No religious community is without charismatic ‘holy’ men who abuse their influence over the minds of men.
The crucial role Rabbi Elon played in my life
By Anshel Pfeffer – Haaretz
February 18, 2010
It is almost impossible to put in words what Rabbi Mordechai (Moti) Elon meant to me and still means for thousands of youngsters and grown-ups who learned from him and took his advice at every step of their personal lives.
Someone who has not experienced in his youth a deep attachment to a magnetic personality, charming and wise, who served as a friend, guide, father-confessor and surrogate father and sculptor of identity at a crucial time of life, cannot conceive of the central place Rabbi Elon held in our lives.
When you are 14 or 15, a bookworm without friends, incapable of finding a common language with those around you, parents and teachers, and think no one can understand or appreciate you, then a grown-up who treats you as an equal, takes an interest in you, invests time in you and enriches your knowledge, becomes the center of your existence.
Rabbi Elon was such a life friend for thousands of teenagers (like me), while meteorically becoming a major public figure, perhaps the most revered in the religious community. We, his close students, who knew him almost from the beginning of his educational and rabbinic career, felt the public’s adulation of him reflected on us and made us more special than friends who didn’t study at Yeshivat Horev.
He was party to all our dilemmas. We told him about our first girlfriends, arguments with our parents, problems during military service and plans for the future.
We introduced him to our fiancees, and he danced at our weddings, holding us close. We would wait for hours on the steps to his office to get a few minutes of personal time with him, or we would go to his home, sometimes at 2 A.M., the only time he had left over from running the yeshiva, preparing and giving lessons, meetings and lectures.
We shared with him our most uplifting moments, on trips to the extermination camps in Poland, when he announced the death in battle of a yeshiva alumnus and on nature hikes, which he always transformed into a spiritual experience.
Like when he told us to switch off our flashlights in the depths of the Haritun Cave and began singing and dancing with us in the dark. We grew up with him and with his children. We never understood how he found time for everything. I have no idea whether the allegations against him are true. He gave my friends and I thousands of kisses and hugs but never did we feel there was anything untoward about that. I will be very happy if the allegations prove false.
But if I had been asked yesterday, before the story broke, how I felt (supposedly as a grown-up) about our decade-long relationship, I would have had to admit it was problematic.
My attachment to such a turbine of charisma filled me with energies that almost wiped out my own identity, which had barely begun to emerge, and set me on paths that – with hindsight – I regretted. I did not reflect on who I really am.
We complain today about the lack of role models in the Israeli education system.
A dark side
But there is also a dark side to charisma and admiration, especially when they suffocate the natural rebellion of youth and individualism. This problem isn’t only in yeshivas. From reading biographies, I know that the youth of the old kibbutz movement, pupils in Catholic schools worldwide and the boys sent to public school in Victorian England experienced the same magnetism of strong charismatic figures.
Very often there followed painful disappointment and awakening.
A high incidence of sexual abuse is just one result of life in such a closed and intense environment. But the issue of generations of young men (women are more resilient) with uniform views and personalities, who only much later, if at all, begin to form their own identity and inner spiritual world, is a less recognized but no less painful part of it.
As a father, the only lesson I can impart to my children from my years close to Rabbi Elon is while they have a duty to respect their teachers, never suspend your critical faculties toward figures of authority; do not become dependent on objects of admiration; and beware of charisma, as if from fire.