Monday, February 9, 2009

Black Madonna

You know times are changing when Chabad – Lubavitch clergy are allowed to wander around freely advanced basis where soldiers are preparing themselves for battle. There was a time when the IDF Rabbinate was charged with the task of making sure the kitchens were kosher and that there were services on Shabbat. They were functionaries, little bureaucrats - a reflection of the greater rabbinate in the general Israeli community. Rarely would anyone approach them for anything other than to perform a ritual such as wedding, brit, funeral and maybe a pidyon haben. They aren’t trained in pastoral care as clergy are in the U.S., nor are they trained in marriage counseling or chaplaincy. They don’t visit the sick in hospitals as part of their job description, nor hold the hand of the sick prior to surgery. But for some odd reason, these untrained clergy have been allowed to peddle their brand of Judaism to vulnerable soldiers in their final moments at staging basis before going out to do battle.

What could these “shluchim” be telling our chayalim in those moments before battle. What could they possibly be saying to them, to offer them encouragement and hope. How are they helping these chayalim in coping with fear and the unkown. These shluchim not having been trained in chaplaincy are in fact pandering religion to chayalim at their most vulnerable moment reducing them to nothing more than a challenge for the chabad shaliach. How many can he influence is the game they pay, the same game played by evangelists and missionaries operating in Africa or Asia.

Then there is another phenomenon: the mystical believers, the very same who believe in spiritual icons such as the Baba Sali and other highly questionable “mekubalim”, placing their faith in amulets and other “segulas”. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with approaching Judaism from the mystical side, studying Kabbalah and consulting with “mekubalim” as long as they are understood within the overall general context of Jewish practice. When it becomes, however, the primary post upon which Jewish values and faith is pivoted there is a serious distortion. Imagine a young unseasoned frightened chayal going to battle for the first time, having grown up in a secular environment and being confronted with his worst fears, mortality and a “mekubal based” missionary approaches him. It strikes me that there is an element of exploitation or perhaps even spiritual / emotional abuse.

These phenomenon which I have pointed out aren’t isolated incidents but have become quite rampant. It is so prevalent that during the height of the Gaza incursion this past January 2009, a story was told about two chayalim who encountered none other than “Rachel Emeinu”, the matriarch Rachel. According to the story, the chayalim were on a mission in Gaza City and approached an intersection but didn’t know which way to go. They saw a woman in black from head to toe standing there pointing to a direction which they should go. Reluctantly following her direction they were delivered to safety, for a few moments later they heard an explosion coming from the other road. The two chayalim came back and asked her name and she replied “I am the matriarch Rachel”. Obviously, the story sounds a little phony. This genre isn’t really part of the spiritual or metaphysical Jewish tradition. Furthermore, why is it that typically, this genre of story has the apparition always in black? Unfortunately, the picture conjured up here is the medieval imagery of the Black Madonna. This story was all over the internet and became a sensational story throughout Israel. It was so popular and so believed that some of the most distinguished rabbis in Israel were consulted as to its veracity.

If it wasn’t so sad I would find this quite amusing, because ultimately the truth always emerges. What is important here isn’t whether this rabbi or that rabbi believed the story. No, what was interesting was the comments of one well respected “mekubal” who had the audacity to say that “Rachel Emeinu” would never appear for the sake of a secular Jew. And there, my friends, is the rub! That is the true feeling of so many of those missionaries out there in our advanced staging camps. They have no real compassion for the chayal – they are more interested in saving his soul, in “turning” him, in making him frum. And what better way to do this than by exploiting his fears and vulnerability before going to battle. How sad and how pathetic.