For the second time in two years, sex offender (and by his own admission, rapist) and fugitive of justice Eliezer Berland will be lighting the Lag Ba-Omer bonfire. Only in Israel?
Here’s some background:
Who is Eliezer Berland?
Eliezer Berland is the leader of a Breslov-like cult. It is worth noting that mainstream Breslov has shunned him. So did the Eidah Hareidit, over fifteen years ago.
He spent much of the 2010s as a fugitive of justice. After getting wind that Israeli police wanted to question him for multiple sex offenses, Berland fled the country, spending the next five years or so in Morocco, South Africa, United States, Italy, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and the Netherlands. In his adventure fleeing the police he bounced between four continents.
Berland’s influence has endangered his students and Israeli security forces by sending followers to pray on his behalf at Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem, without military clearance. In 2011 one of his followers was killed near the grave site.
Preying on the most desperate, Berland has been accused of extorting money from terminally ill patients with promises of miracles.
When compelled to return to Israel he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Due to illness he was released early.
Despite his illness Berland has resumed leadership of his organization, and has recovered sufficiently to accept the honor of lighting the Lag Ba-Omer bonfire.
So who’s responsible for awarding honor?
Well, it’s the Religious Affairs Ministry; they oversee the tomb at Meron. They said it was powerless under law to prevent Eliezer Berland from lighting a bonfire. Now, that’s a dodge at best. Here are the questions that need to be answered: What committee chooses the lighters of the bonfire? Who is on that committee? Where is the oversight, allowing said committee to repeat the same grave mistake they made last year?
Well, in response to the basic question of how could this happen, the ministry said, “The ministry operates in accordance with the law and by legal standards. The issue has been appraised on the legal level by senior officials in the Justice Ministry, and we were informed that Berland’s lighting cannot be prevented by law.” So senior officials in the Justice Ministry said they can not withdraw the honor. On what legal grounds can an honor not be rescinded?
As for what criteria are required to merit the privilege of lighting a bonfire on Lag Ba-Omer, the ministry said, “the honor of lighting is granted to those who have a large and significant group of Hasidim.” Now, Israel has any number of Hasidic leaders. I have one near my home. He does not have a particularly large following, but he does okay. Seems like a nice guy, never raped anyone as far as I know. But the ministry preferred Berland?!
Where is our Leadership?
Where are our MKs on the issue? Why have none of them seen fit to protest? Where are the chief rabbis? How do they not protest?
Here is what Chief Rabbi David Lau has said: “On the one hand… we know that the power of repentance is very, very great. Whether or not there was repentance here, that’s a question that I can’t answer. Certainly, as a society, we cannot accept a situation in which men, women or children are hurt.” What does this mean? How is a banal statement about the need for safe society a helpful response? Why is the rabbi invoking repentance, if he doesn’t even know if it is relevant? So is it okay for Berland to receive this honor or not? Does the chief rabbi have no authority or influence? Instead of equivocating, how about a firm position, a commitment?
Now, the grave site of R. Shimon bar Yochai is the second most visited tourist site in Israel, after the Western Wall. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit Meron on Lag Ba-Omer. There are any number of dignitaries who are honored with lighting a fire at Meron. Why are they all silent on this issue?