Hell has no fury like a Dybbuk scorned . . .

The story about Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri’s exorcism continues to surprise me. How can anyone be so gullible?

Channel 10 archives produced another one of the Kabbalist’s exorcisms involving a woman who claimed to be possessed by the spirit of her deceased husband, who had died about two-and-a-half years earlier. The man was believed to be a drunk who neglected to say Kaddish over his parents and dead sister. To make a long story short, the woman speaks in a deep voice (reminiscent of the Tacoma  trans-medium JZ Knight, a.k.a. “Ramtha”)  and Rabbi Batzri banishes the dybbuk from the woman’s big toe. How conjuring . . .  And so the story ended–or so we thought.

And now you are going to hear the rest of the story . . .

Sometime later, the formerly possessed woman receives an interview on Channel 10 where she claims the Rabbi owes her a substantial amount of money for failing to pay her for her services. To prove her point, she claims the entire story was staged, as she imitates the voice of the dybbuk the rabbi allegedly banished. She alleged that the rabbi paid her NIS 15,000 and had even agreed to pay her royalties from the copies of the tape of the exorcism which were widely distributed after the fact, but failed to live up to his promise.

Hmmm . . . If I were that woman, I would show the bank-records of the original check that the Rabbi gave her.

I am not sure about you, but I think that either this rabbi is either a fool or a charlatan. But again, what else would you expect from a man who gathered a group of kabbalists to circle Israel in a plane, while blowing shofars to drive away the unkosher Swine Flu? Incidentally, the influenza infection spiked up after his shofar-blowing concert.

The moral of our two-part story is simply this: Real life is more interesting than fiction could ever be. In an age of economic difficulties such as ours, people will believe in just about anything. Historically, in bad times, people have often gravitated to the Kabbalah for inspiration; yet, by the same token, there have been many charlatans who have misused Jewish mysticism for personal gain–the most famous being the 17th century charismatic Kabbalist, Shabbatai Tzvi.

My good friend Yochanan Lavie put together a new song I think our readers will enjoy humming to: Continue reading “Hell has no fury like a Dybbuk scorned . . .”

Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri–The Telegenic Exorcist Extraordinaire

Most people usually associate exorcism with the rites seen in the Catholic Church, but how many people are aware that exorcism rites exist also in Jewish tradition? Well, recently in the news once again [1], a Rabbi Yitzchak  Batzri, a telegenic exorcist extraordinaire, recently attempted to exorcize a “dybbuk” – an evil or morally demented spirit that has seized possession of a person. It is also known as “spirit possession.”

According to the news, a Brazilian man claimed that a dybbuk entered him, so he went to Rav Chaim Kanievsky who thought this man was truly possessed.

Reports about the possessed Brazilian man claim that witnesses heard voices emerging from the Brazilian man, even though his lips did not move. The spirit allegedly said, among other things, “The end is close,” and, “I sense many sins,” in a foreign language other than the man’s native tongue, which is the only language he purportedly knows. Curiously, although the man’s lips did not move, noises seemed to emanate out of the man’s stomach—of all places! His wife later said that he had been talking in his sleep as well, in a language other than his native tongue.

The young Brazilian man claimed to have lived during the days of the Second Temple, and called himself Petachyahu the son of Chava. Heaven denied him entry because of several heinous sins that included breaking into a house, murdering the man of the house, raping and murdering his wife, and sacrificing the son to an idol/foreign god.

How strange, last Sunday afternoon  I was reading a famous Jewish medieval story to my class at St. Ambrose University that is very reminiscent of this spirit’s evil deeds. The tale reads almost verbatim from a medieval classic text known as the Orhot HaTsadikim (“Pathways of the Righteous”) Chapter 14 on the attribute of “Envy.”  The parallels are so striking, if one did not know better, it sounds as if the entire story was scripted—word for word—from this perennial Jewish classic of the 15th century. Continue reading “Rabbi Yitzchak Batzri–The Telegenic Exorcist Extraordinaire”

In Praise of Naomi Ragan: An Israeli and Orthodox Rosa Parks

This story is somewhat dated, but most of the readers probably are unaware of what actually took place in Israel regarding a brave and outspoken Modern Orthodox feminist and famous authoress who dared to stand up to an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) juggernaut in a bus heading toward Israel.

In American history, every citizen knows how Rosa Parks made history on Dec. 1, 1955. This brave woman got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a municipal bus to a white man. This incident sparked the famous Montgomery bus boycott. Today, Israeli women wish they had an Orthodox “Rosa Parks” to lead them in their fight for equality in the Haredi Jewish communities.

Well, actually Orthodox novelist Naomi Ragen did exactly that a few years ago not far from Jerusalem.  No, she didn’t deliberately set out to become a Jewish Rosa Parks. She just wanted to get home. An observant, Orthodox Jew, Ragen was on the No. 40 bus line, headed to her house near Jerusalem, when an ultra-Orthodox — or Haredi — man told her to move to the back. She recalls, “I was astonished . . . And I said ‘I’m not bothering anyone. You don’t have to look at me, sit next to me — but as long as this is a public bus, I will sit where I please, thank you very much.'” Ragen says the harassment grew worse at every stop. Soon an even more aggressive, bearded ultra-Orthodox man got on and commanded her to move. He weighed about 300 pounds and hovered over her like a sumo wrestler, she says, his long, black frock and wide hat in her face.

“And he started screaming and yelling,” she said, telling her to “move to the back of the bus — or else.” “My reaction to that was I looked him in the eye and said ‘Look, you show me in the code of Jewish law where it’s written that I’m not allowed to sit in this seat and I’ll move,'” Ragen said. “‘Until then, get out of my face!'”

Pretty gutsy.

Naomi was lucky; other women haven’t been so fortunate.  At one recent incident, five Ultra-Orthodox Jews assaulted a woman and an Israel Defense Forces soldier Sunday for sitting next to each other on a bus bound for Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the civil rights movement in Israel has yet to really get off the ground. Prominent Israeli politicians are afraid to stand up against the Haredi centers of power. Even the Israeli Supreme Court has failed to grant the necessary changes to ensure equality for all its citizens. In fact, the social trends look bleaker than they did when Naomi Ragan stood up for women everywhere in Israel.

If you think about it, doesn’t it seems that misogyny might be the “Original Sin” that is behind much of the religious fundamentalism of our age?  This concept might bear looking into at another time.  Naomi Ragan represents the kind of Modern Orthodox woman who deserves our respect. I pray that more Modern Orthodox leaders show the courage to speak out against the moral and spiritual hijacking of their faith.

Is vegetarianism the ultimate ideal for humankind?

With all the commotion being made about laboratory created meat, the new technological development raises interesting ethical questions whether the slaughtering of animals ought to even be continued, since artificial meat is available. Should the practice of kosher slaughter be continued? Obviously, none of us can expect to know the future. Time will tell whether such a meat alternative is even considered healthy for human consumption. That being said, if the technology can truly replicate meat in a safe and healthy way, we may live to see the day when animals will once again live peacefully with humankind. This idea is hardly original; its roots go back to the time of Philo of Alexandria, the early Midrashic literature, if not earlier.

On the practical side, everyone in the kashrut industry has long known that the biggest problem with kashrut is most typically the meat! Eliminate the problem with meat, religious Jews can eat their food with less anxiety and angst!

Some rabbinic thinkers in the last two hundred years or so have expressed some important thoughts about the rational behind vegetarianism, which exists  in Jewish thought and tradition. Marcus Kalisch, a British rabbinic scholar (1825-1888), writes about the vegetarian diet of Adam:

The lifeless creation was produced for the living beings; vegetation was destined for men and animals; no being “with a living soul” was originally intended as the food for another living creature; man was assigned to eat the seed-giving plants, and grain, and the fruit of trees; to the animals were left the grass and the herbs (vv. 29-30). Although man was permitted the dominion over the beasts of the field, the fishes of the water, and the birds of the air, he was not allowed to extend that dominion to the destruction of life; he was the master, not the tyrant, of the animal kingdom — he might use, but not annihilate it . . .

. . . Every living being has a right to exist, and to enjoy its existence; God had blessed the animals with fruitfulness; man was not allowed to counteract that blessing by killing them for his sport or his appetite. God created the world for peace and concord, no being should rage against another; the sin of man brought warfare among the living creatures; the cries of agony rent the air; man and beast raged among themselves, and against each other; the state of innocence was succeeded by the age of passion and violence; and it was only after the fall of man that animal food was permitted to him (9:3).[1]

Less than a century later, R. Abraham Isaac Kook (1864-1935) expressed a similar perspective, envisioning a time when human beings will once again live in a state of peace with the animal world, and will not need to subsist on them for sustenance: “The thrust of the idealism that continues to develop will not remain forever in its confinement. Just as the democratic aspiration will emerge into the world through the general intellectual and moral perfection, “when man will no longer teach his brother to know the Lord, for they will all know Me, small and great alike” (Jer. 31:34), so will the hidden yearning to act justly toward animals emerge at the proper time.“[2]


[1] Marcus M. Kalisch, A Historical and Critical Commentary on the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Brown, Green and Dyer, 1858), 78.

[2] Abraham Isaac Kook,  “Talele Orot”, Tahkemoni, Vol. I, (Bern, 1910, 21), cited from Ben Zion Bokser’s, Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, the Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 23.

What is the kosher status of laboratory “grown” meat?

Technology continues to dazzle the halachic imagination in ways that our ancestors could not have ever imagined. Researchers in the Netherlands managed to create soggy pork and are looking into ways of improving its texture so that it might be an edible alternative to eating real meat. To date, nobody has yet to taste the meat to see how it fares, but assuming that it is tasty, rabbis will have to determine whether it is fit for kosher consumption or not.

According to the European news,  Rib Steak“You could take the meat from one animal and create the volume of meat previously provided by a million animals.” Meat produced in a laboratory could reduce greenhouse gas (a.k.a.,  “flatulence” and believe you me, the French, British, and Swedes are real experts on this problem!) emissions associated with real animals. Those clever little Europeans–they are always worrying about air pollution and global warming!

Ever since the days of watching Star Trek, I always wondered what would be the status of replicator generated food? Would the laws of kashrut even apply? Obviously, I am reasonably certain the majority of Haredi rabbis would look for a thousand reasons why they should prohibit such food.

That being the case, I went to the classical texts of Jewish law to see for myself what the interpretive possibilities might be. There is one story from the Talmud that reminds me about this case.  We read that “R. Hanina and R. Oshaia spent every Sabbath eve in studying the ‘Book of Creation’ by means of which they created a third-grown calf (the time when a calf’s meat is considered to be at its tastiest–Rashi) and ate it.”

Unfortunately, the Talmud does not inform us whether the two rabbis mixed the meat with milk, or whether they even ritually slaughtered it; all it says is that they merely ate it–without ritual slaughter, because the laws of kashrut did not apply to the esoteric sciences that produced the animal in the first place!  One could argue that the esoteric method of the Sages is analogous to the new esoteric technology of science. Continue reading “What is the kosher status of laboratory “grown” meat?”

The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges

As mentioned earlier the levirate marriage takes place between a widow who’s husband died childless and his brother (known as the levir); halitzah (“removal”) is a ceremony that releases the woman from the obligation of Levirate marriage, allowing her to marry someone else.

Although Levirate marriage itself no longer is practiced, traditional Jews still require halitzah, formally releasing the widow from the biblically required union with her brother-in-law. The widow appears before a tribunal of five people–three of whom happen to be rabbis. After some initial questioning as to what the widow and levir intend to do, the court gives instructions that each must carry out.

Each participant must pronounce in certain phrases in Hebrew; the woman also is instructed to fast until the ceremony. The next day, a special shoe is removed from the levir’s foot. The woman approaches him and proclaims in Hebrew, “My husband’s brother refuses to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother unto me,” to which he replies, “I do not want to take her.” The widow then removes the shoe from his foot, tosses it away, and spits on the floor in front of him, saying, “So shall it be done unto the man that does not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, the house of him that had his shoe loosened.” All present respond three times in unison, “he that had his shoe loosened.” Concluding prayers are read by the judges, and often a certificate that the widow is free to remarry is drawn up.

Even as late as the medieval era, rabbinic leaders like Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, ruled that nowadays, no woman would ever consent to marrying her brother-in-law, and the practice of halitzah was no longer necessary. However, in the State of Israel today, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis (known as Haredim [= “Tremblers”], a.k.a.  “Jewish Quakers”) refuse scores of women from remarrying without undergoing the traditional biblical ceremony—despite the humiliation this causes both the woman and her family.

In Israel, a most perplexing problem occurred that revealed the awkwardness of the halitzah ceremony as a viable religious practice. An elderly lady—about 60—wanted to register her marriage with the rabbinate after being widowed for four years and divorced from her second marriage. A clerk in the office observed that she never obtained halitzah from the brother of her first husband. Nevertheless, the rabbis ruled that she had to obtain permission from her former brother-in-law.

But here’s the catch. Continue reading “The Halitzah Ceremony– And Its Modern Ethical Challenges”

Understanding the Purpose of the Levirate Marriage and Its Symbolism

One of the ancient institutions that have persisted since archaic times is the levirate marriage. Here is a brief synopsis of the institution and its underlying rational.

Life of a widow in the ancient world was precarious at best. Having no inheritance rights, she was easily exploited and was frequently reduced to abject poverty and/or prostitution. Many ancient civilizations from India, Africa, to the Ancient Near East utilized the levirate marriage (from the Latin  levir, a “brother-in-law”) as a means of protecting the brother’s wife from being exposed to poverty. Society expected the surviving brother of a deceased man (who lacked an heir) to marry the widow. It is interesting to note that according to the Kabbala (and Hindu folklore), the soul of the dead brother is re-incarnated in the body of child his wife is carrying.

The offspring from their marriage were considered children and heirs of the deceased. In a society that defined the importance of a woman in terms of her ability to bear and raise children, the levirate marriage enabled a woman to be fulfilled. This law served to guarantee the deceased brother’s wife a place in her husband’s family and protected her from exploitation.  This law was consistent with the biblical ethos calling upon the community of God ‘to remember and care for “the sojourners, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 10:14-19; 24:17-22; 27:19). During the early period of Israelite history, this practice was not considered optional, but a duty to be faithfully carried out .

For the brother-in-law, the levirate marriage was not without its downside. By observing the law, he could actually damage his own estate, for it could be either diminished as a result of siring a son who would co-inherit with him. Likewise, it would be his to take responsibility for the widow as well as managing his dead brother’s land, not to mention, and be financially responsible for his sister-in-law as his wife. However, families took great pride in providing care for all of its members—the duty to take care of the widow was considered to be a morally important duty–not to be casually disregarded. Continue reading “Understanding the Purpose of the Levirate Marriage and Its Symbolism”

Jewish Ethics 101: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind … (Lev. 19:4)

One of the most important and yet neglected ethical proscriptions of the Torah is the famous passage, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:4). Talmudic tradition stresses the importance of not taking advantage of another person’s ignorance. Thus, we find: “ How do we know that one should not hold out a cup of wine to a Nazirite  or a limb from a living animal to a Noahide? From Scripture, which says, “You shall not put a stumbling block before the blind.”

The point of this law teaches us that nobody should prey upon the weaknesses or flaws of another human being by taking advantage of that person’s ignorance. Based on this injunction, rabbinic tradition teaches that there must be truth in advertising. Beyond that, weapons should not be sold to people unless it is for the express purpose of self-defense. In addition, one should not even offer bad advice—especially if the person who is giving it stands to gain from  it. An example of this might be someone who is trying to persuade a neighbor to sell his house so that he will get rid of them.

Scriptures further admonishes the citizen, “You shall fear your God.”  Rabbinic expositors note that this warning seems especially appropriate for offenses that cannot be detected and that, therefore, are readily concealed. The deaf cannot hear what is being said about them, and the blind cannot see who causes them to stumble. However, God sees and hears on their behalf and will punish their tormentors.

Both Jewish and Christian tradition stress the importance of not asking God not to bring us to temptation, “Our Father who art in Heaven… Thy will be done … lead us not into temptation” (Mathew 6:13). Jesus’ prayer is reminiscent of a passage mentioned in the Talmud which teaches that no person should never intentionally bring oneself to temptation, for if David could succumb to temptation, how much more could lesser mortals![1]

Moral people need to be aware of their shortcomings and weaknesses. Failure to recognize these flaws will prove injurious to one’s health or happiness.  The Sages teach in the Mishnah, “Never be sure of yourself until the day of your death.” Yet, as a good Catholic friend once taught me, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” Just because we made mistakes in the past, doesn’t mean we can’t become better people–despite ourselves. Knowing our fragility as human beings is the key to our personal salvation and eventual character transformation. Continue reading “Jewish Ethics 101: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind … (Lev. 19:4)”

Does a clone have a soul?

Does a clone have a soul? God creates human who have souls, but when people create people, do they have a soul? Where do they go when they die? If a clone is not considered to possess a soul, would it be permitted to clone a human being for merely its spare parts? Is Cloning permitted according to the Halacha?

A. Some years ago, the Israeli Chief Rabbi Lau offered an opinion on cloning. The Chief Rabbi said that although there is no specific prohibition in Jewish Law to utilize artificial genetics to reproduce a human being, it is entirely against basic Jewish conceptions to do so. “The Torah gave a specific dispensation for doctors to use their knowledge to cure, and even to lengthen life, but the formation of new life goes way beyond that. We have no permission to enter the domain of the Creator on questions of life and death.” He said that he does not know of one rabbi who permits genetic engineering in this manner.

The Chief Rabbi’s comments, although provocative, makes one wonder: Is the Halacha as obvious as the Chief Rabbi thinks? Perhaps the matter is not as simple as Rabbi Lau. Continue reading “Does a clone have a soul?”