Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Chronicles of the Haredim

Review essay by Paul Shaviv, guest contributor

Once - almost the Rebbe? Rebbetzin Feige Teitelbaum (center) - Trainer Studio
For anyone, like me, who loves to read real history of Rebbes and leaders of the intensively Orthodox communities (aka ultra-Orthodox), this has been a vintage year!

In the last few months, three outstanding books have been published – two in Ivrit, one in English, which together constitute a veritable feast of information.  Since they total together almost 1,900 pages (1,500 + in Ivrit and just under 400 in English), this posting can only be the smallest amuse bouche to the meal….

Let me deal with the English volume first.

This is “Who will Lead Us?” by Prof. Samuel Heilman.  It is a sociological study of the succession problems and process in five post-War Hasidic dynasties, wholly or partially based in America.  Covered are Munkacs, Boyan, Bobov, Satmar and Chabad. 

Professor Heilman (Queens, CUNY) is a veteran observer of the Haredi/Hassidic world.  He has a very readable style, and describes the arcane twists and turns of the dilemmas in each ‘court’.  In theory, succession is seamless.  In practice, there are often problems.  In the movements described, some of the problems have tragic backgrounds of Holocaust survival and contenders from previous rebbes’ first and second families.  

In the case of Munkacs, there was ideological deviancy – the son-in-law of the vitriolically anti-Zionist Chaim Elozor Shapira was actually a supporter of Israel.  The Hasidim would not accept him, and he fled to Brazil.  

Later, one of his sons returned to the fold and assumed the rebistve. In Boyan, there was no heir apparent, until Nachum Dov, the grandson of the previous rebbe, whose father was a Professor, was groomed for the post from his teenage years.  In Bobov and Satmar bitter struggles took place between family members, and in both cases the Hasidim split. Interestingly, Heilman refers to the fact that Feige, the widow of R’Yoelish, the first Satmarer Rebbe, seems to have briefly acted herself as a sort of Rebbe (accepting kvitlech) after the death of her husband.

Heilman, who is a controversial figure in Chabad following his previous biography of the Seventh Rebbe, looks at the transition between the Sixth and Seventh Rebbe, and the tension between Menachem Mendel Schneerson and the Gourary family. 

In the course of a riveting book, Heilman makes many theoretical observations of ‘succession process’.  Ultimately, the Hasidim decide, by voting with their feet.  The decisions are often made on leadership appeal, charisma, family connections and personality as much as on the formal ‘rules’, insofar as they exist.  

Whatever happens, Hasidic hagiography then rushes to portray the successful contender as the one who was “always destined” for the position, and to write the other contenders out of the story.  He points out the paradox that to be a Rebbe in the 21st century, you have to secure your credibility by showing that you really represent the 18th century.  This insight gives some framework to the affect of contemporary Hasidics.

A great read!

Next, a wonderful biography of Reb Amram Blau (1900 – 1974) the founder of Neturei Karta.  This is authored by Prof. Kimmy Kaplan of Bar Ilan University, and is published by Yad Ben Zvi and Ben-Gurion University.  I read Ivrit fluently, and I have to say that this is one of the very best biographies I have ever read, of anyone, in any language.  

Professor Kaplan writes very clearly, and the book is a masterpiece of organization.   The author takes you by the hand and leads you through the life, the thought and the ideas of this fascinating individual.  It is meticulously documented, drawing significantly on the Amram Blau personal archives, whose unlikely resting place is Boston University. 

Amram Blau was a principled individual, whose unshakeable opposition to Zionism and the State of Israel attracted attention vastly in excess of his following.   He was aided by a certain flair for staging public protest.  Otherwise, he was a modest personality.  Neturei Karta was never a formal organization, and after his passing split into ungovernable, and sometimes wild, factions.   He did not have the political or organizational savvy of his brother, R’Moshe Blau (d. 1946, and who deserves a biography of his own), who was the spokesman of Agudah in the Old Yishuv for many years; but Amram was world-famous. 

The book treats at length the rather poignant episode of his second marriage to Ruth Ben David, a French convert to Judaism.  This caused uproar, and he and his bride had to leave Jerusalem for two years.  When they returned (in 1965), he was not the same leader.  But his loyalty and obvious love for her is another facet of the steely character that this somewhat maverick individual displayed throughout this life.

Finally – ‘The Gdoilim’! , 950 pages of essays edited by Profs. Binyamin Brown and Nissim Leon, of the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan, respectively.  It is published by Machon Van Leer and the Magnes Press.

This is a massive collection of analytical essays of Rabbinic leaders and authorities of the 19th and 20th centuries.  I have not read this cover-to-cover, but dipped into it extensively.  There are short introductory essays by Shaul Stampfer and Immanuel Etkes on the phenomenon of the ‘Gadol’.  This is followed by sections dealing with rabbis of pre-modern Europe; pre-State Israel, America; and post-war Israel.- twenty-eight in all.  Each essay is uniform length of twenty to thirty pages, each by different authors.  The names of both the rabbis (and the academics who write on them) will be familiar to anyone interested in the field. 

The book is dedicated to Professor Menachem Friedman, of Bar-Ilan, who is truly the founder of the academic study of the Haredi world.  The book’s final chapter is an appreciation of his scholarship and work.

I have no doubt that this posting (if Harry is kind enough to print it!) will attract the nay-sayers and skeptics in the comments.  They will sneer at the idea of writing “about” all of these phenomena and personalities; and of course will cast doubt on the ability of “Professors” to understand what they are writing about (especially in the ‘Gdoilim’ volume).   

They will be mistaken on both counts.   As a society, we have to understand what is happening to us.   The big, conceptual pictures are important.  Real, accurate history is important.  These books, individually and collectively, are significant contributions to the field.   Good reading for the Catskills, or wherever you spend the summer!