Though the incident which is the subject of this post is garden variety dirty tricks in the context of a typical Netanyahu election campaign, there are some larger issues of religious ethics which have important political implications. Benny Gantz’s chief campaign consultant, Issac Bechar, asked for counseling from his rabbi, Guy Havura, about a personal family matter. Unbeknownst to Bechar, Havura recorded their conversation and leaked it to Israeli media. Why? Because the day before, Havura had welcomed Netanyahu and the latter’s lawyer into his yeshiva classroom, where he had blessed Netanyahu and exhorted his students to offer a prayer that the former would win 61 seats in the election and continue as prime minister.
Though no one knows how and why the rabbi taped the conversation, it seems clear that Netanyahu’s lawyer, who is a student of Havura, spoke with his religious mentor, who apparently told the lawyer he had been approached for counseling by Bechar. It seems likely that a plan was hatched for the rabbi to “wear a wire” (as they say in police procedurals). Afterward, I suspect the tape went from the rabbi to the lawyer and thence to the media.
Unfortunately, this is pretty standard stuff in politics. The inaptly named Project Vertias engages in this sort of fraudulent behavior regularly. In fact, it just got a veteran NBC reporter demoted for speaking candidly about politics to what he thought was a documentary film crew.
But what is different here is that a rabbi played a key role in the fraud. Though I’m not a religious or legal expert on these matters, and protocols in the U.S. and Israel may be different, my understanding is that pastoral counseling does carry an expectation of privacy. A leading Reform ethics expert wrote:
…In a pastoral counseling setting, confidentiality goes to the heart of the congregant’s expectation of privacy between the congregant and the rabbi (or minister). In fact, that privacy even is recognized in the law as a “priest-penitent privilege” that prevents disclosure of those conversations except in special circumstances.
Considering that Bechar consulted the rabbi about a personal matter, it should not matter that he then spoke openly and disdainfully during the session about his boss, Gantz. The expectation of privilege holds. An Orthodox rabbinic ethics expert said this on the subject:
Secular matters that arise in the context of a conversation with a Rabbi in which the Rabbi has been approached to provide spiritual guidance and counseling will be included under the privilege’s umbrella.
We can argue about the wisdom of Bechar trusting anyone, including a rabbi, with such confidential information–especially at the height of a contentious election. Certainly, Bechar betrayed atrocious judgment. And one thing a political consultant needs in spades is good judgment and an ironclad commitment to his client’s interests. For such a lapse Gantz fired him and rightfully so.
But the key figure in this drama is Havura. He betrayed the confidence of a Jew who sought him out for personal advice on a matter that troubled him. One key role of a rabbi is to offer counsel and succor to those in need. If a rabbi cannot be trusted, then nothing in Judaism can be trusted. I don’t have much faith in Orthodox Judaism in general, but I would welcome some Orthodox rabbis denounce Havura’s actions. I doubt it will be forthcoming. Prove me wrong.
It is certainly permissible for a rabbi to support one political candidate over another. It is also permissible for a rabbi to express such personal views in a private setting (though not from the pulpit). But it should be completely pasul for a rabbi to engage in subterfuge in order to engineer the victory of a favored candidate. Further, causing a man who trusted you to lose his job should be a cardinal breach. This rabbi has much for which to beg forgiveness come Yom Kippur. Through it’s doubtful it will be much on his conscience.
Here is the crux of this story: a country in which religion and politics intermix produces this sort of ethical miasma. In Israel, politicians exploit religion and rabbis exploit politics. There is no division between the two. This makes the country not a democracy, but a theocracy. While it is true that politicians and not rabbis (for the most part) sit in the Knesset, those leaders are beholden to rabbis and religious movements including the settler movement, which exerts massive control over domestic politics.
Though there may be Christian pastors who engage in such behavior in U.S. politics, even the most fundamentalist among them would likely denounce such behavior by a Man of God. There is an understanding (as shaky as it may be at times) that politics and religion are two separate realms. Of course, many religious figures violate this separation. But I can’t think of many, even the worst among them, who’s ever been accused of doing what Rabbi Havura did.
This is why a secular state in which religion exists and is respected, but which does not invade the realm of politics, is the best form of government. This is one of the reasons why Israel faces the trouble it does.
Finally, the most embarrassing element of the leaked counseling session concerned Bechar’s disdain for Gantz’s leadership abilities. Primary among his criticism was that Gantz would not have the decisiveness to attack Iran. That he would waffle, that he would hesitate. Bachar preferred a resolute leader prepared to go to war against Iran. This is precisely the insanity of Israeli politics. Leaders who are willing to risk a regional bloodbath are rewarded. Leaders who exercise caution and deliberation before making such a momentous decision are derided as weak and pusillanimous. Until now, Israel has not paid much of a price for such rashness. Military leaders who struck first and asked questions later were rewarded. Those who hesitated were derided as cowards. But there will come a time, possibly in the near future, when such impulsiveness will plunge the country into a maelstrom from which it cannot extricate itself.