Friday, October 23, 2015

Chasidic Loyalty Gone Amok

Aron Rottenberg
There are a lot of people that respect Rabbi David Twersky, the Rebbe of Skver. But I am not one of them. Why do they respect him? He has established an enclave of Chasidim that isolates itself from the rest of the world for the purported purpose of reaching high levels of spirituality. The ‘outside’ world is full of immorality and injustice and all manner of enticement towards an immoral lifestyle. The logic is that since we are a people declared by God to be holy, we must strive to act that way. Rabbi Twesky’s aim was to create an environment that will not only enable that, but encourage it.

What is it about his city of New Square that makes that happen - aside from isolating itself from the rest of the world? The Rebbe has set up a bunch of rules that he believes will unify his flock. One of which is his mandate that there be no other synagogues in New Square other than the large one in which he Davens. 

In this way everyone will be on the same page. Especially on Shabbos where various Chasidic customs take place. Like the Rebbe’s Tish. This is a weekly event where the Rebbe holds court by sitting at the head of a very large table, where in many cases various foods called Shiryaim (left overs from the Rebbe’s plate) are passed out to eager Chasidim. There is a lot camaraderie, singing, and dancing. There is an aura of joy in the air shared by everyone. This is a very spiritually uplifting experience to some people. There is usually a standing room only crowd at events like this.

There is also comfort in knowing that almost every major decision in life is decided for you by the community custom, including how you meet your future spouse and who that should be.

There have been reports by Orthodox Jewish outsiders about the level of spirituality they felt when they spent a Shabbos there.To say it was uplifting for them is an understatement. One young fellow I know that lives on the East Coast said that his Yeshiva allowed (or perhaps even encourages) them to spend one or more of their ‘out’ Shabbosim there. He told me it was very ‘Geshmak’ (...a Yiddish word that is hard to translate but in meaning approximates the idea of being ‘very emotionally satisfied’).

Aside from the obvious Hashkafa issues I have with isolating oneself from the world there are many other  problems I have with the way Rabbi Twersky built this community. Many of them serous but beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that if my issue with them was only Hashkafic, I could still respect these views as I disagree with them. People have a right to live their lives the way they choose, as long as they do not make themselves a financial burden on others. As others often point out, they have a right to seek spiritual heights in any way they choose.

The issue that is troubles me the most is how Rabbi Twersky’s rules have caused serious - even life threatening injuries to one of his own Chasidim. Like the rule about not setting up any Shul or a Minyan (the more exalted group form of prayer) outside of his Shul.

It’s not that he encourages or even requires Davening in that Shul. That wouldn’t bother me so much. It’s that he does not tolerate any deviation for any reason. Not even under the most unusual of circumstances. His Chasidim enforce this rule under pain of being harassed - both mentally and physically. It may not be a written or stated sanction by Rabbi Twersky. 

But that he approves of that kind of enforcement should be obvious since it has been going on there for many years without Rabbi Twersky saying a word against it. It has become standard operating procedure. There is a zero tolerance policy with respect to deviation. He has developed such strong loyalties in his Chasidim that they react rather quickly and forcefully to keep their fellow ‘wayward’ Chasidim in line.

Which is where Aron Rottenberg and Shaul Spitzer - two of Rabbi Twersky’s Chasidim come in. I wrote what happened with them them 3 years ago.

Aron Rottenberg had a sick friend who could not attend Shul - decided to set up a Minyan for him on Shabbos. He and his family was immediately and constantly harassed for violating the rule against a  separate Minyan.  Rabbi Twersky’s personal valet, a teenager by the name of Shaul Spitzer took it upon himself to solve the problem once and for all. He decided to set fire to Rottenberg’s house – while his family was inside sleeping! Rottenberg saw him about to enter and confronted him on the porch as he was carrying a flaming bucket. A struggle ensued and the firebomb exploded on Rottenberg burning him over 50% of his body!

Shaul Spitzer
While it is probably true as Spitzer claimed – that he acted on his own, there is not a doubt in my mind that he was simply taking to extremes sanctions tacitly endorsed by Rabbi Twersky for dissidents.

I don’t know about anyone else but I can’t begin to imagine the kind of pain caused by being set on fire. That has to be one of the most excruciatingly painful things that can happen to a human being. Spitzer had no qualms about setting a house full of people on fire. That Rottenberg intercepted him in the process may have just saved the rest of his family from such pain or even death!

That a religious Jew believes that honoring his Rebbe includes inflicting that kind of pain on another human being is why I have no respect for Rabbi Twersky. Those who might say that that Rabbi Twersky never said that such acts were justified must answer the question about why he never apologized to Rottenberg or his family for what his valet did. Here is how he put it in a recent interview:  
Rottenberg said Twersky has treated Spitzer like a hero and urged his followers to pray for Spitzer and ignore Rottenberg. "No one from the community or the family has apologized," Rottenberg said. "They had 3 1/2 years to apologize. Instead, he's become a hero for them and a role model for their teenagers..." 
Spitzer was sentenced to 7 years in prison. His lawyers are now trying to get that sentence reduced: 
(T)he religious hierarchy is pressuring (Rottnebrg)to ask Supreme Court Justice William Kelly to give Spitzer youthful offender status, which could allow him to be released from prison. He also said the New Square religious tribunal cursed him in a letter to the community and has been damaging his reputation. 
Forgiveness is a divine quality. But I find it to be the height of Chutzpah to ask someone to forgive an unapologetic arsonist who caused him such excruciating pain and permanently scarred him. All while Rabbi Twersky’s community continues to curse him. While Rabbi Twersky seeks mercy for one of his Chasidim, he expresses cruelty towards another. I personally find such ‘mercy’ unforgivable.

The one saving grace for Rottenberg is the multi million dollar settlement of his lawsuit against Rabbi Twersky and others. And a promise to no longer harass him or his family. It’s nice that the Rabbi has resources like that to pay off a lawsuit. Although it would have been nicer had he not been the source of the kind of behavior that generated that settlement - and instead used that money to help the poor of Squaretown. Apparently the Squaretown  Beis Din has sent him a letter cursing him and damaging his reputation: Here is Rottenberg’s response: 
"No one from the community or the family has apologized," Rottenberg said. "They had 3 1/2 years to apologize. Instead, he's become a hero for them and a role model for their teenagers.They're asking me to ask the judge to give him youthful offender. I won't." 
I  don’t blame Rottenberg one bit!

Please note - I would urge anyone tempted to generalize from this about any other Charedi community to refrain from doing so. I am talking about one man and one community. In no way should this post be used to bash any other community.