The Riddle of the Satmar

By Allan Nadler
Thursday, May 23, 2013

In this review of an adulatory biography of the Satmar Rebbe, first published February 17, 2011, Allan Nadler considers Judaism's most traditional—and most alienated—community.—The Editors

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A prospect terrifying to secular Israelis and Zionists worldwide has been the rapid growth of the Jewish state's ultra-Orthodox (haredi) community. Given the stranglehold of haredi political parties on recent coalition governments, and the encroachments by non-Zionist haredi clerics upon Israel's chief rabbinate, once religiously moderate and firmly Zionist, the fear is not entirely irrational. Birthrates among haredim are more than quadruple the national Jewish average; the large majority do not serve in the army; the male unemployment rate is at an astounding 70 percent; and the ultra-Orthodox community subsists largely on a variety of government welfare programs and Jewish aid from abroad.

A great historical irony lurks in this scenario of an emerging theocracy in the land of Israel. It could all have been avoided had the leading haredi figures, during the country's nascent years, heeded the strong admonitions of the most virulently outspoken anti-Zionist rabbi who ever lived. This was Joel Moshe Teitelbaum (1887–1979), the "Satmar" rebbe. Born into a hasidic dynasty, Teitelbaum served in and around the Hungarian (later Romanian) town of Satmar until World War II, when he was rescued from death in the Holocaust. After a brief postwar sojourn in Jerusalem, he settled for good in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, later establishing Kiryas Joel, a Satmar town named for him, in New York's Orange County. From the start, he would have absolutely no relations, political or financial, with the Jewish state, prayed daily for its demise, and instructed his adoring followers to do likewise.

A massive new biography of the rebbe—privately published in Montreal, and the first of its kind in English—has now appeared. Composed by Rabbi Dovid Meisels, the son of one of Teitelbaum's closest Hasidim, it devotes close attention to the rebbe's railings against a state that he regarded as the illegitimate product of a heretical, indeed a satanic, ideology—an ideology responsible for the greatest catastrophes in modern Jewish history, including the Holocaust itself. As a consequence of his extreme position, and in sharp contrast to just about every other haredi leader, he not only issued strict sanctions against accepting a single shekel of Israeli state support but strongly discouraged all but his most intellectually gifted followers from lingering in yeshivas, insisting instead that every male Satmar householder enter the workplace. To this day, unlike most other haredim in both the United States and Israel, Satmar Hasidim show low rates of unemployment.

Meisels's book is anything but an objective historical biography; nor does it provide any critical or systematic treatment of the complex and deeply counterintuitive religious philosophy found in Teitelbaum's many published works. Rather, it is a worshipful hagiography that mainly comprises hundreds of revealing stories about the rebbe, hitherto available only in a handful of Satmar-published Hebrew and Yiddish texts. While readers may easily take issue with the panegyric tone and particular take on some of the rebbe's most controversial opinions and deeds, the book does not, so far as I can tell, fabricate historical facts from whole cloth. The interpretation of those facts is, of course, a different matter.

Teitelbaum was, indeed, the world's most outspoken, steadfast, and uncompromising rabbinical opponent of Zionism and the state of Israel. Zionism's many successes, and most dramatically Israel's seemingly miraculous military victories and its integration of millions of Jewish refugees from around the world not only failed to shake his convictions; quite the contrary, he interpreted them as the most diabolical tests of the faith of truly pious and believing Jews. Among his most controversial (and, even in the haredi world, most widely ignored) rulings was a 1967 prohibition against visiting, let alone praying at, Jerusalem's newly liberated Western Wall. Curses, not blessings, were all that could be incurred by treading on ground contaminated by the evil Zionist army.

What explains the rebbe's astonishing stubbornness and the theological creativity, grounded in a vast erudition in rabbinic literature, on which it rested? Until now, scholars of Hasidism have based our assessments of Teitelbaum's extremism mainly on his own impressive, if more than a little mad, writings. To experts as well as to curious outsiders, the great value of Meisels's volume will surely be its surprising disclosure of many aspects of the rebbe's personality and psyche that shed a different kind of light on his evident inability to adapt to discomfiting realities and accept the magnitude and multitude of blessings bequeathed to world Jewry by the state of Israel.

Some of the details are quite intimate. Early on in The Rebbe, Meisels relates tales of Teitelbaum's early childhood—standard procedure in the literature about hasidic tsadikim, or saintly persons destined to become rebbes. Here, however, one finds bizarre accounts of three-year-old Joel Teitelbaum repeatedly engaged for long periods of time in rinsing his mouth, washing his hands, and sitting on the toilet, often interrupting his own prayers to return to the outhouse. The explanation offered for this behavior, which was a source of great concern to his mother, is that the saintly child could not appear before his Creator in prayer without having completely purified his holy body of all forms of uncleanness.

Needless to say, a very different, clinical explanation jumps out from these narratives of childhood fixation: namely, that they testify to an extreme, textbook case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The refusal even to touch Israeli currency can be adduced as another example of the same psychological disorder, as, still more weirdly, can Teitelbaum's unusual interest in the density of the fabric (the technical term is denier count) of the stockings worn by women in the Satmar community.

In Meisels's words, "The rebbe taught that even 70-denier stockings should not be worn. The numerical value of sod (secret) is 70, so the secret is out that this [stocking] is also transparent." There then follows a lengthy account of Teitelbaum's creation, with the help of a Brooklyn businessman named Lipa Brach, of an exclusive line of fully opaque women's hosiery:

Money in hand, Reb Lipa Brach began to work on the project. He went to several hosiery manufacturers, collected samples, and brought all of them to the rebbe to inspect. The rebbe was very pleased with the progress, and he tested each sample by pulling it over his own arm. If his hair showed, it was no good.... The new stockings were given the brand name, "Palm," the English translation of the Rebbe's surname.... To this day every Satmar woman and girl wears Palm stockings.

In many years of reading hasidic literature, from theoretical mystical tracts to tales and hagiographies, I have never encountered anything remotely like this image of a rebbe testing the thickness of stockings on his own arm, let alone naming a line of women's undergarments after himself. Was he aware of what he was doing? Most people who suffer from OCD are highly conscious of their disorder; a revered religious leader, zealously guarded by a closed circle of worshipful acolytes, would be more likely to mistake psychiatric symptoms as messages from God.

But that is not the whole story. If the rebbe was obsessive, he could also be startlingly inconsistent. Punctilious in forbidding his followers to benefit from any form of Zionist assistance, he seemed to have made an exception when it came to saving his own holy skin, accepting a seat on a controversial rescue train organized by the Hungarian Zionist leader Rudolf Kasztner that saved some 1,650 Jews from sure death in the Holocaust. Immediately after the war, he also accepted a certificate for immigration to Palestine, having earlier forbidden his followers to avail themselves of just such certificates in the harrowing years leading up to the Nazi conquest of Hungary.

The chapter dealing with this episode is by far the most convoluted in Meisels's book. It concludes with an apologetic explanation according to which Kasztner's father-in-law, the head of the despised Neolog (Reform) community of Koloszvar, had a dream: his pious mother decreed that the train to Switzerland then being organized by her grandson not be allowed to depart without the Satmar rebbe. A particularly chilling passage follows: "When someone remarked about how the rebbe had been saved from the claws of the Nazis, from darkness to great light, the rebbe replied, 'No! I have come from the Nazi darkness into the even deeper darkness of the Zionist era.'"

Other episodes are not so much inconsistent as deeply paradoxical. More than any other rabbi of the postwar period, Teitelbaum clung to the Hungarian Orthodox principle of total separation from the non-Orthodox in communal affairs. Taking this separatist ideology to unheard-of extremes, he managed almost single-handedly to build a formidable and completely self-sufficient community in Williamsburg, starting with a few dozen survivors in 1947 and today numbering almost 150,000 souls worldwide. With its growth fueled not only by the rebbe's dynamic and domineering personality but by an astonishingly high birthrate, a strict work ethic for men, and an array of communal institutions, it is today the largest hasidic sect in the world.

And yet, despite their isolation from mainstream Jewish communities, and their unchanged contempt for the Jewish state, the Satmars' spiritual relationship with other Jews remains strong. As I can attest from personal experience, a stranger wandering into a Satmar synagogue on a Friday evening will have to tear himself away from the many Hasidim insisting that he dine or spend the night and the following day with their families. Moreover, during all of Israel's wars, while praying for the downfall and defeat of the Jewish state, the rebbe simultaneously ordered his Hasidim to recite Psalms imploring God that no Jews be killed in battle. As chilling as is the Satmars' hatred of Zionists as a group, so warm is their embrace of Jews as individuals.  

The sinuosity of Teitelbaum's distinction between the "Zionist state" and the Jewish people is perhaps best illustrated by a fascinating account in The Rebbe of a meeting in 1968 with Senator Hubert Humphrey, then running for the presidency. The rebbe's aides had warned Humphrey against raising any political issues pertaining to Israel. When he was informed of this after the meeting, the rebbe laughed:

Had Humphrey spoken to me in support of the Zionist state, it wouldn't have bothered me in the least. We Jews have a Torah which forbids us to have a state during the exile, and therefore we may not ask the Americans to support the state. But a non-Jew has no Torah, and by supporting the state he feels he is helping Jews. So, on the contrary, if an American non-Jew is against the Zionist state, it shows he is an anti-Semite.

Today, the Satmar movement's implacable stance toward the state of Israel is almost universally reviled by Jews, and the movement is shunned by many as an abomination. Seen in the light of vignettes like these, it emerges as something more tragic than abominable. For no other post-Holocaust community has more faithfully and effectively preserved its old religious and cultural traditions and folkways, to say nothing of the Yiddish language. Were it not for their total alienation from the rest of world Jewry, a result of Teitelbaum's obsessive compulsion to wage endless war against Zionism and Israel, his Hasidim might have contributed immeasurably to strengthening the fiber of Judaism and Jewish life in our time.


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