Friday, May 05, 2006

A Grand Desecration

Even before Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, was buried and even before his funeral began, representatives of his battling sons were in court, showing once more no concern for the important halachic principle that reliance on secular courts to resolve disputes between religious Jews is a Chilul Hashem or desecration of G-D's name. Few halachic transgressions are more serious, yet some people who are demanding about other religious obligations are lax when it comes to this cardinal principle of our faith. It may be impolite to ask the Satmars what license they have to desecrate G-D's name, but in view of the seriousness of their violation, the greater wrong is not to ask.

Sadly, intra-chassidic conflict is escalating, increasingly ending up on legal dockets. Rabbis Aharon and Zalman Lieb, the Satmar disputants, are by now fixtures on legal briefs and it is certain that they will continue to utilize the services of lawyers and attract media attention. Brooklyn State Supreme Court has for more than a decade been the primary venue for legal fisticuffs among battling Lubavitchers and that, too, isn't likely to end any time soon. Succession issues brought the Bobovers to court, although thankfully that path seems to have been abandoned.

Chassidic life is evolving. Social and religious factors, including family size, suggest that what we are witness to in Satmar will be duplicated in other groups. As in all social settings, conflict within Chassidic groups should not be surprising. What should be troubling, particularly for the Orthodox, is the willingness to slug it out in court and in public. There is no inclination for restraint, nor is there a willingness to rely on Beth Dins or religious courts for conflict resolution.

The Chilul Hashem committed by Satmar leaders is an issue that we should not duck and pretend as if it is an internal Satmar matter. The key characteristic of activity that is described as a Chilul Hashem is its public nature and therefore for religious Jews the reaction cannot be see no evil, hear no evil, know no evil. Religious leaders and groups must not sit idly by as the Shulchan Aruch or our Code of Religious Law is purposely violated. They should declare that Satmar issues and similar conflicts must be decided by religious courts, perhaps Israeli Beth Dins, and not in courts in Orange and Kings counties.

I expect to be criticized for publicly advocating this course, critics saying that it's wrong to air such views in public. The Satmar conflict is being aired in public because the Satmars have put it there. The respected rabbinical body of Agudath Israel should call for restraint and reliance on religious courts, a message that should be echoed by other Orthodox groups and individual rabbis. Newspapers serving the charedi or fervently observant Orthodox - Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman - should include in their eulogistic coverage of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum words to the effect that what is obligatory for other Orthodox Jews is obligatory for Chassidic groups.

As if to illustrate the familiar point that one sin begets another, the public relations firm hired by Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum's supporters, sent out a press release during shiva inviting the media to come to Williamsburg where its client would be leading services on Shabbos. The press was asked to "be respectful of the religious observances and practices" of the chassidim and to limit their photography to stills and prints.

Likely, Satmar will split into competing but not distinct parts, each with its leadership and communal infrastructure. At the rank and file level, there will be some dual loyalty and much family and other interaction between adherents of each of the sons. This pattern has been evident for a while as there has been a degree of autonomy among the various Satmar subgroups during the nearly thirty years that Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum headed the movement.

It was his important achievement that the sense of a Satmar community was maintained during his long tenure. He was no more than a pale shadow of his uncle and predecessor, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, who essentially founded the movement and imbued it with vitality and its distinctive characteristics. Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum was an epic figure, a man of surpassing intellect, vision and charisma who was respected, even admired, by many who could not accept his ideology or theology. He ingrained in the Satmar ethos an instinct for charitable giving that may be unparalleled in contemporary Jewish life.

Satmar has internal problems apart from the question of succession, including sharp disagreements over ideology. It also has its share of problems arising from deviance from group or social norms. There are those who drop out or act up or engage in wrongful activity. There are mental health problems, many children with special needs and the consequences of an extraordinarily high fertility rate. In short, Satmar operates in the real world.

For all of the difficulties faced by the group - and I believe that the degree of deviance is relatively low - there is a remarkably high degree of retention of identity and commitment. In Satmar shuls there is, as Rabbi Hertz Frankel has noted, the common sight that is rare for nearly all other American Jews of four generations being together. Another measure of the community's vitality is the statistic that 20,000 or ten percent of all students enrolled in elementary and high school yeshivas and day schools in the United States attend Satmar schools.

These are impressive achievements and there are others. Whatever internal discord lies ahead, it is to be hoped that it will be conducted in a framework of peaceful coexistence and that Satmar rabbis and lay leaders will come to understand that there is no excuse for perpetrating a Chilul Hashem.