Frauds, Con Artists, Quacks, and Charlatans

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Frauds, charlatans, quacks, and con artists have been with us since time immemorial and have outwitted even the very great, clever and wise.

Nach tells us how the Givonim pulled a real fast one over Yehoshuah and Klall Yisroel. They dressed up in tattered clothes, worn out shoes along with moldy food and claimed that they came from a faraway land and desired to make peace with the Jews. The Jews fell for their story hook, line and sinker. The lesson is obvious. A good con artist can take even the very clever and wise for a ride! No one is immune!

One of the biggest and most successful charlatans in more recent history was Shabtai Tzvi who was able to deceive countless thousands of G-d fearing Jews including many Torah giants into believing that he was the Moshiach. He caused great damage to Klall Yisroel for many years to come.

It’s remarkable to see how easily a charismatic learned con artist can amass a following of thousands of adherents. Kabbalistic claims with some chance miraculous cures can bring one instant fame and get people flocking to him by the masses. They attract the destitute, sick and brokenhearted who desperately seek a miracle worker to end their suffering.

Clever psychics have been able to defraud even the most prestigious scientists with the greatest of ease. Some are master charlatans and con artists. One performer from Israel, Uri Geller, claimed he possessed supernatural psychic powers and could make metal bend and watches stop just by looking at them. He received international fame and appeared on TV as well as newspapers and magazines around the world including the prestigious Nature magazine. He even convinced two scientists at the Stanford Research Institute, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world of his ability to effect objects and do ESP with his “psychic” powers. It was only due to the tireless efforts of a clever magician by the name of James Randi who considered him as nothing but a clever magician that put an end to his nonsensical claims. One can read more about it in Randi’s book “The Truth about Uri Geller” in which he describes how Geller’s demonstrations can be done by trickery and disputes his claims. Geller sued Randi and a group of skeptics for defamation but lost his case in court and had to pay the skeptics more than $120,000 in court costs instead.

Yet despite all this, there are still people around that are convinced that Geller possesses true psychic powers. There is an ancient proverb that says “If a man deceives me once, shame on him. If twice, shame on me!” Randi now offers a $1,000, 000 reward to anyone who can prove the existence of psychic powers. So far no one has won the prize, though many have come forward to claim the reward.

Throughout history the biggest scam artists were the priests of the avodah zorah who misled the masses in the name of religion. These charlatan faith healers, like today’s evangelists, made a thriving business scamming people with their clever psychic tricks and their claims of miraculous cures.

There are two great secrets of the quack’s success. One is the fact that many human ills, including some of the severest, will run their course and vanish without treatment of any sort, and others are wholly or in part psychosomatic.

In times gone by, when prophesy existed, the charlatans far outnumbered the true Prophets and people were easily confused as to who was real and who was just an imposter. Eliyahu was vastly outnumbered by those who insisted that they were the true prophets while he was the fake. Only after Eliyahu brought down a heavenly fire, were they convinced that he was the true novi and the others were nothing but charlatans.

I once had a discussion with my science class on the subject of ESP (extra sensory perception). I asked my students if they believed that it was possible to read other people’s minds? Some of them believed that it was possible while others were much more skeptical. I proposed that we set up an experiment in class and study the results. I asked for a volunteer and chose a boy who said that there is no such thing as psychic ability and it is all a fraud. I sat him up front on the opposite side of my desk and we took a coat and pulled it over his head so that he was unable to see me. I asked some of the other boys to check if they could see through the coat and they assured me that it was not possible. I now asked one of the boys to get me some sheets of colored papers which I held out in front of him. I asked the class to concentrate on the color sheet I was holding in my hand. I then asked the chosen student to concentrate as hard as he could and see if a color comes to his mind. At first he said that he couldn’t see anything but as I continued to question him, he finally said that he saw yellow, which happened to be the correct color. I explained to the class that this is certainly no proof, since it could have been a lucky guess and we would continue on with the experiment. We tried it many more times and after much concentration he got them right on every try. I now turned to the class and asked if anyone had now changed his mind about ESP. Most of them now seemed quite convinced that there was such a thing as ESP while a few remained skeptical. I offered to repeat these experiments with another boy who still didn’t believe in ESP. After this second student was also able to guess the right color more than five times in a row, I had nearly the entire class convinced that ESP was possible. I now proceeded to show them how easily they had been conned by a very simple trick. The two boys that I had supposedly picked at random really were in on the trick and were my accomplices. They sat right opposite my desk with their foot right under it. I simply tapped them on the foot to tell them the correct color. One tap meant yellow, two taps meant blue etc. The purpose of this demonstration was to teach them how easily they could be conned by a clever psychic.

Randi calls Geller “Just about the most dangerous man to come into the limelight for the past 50 years, because he’s into psychic feelings, and when he gets into that, the next thing you know, people will be bringing him their problems, their secrets, and then their money.”

A story is told about a farmer who claimed that he possessed an intelligent horse that was able to add, multiply and even divide. At first no one believed this nonsense and so he invited all the village flock to come to his farm where he would demonstrate his horse’s amazing powers. He began by asking his horse to add 2 plus 2. The horse immediately gave 4 taps with its front leg. He then continued asking it to multiply, divide and subtract and the horse would always tap out the correct answer. He even challenged others to ask it to add or subtract and the people stood amazed at the horse’s ability to always get the right answer. The horse soon gained great fame and became the talk of the town as it was written up in all the newspapers. Thousands of people came from far and wide to see this amazing horse in action. When a rich man offered to buy the horse for $10,000, the farmer refused to sell it, claiming that the horse must have a special high soul and he loved it so much that he didn’t want to part with it. Finally when the rich man offered the astronomical sum of $100,000 to buy the horse he agreed. The rich man took home his prize possession and began asking it some simple math problems but the horse just stood there motionlessly. The man brought the horse back to the owner and demanded his money back claiming that he had been defrauded. The horse dealer refused to return the money claiming that perhaps the horse had fallen down, banged its head and had gotten amnesia. The man eventually took him to court to try and get his money back, but by then the clever farmer was already in another far off village playing the same trick elsewhere. He was just a clever animal trainer and had taught the horse to stamp its foot whenever he would look straight at him. When he would look down at its foot the horse was trained to stop.

Our problem is that the greed for money is so blinding that we are all too eager to invest in an intelligent horse. Every few months there is another scam artist in town telling us that he has found the secret to wealth and health and we are no smarter then the village farmer.

The latest charlatan to hit town is the kesuba kabalist. This clever charismatic con artist has come up with a most original brilliant scam, which deserves an A for cleverness and ingenuity. He masquerades as a “holy kabalist ” and claims that all people’s problems can be traced to a problematic kesuba. He is also a master at playing the psychic game. He writes his own self-glorifying press releases and invests heavily in advertising his kabalistic powers. Once he has your confidence, he will attempt to swindle you of your hard-earned money by telling you stories of all sorts.

He told one person that his holy grandfather came to him in a dream and told him of a great business investment. He easily conned him into giving him $40,000 for a business, which turned out to be non-existent. When a respectable Bais Din ordered him to return the embezzled money, he unashamedly dared to take them to the Israeli secular courts, accusing the Bais Din of impropriety. (Copies of these papers are in my possession for all to see.) After losing the case in secular court as well, he still refused to pay up. Only after threatening to expose him in public did he finally give the money back. This information can be verified by calling Rav Karelitz of the Bnei Brak Bais Din (011-972-3-6188264 or the Bais din involved at 011-972-6191803.

Only recently did some rabbonim expose him as a master scam artist, and told people to beware and not bring him their kesubos. A kesubah should only be brought to a competent rov. Competent rabbonim claim that he has ruined many a good kesubah with his false corrections. Unfortunately far too many people fall for his clever psychic tricks and fraudulent claims.

Many fortunetellers and spiritualists take advantage of their chance successes to defraud people of thousands of dollars.

How sad and unfortunate that some newspapers will accept any sensational story no matter how absurd. As long as someone is willing to pay for the ad, truth goes out the window. He has succeeded to convince many intelligent people that he has the ability to cure cancer and many other incurable diseases with his hocus pocus kesuba changes. All he needs is to score some chance hits and the rest he makes up, and soon he’s racking in millions. Would any reputable publisher think of releasing a book describing a treatment for cancer if it were written by a doctor universally considered a quack by his peers?

The great magician Houdini exposed psychics as nothing more than master scam artists yet it’s amazing to see how many people fall for them. The police recently arrested a number of psychics and fortunetellers for defrauding people of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I can’t forget the Purim in Yeshivah when we were introduced to a great kabalist from Israel who we were told possessed amazing psychic powers. His gabbai told us to take out any sefer from the bookshelf and open it up to any page and then return it to the seforim shelf while the great kabalist stood outside of the bais medrash and couldn’t see what we were doing. After we picked out a sefer and returned it to the shelf, the great kabalist came into the room and slowly walked around the bookshelf until he pulled out the selected sefer and opened it to the correct page. After pulling this stunt on us numerous times, he had many of us convinced that he truly possessed psychic powers. It was only later that we learned that we had been fooled. The gabbai who had introduced him to us was his accomplice and always walked next to him. When he would reach the sefer that was ten to the right of the one we had selected, he would inhale more deeply. This way the kabbalist now knew that the sefer we had selected was ten to his right.

Perhaps this is why the Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah perek 8) writes that someone whose belief is based on miracles alone “yesh belibo dofi”. A good magician can easily deceive people with his clever bag of tricks. Even the Egyptians were able to perform some of the makkos. They just got stuck when they reached kinnim. It wasn’t until the Jews stood at Har Sinai and heard Hashem Himself speaking to us that our belief in Moshe was confirmed. Miracles in themselves can be very deceiving!

The priests that convinced the people to serve Avodah Zorah were clever scam artists. One of the greatest frauds was perpetrated by King Nevuchadnetzer who built a giant golden idol standing thirty amos tall. It even spoke and called out to all that “I am god your god”. The king commanded that everyone bow down to it. It was only when Doniel reached into its mouth and pulled out Hashem’s name and it became mute that the hoax was exposed.

A story is told of a priest who claimed that his idol had the power to make the blind see. As proof, he brought this young boy who supposedly had never seen in his life and asked him to bow down to the idol. Suddenly the boy began to shout, “I see. I see!” Thereupon a clever rabbi held out a colored kerchief and asked him what color it was. When he replied that it was red, the hoax was exposed. After all, how could someone who had never seen a color, be able to know what the color red looked like.

While we certainly believe that there are great tzadikim who may possess ruach ha’kodesh, they certainly don’t advertise their powers in the press and neither do they charge exorbitant fees to help people.

I still remember from my younger years when someone tried to pull a fast one on me and some of my friends by claiming that he had magnetic powers in his hands and could cure people just by touching them. To prove it,, he waved his hands over a compass and the needle began to move. After watching him a few times I asked him to hold his head back when he waves his hands but then his trick didn’t work. Obviously he had a magnet hidden in his mouth so that whenever he drew his head close to the compass the needle would move. So much for his magnetic hands trick. Many books have been written exposing psychics tricks.

While religious Jews certainly believe in the great power of prayer and miracles, the Torah clearly forbids the belief in superstitions and lies. I suggest you read an important and excellent book titled “Faith and Folly” (Feldheim distributors) which discusses the halachic ramifications of going to these imposters.

While charlatans exist in every profession and come in every shade and color, the most dangerous are the ones making kabbalistic claims. That’s because people are easily deceived by mystical claims. Shabtai Tzvi took full advantage of this fact and used it to fool thousands. Let’s not fall into the same trap!

Please note that James Randy offers a $1,000,000 reward for anyone that can prove that he has psychic powers and has healed someone of an incurable disease. Country Yossi challenges the “kesuba kabbalist” to give us the names and addresses of the people he claims he has healed of cancer etc., so that his claims can be properly investigated. (This does not include those that gave birth after many years of marriage, since these things happen even under ordinary circumstances.) Unless he reveals this information, we must assume that he is a charlatan and fraud like any of the rest of the evangelistic priests. (See book titled “The Faith Healers” by James Randi”.)