society, its men and its women leaders (who are growing stronger in this generation), to eradicate the plague and to protect the weaker margins of society.

These tasks cannot be placed solely on the responsibility of the pupil, who is comparable to a child who approaches the student-teacher relationship like a child who approaches an adult with the language of innocence. It is up to teachers and rabbis, men and women, to take responsibility for the content of the interpretations they teach, and no less so for their non-verbal poetics, for their gestures and body language, use of voice and movement, with attention to the perverted aspects and to the hidden motivations involved in the process of teaching and leadership.

The corruption caused derives not only from the direct harm caused by the deeds of authority figures, but also at the broader level from deterioration of the foundations of faith and holiness and the introduction of exploitation and impurity into these arenas. Alongside the emotional and psychological damage in the personal dimension, society is harmed in the broadest sense when its leaders deny these injustices and even defend their perpetrators.[10] Dana Amir, Cleft Tongue (Jerusalem 2013), pp. 53-75 (the quotation is from page 58) (Hebrew). 

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