Thursday, July 17, 2014

Questions About the Satmar Rebbe

Satmar Rebbe, arriving in Switzerland on the Kasztner transport from Bergen-Belsen 
In a hard hitting 2 part article in Tablet Magazine (part two is here) about R’ Yoel Teitlebaum - the Satmar Rebbe, Menachem Keren-Katz details biographical data about him that paints a very ugly picture of a man whose many followers believe to have been the greatest rabbi of his generation. Indeed even those outside of Satmar consider him to be among the greatest.

To his credit, the Satmar Rebbe built an empire of proud Chasidim in Williamsburg out of few Holocaust survivors originally consisting of mostly Hungarian Jews. Satmar Chasidim are known for their piety, their insular ways, their distinctive look (long Payos, long beards, the long black coat called a Kapote or Bekeshe, the furry hat called a Shtreimel), the extremes of modesty in which their women dress,  and their legendary acts of Chesed towards fellow Jews of all stripes  

The Satmar Rebbe was a Talmud Chacham and Posek with few peers whose extreme piety was legendary. He built an infrastructure that includes an educational system, many synagogues, and many interest free loan societies. Satmar Chasidim have since grown to be one of the largest groups of Chasidim in the world. After his death the village of Kiryas Joel (named for him) was established and it now flourishes. It is run by the son of his successor, R’ Aharon Teitelbaum. (Williamsburg is now run By R’ Aharon Teitelbaum’s brother, Zalman).  

How wonderful this is when looked at in isolation. The problem is that there is a lot more to the story of the Satmar Rebbe that may not be so flattering.

My issues with Satmar are well known by those who read this blog frequently. It is his attitude about the State of Israel. 

As I have said many times in the past - although I strongly disagree with him, I respect his view that Israel has no right to exist based on his interpretation of a Gemorah.  But I do not respect at all how he expresses those views and the behavior that has been generated by it in his successors and followers (e.g. the recent disgusting comments by the current Satmar Rebbe of Kiryas Joel). I especially reject his virulent attack in writing aganst another Gadol, R’ A. Y. Kook who supported the idea of a Jewish State.

And although I strongly disagree with Satmar’s isolationist approach to the world, I can understand the view that his people must live insular lives in order to be protected from negative influences.

Dr. Keren-Katz does not stop there. His attack against the Satmar Rebbe is bad as it gets. After some exhaustive research about his activities pre and post Holocaust Dr. Katz’s conclusions are devastating.

I do not believe one must necessarily come to these conclusions even after reading his presentation of the facts. They may in fact reflect his own bias and can very easily be interpreted favorably and consistent with his anti Israel views.  Dr. Keren-Katz’s lengthy article should be read in its entirety first to better understand his perspective.

At the end of his article, Dr. Katz asks some hard questions. Are they valid? If not why not? If yes they deserve answers.
Why did Rabbi Yoel fail to warn his followers before the Holocaust?
Why did he try to immigrate to Israel after forbidding his followers to do so?
Why did he thwart attempts at cooperation, which could have saved so many lives?
Why did he not set a personal example for his Hasidim?
Why did he abandon his congregation, incarcerated in ghettos, and flee in the middle of the night?
How did he come to abandon his closest friends in the Cluj ghetto?
Why did he board the Kasztner train, which was organized by the abhorred Zionists? 
Having survived, why did he never return to rebuild his congregation in Satmar?
Why did he refrain from assisting in the spiritual and religious rehabilitation of the Holocaust survivors in the DP camps?
Why did he alienate himself from Agudath Israel and the Zionist organizations that had helped to extricate him from the Nazi horrors?
And why did he adopt such radical stances, such as blaming the Holocaust on the Zionists, to justify his actions and decisions during the Holocaust? 
From Tablet: Menachem Keren-Kratz, a researcher of Hungarian Orthodoxy and of contemporary Haredi society in the State of Israel, is the author of Maramaros-Sziget: Extreme Orthodoxy and Secular Jewish Culture at the Foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.

Update: Upon further reflection I realized that the post as originally written did not accurately reflect my feelings on this matter. I have thus revised the post to better do so.