Satmar Hasidim bury Rabbi Teitelbaum
in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
The Hamas-led Palestinian government is facing all manner of economic and political sanctions because of its refusal to “recognize” Israel’s right to exist. (There’s an absurd quality to this discussion, both because Hamas obviously recognizes Israel’s existence as a reality that it has no means of reversing — and also because, in general, nation-states do not come into existence because somebody recognized their “right” to exist; they come into existence when the cost of denying them becomes too prohibitive to rivals because of the prevailing politico-military balance. But let’s indulge the discussion anyway for a moment.) Today, accepting Israel’s right to exist has, in mainstream discourse, become something of an anti-semitism litmus test. But it may be a little more complex than that.
A couple of nights ago, the southern section of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood recalled the streets of Gaza, with tens of thousands of people on the streets to bury a revered spiritual leader who also refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, while helicopters hovered overhead. Except that the Williamsburg mourners were not Hamas, they were Hasidic Jews of the Satmar school turning out to bury their beloved Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (and the police helicopters were there to monitor any trouble between rival factions led by the the Rebbe’s sons, both of whom seek to be his heir). Teitelbaum was the nephew of the legendary Satmar Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, who survived the Holocaust to rebuild the Satmar community in Brooklyn into one of the largest Hasidic sects, with an estimated 100,000 adherents around the world. The Satmars are also probably the world’s largest organization of anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews: They refuse to recognize the State of Israel (even though thousands of their followers actually live there), because they maintain that Jewish prophecy has always been very clear that the Jews would return to the Land of Israel only once the Messiah comes — until such time, the Satmars (and other anti-Zionist Hasidic sects such as the more activist Neturei Kata believe, the Jewish people are expressly forbidden by the Talmud from returning to the Land of Israel as a group by force of arms. The purpose of their exile, so goes the argument, is penance, and the Jews are supposed to spend their exile doing good works in order to satisfy the conditions for the coming of the Messiah. The creation of a modern nation-state for Jews in the Land of Israel was therefore not only not Biblically ordained or prophesied, the Satmars say, but actually gives offense to what they call “true Torah Judaism” by trying to rush the Jewish return — and make it less likely that the Messiah will appear.
A Neturei Kata delegation meets with Palestinian
Dr. Aziz Dweik of Hamas
On that basis, Neturei Kata campaigns actively against Zionism and the State of Israel, making common cause with the Palestinian national movement.
I’ll not pretend to have much in common with the Hasidic idea of Judaism. The idea of a god who frowns upon Jews turning on and off the lights in their homes on the sabbath, but is quite happy for them to employ a “shabbos-goy” to do it for them, looks to my eye like a mockery. What I find interesting about the Satmars, however, is their principled consistency: So much Talmudic scholarship and jurisprudence appears, to my heathen eye, to involve creating elaborate rationalizations for actions that would otherwise be deemed contrary to Jewish Halachic law (e.g. you shouldn’t turn on and off the lights, but you can get a “shabbos goy” to do it — and that’s one of tens of thousands of examples). So, while most of the Hasidic sects had no part of Zionism before World War II, when the State of Israel emerged as a reality many of them adjusted their Talmudic reading of the prophesies to allow them to recognize — and benefit from — it.
Not the Satmars. And in the process they offer a scholarly negation of the claims that Israel’s emergence and actions are somehow Biblically sanctioned, and therefore above temporal laws and critique.