The Riddle of the Satmar
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.
Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University.
Their view on Zionism is a viewpoint that is legitimate within the framework of traditional Judaism, but is completely impractical to most of us, relying as it does on complete blind faith in supernatural intervention. It is fortunate that most Jews rejected this standpoint and were willing to go out on a limb for the future, rather than being stuck in the past.
Sadly, the good professor appears to be even less of an expert in Jewish law. The fact is, the legitimate religious and national issues to which the Satmar Rebbe was devoted, and which Nadler treats with a very un-scholarly broad brush, have given pause to even the most ardent Zionist thinkers for centuries.
It may be painful for many of us to hear the European inferno compared to the idea of establishing an explicitly non-religious polity in Hashem's land, but it certainly deserves much closer examination than Nadler is able or willing to deliver.
Nadler DOES deserve credit for noting Satmar's success in preserving the precious Mesora of Judaism. It is, after all this Mesora that kept us alive for so many centuries in the face of impossible odds. In the view of many, the preservation of this Mesora is a much greater achievement than Ben Gurion's, and one that may bode well for the ultimate future of our Jewish state.
Sadly, Nadler's caricature of the Satmer Rebbe only further distances most Jews from that which might well inspire them.
As for the present secular State of Israel, you can see what most, supposedly Zionist, Jews think about it from the fact that they, like Nadler, are sitting it out in America.
Let's see who cries last.
It is true that Rabbi Meisel's book may not be unbiased. If I am not mistaken, he is the son-in-law of the late Satmar Rebbe (the Sigheter), Rav Moshe Teitelbaum, nephew of Rav Yoel.
While Nadler, and I as well, do not agree with the Satmar Rebbe, as is our right, he was not mad. If you read "Vayoel Moshe"--his polemic against the state--he says clearly his objections to secular Zionism and the why's.
His complaint against the Kotel was simple as explained in "Al Hageulo"--his contention is as to what gave the Israeli government the right to go to war, sacrificing close to 800 men for the sake of territory, why not talk peace. Seems pretty rational to me. Sounds like something Peres would say. (even if I do not agree with the premise of trading land for peace)
don't know where he gets Teitelbaum=Palm--checked in various dictionaries and couldn't find it. must be me.
The fact is the Rebbe was a leader who built a community from scratch, coming to the U.S. at the age of approx. 60, an age when some consider retiring and led it till he was in his 90's.
His "separatist" views of dealing with the "general" Jewish community were not unique but are not withing the ambit of my comments.
Allan Nadler shouldn't use this forum to revile someone who was both a Talmid Chochom and a Manhig (a leader).
We should have a modicum of humility to a person who accomplished so much--even if we do not agree with his Weltanschauung--world view and philosophy.
Sydney, I like how you buy into the leftist narrative. Israel started the war in 1967? Really? And in any event, that's a really inconsistent point of view. If Israel is the work of Satan, who cares whether what they do is right or wrong? Of course, this is hardly the only place where the Satmar are inconsistent, or the ultra-Orthodox in general.
Unlike Nadler, while I don't agree with his world view, I feel he had the right to express it (or do we stop free speech if we don't agree with the content)
I don't buy into Israel being the work of Satan. As Rav Yechiel Weinberg said--The holy neshamot of the 6 million came to Kisei Hakavod, and G-d proceeded to create the State.
I suggest you look at Rabbi Sachs' book, "Arguments for the Sake of Heaven," in which he details other rabbis who were not in favour of the State or Zionism.
As to terminology--I hate the term "Ultra-Orthodox". A French speaker corrected me and said the term is "pratiquant"--a practicing Jew. more correct. I view our right wing as our anchor. If they weren't there to remind us of many mitzvos we prefer to forget, how far would we drift.
All of you, Have a wonderful Shabbat.
The Satmar view on Israel is driven by their anti-Modernism. Jews living in a secular Jewish State ruling is anathema for them because they are not under the sway of Rabbinate. No matter how they dress it up this is what their anti-Zionism amounts to. Leftists like Josh who embrace the Satmar’s views on Zionism would reject their other views on modernity.
It's incredible how Nadler doesn't see it, when it's plainly obvious from his own words:
"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..."
When you merge these two sentences, the answer appears clearly!
I would like to see some more properly researched Academic Papers appearing on the subject instead of these kinds of nonsensical articles online. Professor Y.Rabkin's book on the subject was an interesting read, intended to open the discussion to a wider public (although better than this folly it was still lacking a lot). Well, perhaps we have to wait for such a work a little longer until people can approach the subject with their intellect instead of their emotions. Moreh Nevuchim volume 3 chapter 51 comes to mind.
Your French speaker was wrong. "Pratiquant" just means, regarding Jews in France, "keeping mitsvot" and it can apply to most Jews (who keep at least a few mitsvot) and not just ultra-orthodox. The correct term is of course "haredi".
Nadler is right. The Satmar are hated by most Jews *including* many haredim.
The issue of haredim and Zionism is a complex one. Shas, the largest haredi movement (much bigger than Satmar in term of people identifying with it) is officially a Zionist party. But some would say it is not exactly haredi.
I was speaking to a French speaking Jew, using the term Orthodox and he corrected me saying the correct term is "pratiquant"--since he is a language teacher and an expert translator, I will agree with him. Also he would not know the term "Haredi" as it is not French.
I do not believe that Satmar are hated. We may not like their political beliefs but we do not hate them.
Only American Liberals "hate" those who do not agree with them.
Be more tolerant, accepting of others' right to their beliefs.
And let's keep Shas out of this conversation.
Do I agree? No...but I understand and respect this point of view.
From what I heard, they refuse to work,live on welfare & charity exclusively and get drunk and hang out in their "shuls" supposedly studying Torah all day;keep the women pregnant every 9 months to get more welfare.
I hear Haredi women have to dress like the MUSLIM women in Afghanistan -can't go to shul,hold or even touch a Torah,discouraged from education.And are victims of horrific family violence! I heard one woman went to pray at the Temple Wall & was beaten & arrested.Don't women even have a section of the wall where THEY can pray too?
Haredi have also been alleged to vandalize property of non-haredi Jews and Christians alike & beat them up but they allegedly refuse to serve in the military or serve at all --not even in non-combatant ways!!!???
If they take,they should give SOMETHING back!
I have to laugh at the ones in the photographs accompanying this article. IF NOT FOR ISRAEL,THEY'D HAVE BEEN ROUNDED UP OR JAILED but they are condemning the country that keeps them from persecution? Wonder how they would fare with the Muslims?
I also heard that because of them, American Jews of ANY Congregation--Orthodox,Conservative, Reformed are NOT welcome & CAN NOT make Aliyah to Israel which is supposed to be a place of refuge to ALL Jews.
My late father & several of his friends managed to get weapons to Jews when Israel was fighting for its independence! My family has given thousands of dollars for years BUT NOT TO SUPPORT HAREDI indolence,bigotry & domination!
Please tell me that I am wrong. Please tell me I have heard the wrong things, especially about the family violence & drunkness! These people claim to be Jews but they appear to be more like Fundamentalist fanatical Muslims. Christians,Hindus, etc.
Again,please tell me I am wrong. I want to think nothing but the best of Israel.
In every community you have "nut cases"--don't allow yourself to believe that the smallest minority give everyone else a bad name. What you have written is like saying "all blank (fill it in yourself) are bad and attack"
No they don't dress like women in Afghanistan, and some have very good education. The women concentrate on their families and most (like anywhere else) are very good mothers and homekeepers.
We may not have the same values but we must respect them and their choices.
Overall, I think you had better get a better source of information.
The problem of conversion is a problem world over when rabbis (of whatever persuasion) are lax in requiring some modicum of observance of Judaism from prospective converts.
Insofar as family violence, it exists everywhere and we as Jews are not immune, although it happens far less in our communities. And because we are more sensitive to it, we tend to blow it out of proportion.
Drunkenness usually only prevalent on Purim and Simchat Torah. Otherwise relatively rare.
All Jews are welcome in Israel--just look at the Russians who were brought to Israel even though many were not Halachically Jewish. But that's a story unto itself.
All in all--please, please (can't repeat it enough) get better information.
Tova Ha'aretz Me'od Me'od--The land is exceedingly wonderful as are the people who dwell there.
With all the problems (and there are) it's a great place.
איך זה שאף אחד מגדולי הפוסקים מביאים הלכה למעשה את "שלשת השבועות"?
מה שרש המחלוקת בין החסידים עד שהם מפיצים שני עתונים שבועיים ?
ומה היתה המחלוקת בין הרבנית וחלק מהחסידים ?
ומה רשום בספר הנ"ל על זייופים ברשימת ילדים, כדי לקבל הטבות ממשלתיות ?
האם העיסה מעידה על נחתומה ?
I don't think any of the people commenting read the book by R' David Meisels and could not comment why R'Yoel left Israel. My impresseion, through reading "Vayoel Moshe" was that he left "mitoch achzava"--deep disappointment in the direction Israel was going and the secularist state.
Insofar as the "shlosha hash'vuot"--the "three oaths", the general feeling is that they are predicated on the nations of the world keeping their side of the bargain, which they haven't.
I don't think the book deals with Israeli matters, rather on the life of R' Yoelish.
If you want Israeli muckraking--go to the Israeli newspapers like Ha'aretz. It makes a point of showing Charedim in a bad light.
But I suggest you refer to my previous comment:
Tova Ha'aretz Me'od Me'od--The land is exceedingly wonderful as are the people (all of them) who dwell there. Think positively about ALL our fellow Jews.
In fact, it has occurred to such a point that anyone disagreeing with the political actions of the Israeli government is rapidly branded an anti-Semite--and, of course, if that person is Jewish and/or Israeli, a "self-hating Jew." The author of this article clearly takes this same attitude: There is a assumption, in such phrasing as "sinuosity," that conflating the political "Israel" with the cultural/religious "Jew/Judaism" is in fact correct. Before the holocaust, there was a multitude of political ideologies within Jewish circles, of which Zionism was only one. Unfortunately only remnants survived of the non Zionist perspectives. The Satmar approach is one. There are others. Zionism is discovering that it is no longer the only game in town (for Jews), and its fundamentalist supporters are having some trouble coping with this emerging reality. Good Pesach to all.
Hungarians can be bright, but often too passive.
Most ordinary Satmars are weak, oppressed, and to survive, it is good to play the support drama for the leaders.
We should innovate for the Satmar, to liberate them from their deplorable oppression.
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