Saturday, 16 January 2016

The Yosef Mizrachi Phenomenon:
Who are Yosef Mizrachi's fans and students?

Having watched Yosef Mizrachi operate now for over two years, and in fact having attended a lecture myself, I have had fair exposure to some of the people who many of us have seen speaking up passionately for their saintly and exalted teacher, the righteous saviour of souls, Yosef Mizrachi.

I have interacted with scores of these people on Facebook, on blog posts, in private messages, by email and in face to face encounters at the Shabbat table in my own community.

In light of recent interactions, I have collected my thoughts on the phenomenon that many of us have shaked our heads at in utter disbelief: that Yosef Mizrachi has so many fans, that these people seem to be dedicated to zealously defending him to the death, and that this is often at the expense of civilised behaviour and what most would think are common sensibilities.

To many of us, the natural reaction is to be repulsed by the damaging, or outright foolish things he has said. For the purposes of this piece, I would prefer not to go into the specifics of these statements - there are enough resources online now to obtain this information quickly and easily.

What I would like to focus on is the nature and make-up of the group of people that I call the 'Mizrachi Brigade' - who they are, what they say, what they are likely thinking, and why they do what they do.

To be sure, this is not a homogeneous group of people, and, there are degrees of attachment to Mizrachi among them. Their ages, nationalities, ethnicities and genders vary. In fact, not all of them are even Jewish. (Possibly the majority of his social media followers aren't.)
Yet, there are a number of similar traits and ideas that I have noticed repeatedly across multiple members of this collective.

It would be worthwhile to interject with a key consideration at this stage: is Yosef Mizrachi running a cult, and are his followers cult members?
Having researched the common sociological characteristics of cults, I would have to say that the answer is "no". Mizrachi does not satisfy the generally agreed upon criteria to be considered a cult leader, and his following does not fit the framework of a cult. (1) (2) (3) (4) 
Mizrachi doesn’t even necessarily run an institution or organised ministry, so it would be difficult to attribute any kind of formalised structure to his following.
However, while occupied with this research, I could not help notice that many of the behaviours I have seen exhibited by the 'Mizrachians' are classically cultish.

By running through some of the behaviours attributed to cult members, we can observe the traits of Mizrachi fans and become acquainted with how they think.

Mizrachi: Inspiring

1) Exclusive access to truth:
Members of a cult will typically disregard the ideas and opinions of those outside the cult. They alone have access to the true path, and anyone who wants to access the Truth, must do it within the set parameters of the cult.
It's fairly simple in this case to make the case that the Mizrachi fans feel this way. Mizrachi has often stated that his critics are liars and that he only speaks the truth. The logical extension of this is that to access that Truth, one must agree with what he says. The justification usually given for this belief is that Mizrachi is only stating exactly what the Torah says, what God wants and that his utterances are the words of God. Mizrachi himself often says this too, thereby reinforcing this belief. His website even uses the domain name
And, in communications, he has bragged about being called “the Moshe Rabeinu of our generation”.

I have seen a number of examples of his students defending him by affirming these statements. Mizrachi is just saying what the Torah says, or, speaking for God. He has even been referenced as a Prophet and as the Messiah.
Mizrachi: Spreading G-d's words, like jam on toast
Mizrachi: More superpowers than X-Men

Mizrachi: Just a messenger

In an attempt to defend Mizrachi, one dedicated groupie wrote a detailed and emotion laden defence piece entitled "The Truth Is Above Everything", which was posted onto Mizrachi’s Facebook page. The “Truth” being referred to is of course Mizrachi’s interpretation of the Torah.
2) Opposition to independent and critical thinking, and failure to engage in it:
As already stated, Mizrachi fans believe that their leader speaks for God. To oppose anything he says would therefore be to oppose God Himself and His Torah. This of course suppresses any independent thinking from the get-go, since those who think or speak differently would immediately be branded as anti-religious heretics, enemies or opponents.  
Critics are frequently accused of engaging in lashon hara (derogatory speech) and sinat chinam (baseless hatred), reinforcing the implication that expressing an opposing idea or challenging is in fact sinful.

However, in the Mizrachi case, there is an additional reason for the lack of independent thought, challenging questions, critical thinking and the general submission of the students to the teacher: Since the students are in the main baalei teshuva (newly religious), secular Jews finding their way into a more observant lifestyle, or not Jewish at all, they tend to have very limited educational background in Jewish studies, are generally incapable of accessing the primary texts themselves and are often ignorant of Jewish history.

The students therefore lack the ability to contextualise and compare Mizrachi’s statements, making them prone to accept his thinking as the definitive Torah Judaism approach on the matter at hand. They are seemingly unaware that there exists a vast array of rabbinic and academic opinions on most Jewish topics, even within Orthodoxy itself.
This is certainly the case for topics like Holocaust history and theology, Divine Providence, Kabbala, Reincarnation and esoterica like Demonology and Spiritism.

Their Judaism, and their Weltanschauung, is essentially black and white, with no room or patience for grey areas.

3) Zealousness and unquestioning commitment:
Cult members will classically display excessive zealousness in defending their leader, his/her views and beliefs, teachings and ideologies. In some cases, doing so may justify the use of force or violence.

There is no doubt that many of the Mizrach brigadiers have displayed this tendency, with outbursts and attacks on opponents that become abusive or threatening.

Mizrachi fans: pleasant bunch

Many Mizrachians have shown their inability to acknowledge that their teacher’s views may in fact be mistaken, even when he has apologised and retracted such views. An example of t his was documented recently by the Yeshiva World News (YWN) website, a Haredi news agency which published a piece documenting the reaction to their coverage of Mizrachi’s controversial Holocaust statements and his subsequent apology, including a video featuring a Holocaustsurvivor expressing his dismay. YWN claim that “hate-mail poured into YWN cursing out this Holocaust survivor for the Chutzpah that he had for making his statement against this Rabbi. Dozens of letters from alleged followers of rabbi Mzrachi sent threatening letters to YWN”.

Indeed, it seems that the Mizrachi Brigade have put their teacher on such a high pedestal that he is assumed of being inerrant and infallible.

Only a mathematical mistake is all

Rabbi is right, it's only logical!

4) Ends justify the means:
Cults will often do whatever it takes to see their end goals materialised, even if this involves alienation, immoral and illegal activity, violence or loss of life. Essentially, the drive to achieve their mission will usually distort their sense of morality, impairing their ability to tell right from wrong.

It could be said, as with most Kiruv educators, that Mizrachi’s end goal is to mekarev (influence people to become observant) as many unobservant Jews as possible.
As with cults pursuing their own exalted ends, this may translate to using any means possible to achieve the goal, including the use of scare and shock tactics, lies, misinformation and various other techniques.

Mizrachi’s fans have frequently defended him and his activities of this type on the basis that he is a leading “Kiruv Rabbi” who has made thousands of people religious. As a result of this, anything he says and does is defensible because ultimately, he is bringing people to Torah observance.

Mizrachi fans: Kiruv maniacs

5) Low self-esteem, seeking belonging, “religiously inspired”, misfits and reformed criminals
People are often drawn in to cults to fulfill the need to belong to something greater than the self, to find a group to fit in to, for acceptance, or because they are attempting to find a new identity and distance themselves from a tainted past. In some cases, a religious epiphany can drive people to join a cult group as a means to express their new-found enthusiasm.

Among the Mizrachians I have encountered are people who fall into these categories. To be fair, they are probably a minority, yet they seem to be the most noticeable. In some cases, these people in their new found religiosity have felt uncomfortable in more established Orthodox communities and are therefore drawn to an accepting leader, where others like them accumulate. In other cases, these people have been shunned due to past involvement in criminal or illegal activity, or because they are perceived as odd, radical, or socially awkward.

In having reviewed some of the broad traits and ideals of cult members, we have been able to analyse the traits and ideals of students of Yosef Mizrachi.

While these people claim to have gained immensely from Mizrachi’s educational ventures, one is left wondering if this is indeed really beneficial for the wider community.

Sure, they may have changed their lives and taken on a stricter commitment to Torah observance than they had before, but I can’t help wonder if the foundation that they stand on is extremely shaky, and for those who do indeed continue on this path, if they may actually have been better suited for groups like the Branch Davidians or Aum Shinrikyo.

1 comment:

  1. On more than one occasion I was encouraged to think for myselfin developing my opinions on who and what to believe as truth.Examine,and re-examine,then as Ben Franklin advised,'Believe none of what you hear...and half of what you see'...