About the Lev Tahor Controversy

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans

Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans

Word came in the news  today that the ultra-orthodox Jewish group Lev Tahor (meaning Those of Pure Heart) was essentially kicked out of a small town in Guatemala after having been pushed out of Canada over the last few years.   The group of about 80 families is led by its founder, Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans and depends mainly on charitable contributions to survive.   The group believes that all Jews must follow God’s commandment to live in exile (Diaspora) within the nations of the World until the Messiah comes and orders them to return to the Land of Israel.  The group practices a stringent form of Hasidism, where, for instance, prayers are twice as long as in the other Hassidic orders, and chanted slowly and out-loud.

Trouble came in Israel then Canada from civil authorities concerned about the group’s treatment of children, including brain washing and possible corporal punishment.  In Guatemala, village elders complained that the group was not willing to integrate with their society.  

This brings a couple of interesting points.  Last week, I posted about the 1264 Statute of Kalisz and the tenuous relationships between Jewish Communities and the laws of the lands in which they dwelled throughout the Middle Ages.   This is no different, really.  The second point is that the group’s goal is primarily the preservation of the Jewish People, which I talked about in the Auschwitz or Sinai post.  There is intrinsically nothing wrong with this last point.  

The Jewish People has survived for 5,000 years by interpreting and re-interpreting the words of our Sages.  The group Lev Tahor is living what they believe.  More than anyone else, we Jews ought to be tolerant of others and defend the group’s right of religion. Rather than decry their approach and seek to vilify their practices, civil authorities where they reside ought to engage in a dialog with them to find, like in Kalisz in 1264, a liveable compromise between the rules “of the Realm” and the rules of their Community.

750th Anniversary of the Kalisz Statute (1264)

iLrg-szyk-book-statute-frontispieceA Facebook post by K’amila Klausinska brought to my attention the anniversary of the Kalisz Statute of 1264, the first official law giving the Jews of that town and region explicit privileges to live and do commerce.  This is of interest to me because my great-grand mother was born  in Kalisz, other family members came from the towns of Zdunska Wola and Warta nearby, and because of my interest in Jewish history.

The statute, signed by Prince Bolesław the Pious was later endorsed by Casimir the Great and then confirmed by subsequent rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Stanisław August being the last of them (Source).  The Jews of Kalisz, many of whom had originally fled the Rhineland area, are said to have helped draft the Statute (Source.)  This fact highlights the complexity of Jewish life in the Middle Ages, balancing a close-knit way of life with limited interactions with the Christian communities in the host country.  Jewish leadership strongly controlled Jewish life, including the power to judge members of the community according to its own code of laws.  At the same time, it was necessary to abide by the laws of the host society, the so-called “laws of the Realm” (A History of the Jewish People, p.490)

The Jewish Community generally accepted the King’s law in matters between the King and its subjects, but used Jewish law in matters pertaining to the Community.  Not an easy balancing act…  The Kings and noblemen relied on the Jews to procure foreign goods they wanted, using  connections with other Jewish communities in the Diaspora.  At the same time, these noblemen limited Jewish economic activities in order to protect local guilds.  The Kalisz Statute enabled Jewish communities in Poland to find a relative level of stability that enabled them to flourish over the next 650 years, reaching 3 million souls before World War II.

By the way, the wonderful illustration in this post is from a collection of illuminations created by Artur Szyk (June 16, 1894 – September 13, 1951), a brilliant Jewish illustrator born in Łódź, Poland.   You can see more on Szyk’s Judaica work here.  You can see translated excerpts of the Kalisz Statute here.

Robin Williams, Suicide and Judaism

After the shock of learning of Robin Williams’ passing, my first reaction was anger.  How can a man so loved by others take his own life?  What kind of message does this send to others around the World who may think of doing the same?   I quickly followed that thought with another one.  When my mother first developed the symptoms of Alzheimer, repeating the same questions incessantly, I told my kids: “It is not really her, it is her disease speaking”.   There are studies, some over 100 years old  (for instance Morselli, Enrico Agostino, 1852-1929) that suggest that the suicide rate among Jews in the country where they live is less than that of other faiths.  This has been corroborated by studies in Israel and in other areas. 

The reasons are not obvious. They stem, I believe, from the strong value system that has sustained the Jewish people throughout the last 4,000 years (see my blog on this). The key concept is the  belief in only one God which leads, according to Martin Buber, to a personal relationship between man and God.  This idea of a covenant with God, according to Max Dimont, is what gives the Jewish people the will to survive.

Many Jews (including me) assumed that Robin Williams was a Jew (Jewish Times online) and were therefore doubly shocked to learn about the manner in which he died.  The fact that he is not Jewish does not take any of his genius or the joy that he brought his fans away, but perhaps it would have changed the way he thought about his life.  God has given us free will, but God has also created and given us precious life.


See also: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14101-suicide ,  http://www.gallup.com/poll/108625/More-Religious-Countries-Lower-Suicide-Rates.aspxwww.mdpi.com/2077-1444/3/3/725/pdf