He was my best friend.
We would sit together out on the terrace of the dorms at our yeshiva in Israel and we’d smoke hookah together. We’d talk about everything. Our struggles in our religious growth, with his dating, with my marriage, with life in Israel.
It was all beautiful, it was all wonderful.
But honestly, what I remember most about him was what a good person he was. Always brimming with positivity. Always trying to uplift those near him. Smiling, joyous, happy. While I struggled with dealing with my inner negativity, he was my reminder that life doesn’t have to be a struggle, it can be an exciting adventure.
He was the first friend I called after my first child was born. My dear, good friend.
As usually happens, we lost touch after we left yeshiva. Life proceeded for us both in our own ways. I got busy with my girl and my job and my life and my wife. He moved back to America. But I know that for both of us, there is that special part within that still feels that deep connection, that remembrance of a time when we could sit together with a hookah and look into each other’s souls.
We hadn’t spoken much. A bit here and there. Me to congratulate him on his marriage. Him to randomly tell me he missed me, even his Facebook messages brimming with positive life.
That’s why I was surprised when he sent me a message the other day. It was about a Facebook post I had made where I shared a video of the followers of a rabbi joyously welcoming him home. But the return was from jail. And the only reason he was allowed to return was because of his failing health. In truth, his crimes should have probably meant he should have died in prison.
This rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Berland, had not just been accused of raping some of the women in his charge, including a minor, he had admitted to it. Both in court and on tapes of his classes that had been included in the evidence against him. Tapes also exist of him potentially plotting an attack against one of the husbands of the victims.
But it took time for the man to admit to his monstrous deeds. First he ran, like the sniveling cowardly rat he is, to South Africa. And through that and before, he spread a spiritual lie, one that would increase his victims exponentially by ensuring his followers in his evil. He claimed that this was all part of a divine decree, one in which he would suffer greatly in order to save the Jewish people.
The result? His followers became convinced of his innocence, and, as in so many tragic situations where a leader has a deep spiritual hold on his followers, they turned on his accusers. They turned on the Israeli government. They took to the media and to blogs to explain all the deep spiritual truths that Rabbi Berland was helping reveal and to tell those who spoke up against Berland that they were doing a grave sin by fighting this holy man. The accusers, the government, and the media, in their minds, weren’t just attacking their leader. They were attacking God, who had decreed that this should all occur.
Eventually he returned to face justice, where he finally admitted that he was the monster everyone but his followers thought he was. Some did slowly start to peel away from him, but even his admissions were not enough to sway his most ardent followers. To them, his admission was just part of him sacrificing himself even further for the Jewish people. It was further evidence of his saintliness.
And those were the people who were dancing in the video. People who were willing to take their children out to meet this man. Women who felt comfortable around him; not just comfortable, worshipful. Men willing to have their wives near him.
In the video, they are clearly in a religious fervor. One man jumps on the car transporting the rabbi, so excited is he to be near a Rebbe he considers to be his direct access to God.
My hope in sharing the video was to show just how entrenched people’s beliefs can become. To show how this community of his were victims themselves (as much as they were also guilty of horrific treatment of the man’s truest, deepest victims). To get a dialogue going about the danger of trusting charismatic men who claim special access to deep religious truths.
I expected comments from his followers, who used to wait for any word of the desecration of their rabbi’s name and flood it with comments “explaining” what the whole world was missing. But they were quiet this time around. Perhaps they had been instructed to stop defending their rabbi, perhaps because it was clear how much worse it made it. Perhaps because it was causing them to realize they may be wrong.
But what I didn’t expect was that message from my friend. My positive, glowing, best friend.
He told me that he agreed in theory with my post. That it normally applied, this idea that spiritual leaders can manipulate their followers and turn them into miniature monstrous versions of themselves. That we must be vigilant in speaking up against such leaders, that allowing them to fester in our communities is to allow not just their abuse to continue, but to implicitly send a message to other leaders that they can get away with the same.
Yes, he agreed with it all. In theory. But not in this case.
He had to stand up for a tzaddik (For a Hasidic person, a “tzaddik” is roughly analogous to a saint. A person whose connection to God is on a profoundly different level from his followers, one that from our level of physicality would also be considered sinless. By connecting to the tzaddik, his followers are given a special access to this higher level of connection to God, and are to a certain extent elevated by his sinlessness.). He knew it would be hard for me to digest, but he felt that to allow a tzaddik to be disparaged in the way he has was a horrible injustice, and not good for the unity of the Jewish people.
He truly believed the rabbi was innocent, and that there was a campaign to bring him down. He said that he had believed there was also mounting evidence to back up this position. He asked me to reconsider my own.
He said all this in the same kind words, the same gentleness, I remembered him speaking with me in Israel. The softness, the appreciation of my point of view, the calm, thoughtful, assertive way of speaking. With compassion and love. Somehow, even online, he was able to remain his sweet, kind self.
I felt sick.
It was as if a great wine, a wine for the ages, just sweet enough and aged to perfection, had been laced with poison.
My friend’s sweetness was infected.
In another’s mouth, they would sound vile, sick, disgusting. What he was saying was monstrous, no different than Berland’s community members who found whatever disgusting way to defend him they could.
The implication of what he was saying was that we shouldn’t trust the rabbi’s rape victims. That when a rabbi admits in court that he raped and planned an attack on one of his own former followers, that when tapes are revealed of him admitting the same to his followers, we should dismiss it all.
My friend, my friend, what has happened to you? was all I could ask. Was all I could muster in my mind.
Because, in truth, it did not seem like much had changed in him. He was the same. Still good. Still loving. Still so warm.
He was a good man who was defending a monster, and whose words, if heard by others, would contribute to a culture that distrusts rape victims and preemptively silences them. They would encourage others to continue listening to the words of abusers, to trusting the spiritual leaders that turn their charges into shade versions of themselves.
My friend, my friend. No.
All I could get myself to type in response were the words, “I am so sorry to hear you feel that way.” I had nothing else to say, nothing else to think. The whole thing made no sense to me, a good man who was not even Berland’s follower was now his defender.
Later, he tried explaining himself more. Explaining the evidence he saw as exonerating the rabbi (that some of the witnesses against him are still part of the community), and his view that Torah had precedent for these sorts of issues. He claimed that I and the people who were supporting what I wrote would have thought Joseph, who was falsely imprisoned by Pharaoh, was also guilty if we had lived at that time.
That his words sounded almost in parallel to the insanity of Berland’s community’s defense only deepened my shock and pain. He didn’t even have something deeper to offer, any insights that perhaps a person who wasn’t a victim of the psychological manipulation of the rabbi would be able to share. No, he was no different: not in his thinking, at least.
A few days after I received this message from my friend, a friend of my wife’s had reached out to her. My wife had posted publicly about her gratitude a year after the controversial eruv (A “loophole” in Jewish law that allows people to carry things on Shabbat. Most notably, it allows women with young children to leave the house because they can use strollers) in Crown Heights was erected, and noted that she felt less glaring eyes at her, less anger from the community. When it had first gone up, our family had experienced a lot of negative blowback because the Hasidic community here did not believe it was built according to Jewish law.
This friend told her that she had had a different experience. While pushing her stroller along with her triplets, she had been harassed just that past Shabbat. 3 times. During one of the times, a man chased her and her family down the street yelling, “Auschwitz!” and “Chillul Hashem!” (publicly desecrating God).
Later, my wife told me that the man who had done this was a man I had also been very close with. He had done enormous kindnesses for me since I moved here, helping me integrate into the community and find the place I thought I wanted. He was one of the first people in yeshiva to truly inspire me, to show me how much joy and beauty can be found in Hasidism and Judaism. He was a mentor, an inspiration.
Even worse, I had already heard about a time he had done it once before. At the time I tried to justify it to myself by saying he must have been drunk. I didn’t want to face it, didn’t want to imagine this good man turning into a monster.
But he was one. In those moments, yelling at people walking with their children that they’re doing something equivalent to the Holocaust… he was a monster.
The Good People
I used to hold by a certain belief, one that I think a lot of us tend to agree with when we try to imagine that the world ultimately makes sense: that the most important thing is simply to be a good person.
Often, when we say things like this, we’re referring to the “good” of day to day life. How we treat our family, how we treat those close to us. Whether we give charity, whether we inspire others to do good as well.
This is why I used to be against getting involved in politics. It seemed so petty compared to these concerns. A policy was something distant from me, a person was right here in front of me. What did it matter if I had a friend who had different political views than me if that person was a “good person”?
But here is the problem these stories have forced me to face: no one is totally good. Most people are good. They care for their families. They try to do the right thing.
But they can also be monsters. They can be both good and evil. This is the Jewish idea of our bite into the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Good and evil have been mixed up, and it is virtually impossible to separate the two.
In fact, in both the case of my friend and my mentor, their evil came from their goodness. My friend’s good, trusting, loving nature had made him susceptible to the evil of a conman. He wanted so badly to believe that a tzaddik could not truly be as evil as he was, and so his goodness had directed him to defend the rabbi at the expense of the people the rabbi had raped.
So too with my mentor. What had inspired me in yeshiva about him was his unwavering belief, the way he seemed so powerfully attached to all he did, that it animated literally everything he did. He did his kindnesses for me when I moved here because of those intense beliefs, because of how badly he wanted me to connect to what he believed was the ultimate truth. And so, flipped around, when he saw people that may influence others to go in the other direction, he turned into a hound dog, trained to kill the threat even if it normally walked around nuzzling those close to it.
The Real Good
Is being a good person enough, then? Maybe if the goodness is never truly tested. If it is put in a context where it can flourish. If my friend had never had to discover a man he trusted was a rapist, he wouldn’t have turned to believing something so sickening as what he believed. If my mentor had never had an eruv built in his community, he never would have yelled “Auschwitz” at a mother and her children. He would have continued his life of doing good, and inspiration and positivity. And he still will. But for the rest of his life, he will have also done this evil thing.
Being a good person is enough, then, only in a perfect world. In a world where the world is not full of contradictions and confusions, a world in which divisions between people can turn our good into bad, a world where truly bad people like Berland will take advantage of your good to do unimaginably evil things.
We are entering an age now where the conflict between the good and the evil in people is reaching a massive faceoff. Our world, once seemingly stable, has almost overnight seemed to become completely unstable. Our context is changing, just as the eruv changed the context of my mentor, just as the context of an evil manipulative rabbi changed the context of my friend.
Our morality, in other words, is being tested. What was good one day is no longer enough to save our souls. Our goodness is not what it used to be.
And so we must be vigilant. We cannot fall into the trap of thinking that the goodness we used to exhibit is the goodness that will work today.
We must dig deeper. We must go higher. We must be willing to face the evil in others that we didn’t know was there. We must be willing to talk about it. We must fight for our inner goodness, as well as not work so hard to maintain the status quo of the past that we end up defending monsters.
Being good, in other words, is never enough. Most of us have just been lucky enough to not have to face how goodness can turn dark.
The only thing that will be enough, then, is a constant sense of growth and change. One where morality is not just about being kind or doing the “right thing” but about being able to separate ourselves from past attachments in order to create a moral objectivity that raises us higher in our ability to see not just what being good means, but what doing good means.
Because ultimately, if you are a good person but your goodness has caused you to do evil things, your goodness is actually a weapon of evil.