There is a potential for conflict in all social relations, and it exists not because people are selfish or foolish or have other shortcomings — although these are factors — but because it is natural for people to look at the world they are in through their pair of eyes and no one else’s and in terms of their own interests. The negation of self-interest may strike us as moral and often it is, yet it is not what we ought to expect and it is not always the moral thing to do. While it is generally preferable to avoid conflict, at times the preference should be in the other direction.
Since conflict is inherent in human relations, with proximity enhancing the prospect of its appearance, the crucial question is how disagreements are handled, whether with a sense of restraint or in a no-holds barred fashion, with the goal being to defeat the other side. Societies invest much in conflict resolution, and for good reason, because there is always the danger that disputes will turn violent or exact other serious costs.
That religious groups are not immune from internal discord and personal disputes is a proposition too obvious to need explication. The added ingredient of ideology or theology to self-interest increases the prospect of serious intra-group and inter-group conflict. This prospect increases in turn the obligation of those who lead religious groups to be careful about the rhetoric they use and the actions they endorse, lest religious and ideological conflict get out of control as true believers believe that their mission is sacred and they must prevail.
The dangers of religious conflict are sadly on display in Williamsburg within the Satmar chassidic group, as followers of rival claimants for dynastic succession are battling it out in synagogue, court and wherever else their twain meets. There has been violence and arrests, and because neither side is particularly blessed with a sense of restraint, what lies ahead is frightening.
Apart from the obvious reasons why this behavior needs to be condemned, it is especially to be regretted on two additional counts. Overwhelmingly, the rank and file of Satmars are not directly involved in the fray. While they look quite different from nearly all of us, like most of us they are primarily concerned with livelihood, raising a family, and enjoying the blessings — material and other — available in this land of freedom and opportunity. Of course, they also are determined to live religious lives. Except for a few, Satmars go to shul to daven and not to throw punches.
Secondly, Satmars have a remarkable record of chesed, including toward those from whom they are distant, as is apparent in their extraordinary activity to assist those who are hospitalized or have other needs. There may be no other Jews who have as powerful an instinct for charity.
Violence and wrongful behavior do not alter this record, yet they deflect from our appreciation of the good that these chasidim accomplish. It should be clear that charitable activities do not provide a scintilla of justification for violence or the unwillingness of community leaders to show leadership by calling for restraint and peaceful resolution and not for warfare.
In the classical way that one wrongdoing results in additional wrongdoing, the Satmar conflict is further marred by the two competing sides relying on secular courts to vindicate their claims. There has been a stream of litigation, doubtlessly all of it costly because as with doctors, chassidim want the best lawyers. This is in clear contravention of powerful halachic or religious legal strictures that designate religious courts or Beth Dins as the appropriate forum for conflict resolution. Litigation in secular courts is described as a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name, because it amounts to the declaration that religious authority cannot be relied on to resolve disputes.
Sadly, in chassidic circles there is a spreading tendency to engage in civil litigation when conflict erupts, mostly over dynastic succession. There is no excuse for this and the practice must be strongly condemned. By contrast, in the yeshiva world sector of Orthodoxy there is a commendable tendency to resolve disputes — again, invariably regarding succession — via the Beth Din route. Admittedly, the stakes are higher in intra-chassidic disputes because the outcome determines who leads a community and controls its institutions, while in the yeshiva world the outcome affects a single institution and usually determines who inherits the bills and the burden of fundraising.
Violence inherently is a Chillul Hashem and media attention adds to the desecration. Even without fistfights and worse, it’s deplorable that the Satmars cannot find restrained ways of conflict resolution. Are there no rabbis to turn to for counsel and religious rulings? Certainly, there are respected religious figures in Israel with whom Satmar has good relations. Why aren’t they being asked to listen to the competing sides and determine how to go forward?
We who are religious Jews are told constantly that restraint and moderation are hallmarks of our religious life. We proclaim that the ways of the Torah are pleasant. It should bother us enormously when the message received by the overwhelming majority of American Jews who are not observant is that our religion is not pleasant, that restraint is not practiced and that their rejection of religious life is justified. Their criticism is often not justified, but it should matter to us, including the Satmars, that we are giving them potent ammunition.