Top rabbi blows lid off rabbinic scandal, rocking national religious public
Shmuel Eliyahu accuses spiritual leader Shmuel Tal of having inappropriate relationships with female followers, justifying them by claiming ‘holy spirit’ was revealed to him
Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent
In an open letter Wednesday that blew the lid off of a hushed misconduct accusation involving a prominent spiritual leader in the national religious camp, the chief rabbi of Safed called on the public to stay away from a respected counterpart, accusing him of carrying out several inappropriate relationships with female followers, among them an adherent whom he convinced to divorce her husband.
Three weeks after the national religious Srugim news site broke a story about an unnamed yeshiva head who had been asked to resign due to “personal entanglements,” Safed’s Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu publicly identified the embroiled individual as Rabbi Shmuel Tal, the head of of the Torat HaChaim yeshiva as well as several other religious institutions in the central town of Yad Binyamin.
In his open letter referring to Tal, Eliyahu wrote: “I do not recommend that anyone learn any halacha (Jewish law) from him, nor seek any guidance from him. I do not recommend studying at his yeshiva or at his seminary for women or at his counseling academy.”
Eliyahu opened the letter saying that roughly four years ago, he learned about an improper relationship that Tal, 56, was having with a married woman, who had approached the Torat HaChaim leader seeking marriage counseling.
“I reached out to [Tal] and warned him against the forbidden relationship, the great desecration of God’s name that would come out of it as a result and against coaxing the woman to divorce her husband on the pretext that they were not compatible. He does not have permission to do so while he is having an illicit relationship with her. This is the definition of ‘stealing the poor man’s lamb,'” Eliyahu wrote, referring to the biblical fable cautioning against taking advantage of the weak.
Safed’s chief rabbi said that Tal refused to comply with his request and continued his contact with the woman, even successfully convincing her to divorce her husband. Tal told the woman that the “holy spirit” had informed him that his own wife, Yifat, would soon pass, after which he would marry her in Yifat’s stead.
According to Eliyahu, the still-alive Yifat rejected the subsequent proposal that Tal wed the female follower while remaining married to his first wife.
Upon learning that Tal was not going to marry her, the follower “understood the mistake she had made” and managed to remarry her ex-husband. At which point, however, Tal’s associates began spreading slander about her in the woman’s community, Eliyahu claimed.
“It became clear what was evident from the beginning, that what had caused the woman to separate from her husband was Rabbi Tal’s seduction,” he wrote.
After remarrying, the woman and her husband chose to sue Tal for damages. Eliyahu said that the Tals reached out to him for help reconciling between them and the remarried couple. Tal admitted wrongdoing and agreed to pay NIS 500,000 ($138,287) as reparations. At which point, Eliyahu wrote that he believed Tal had adequately repented and issued a private letter stating that Tal could continue leading Torat HaChaim. (It was later discovered that Tal did not pay the NIS 500,000 in full.)
Several days later, Eliyahu said he discovered that Tal had “unhealthy relationships” with other women, both married and unmarried. Moreover, he learned that Tal’s computer contained “obscene content” on it. “Therefore, I agreed with other rabbis from Torat HaChaim that he could no longer be the Rosh Yeshiva there.”
In consultations with Rabbi Asher Weiss — a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi whose rulings have been accepted by members in the national religious camp as well — Eliyahu said that it was decided that a special rabbinic court be assembled in order to rule on the allegations made against Tal.
In the meantime, Weiss issued a ruling of his own stating that Tal could continue functioning as head of Torat HaChaim before the court of three rabbis debated his fate. In addition, he called on members of the Yad Binyamin community to come forward before this coming Friday if they had any allegations against Tal.
However, the Kan public broadcaster reported that confidantes of the original female complainant against Tal had discovered a video of Weiss praising the Torat HaChaim leader and argued that he should not be entrusted in putting together a rabbinic court that would rule objectively. Nonetheless, Weiss hasn’t been removed from the case.
In his open letter, Eliyahu wrote that he had notified the rabbinic court of the possibility that Tal would try to destroy the computer and its “obscene content,” and that was in fact what happened. “In such a situation it is difficult for the court to see the clear evidence of its misdeeds,” he wrote.
Explaining his decision to go public with the details of the affair, Eliyahu said that in conversations with Tal, the latter rabbi continually said that he was guided by a “holy spirit.”
“I looked into the matter of the ‘holy spirit’ and found that he had for years been giving many people advice based on his belief he was in contact with the ‘holy spirit,’ causing great harm,” Eliyahu wrote, adding that the misguided advice was endangering the hundreds of people in Yad Binyamin and around the country who are followers of Tal’s.
Also on Wednesday, a former student of Tal’s by the name of Joe Axelrod posted on Facebook that the Torat HaChaim rabbi had tried to convince his wife — using the “holy spirit” — to divorce him in order for them to marry and have a child together who would go on to become the messiah.
Tal established Torat HaChaim in 1996 in the Gaza Strip settlement of Neve Dekalim. After Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the coastal enclave, Tal moved the yeshiva to Yad Binyamin where it remains to this day, expanding it to include a seminary for female students, a counseling school, a theater school, and more. However, along with the disengagement, Tal underwent an ideological shift in which the national religious rabbi stated that the State of Israel could no longer be considered part of the messianic redemption, but rather an inhibitor.
In response to Eliyahu’s letter, Tal issued a statement calling it “strange that various elements not from the [Yad Binyamin] community, which are motivated by personal interests and whose purpose is harming the community institutions and the head of the community, are the ones to spread vicious rumors that have nothing to do with the truth.”
Tal claimed those elements had hacked computers at his yeshiva, thrown eggs at his home and slashed the tires of cars belonging to his followers. Nonetheless, he said he remained committed to hearing out the rabbinic court’s decision pertaining to him.
In an apparent response to speculation in the national religious camp over whether the relationship he had with the female follower had been of a sexual nature, Tal’s statement claimed that it had not been an “intimate” one.
The statement concluded by castigating Eliyahu for “undermining” the rabbinic court’s job by going public with the details of the matter, “giving the affair public attention.”
On Wednesday night, Kan reported that the scandal had caused a rupture in Yad Binyamin between supporters and opponents of Tal. However, even among the accused spiritual leader’s advocates, calls are being made behind closed doors for Tal to step down immediately from his position so he does not take the entire community down with him.
This is the third allegation of misconduct against a prominent rabbi in the national religious community that Eliyahu has been tasked with resolving.
Last year, a young student approached him to accuse Rabbi Mordechai “Moti” Elon of sexually inappropriate behavior, in a new claim that came five years after Jerusalem’s Yeshivat HaKotel head was convicted on two counts of sexual assault. Confronted by Eliyahu and other senior national religious camp rabbis, Elon confessed to the misconduct, agreed to cease all public activity and seek treatment.
Eliyahu also led a team of rabbis that investigated sex crime accusations made by a dozen women against Safed’s Orot Ha’ari yeshiva chairman Ezra Sheinberg. The team opened its probe in 2015 and reported the rabbi to the police several months later, which nabbed Sheinberg as he was attempting to flee the country. Two years later, he was convicted and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison.