Wife of Israeli celebrity rabbi attempts suicide as police question him

The wife of Israeli kabbalist Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto tried to commit suicide as her husband was being questioned by police.

The rabbi's wife, Rivka, was rushed to a Tel Aviv hospital on Sunday after reportedly overdosing on pills, Israel Radio reported. The questioning of Pinto was suspended on Sunday after three hours.

The couple were arrested and released to home detention late last week after allegedly attempting to bribe a police officer to get information about an investigation into alleged money laundering by the couple.

A former aide to Pinto, Ofer Biton, was jailed last month in the United States over immigration violations. U.S. officials reportedly have been scrutinizing Biton's fundraising activities for a U.S. congressman, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.).

Biton had a falling-out with Pinto, whose supporters have accused Biton of embezzling funds from Pinto's organizations.

First Person: Remembering Mumbai victims Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg

(JTA)—Just minutes ago I heard the terrible news that five Israeli hostages were found dead inside the Chabad center at Nariman house in Mumbai. Although the media hasn’t officially confirmed their identities yet, it seems quite certain that they are Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife Rivka, an Israeli couple and another Israeli.

After having been glued to the news for two days straight, relentlessly combing through twitter updates, news reports, and blogs, I am totally exhausted, yet feel compelled to write something about these great people I knew.

I lived in Mumbai for six months last year, and would go to the Beit Chabad with friends for a Shabbat meal about every second week. Over the course of six months, we got to know the rabbi and his wife quite well.

They were wonderful people: warm, inviting and engaging. Gabi would get visibly excited to have so many guests for Shabbat; you could tell it really made his week. complete coverage on mumbai chabad attackHe would have a grin on his face almost the entire meal, including during his dvar Torah. He was always so eager to create a communal feeling that he insisted everyone go around the table and say a few words to the group, giving guests four options: either delivering a dvar Torah, relating an inspirational story, declaring to take on a mitzvah or leading a song.

As most of the guests were Israeli backpackers and other passers-through, they might have found this quite novel. For us regulars, it was just Gabi’s shtick. I can still hear him reciting those four options to the group now, as if he had discovered some miraculous way to make everyone involved in the Shabbat with no escape, impressed by his own genius week in and out. He had a devilish smile; you could really see the child still in him, just beneath the surface.

Gabi was also exceptionally thoughtful. Though most of the guests were Israeli, Gabi would give his dvar Torah in English for the sake of the few of us English speakers there with sketchy Hebrew, so we’d understand. Sometimes he spoke line by line first in English, then Hebrew. Gabi would start discussions and made it his personal mission to get everyone talking, to make a group of disconnected Jews feel like a family. It worked. That was Gabi.

Rivki was a certified sweetheart. She’d generally sit apart from Gabi, to spread herself out, and usually sat with the girls. She too relished Friday night dinners—I think she needed her weekly female bonding time. She’d talk to the girls about the challenges of keeping kosher in India and share exciting new finds at the market together.

You could tell she was far from home, in this dense Mumbai jungle, but she was tough and really made the best of it. She would balance Gabi’s presence, occasionally making comments to people at her table while Gabi was speaking—not as a sign of disrespect, but to keep the people around her having a good time. That was Rivki: brave, fun-loving and super sweet.

Perhaps the greatest testament to their character was simply the fact that they lived in downtown Mumbai for years on end. Having lived there for just six months, I understand how incredibly taxing just existing in the city is. Even when trying to relax, the city still seems to suck the life out of you. Living as Westerners in modest conditions in the thick of Mumbai, with the restrictions of kashrut and Shabbat, is certainly no small feat.

I’m not sure if they were thrilled with their placement in Mumbai, but they certainly made a good go of it. They were only a few years older than me, in their late 20s, and despite being far from friends and family and perhaps not in the most exciting Chabad placement (compared to Bangkok, Bogota or Bondi), they kept positive and built a beautiful bastion of Jewey goodness.

They chose a life that demonstrated such altruism and care, in the truest sense. The Mumbai Chabad really made a difference to my time in India, and made me feel that much more at home in such a foreign country.

It was at Gabi and Rivki’s where I met Joseph Telushkin, the famous Jewish author. It was at Gabi and Rivki’s where I randomly bumped into friends of friends from back home. It was to Gabi and Rivki’s where we brought our non-Jewish Indian friends who became curious in Judaism. It was at Gabi and Rivki’s where a girl I would later fall for first developed feelings for me, when I brought her some water while she lay sick on the sofa from Indian food poisoning. She was being nursed by Rivki.

We often hear about tragedies in distant, disconnected places and feel frustratingly estranged from them. We want to connect, but can’t; we feel as though in a different world. And mere numbers, names and images don’t amount to much. I hope I’ve been able to paint a small picture of two of the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks, which claimed more tha 140 lives and left hundreds injured.

I know they would have been brave throughout the whole ordeal. Though unconfirmed, it is likely they would have been murdered right as Shabbat was coming in. I feel that this would have provided them with comfort, knowing that they departed this world in a time of peace. I also know the knowledge that their 2-year old son Moishe managed to escape in the arms of his nanny would have provided them with great comfort in their final hours. When I would look at the young Moishe I would see Gabi’s face and Rivki’s carefree spirit.

Chabad lost two soldiers today, emissaries and keepers of the Jewish people. Let us honor their work and their lives in our prayers, in our thoughts and in our deeds, and let us pray for the families of the dozens of other victims of these attacks. May all their souls rest in peace, and may we see an end to violence in our time.

— Benjamin Holtzman

Troublesome numbers

The most fascinating, intriguing and philosophically engaging book of the Tanakh (if we are allowed to indulge in ratings) is undoubtedly the first one — Bereshit, or Genesis. It tackles questions of creation and destiny, society and government, as well as the different facets of human behavior, sibling rivalry, envy and miscommunication.

Vast literature has been written on and around Genesis, and its narrative influenced many novels and poems. But as fascinating as it is, Bereshit cannot be read as a novel. As Erich Auerbach explains in his best-known book “Mimesis,” whereas Greek, and later on Western literature, sought to create the background for each scene, both physically and historically, by providing detailed description of the protagonists’ lives and surroundings, the Bible –and especially Genesis — is extremely laconic and taciturn, never revealing more than necessary.

This disparity led readers and commentators throughout the ages to try and fill in the gaps in the biblical narrative, which can be done in 70 different ways. In some cases, unfortunately, this interpretive endeavor yielded strange and even inedible fruits. Many readers, who cannot distinguish between the original, biblical text and the later interpretation, find themselves alienated from Torah study, a lamentable situation that requires remedy.

Case in point is Rivka’s age when she married.

A while ago I heard a speaker describing the generosity of Rivka by saying, “We know that she was only 3 years old, which made it much more difficult for her to give water to all the camels!”

We know? How? Most people will say: Rashi says so! Very good, but where did Rashi take it from?

The calculation setting Rivka’s age at 3 was done by the author of a Midrash called Seder Olam, or World’s Chronology, whose working assumption was that events juxtaposed in the Torah happened immediately one after the other. He assumed that if Sarah’s death at 127 years old is mentioned in the Torah immediately following the akedah (binding of Yizchak), then it happened right after the akedah; since Sarah was 90 when he was born, Yitzhak would therefore be 37 at the time of the akedah. Furthermore, since the news about Rivka’s birth is inserted between the akedah and Sarah’s death, and since Yitzhak married at 40, his wife was 3 years old.

This Midrash, quoted in Rashi, is taught without hesitation to kindergardeners through 12th-graders. Would we tell our children that story if it did not refer to biblical characters?

How would we feel cheering on a cute flower girl (or better yet, toddler) marching down the aisle at a wedding, only to find out that she is actually the bride? Can you imagine casually telling your kids that their 40-year-old cousin is marrying their 3-year-old next-door neighbor, with whom they don’t play because she’s too young and often breaks their toys?

Of course not, we would be disgusted and appalled. We would label the man a pedophile and a pervert. We would notify the authorities and warn our children to keep away from him.

Why then are we willing to accept that scenario when it comes to the patriarchs of our nation?

This question entails one of the greatest dilemmas of teaching and understanding Tanach, particularly Torah, and especially in Orthodox schools. To what extent are we obligated to accept the Midrash that has become so inextricably intertwined with the biblical text that even learned, well-versed scholars have a hard time telling them apart?

The answer to that question is that the rule has been long established by the early sages, mostly from the Sephardic school of thought, that rabbinical interpretation of the non-halachic parts of the Torah should be approached cautiously.

The first to voice this opinion was Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942), followed by Rav Shmuel ben Hofni Gaon (950-1013) in his introduction to the Talmud. Later, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and Maimonides in their respective philosophical works, HaKuzari and Guide of the Perplexed, both explained that there are different types of midrash on the non-halachic parts of Torah and that they can be understood as allegories, metaphors or stories meant to convey a message.

There is no evidence to suggest that Rivka was 3 years old. To the contrary, her role as a shepherdess; the way she interacted with Abraham’s servant, with her family and with Yitzhak; and the statement at the end of the parsha — that Yitzhak’s love for her comforted him after his mother’s death — all point to a mature girl, whose youngest age was probably 17 or 18. Not only that, but Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) writes that Yitzhak’s age during the akedah was around 13, which given Yitzhak’s age of 40 at the time of their marriage would make Rivka a 27-year-old bride. At Yitzhak’s wedding, the bride might have been weeping, but it was definitely not over a lost pacifier.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.