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naomi ragenBy BERNIE BELLAN "The Devil in Jerusalem" is one of those books that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, would have to be thought of as being beyond believing. Yet, the author, Naomi Ragen, writes before the book begins: “This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”

Yet, in her acknowledgements at the end of the book, Ragen writes: “My deepest thanks to Israeli journalist Avishai Ben-Chaim who in 2008 wrote a series of fascinating and detailed articles for Maariv concerning a case of horrific child abuse, arguably the worst ever reported in the State of Israel. In his reports, he described how a person presenting himself as a rabbi and a master of practical kabbalah, Elior Chen, and his followers abused the children of a cult member with their mother’s passive participation.”

“The Devil in Jerusalem” is not for the faint-of-heart. It describes, in excruciating detail, the torture of two young children at the hands of a psychopathic rabbi who goes by the name of Shem Tov, and three of his followers.
Perhaps even more chillingly than the rabbi’s sadistic behaviour in this book we see what happens when a bright and sophisticated individual – in this case the children’s mother, falls prey to his demonic spell, and detaches so utterly from reality that she cannot see what is happening to her own children.

The book opens in a Jerusalem hospital where two young children have been brought by ambulance. The youngest, who is only a little more than a year old, has been beaten senseless to the point where he is in a coma, while his older brother, age four, has been burned so horribly that his skin is coming off.
Naturally, the reader is driven to read on to find out what could have led anyone to commit such heinous deeds and how on earth the mother, who appears to be almost in a catatonic state herself, could have allowed her children to be tortured thusly.
As it turns out, the mother’s name is Daniella Goodman, she’s American, and she’s enjoyed all the benefits of an upper class upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish Pittsburgh home. Her husband, however, is a different story. Shloime, as he’s called, is a well-meaning, but far less intelligent individual than his wife. He is easily lulled into believing whatever claptrap he’s fed by a supposedly devout haredi community which he and his wife end up becoming a part of when the couple ends up moving to Israel before the end of the last century.

Brought into the mix is a female detective by the name of Bina Tzedek, herself an observant Jew, also the mother of two young children. As abhorrent as Daniella’s behaviour is to Bina, she is determined to pierce Daniella’s shell in order to find out how any mother could have stood by as two of her children were being physically tortured. The book weaves back and forth in time as we are gradually made aware of the circumstances that led to the gruesome hospital scene with which the book opens.

Along the way Ragen uses her extensive knowledge of haredi life to detail the lifestyle of the radical “settler” movement, to which Daniella and Shloime belong for a time. Although “The Devil in Jerusalem” does not get into the politics of the religious extremists for whom the West Bank is all part of “Eretz Yisrael”, her description of the hardships that settlers are prepared to endure for the sake of fulfilling a biblical promise do give tremendous insight into what makes the most committed “settlers” tick.

I also find it interesting that Ragen herself does not at any point mention the fact that Daniella and Shloime are actually living near Palestinians. In fact the word “Palestinian” does not even appear in the book. It’s just a minor observation on my part, but I think it speaks volumes about the attitude of so many Israelis that someone can set a part of a book in an area that is highly contentious and not even refer to that in her writing.

What anyone reading this book though is bound to find troubling, aside from the descriptions of children being tortured, is this question, which is raised among the several questions for discussion that are proposed at the end of the book: “How is a cult different from a legitimate religious community?”
If Shem Tov is the leader of a cult, he still commands a great deal of respect among the entire haredi community of Jerusalem.

Aside from the question how can a supposedly devout Jew be so evil in reality, one might well ask why certain religious individuals tend to occupy such elevated positions of respect within their communities that their obvious personality flaws are willingly overlooked by their adherents? In this respect ultra-Orthodox Jews are not much different than any other religious group when it comes to the veneration of charismatic figures.

Naomi Ragen has carved quite a name for herself as a critic of injustice toward women within the haredi community in Israel. (As a matter of fact she was here for Tarbut two years ago.) Still, as much as modern Orthodox Jews would find so many aspects of what happens in “The Devil in Jerusalem” to be agonizingly difficult to comprehend, the possibility that psychopathy can exist within any group should not be overlooked.
But – and I know this isn’t going to sit well with some of our readers, is it possible that it’s extreme religious practice itself that can engender that psychopathy?

“The Devil in Jerusalem”
By Naomi Ragen
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
310 pages

"The Devil in Jerusalem" will be discussed on Wednesday, January 25th, at the Asper Campus in the Seniors' Lounge. Anyone is welcome to attend - including individuals who haven't read the book.

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