Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Satmar Mind

The Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, was amongst the biggest Gedolim of the previous generation. He was a genius; a Talmid Chacham and Posek with very few peers. He was certainly on par with other Gedolim of his generation in America – including Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. All were geniuses and Gedolim to a wide cross sections of Orthodox Jewry. And each was considered THE Gadol HaDor to his own following – no less the Satmar Rebbe to his Chasidim.

There is a fascinating review by Professor Allan Nadler of a ‘massive’ new and fawning biography (or some might say hagiography) called The Rebbe. The biographer - Rav Dovid Meisels is a grandson of the Veitzner Rebbe, Rav Tzvi Hirsh Meisels who was a major Posek in Chicago - having settled here post Holocaust. He is famous for Paskening life and death Shailos for fellow prisoners in Auschwitz.

The review can be read in Jewish Ideas Daily. It provides a glimpse into this complex individual that sheds much light on to the behavior of not only his Chasidim but on more importantly people who act on his views that are not Satmar Chasdidm. These include Neturei Karta, the Edah HaCharedis and Chasidic sects like Toldos Aharon in Meah Shearim who at the drop of a hat organize massive anti government protests. Those protests inevitably result in violence, destruction of property, injuries to innocent people, and a massive Chilul HaShem.

I believe that one can best understand this attitude if one understands the Satmar Rebbe’s view of the State of Israel. It is a view that he constantly expressed by cursing it and its founders - a view that is a spiritual guide for much of their anti Israel activity:

He regarded (the State of Israel) 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… (He) prayed daily for its demise, and instructed his adoring followers to do likewise.

So extreme was his condemnation of Zionism – religious or otherwise that he forbade praying at - or even visiting the Kotel:

Curses, not blessings, were all that could be incurred by treading on ground contaminated by the evil Zionist army.

This absolute hatred of any form of Zionism was rooted in his firm belief that it was ordained by God (as explained in the Talmud) that the Jewish people are forbidden from governing the land that God has given them until the arrival of the Messiah. Attempting to do so will only bring tragedy.

All of this is kind of ironic since it was a Zionist official of pre-State Palestine that enabled the Satmar Rebbe’s escape from the Holocaust.

This is the type of thinking that goes on in the minds of the Israel hating Satmar Chasid and their kindred spirits in Meah Shearim.

Professor Nadler mentions another part of this biography that deals with the Rebbe’s childhood behavior. Although it is obviously written as praise of his piety even as a youth, professor Nadler notes that such behavior might easily qualify as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Let me be quick to assert that I do not in any way ascribe any kind of mental disorder including OCD to the Rebbe no matter what it may seem like to the casual observer. But such behavior in anyone less would certainly make one highly suspicious of its origin:

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.

This might help explain the Rebbe’s participation in the minutia of female stocking design.

The Rebbe’s views on Tznius in dress is manifested in the way the pious women of Satmar dress. Obvioulsy they dress the way all religious women do in covering up all parts of the body that are considered Erva (nakedness). Including the hair of married women. But they have incorporated additional strictures that many of even the most religious among us would consider extreme.

They will for instance cover their Shaitels with an additonal hat, cap, or scarf. Their skirt lengths are always far longer than Halacha requires. One of the most interesting strictures they have incorporated into their dress code is that even the lower leg must be fully covered with absolutley no skin showing. Even the mere perception that it isn’t covered is frowned upon. So that only stockings with noticeable seams are permitted. The rest of the stocking must be opaque. Professor Nadler’s words:

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.

There is one thing about Satmar that I wish were true about all Charedim – Especially in Israel:

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.

On the issue of working for a living we are one. On this issue I can proudly say that I too am a Satmar Chasid.