Monday, May 23, 2011

Arson -Is Chasidus in Any Way at Fault?

I cannot remember a more gruesome crime ever committed by someone who is in any way connected with Orthodox Judaism. From

Aron Rottenberg, 43, suffered third-degree burns to 50 percent of his body after physically confronting an attacker carrying a rag soaked with flammable liquid behind his Truman Avenue home at 4:12 a.m.

Police later arrested 18-year-old Shaul Spitzer, of nearby Adams Lane, on felony counts of first-degree attempted arson and first-degree assault.

Police said Spitzer had serious burns to his hands and arms. He was hospitalized in Nyack before being taken to Cornell Medical Center.

Rottenberg was taken to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, police said.

Police said the Rottenberg family has previously been the target of violence and protests. The feud stems from the fact that Rottenberg worships at the Friedwald Center, not the community's main synagogue used by David Twersky, the Skver Hasidic grand rabbi and the worldwide community's dynastic leader.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. There is no way in heaven or hell that even the most extreme Chasidus would ever approve of anything like this. This is probably as shocking to the entire body of all Chasidim and their leaders as it is to me and any normal human being. There is no Chasidic Rebbe that does not have the same reaction of shock and horror to this that I have.

The young man who committed this atrocity is obviously a very sick person. I’m not sure how to deal with him. My first inclination is to throw him into a maximum security prison for the rest of his life and let the hard core criminals there have their way with him. But I am unable to judge him fairly. Mental illness or no - all I can think of is the unbearable pain his victim must be suffering and that unavoidably clouds my judgment. I will let the criminal justice system deal with him.

I have to wonder though whether the kinds of enmity that exists between Chasidic factions of even the same Chasidus contributes to the behavior of a psychopath such as this. Violence is not unknown in their circles if they believe a particular cause is important enough.

Need I mention the violent protests orchestrated by the Toldos Aharon Chasidim of Meah Shearim – or the many other acts of violence perpetrated by these types of Chasidim in places like Ramat Bet Shemesh?

Lest anyone forget - issues deemed important to Chasidim in America also breed violence. As was the case when factions in Satmar loyal to one or the other of the two sons of the late Satmar Rebbe came to blows many times over who would succeed their father as the new Satmar Rebbe.

I have asked this question before. Why is this particular segment of Orthodoxy so prone to violence? Chasidim are known for their great Chesed , both organizationally and individually. Why is Chasidus the cauldron for the kind of potential violence that may cause a rogue psychopath to think that arson is the answer to a dispute?

I think the answer might be the same as it is to many of their problems. An attitude of complete severance from the rest of the world. They live such insulated and isolated lives that they have no frame of reference as to what appropriate behavior is in general society. They know only the way of Chasidus as practiced today.

I have to question the kinds of Chasidic practices that lead one to have unnatural loyalties of the type that would cause someone to commit arson in that cause. And yet that kind of loyalty is the very nature of Chasidus as practiced today.

The more prominent Rebbes today are treated like royalty. And it is the Rebbes themselves perpetuate that image.

Let us take the example of a wedding of a Chasidic Rebbe’s son or daughter. They don’t just invite their friends and family. They invite everyone they can think of that they ever had any connection at all to them. This of course includes all of their Chasidim.

The supposed intent is that the Rebbe wants to give an opportunity to all his Chasidim to participate in their Rebbe's Simcha. But the effect is making the Rebbe larger than life and aggrandizing a human being into an object of glorification and near worship. Over 20,000 people attend weddings like this and it make news. This all adds to the aura of the Rebbe and gives him an air of leadership akin to kings and princes and presidents.

I personally find such weddings to be obscene! In fact I think the whole idea of Rebbe worship is counter to the Torah. You would think that the Chasidic Rebbes that have such weddings are greater than Moshe Rabbenu! Who has such wedding other than princes and kings?

There are other aspects to their lives that add to their aura of royalty. For example many of them they walk around with an entourage much like kings and presidents do. All of this pomp and circumstance is not unlike that of a ‘Rock star’ whose fans in some cases go completely off the wall with adulation. Mass worship of an individual for any reason makes him seem larger than life and more important than they really are.

Then there are the stories of Rebbes as Baalei Mofsim – miracle workers. Much like stories one hears about Christian Evangelical faith healers who ‘cure’ people of debilitating illnesses, so too are heard stories about Chasidic Rebbes who have done the same.

Is there any wonder that this kind of environment breeds the kind of loyalty that sometimes ends in violence? After all Rebbes who have such mystical powers and so large a following deserve tremendous honor and anyone who dishonors them in any way - like attending the wrong Shul will pay a heavy price.

I guess it’s then possible that a psychopath like this to in his own mind justify arson as a legitimate expression of his devotion to his Rebbe.