Cults and the War of the Jewish Magazines

Recently, the Torah community has experienced what can be described as the “War of the Magazines.” Mishpacha Magazine ran a fifteen page “expose” a few weeks ago about a group that calls itself “Lev Tahor” led by a certain R. Shlomo Helbrans. The article essentially described “Lev Tahor” as a cult that has had some serious issues involving medicating children, and behaviors that resemble child abuse. The article explained that authorities in Canada are investigating Lev Tahor and have also placed some of the children in foster care pending the outcome of further investigation.

A short while later, Ami Magazine ran an article that claimed the exact opposite truth. It claimed that there is no evidence at all of child abuse and that the movement is not, in fact, a cult. The article was accompanied by the following sentence directly below the headline:

“The unjust persecution of a group of pious Jews, and the unsettling silence of the Jewish community.”

The Ami article claimed that the allegations are all spurious and that it is anti-Semitism which lies behind the taking of children away from these pious families.

The turn around is a bit shocking, because Ami Magazine itself ran a three page description in a previous issue delineating in detail what happened to one family from the perspective of the brother. That issue, from a number of months ago, featured Rav Kahaneman on its cover. The first Ami article explained how many of the families are lacking in basic nutrition, but R. Helbrans sits to lavish five course meals, where he subsequently closes his eyes and explains that he ascends to the Heavens to talk to malachim.

Many readers of the latest Ami article were incensed and claimed that the article did not fully address the allegations that were brought up in the Mishpacha article, as well as in two documentaries produced in Canada – one by the television show “16 by 9” and the other by a show entitled, “The 5thEstate.” The allegations range across a very broad spectrum of issues including that the children are raised with a lack of hygiene and the treatment of children. In court they are currently investigating allegations of child abuse and under-age marriages.

Lev Tahor representatives and members have denied the allegations.

Older readers will recall how, many years ago, R. Helbrans was arrested for allegedly kidnapping 13 year old Shai Fhima. Shai later disappeared from his mother for over 2 years. Although R. Helbrans was convicted and Fhima was later found in France with a false passport, R. Helbrans successfully convinced the Canadian Immigration Refugee that the boy was never kidnapped. He showed a video of Shai Fhima saying that he was not kidnapped. Later on, it was allegedly reported that “Fhima said that he regretted making this false statement, that he was indeed kidnapped by Helbrans, and that he received $5000 for making the film.”

This author checked with some Gedolei HaPoskim who were quite wary of the Lev Tahor group. One Rav even expressed the possibility that the Eida Chareidis of Yerushalayim may have previously come out against them. This author checked with the Eida Chareidis, and in fact this was not the case. However, the sentiment that this group is not normal was clearly expressed. Ami Magazine, however, did quote some Rabbis who allegedly claimed that this group has been unjustifiably singled out.

Some of the issues that cause eyebrows to be raised among those spoken to by this author are the fact that the leader of this group does not have any authoritative contemporary Rabbinic leader to which he defers, allegedly does not have Smicha from any Torah authority, runs his group in somewhat of a cult-like manner, and has encouraged the women in Lev Tahor to wear Burka-type clothing and to dress all in black. In this author’s opinion and in the opinion of many Gedolei HaPoskim this latter position runs counter to halacha. The Gemorah talks about Bigdei Tzivonim, colored clothing as being completely permissible and all this runs against the Mesorah of thousands of years of Torah practice.

How do we differentiate a “cult” from a legitimate Torah organization? Much of this revolves around how we define the term “cult.” Chazal do speak of cults that existed in the time of the Beis HaMikdash and do refer to the cult of Essenes found in Yosifun (See for example a fascinating Maharsha on Kiddushin 71a). Chazal also reference a cult of misbodedim. There are also numerous pshatim in why Moshe Rabbeinu’s name is not mentioned in a number of places so that the religion not take on the characteristics of a cult of personality.

But aside from the issue of how a cult is to be defined, it is sometimes not so easy to tell. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) believe that a group that displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, is one such indication. This, however, can easily be confused with legitimate emunas chachomim. To differentiate, we can perhaps add the caveat that applies when this is being done against the belief system of the leading sages of Israel and against a clear indication in Torah sources.

A second indication is when‪ questioning and dissent are discouraged or even punished. Although this too can be found in some of our circles – the differentiation can be made in degree of discouragement and in punishment. It is not normal to lock children in a basement and there have been a few such allegations here.

A third indication is in implementing‪ mind-altering practices that are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s). Were medications given to children without doctor approval to keep them in line? There are allegations of such practices here.

A fourth indication is when the leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel. This happens to a degree in some of our circles as well, even though many Gedolei Torah believe that it is very unhealthy and should be discouraged. The difference between a legitimate Torah group and a cult would seem to lie in degrees here.

‪ A fifth indication is if the group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader and members, and has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society. This latter point is the crux of the issue. The excessive practice of the burka here has created that.

A sixth indication is when the leader is not accountable to any other religious authorities.

‪The ICSA lists other indications too. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group. The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iin order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion. ‪ Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members. The group is preoccupied with making money.‪ Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities. ‪ Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members. The most loyal members feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

However, labelling an entire group of people “a cult” can very well be a violation of the laws of Lashon Horah, which are simultaneously both quite serious and complex. The ramifications of a violation of Lashon haRah can often be very devastating. Entire reputations can be destroyed in a matter of days. Indeed, Shlomo HaMelech – King Solomon wrote (Mishlei 18:21), “Maves veChaim beyad Lashon – Death and Life are in the hands of the tongue” which refers to the terrible consequences of Lashon Horah (Erachin 15b).

At the same time, however, an incomplete understanding of these laws could also lead to some dire consequences on the opposite end of the spectrum. When people erroneously forbid information from being disseminated on account of thinking that it is Lashon Horah and forbidden, people cannot take protective measures. At times this can be quite devastating.

A case in point: Gedaliah Ben Achikam was one of the Gedolei HaDor of his generation. He was a Navi[1]. Indeed the Gemorah (Rosh HaShana 18b) explains that Hashem Himself (Zechariah 8:19) equates the death of this great Tzaddik with the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash! Rarely do we find such testimony as to to the stature of any individual.

The future of Klal Yisroel was in the hands of this great Tzaddik and Gadol. His decisions were of paramount importance. Notwithstanding his greatness and piety and the fact that he was a prophet of Hashem, he made a crucial error in halacha and in its application. He refused to take protective measures against Yishmael, when he was warned by Yochanan Ben Korayach of Yishmael Ben Nesanya’s malevolent intent (Yirmiyahu 40:16). The consequences were quite grave indeed. Gedaliah and all his men were brutally murdered (Yirmiyahu 41:2).

The Gemorah tells us (Niddah 61a) that Gedaliah Ben Achikam misused the halachic concept of Lashon HaRah and applied it erroneously. It was a tragic error that resulted not only in his death, the scattering of the nation, and in the loss of Klal Yisroel’s independence as a nation. Indeed, the repercussions of his error are still felt to this day.

The repercussions are felt in two ways. Firstly, they are felt in exact ramifications of his miscalculation – that the nation of Israel ceased to be an independent nation. But secondly, we still have not learned from his example. To this day, there are many well-meaning people who misapply the notion of Lashon HaRah in ways that can cause Klal Yisroel to err and err again.

The results of Gedaliah’s inaction were so grave that the Mesilas Yesharim (chapter twenty) notes that the Gemorah (Niddah 61a) considers it as if Gedaliah himself had killed all of his people! This is a remarkably thought-provoking notion.

At times, the sin of incorrectly “sounding the Lashon Horah warning” and ignoring the information is so grave that one who does so is considered the actual perpetrator of the repercussions that have transpired on account of the silence, whether it be theft, molestation or even murder.

The conclusions from this are clear.

There are times that information must be given to ward off potential harm to others, in order that they be able to take self-protective measures. At the same time, there are situations where it is forbidden for people to believe the information, even though they may act upon it to protect themselves.

Is there enough information here to be concerned? Of the 127 children in the group, seven were taken away by the Canadian equivalent of Child Protective Services and placed in religious Yiddish speaking homes. As of this writing, one of the children was released back to her seventeen year old mother but with the caveat that the father cannot see the child. The court case for the 17-year-old mother will resume in July.

The cases for the six other children taken by Ontario child services will be heard May 7.

What is the Torah view on taking children away when they may be in danger? Of course whenever it comes to pikuach nefesh where life is endangered (even emotionally) we must be stringent. But we must also make sure not to do more damage in the process of helping. In a halachic psak printed in Yeshurun Volume 15, page 642 Rav Elyashiv zt”l does take into account the issue of over-cautiously removing children from their home environs if it could lead to removal of children from an observant Jewish home environment. Here, the Canadian authorities ensured that this not happen. There may also be differences between the secular definition of “abuse” and what would be a halachic definition. Not knowing who the Prime Minister of Canada is, is something that can readily be said of children in numerous Torah observant circles. It is not a reason to take children away.

In the past week, former members of Lev Tahor have come out forcefully against the Ami Magazine article as a complete whitewash.

When safety of children is a concern, we cannot ignore a multiplicity of evidence indicating dangers – even if the sources of these indications come from venues that do not fit the criterion for Torah testimony. Halacha recognizes the notion of raglayim l’davar whenever such issues arise.

In short, if there is in fact neglect here, and evidence of this will be presented to the Canadian courts, it is this author’s view that the Torah community should support the Canadian government’s placing of these children in mainstream Torah observant homes. Like they have been doing.

[1] See Bais Shmuel (Even HoEzer, Shaimos Anashim veNashim Os Ches citing Maharit). Indeed, this is why the name Gedaliah is spelled with a vov at the end in a Get.

You may also like...

29 Responses

  1. Jacob Alperin-Sheriff says:

    “But aside from the issue of how a cult is to be defined, it is sometimes not so easy to tell. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) believe that a group that displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, is one such indication. This, however, can easily be confused with legitimate emunas chachomim. To differentiate, we can perhaps add the caveat that applies when this is being done against the belief system of the leading sages of Israel and against a clear indication in Torah sources.” Or, by Occam’s Razor, the “daas Torah” community is in fact a cult, and being nogeah b’davar, you just can’t see it.

    [Jacob, confusion of cult practices (including those asserted about R. Helbrans) with Daas Torah means one doesn’t understand Daas Torah, doesn’t understand cult practices, or in this case, possibly both — and you really ought to learn even a small amount about Daas Torah before you consider yourself qualified to comment about it. As kol bar bei rav d’chad yuma already knows, Daas Torah does not give any individual to make up new rules that contradict our Mesorah, and no one would follow the one who did so. Honest Daas Torah is a matter of intellectual deference to the superior knowledge and judgement of a Talmid Chacham when it is in line with those of others and the Mesorah that preceded him. –YM]

  2. Jacob Alperin-Sheriff says:

    I’m just saying, people who aren’t nogeah b’davar (and I admittedly am in the opposite direction), such as the Cult Education Insitute, list “Ultra-Orthodox Groups” with the cults (along with groups like Lev Tahor and various cults stemming from all sorts of religions or “new age beliefs” or whatever).

  3. Yaakov Menken says:

    Jacob, your confessed bias led you to misread the listings on the CEI website. Under no circumstances does it claim that “Ultra-Orthodox groups” (or, for that matter, any other group) constitute a cult. It has collected web links to “information about controversial groups, some called ‘cults,'” including the Amish, the Mormons, “TV and Radio Preachers” and Amway.

    Tellingly, you did not attempt to measure traditional Judaism against the indicators listed by the ICSA (as found in Rabbi Hoffman’s article), or by any alternate objective standard of cult behavior (I recall having a list of four criteria for my Sociology 241 paper on the subject). I submit that even with your biases, you realized that you could not defend your assertion by any of these objective yardsticks, and thus chose to rely upon an appeal to authority (the CEI) that simply doesn’t say what you claimed it said.

  4. Moshe Mandel says:

    I agree with Jacob to the extent that cultism is a subjective term, and one’s cult is the others holy community. Regardless, no Jew should be deemed outside the Jewish community, cultist or not, and I am appalled by the advocacy of taking Jewish children away from their loving families based upon hearsay evidence.

  5. Joe Hill says:

    The “allegations” brought in the Mishpacha article as well as the television shows “16 by 9” and “The 5thEstate” are openly based on speculation and proof-less accusations by disgruntled ex-members. Credence should not be given to television shows and commercial magazines who know little of which they speak and fill in the blanks with the worst kind of conjecture.

  6. Cvmay says:

    Mr. Hill, shall we use instead the evidence & proofs of Helbrans & his PR man? The AMI MAGAZINE lacked any research or investigation besides interviewing the head hancho & his PR man. I would venture to say that some ex-Lev Tahor members or extended family can give some credible info (as they have) regarding the actions & behavior of this clan.

  7. Oulette Robins says:

    In the Knesset, a committee presented allegations against Lev Tahor of some of the most atrocious abuses of children of what some speaking to the committee called “a sadistic cult“. Yet two things became immediately apparent: that Lev Tahor, under investigation by the Israeli state and subject to a mountain of allegations has not been charged of any crime by the state prosecutor, even after years of investigation. Attorney Galit Greenberg from the Justice Ministry, affirmed that there was ” difficulty of obtaining evidence”, and that, “for seven months the Canadian Community Social Services checked the community and found no evidence of abuse or torture“.

  8. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Oulette Robins –

    What is Canadian Community Social Services? Such an organization does not exist. Do you mean Quebec social services? Because if you do, you must be aware that the Quebec government intended to present its findings in court and that Lev Tahor illegaly fled to Ontario. Now if there was no evidence, what was QSS going to show, and why did Lev Tahor flee?

  9. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Ami magazine has consistently tried to sweep away allegations of misdeed in the frum world and attribute it all to antisemitism. Ami tends to see antisemitism everywhere. It publicly defended Nechemia Weberman. It ran a front page image of the White House decked out in Nazi Flags with Nazi Storm Troopers on the White House lawn. It ran an article entitled the Protocols of the Elders of Agudah which seemed to compare criticism of Agudah to Nazi and Czarist antisemetism. It ran articles comparing the Israeli government to Cazrist Russia. It ran a cover headline that leftist Jews were responsible for the killings in Toulouse. Defending Lev Tahor is a symptom of the same dellusional mindset.

  10. Miriam Meier says:

    Crazy Kanoi:

    The issue is not the charedi magazine Ami or any other publication. The only question is whether this author has personally gathered any evidence about child abuse in Lev Tahor other than reading a slanted article in a commercial magazine which itself was based upon hearsay evidence? Since he clearly did not gather such evidence nor did he ever bother to visit the Lev Tahor community by what authority is he advocating the removal of the children from their homes? As Judge Templeton of Ontario wrote: There has been no finding of abuse by any court to date. So how can we advocate such a harsh punishment based upon a writer’s feeelings?

    I find the hastiness by which some condemn others highly troubling.

  11. Robert Vachon says:

    I live in Chatham Kent near this group. As a result I’ve supported them in their struggles against the government and the Jewish community at large. For some reason they’ve been a target of accusations which have no basis in reality. Perhaps the only thing one can accuse them of is marrying early. But otherwise the boys and girls would be segregated till a late age. I would suggest that the author of the post visit Chatham Kent and verify for himself the veracity of my statements.

    The author should watch this video
    He claimed they don’t have normal parental feelings

  12. cohen y says:

    Whatever allegations and aberrancies that do need be addressed:

    First they came for Lev Tahoor,but……

  13. cohen y says:

    Crazy kanoiy,
    Sorry to disabuse you ,and irrespective of whatever ones opinions about jewish periodicals in general,
    there is a bit of credence to every one of the claims mentioned
    (Additionally, despite his hyperbole and sensationalism
    John Lofftus is one of the best reads out there.)

  14. lacosta says:

    in terms of Ami’s level-headed journalism , i noted an article a couple months ago , sorry i didnt copy it down , in which Editor Frankfurter was doing an interview with an impartial expert. since i don’t remember the exact topic i will write ‘xxx’ . the article was headed ‘xxx and zionism’ . so when the Editor asked the expert his opinion on the tie in of the Zionists with the topic in question the response was ‘the zionists have nothing to do with this’ , yet the article headline remained….. makes one wonder what other biases the Editor holds fast to….

  15. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Miriam Meier,

    Please quote Judge Tempelton correctly. Her comments are widely available through any Google search. According to The Canadian Press Judge Lynda Templeton still has “grave” concerns over the welfare of the children in the ultra-Orthodox sect, but stated that sending them back to Quebec would create even more instability in their lives and that could have severe psychological consequences. Templeton ordered the local child-welfare agency to arrange supervised access to the children starting this weekend.“That access has to be supervised,” she said, citing the parents’ conduct and their group’s leadership.

    Facts. Helbrans was convicted of Kidnapping. Helbrans apparently lied to gain refugee status in Canada. Lev Tahor illegally fled Quebec. Lev Tahor illegally fled Ontario and Lev Tahor illegally fled Canada. Many former members amongst them children of community leaders allege abuse. It would require a willful suspension of disbelief to assume that they are all just disgruntled former members looking for some sort of revenge.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    Subscribe to publications that tell valuable truths consistently based on sound research. We see a lot of shortcuts in our “Jewish” media that rely on unverified claims by parties in dispute.

  17. Robert Vachon says:

    Crazy Kanoiy proves the point I was trying to make about the baseless allegations leveled against Lev Tahor. Judge Templeton never said what CK says she said. But how does one disprove a distortion? She in fact pointed out that no abuse has ever been found against this group. Note: this is after three years of non stop supervision in Quebec. I often wonder why the Jewish community has leveled these charges against a group it knows very little about. As a Christian I find this type of self hate disturbing.

  18. Robert Vachon says:

    this is quite a comprehensive overview about Lev Tahor written by a friend.

  19. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Please note that Judge Templeton only denied the request of Quebec authorities to send the children back to Quebec. She ordered them held in foster care in Ontario, with supervised visits with their parents. And she also stated more than once that the allegations against Lev Tahor have enough evidence to support a full hearing.

    The Toronto Sun quoted Judge Templeton as saying, “These children have already been found to be in need of protection.” The National Post quoted the judge as saying, “There is also cogent and probative evidence before the court that the one or more girls younger than 16 years of age have been married in a ceremony sanctioned or performed by a person perceived to be a religious leader of the community.”

  20. Robert Vachon says:

    Lawrence. The judge was NOT referring to all the children of Lev Tahor. Only to a limited group of 12 children whose parents ran to Trinidad. This author had condemned all of Lev Tahor and has advocated to have all their children removed. And even with regard to the group of 12 NO abuse had ever been found against the parents even with regard to the allegation of having fungus on their feet. Why is everyone doing this? I don’t get it.

  21. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Robert Vachon – “Judge Templeton never said what CK says she said.”

    Mr Vachon, I suggest that you google the words Judge Tempelton Lev Tahor. Her comments as I have quoted them are available on basically every Canadian newsite. Lawrence Reisman quotes the Toronto Sun and National Post essentially to the same effect.

  22. Robert Vachon says:

    I want to thank the owner of the blog for allowing me to comment. I want you to know that most Christian people in Canada have an unfavorable opinion about Jews. When I see these types of postings by rabbis it makes one upset why Jews are not more careful in their assessments of other Jews.

  23. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Robert: Please quote us the parts of Judge Templeton’s decision that support your point.

  24. Rafael A. says:

    The full decision can be found here:

    Please pay particular attention to paragraphs 159 to 165 and 176 and 178. As Justice Templeton notes, there has not been a full blown trial on the facts to make findings of facts. This was an appeal of a lower court decision and the interpretation and application of relevant statutes and caselaw.

    However, Justice Templeton has expressed concern about the welfare of the children due to the early marriages. I would think that Lev Tahor will want to avoid a full trial at all costs since the evidence could expose what they are in fact doing.

  25. L. Oberstein says:

    I am amazed that there are people with eyes who cannot see that Lev tahor is a cult and that what it practices is not normative Judaism. Just because someone claims to be a rabbi and says that he is the reincarnation of the Satmar Rebbe does not mean we have to accept that.Helbrans is a sick man who is manipulating the lives of his followers. I don’t understand Ami or some of the commenters here.
    What he is dong is evil and he needs to be put away and his followers rescued.
    Lehavdil, I am thinking of Boko Charam in Nigeria who also claim to be real religious and do horrible evil all the while claiming to be the true Moslems. Thank G-d, our fanatics don’t go that far,but it is a continuum and one never knows where mental illness can lead. Mothers starve babies in Jerusalem and instead of understanding ,people riot to protect her. Fathers drop their babies and kill them and money is raised for their defence fund. When can we grow up and act mature?

  26. c-l,c says:

    Whatever side this (straight laced superficial) crowd is inclined and whatever understandably conflicted sentiments about Lev Tahor that the commenters harbor, I presume to speak for all, in saying that Robert Vachon’s concern is greatly appreciated.

  27. Robert Vachon says:

    C-l,c. Thanks much for your very kind comment.

    “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.” (Proverbs 10:12).

  28. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    Robert Vachon, as a self proclaimed Christian you might be excused for believing that the Lev Tahor issue is one of religious rights. As an Orthodox Jew, I know that it is not. Lev Tahor does not represent a legitimate form of Judaism. I know that, and so do my fellow Jewish posters on this site. We know that Lev Tahor corrupts and distorts eternal Jewish values, and that its leader Shlomo Helbrans has no Rabbinic ordination. Cult or no cult, it is definatley not a religion. Therefore out of our love and care for our fellow brethern we oppose Lev Tahor. We know that if our sons or daughters joined this group we would want our granchildren taken out (I strongly suspect that even Rabbi Frankfurter would want the same) . It is our love for our fellow Jews and our knowledge of true Judaism that drives our passion.

    I also take issue with your statement that ” most Christians” in Canada have an unfavorable opinon of Jews. Where do you have the evidence to support this outlandish claim? My many personal experiences and interactions with Canadian Christians does not bear out your conclusion. The current Canadian government under the leadership of PM Stephen Harper is probably the strongest friend of Israel in the international arena today.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This