The Riddle of the Satmar
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
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.
It should be pointed out that they may not take Israeli money but they are reportedly quite adept at garnering US tax dollars.
FYI Rabbi Berel Wein has a wonderful tape/mp3 of his own personal reminisces. More modern 'rabbis' trembled in front of him, they being most aware of their shortcomings of Torah knowledge.
While he may have seemed to be "purer" than his Yeshivah contemporaries, the Satmar Rebbe couldn't shine their besamim boxes
While his politics had many detractors in the Orthodox Jewish world, it is beyond dispute that his politics via-vas Zionism, reflected the position of many of pre-holocaust gadoilim in Hungary, Poland and Lithuania. He happened to be one of those gadoilim, ergo, his position on Zionism.
His vision was to recreate, as much as possible, the Orthodox Jewish world of Europe before the great churban. To him that was the world of Jewish Sigit, Satmar, etc., in the Carpathian Mountains.
While many gadoilim had this vision, theirs reflected the world they came from and where not as secsessfull as the satmar rabbi in achieving those goals. The simple reason for this is that they were not as dogmatic in their approach as the Satmar Rabbi was. Even so, he did not come close to achieving his goals as he saw them. The satmar kahila that survived him, while reflecting many of his life style embellishments that he transplanted from the old world, is in truth as modern a kahilla as you would find in any Orthodox community in the US. His dogmatic approach to Zionism and Modernism is a lost art to his followers, even as they give it some lip service.
One does not have to like a group to grasp that only a view from within of the positives in the group can explain its power over its own members. So it is an obligation on those interested in real understanding to make the effort to get out of their own skin, put aside their own defensiveness, and acknowledge those positives as the central realities for the other. Then, if they still have criticisms, at least they will be based on genuine knowledge and will emerge from a prior humane perspective.
Nadler greatly dislikes the tendency in Satmar to paint the world in black-and-white images. That being the case, why does he paint Satmar in black-and-white images?
However, Roman rule was also extortionate and increasingly savage over the next century, spurring extreme nationalists and messianists to rise up eventually and revolt against it. So came the catastrophic war of 66-72 CE, in which Judea was utterly crushed by the Romans, almost depopulated in fact, and the Temple was destroyed. Almost all Rabbinic leaders had argued against the uprising, and their warnings were only too vividly validated by events. Their leader, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, famously managed to escape from Jerusalem during its last seige, leaving because he no longer able to moderate the self-destructive fanaticisms there and he feared for his own life. He went to Vespasian, the Roman general conducting the war, and acknowledged Rome as the legitimate power, only asking for a place where he and his students could continue study and teaching of Torah. As a result, mainstream and traditional Rabbinic Judaism was able to survive the catastrophe of the war with Rome, and Jewish religious teachers were able to produce, eventually, the Mishnah, the two Gemorahs of Palestine and Babylonia, and all of the later riches still sustaining Judaism today.
The Talmud teaches that we Jews must accept our exilic condition until Mashiach comes, and that it is wrong to predict its coming or "force" it. Underlying this is a critique of worldly power which goes to the root of human nature and its tendencies to evil. This critique arises directly out of the prophetic tradition, too. So it does not originate with the "Hasidim" of Maccabean times. It is a Biblical critique.
I do not write this because I endorse anti-Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel. On the contrary, I am very glad and proud of it. I know that Israel fiercely strives for and justly upholds moral values in the extremely immoral world of the nations. Its cause is just, and its survival is essential. Therefore I do not agree with the Satmar analysis of Israel at all, insofar as I understand it. But I do think that it is necessary to try to comprehend in a much more positive way where Satmarers might be "coming from" in their dissent, and not to marginalize or demonize them. They after all share our own warm, beautiful and humane Jewish tradition, and necessarily include therefore many tender and lovely people. When I look at Jewish history, I can see plenty of reasons why they might take a critical and authentically Jewish view of the current condition of the wider Jewish world, its eager embrace of assimilatory modernity, power, self-serving and self-centered goals, and all the rest.
It is certainly wrong to blame Satmar for the thuggishness of some Neturei Karta young people (i.e., their throwing stones on the Shabbat against fellow-Jews and thus breaking many basic halachot regarding the Shabbat and everyday behaviour). Neturei Karta is not Satmar, and it is important to remember this and make truthful distinctions. Those who consort with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, and more recently with Ahmedinejab in Iran at Holocaust-denial hate-fests, are not Satmarer members, but from Neturei Karta, and not even Neturei Karta, as I understand it, would endorse all of these behaviours. So it is necessary to keep in mind that whatever group you, my reader, belong to, however "liberal" it may be, there will be some few people in it who are guilty of the most obnoxious and inhumane behaviours possible, including criminal behaviours, while hiding behind the nice-sounding excuses your group provides. I am quite certain of this, since this is how human beings are. Your entire group should not be judged in terms of such marginal people, but rather in terms of how it deals with such negative behaviours and affirms more positive values.
"No further coments necessary"
it's a standard run-around
where is the Satmar Rebbe's Igros Moshe - and where is it accepted, other than in the daled-amos of his backward world
Time to study for yourself.
Rav Yoilish was, aside from being, a Rabbinic leader, he was a Leader in all aspects which was and is rare among many including rabbis.
Nadler refers to the Rebbe's writings after the Six-Day War. He fails to mention the Rebbe's comment which states "maybe instead of having wars with the Arabs, the Zionists should talk peace" (Hmm, interesting thought)
We were brought up with the approach that, as the late Rabbi Borchardt z'l put it, we may not agree with their political views, we must respect rabbis for their having a unique perspective of the world or "Torah Eyes."
Teitelbaum was Rebbe for his followers - and for no one else.
The only folks who take him seriously are those whose livelihoods depend on it
Not so with the Satmar, a bigoted, Medieval and, I dare say, fundamentally anti-Semitic cult. How dare Rabbi Teitelbaum and his followers say that the Zionists are worse than Nazis! How dare they meet with, and show fawning support for the Ayatollahs who wish to obliterate Israel! And for that matter, how dare they oppose the very existence of a Jewish state which, despite all its problems and inequities, has kept the Jewish people alive after the Holocaust!
On one point I disagree with the author: it is not the growth of the ultra-Orthodox which is a threat to secular Israelis and Zionists worldwide. The threat derives from the fact that the vast variety of the ultra-Orthodox feel a closer kinship with Satmar than with Chabad. Satmar has been able to con the ultra-Orthodox world into the belief that they represent the "true" Judaism. In this way, Satmar's tentacles reach far beyond the still relatively small numbers of their cult.
Satmar is much more insular and inward looking. But if you are a Jew who remotely might need your assistance, they are there for you.
In every group there are extremists or people at the fringe--or "wackos" to be more precise. Don't let them taint your vision of the group as a whole.
The guys who met with the Ayatollahs were not part of Satmar--it's that everyone dressed in black is assumed to be of the same group.
I strongly recommend that those who make negative comments should make the effort to read the Rebbe's writings in the original, rather than through the lenses of a third party and his/her interpretations.
The reason that most Chasidim relate more to one group rather than Chabad has to do with history--Chabad was based mostly in old Lithuania (pre 1917 Russian Empire) while most other Chasidic groups were from Hungary, Rumania, etc. Also many of the groups' rebbes are related to each other in some way through marriages. [I am certain a person more involved with the history of the various groups will take issue with this comment.]
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And even as they call Modern and Traditional Orthodox leaders and rabbis all sorts of names and accuse them of all sorts of crimes, the Orthodox world assists in their fund-raising and worse, accepts their kashrut hashgacha.