Monday, March 28, 2011

Who Remembers the Ford Pinto

I never met Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto nor have I ever attended his shiurim. I am however aware of his reputation and depending on whom you ask will determine whether he is the incarnate of Rasputin or the Baal Shem Tov. I am aware of the anecdotal lore of how the powerful and wealthy, real estate moguls, captains of industry and the sports elite seek his advice and counsel before making their final business/investment decision as though he had a crystal ball. I believe King Saul committed a similar kind of sin when he sought out a seer in the hope of communicating with Samuel. I have never bought into the idea of seeking out b’rachot because theologically, from a Lithuanian, non-Sephardic, non-Hassidic, non-kabbalistic, but Maimonidian perspective I was taught to depend on intellect rather than arbitrary b’rachot. Study and keen intellect was the antidote to the talisman, amulets and shaman of the traditional mystics and mekubalim and baalei shem tov. Seekers of b’rachot is akin to those who would consult their horoscopes prepared by trained, well-known astrologers. Believing in the likes of baalei shem tov and those like Rabbi Pinto is akin to believing in homeopathic medicine versus traditional science based medicine. Homeopathy doesn’t really do any good and may even be harmful if misused. In a word, Pinto may not be as benign as he appears to be.

The Wall Street Journal as did the Forward carried an interesting article (Forward, March 25 2011, “Revered as Business Guru, Rabbi Faces Questions About His Organization’s Finances”) which raises question about the good rabbis enterprise. Why am I not surprised? After all, our Jewish past is checkered with charismatic rabbis who had a talent for exploiting the foibles of the community. Just to name a few there was Jacob Frank and Shabtai Tzvi who by dint of their charisma and the need for people to believe in something uplifting managed to scam a sizeable number of the communities that they reached. More recently, Mordechai Gafni, although on a smaller scale managed to scam thousands of Jews and Jewish leadership as well, through his charisma and warped ego; had he not gone unchecked he would probably have morphed into a rebbe dispensing b’rachot.

I am not suggesting that Rabbi Pinto is a con man, chalila v’chas nor is my intention to impugn the ‘mekubalim” who have a revered and honored place within our tradition. These are saintly men who while not necessarily charismatic, or seek out the adulation of the masses and their wealth, have a profound spiritual centeredness that is influential amongst a small but important segment of the Jewish community, Sephardim included. Because of their profound spiritual grounding they have traditionally spurned the “gashmius” as negative energy as opposed to their positive energy, “ruchnious”. Unfortunately many who seek out these mekubalim are in search of simple answers rather than taking the difficult approach of “hasmadah”, requiring hard work and significant investment in time, and because they have chosen a shortcut financed by money, they are ultimately the worse for it. Nothing beats the long hard journey of learning, development and self-awareness, not even the b’racha of a mekubal.

There are others of course, looking for an angle and a way to capitalize on this niche market have given a bad name to the mekubalim. Rabbi Yirael Abuhatzeira whose photograph hangs in my study was a saintly man revered by the Moroccan community in Israel and abroad and fondly known as the Baba Sali. In the tradition of those who came before him, he never sought notoriety, wealth or comfort. His son, Baruch, an ex con, on the other hand saw some good possibilities and when his father died assumed the mantle as Baba Baruch. So much for the saintly scholars pouring over archaic esoteric texts for the sole purpose of enriching those in need of his special insights rather than vice versa.

Behold, another Tzadik appears on the scene, Rabbi Pinto (related to the Baba Baruch / Abuhatzeira family on his mother’s side), who may or may not be a serious mekubal. Red flags however, do pop up when perusing his profile. Pinto is known as an advisor to real estate moguls, yet Pinto’s personal business interests and investments are shrouded in questionable dealings and foreclosures. In addition, while Mekubalim trend towards modest lifestyles due to their spiritual centeredness, this man’s flamboyant lifestyle raises many more questions. As in all religious institutions his too is a non-profit, never mind the fact that his Manhattan townhouse valued at 6.5 million dollars is facing foreclosure. Although the institution is not for profit it doesn’t carry the elementary, but legally required workers compensation insurance. His CFO speaks no English and has no idea how many employees they employ. None of this meshes with his reputation as a business “iluy” or the “hard sell” strategies for fund raising they use. For example, the rabbi will send via messenger an expensive religious article i.e. silver candlesticks (originally a gift to the rabbi who passes it on as a gift) to a new potential follower (donor) explaining that the rabbi has blessed the candlesticks. A day or two later there is a visit by one of his staff asking for a donation of a specific amount i.e. 10,000.00 dollars. When Pinto travels to and from Israel he flies first class. The list goes on and there really is no precedent for this kind of cavalier behavior by past reputable mekubalim leaving one to question his veracity.

When I consider the richly textured legacy of our past spiritual leaders whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Misnaged or Hassidic the seam of “ruchnious” runs so deep and so wide, penetrating the soul of our people that there is virtually no space left for the “gashmius” that Pinto seems to crave. It wouldn’t be that disturbing other than the fact that he is so public about it and flamboyant that it is worth noting. Unfortunately and regrettably when I think of Rabbi Pinto one of the first thing that come to mind is the Ford Pinto of the 1970’s, which appeared like a bat out of hell; in its first year selling over 100,000 cars – a real winner. The intention of the Ford Motor Co. was to design a car to compete with the popular Volkswagen and the Toyota. Toyota and Volkswagen are still here, selling well. Who remembers the Ford Pinto?