The Day That Satmar Became Mainstream

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A critical caveat: Nothing in this submission should be taken as criticism of the Satmar position vis-a-vis Zionism and/or the State of Israel. I have no pretensions of being worthy of critiquing what is clearly a valid halachic perspective. At the same time, however, it is clear to me that the majority of chareidi gedolim never supported the Satmar Rav’s positions. Thus, I do think that I have the right to point out what I see as a shift in attitude in my own community and to try to understand what caused that change.

I was a first year beis midrash student in Mesivta Torah Vodaath when the Six Day War broke out. We had just moved from Williamsburg into the new building on East 9th. Talmidim from that era will surely recall the remarks of the mashgiach, Rav Wolfson shlit”a, at the time. He said: “the yeshiva has only three issues – illumination [the overhead recessed lighting made learning difficult and the administration had to install fluorescents much to the dismay of the architect], ventilation [the beis midrash had no windows that opened and the yeshiva could not afford to run the central air] and emigration [quite a few of the senior bachurim left the yeshiva and transferred to Lakewood].” If I remember correctly, we moved Pesach time and it was to be the last z’man that Rav Yaakov zt”l would be active in the yeshiva.

The period after Pesach was a time of intense anxiety in the Jewish world; beginning with Nasser’s demand that the UN remove its peacekeeping forces from Sinai and U Thant’s immediate acquiescence. It soon became clear that President Johnson as well as the French and English were not prepared to intervene in any meaningful way and war seemed to be inevitable and defeat a certainty. Tehillim was recited with great fervor and many bachurim added sedarim and accepted kabbalos in the hope of arousing rachamei shamayim. Rav Yaakov zt”l and Rav Schorr zt”l spoke often to try to uplift the palpable pessimism but if you looked into their eyes you saw fear.

Shortly before the war broke out, the yeshiva administration brought a television set into the building, placing it atop the staircase that led from the entrance to the beis midrash. There were numerous transistor radios on the porch that adjoined the beis midrash and they would all be turned on when WINS would rehash the headlines. When the war itself broke out, there was almost continuous coverage on the radio; the television news lagged behind because there were no live video feeds in those days. Even those strong enough to resist going out to either the porch or to the foyer to listen to the news would approach those who had done so to get their updates. I clearly remember the state of agitation that Rav Yaakov and Rav Schorr evidenced, pacing nervously inside the beis midrash and outside among those gathered around the media – what will be, what will be?

And then we heard the broadcast that will remain in my mind forever. Michael Elkins, the correspondent for the BBC and Newsweek, imbedded with the paratroopers led by Motta Gur, announced: “the IDF has captured the Temple Mount.” We heard his live broadcast of Rav Goren blowing shofar, of Motta Gur’s static filled message to his command post, “haKotel b’yadeunu, haKotel b’yadenu.” We heard singing, yes singing which turned out to be the soldiers themselves. Elkins described that most incredible and improbable scene: paratroopers, in the midst of battle, rushing toward a wall of stone, oblivious to the dangers around them, to the snipers and enemy soldiers, spontaneously breaking into song and dance. Elkins began to cry on the air, and we listening in Flatbush cried with him.

For as long as I live, I will never forget the expression on Rav Yaakov’s face or the sparkle in Rav Schorr’s eyes. It was as if the burden of history had been lifted from them. Rav Yaakov ran into the beis midrash and gave a bang on the amud. There was immediate silence and he said “shehechiyanu” – I do not remember if it was with shem and malchus. He then began to recite Hodu with tears streaming down his cheeks.

I think I understand what happened. To Rav Yaakov and Rav Schorr the great victory and the manifest nissim of the Six Day War contained an incredible Divine message. The horrible period of hester panim evidenced by the Holocaust was over – they had witnessed a tangible expression of hinei lo yanum v’lo yishan shomer Yisrael. Who knew what other great miracles might be expected in the wake of this change. They heard the footsteps of mashiach and saw his image peeking through the cracks.

On the first anniversary of the war, I was in Eretz Yisrael, studying in Yeshivat Beis HaTalmud under Rav Dov Schwartzman shlit”a. On the 28th of Iyar, the first Yom Yerushalayim, Reb Dov made a seudat hoda’ah in the yeshiva and we recited hallel without a berachah. [I seem to remember that Reb Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l made a similar seudah in the Mir. I asked a number of talmidim from that period but received conflicting replies – one told me absolutely not, one told me that he also remembers a public celebration and one recalled a private seudah in Rav Chaim’s home.] During our seudah, one of the bachurim [who today serves as the mashgiach of one of Yerushalayim’s most prominent yeshivot] questioned Rav Dov about the propriety of the seudah given that the day – Yom Yerushalayim – was an invention of the Zionists. Rav Dov became very angry at the tone of the question and proceeded to lecture the bachur as well as all of us about the necessity to express hakaras hatov – both to the Ribbono shel olam and to His shluchim, the IDF. “The Ribbono shel olam has shown us incredible chesed and you want to ignore it because he chose Jews of whom you do not approve as his vehicle! Have you any idea how this war has changed and will continue to change the face of klal Yisrael. Open your eyes and see what Hashem has done!”

And indeed such change came about! The first ba’alei teshuva yeshivot opened – the Diaspora Yeshiva on Har Tzion and Rav Noach Weinberg’s first edition of Ohr Somayach. Jews in Soviet Georgia petitioned their government to be allowed to come to Eretz Yisrael, effectively jump starting the massive aliyot from the USSR. Hundreds of thousands of American Jewry lost their embarrassment and emerged from their caves. Around the world, many Jews began to reconnect to their people and slowly to their mesorah as well.

Yet one year later, kaf ches Iyar 5729, Beis HaTalmud did not make a seudah although we continued to omit tachanun. On the third anniversary of the war, tachanun was reinstated. What happened? What changed?

Reb Yoilish zt”l saw the victories of the Six Day War as the hand of the sitra achra let loose. He went so far as to prohibit his chassidim from approaching the kotel ma’aravi which had been freed by the kochos ha-tumah. The olam ha-yeshivos may not have accepted all of the Rebbe’s hashkafot, but, in general, his pronounced and total antipathy toward medinas Yisroel became mainstream.

While we might differ as to the permissability of benefiting from the State, we do not challenge the contention – at least openly – that we consider ourselves to be legal aliens in its confines. We vote in its elections to protect ourselves rather than to try to exert real influence – even at those times when political conditions offer us real power [the Begin years when there was a prime minister who was more than sympathetic]. We draw ourselves further and further into isolation – ostensibly because the external world has become more dangerous. But is that the real reason? Or is it possible that we subconsciously realize that we are incapable of offering practical solutions to the inevitable dilemmas and challenges of self-government and therefore prefer to retreat into a ghetto and wait for mashiach. We were challenged by the Six Day War and came up short.

I am sure that others might have more profound explanations and I welcome their comments. However, I wonder, as kaf chet Iyar approaches, if we are right in continuing to ignore the ramifications of the historical occurrences to which we were witness. Let the debate begin!

[Rabbi Dovid Landesman is a veteran mechanech and writer, and increasingly becoming a fixture as a guest contributor! He muses from Israel.]

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114 Responses

  1. cvmay says:

    The yishuv began well before Zionism came on the scene. It would have continued with or without Zionism.—-

    The holy yishuv of Meah Shearim began under the auspices of Rav Rivlin, who was taken to Beis Din by the rabbanim & residents of the Old City for initiating a move outside of the city. Their rationale was ‘we do not mess with the Arabs who are the prime shakers and bakers of those areas’. BTW the Beis Din ruled in the favor of Rav Rivlin. Rav Rivlin with the haskoma of Rav Sonnefeld and others continued buying land (even on Shabbos kodesh for the mitzvah of yishuv haeretz)in the Shaeri Chesed areas. Without the agressive moves and love of Zion (Zionism) of Rav Rivlin there would not be a B”H large, flourishing Charedei kehilla in Yerushayalim.

  2. Esther says:

    M. Lipkin – I saw your comment (92) discussed but nobody addressed this point:

    “no matter how great in Torah the Satmar Rebbe was, he was still human, susceptible to human foibles. He staked out a very strong, radical position for himself. Isn’t it just possible that as events unfolded, and he was face with growing cognitive dissonance, that rather than give up his position, he just dug in his heels and fought harder?”

    let me cut & paste your words again and make some slight changes:

    no matter how great in Torah the religious Zionists are, they are still human, susceptible to human foibles. They staked out a very strong, radical position for themselves (and the non-Zionists, overwhelmed by the magnificent Six Day War victory, followed suit). Isn’t it just possible that as events unfolded (Yom Kippur War etc.), and they were faced with growing cognitive dissonance (secularization of the state etc.), that rather than give up their position, they just dug their heels and fought harder?

    Anyway, we can argue back and forth endlessly, which I have no time for erev yom tov. So let me just end with a little story.

    During the craze of Shabateanism, a minister asked a rav whether he believes Shabatai Tzvi is mashiach. The rav asked him, “Well, do YOU believe he is the messiah?”

    No, he said.

    “When the real Messiah will arrive,” the rav said, “you’ll believe in him, too.”

    Correction: In my above comment (91) I should refer to R. Landesman instead of R. Adlerstein.

    Gut yom tov everyone.

    (To the editors: sorry for indirectky accusing you of unevenhandedness. I hadn’t noticed that you did publish my 91 comment after all. Thanks a lot for your evenhandedness.)

  3. Esther says:

    (sigh) I guess the civil tone and evenhandedness of this thread was too good to be true.

    “But he did think that going to the Kossel or Kever Rochel is an averah, and instructed his chassidim to this effect.”

    Now where did you get this from, dovid? If you instruct your kids not to go somewhere, does that automatically mean you consider it an averah? This instruction was meant for his followers, not as a general psak halacha.

  4. Chardal says:

    >Chardal, I’m pleasantly surprised to hear that. I’m wondering, though, are they traditional in the sense of masorti, or are they full shomrei torah umitzvos?

    >I’ve heard it say that the sefardim were never as religious, and never as irreligious, as the ashkenazim. Your comment seems to bear this out.

    I don’t have exact numbers. But as I said, their are MANY thriving frum yemenite communities and shuls. And even those families who are not strictly observant are almost never anti-religious and are often close to tradition – to the extent of sending their kids to religious schools, etc.

    >There were some problems with that kind of “Chovevei Zion” pre-Zionism, and most rabbis were opposed to it. Even among those who supported it, many dropped it as soon as the secular Zionists jumped on the Zionist bandwagon and took the reins in their hands.

    I don’t know how you can say that at that point in history “most rabbis were opposed to it.” Frankly, most rabbis did not publish any opinion one way or another about it. If you want to get a list of some of the gedolim who directly supported the chovevei zion and their entire enterprize – check out the book “Shivat Zion” which was a collection of letters by gedolim supporting chovevei zion and their enterprize.

    Now you are right that several of the gedolim who initially supported the chovevei zion changed their mind after secularizing influences joined the movement, but I think that the point is made. Zionism started as a religious movement and it attracted to it Jews who were far from tradition.

  5. Moishe Potemkin says:

    I don’t mean to pick specifically on Tal, but I have to point out an important contradiction in his comments:

    Comment #1: Interesting that someone here can attack an entire kehillah of God-fearing Jews by insinuating that they are not mekayem a mitzvah. But when I call him on it, I am the arrogant one.

    Comment #2: (In direct response to Menachem Lipken’s “I would hope you would agree that Religious Zionists are not involved in a “host of sins”.” Tal wrote “But that is precisely where I disagree.”

    By Tal’s own definition, attacking an entire kehilla of God-fearing Jews is a sign of arrogance. I hope that this does not in fact represent his opinion.

  6. dr. bill says:

    [Editor’s Note: “Last time I checked,” MO beliefs were more than welcome here, and several of the contributors listed on the front page identify with MO. Far-left Orthodoxy is another matter…]

    Far left orthodoxy may be signficantly more important to all of us exploring how we will face the new challenges to orthodoxy from history, lierature, psychology, etc. than the far right. to be blunt, Kugel or Hartman or Greenberg (they are probably close to that far-left Orthodoxy boundary, though i suspect we differ on what side they might be) have relevance to that conversation even as we might reject their POV; but i appreciate that is not your charter. I maintain that fair and balanced would mean rejecting the far right as well, but i understand and appreciate your adgenda.

  7. Moishe Potemkin says:

    There is no basis for that statement. The yishuv began well before Zionism came on the scene. It would have continued with or without Zionism. True, the Charedi world has to deal with the fact that the Zionists control EY — but what are they supposed to do? No one asked them, the Zionists took control forcibly. If I want to go to EY, I have to deal with the Stae or I will be arrested.

    Actually, there is enormous support for this statement, but, as you said, “Almost everyone is so emotionally wedded to their position, that they are incapable of giving an honest assessment of history or the facts on the ground.” Charedim benefit enormously from the protections and economy afforded by the state of Israel. There were yishuvim before – sparse and starving, but surviving – but much of the kemach, and consequently, Torah, of the current charedi world is due to the infrastructure of the state.

    And yes, you’re right, it’s impossible to avoid the state’s monopolization of security and economy. Maseches Avos notes the essential importance of government that you seem somehow comfortable dismissing.

    Besides, we’re told not to despise Mitzri’im, because we were immigrants in their lands. The assertion that somehow they – rotzchim and ovdei avodah zarah who were shetufei zimah – warrant gratitude that is not due to the people and structures of Medinas Yisrael is either laughable or contemptible.

  8. dr. bill says:

    Rav Nachman Bulman zt”l – a devoted student of history – once told me that in retrospect no change in chareidi Jewry ever came from the top. Rather, a popular groundswell began from underneath and eventually brought about fundamental and long lasting change…

    Comment by dovid landesman — May 27, 2009 @ 2:17 am

    This point is demonstrated by Prof. Katz ztl in a number of complex areas well before the rise of chareidim in the second half of the 19th century. He speaks with meticulous precision of religious sensibilty that is often popularly born and bounded halkhically, where necessary, by the Rabbis. He also has examples where rabbis invoke religious, albeit not strictly halakhic arguments, to advance their position. (the famous case of R. chaim ztl demanding strict adherence to halakha wrt milah is a perfect example.)

    However, I have not seen this argument broadly demonstrated within chareidi society and it actually suprises me. Did he give other concrete examples? Chassidus is a good example but before the chareidi era. In fact, it illustrates the point of rabbinic shaping. Mussar, as an example, is much less clear to me and I easily could see an opposing view. Beis yaakov is perhaps the best example but i do not know enough of how it developed in more chareidi circles, who accepted it when and and how it was shaped.

    But R. Bulman’s ztl claim of “no change” (no important change) except popularly sounds like a bit of an exaggeration. In any case, this interaction of the religious sensibilities of the people with Halakhic norms as espoused by their rabbinic leaders is a fascinating topic.

    Your last post is bringing you perilously close to MO beliefs; welcome. I wonder if your last four lines would pass moderation if you were anonymous.

    [Editor’s Note: Last time I checked, MO beliefs were more than welcome here, and several of the contributors listed on the front page identify with MO. Far-left Orthodoxy is another matter…]

  9. cvmay says:

    “I find it amazing that in the beis yaakovs and yeshivos across America the subject is completely ignored”.

    Now, you are talking tachlis. In this avenue there is much to be accomplished. A chashuva & prominent Rosh Yeshiva z”tl asked his talmidim frequently in shiur, “What were the two most seminal acts of the twentieth century for Klal Yisroel?”. His reply was, “the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel”, HOW TRULY IRONIC that neither subject is a serious limud for our children. The majority of bochurim graduate mesivta and know ZERO about either subject, our girls b”h are taught a bit more. These subjects have been relegated to the SILENT curriculum (home study), no teaching, no serious dialogue or discussion. This is the keg of a future explosion!!

  10. Tal Benschar says:

    Dovid:

    1. Interesting that someone here can attack an entire kehillah of God-fearing Jews by insinuating that they are not mekayem a mitzvah. But when I call him on it, I am the arrogant one.

    2. Whether someone in kollel is or is not mekayem the mitzvah has nothing to do with whether Zionism is a prerequisite to the mitzvah. There are plenty of Charedim who do work in one capacity or another, of every ideology. Whether the kollelniks are or are not is a sideshow.

    3. You raise a number of complaints about the Charedi world, much of which revolves around parnassah. I agree with much of the sentiment, but again what does that have to do with Zionism? There are plenty of people on all sides of the “Zionist question” who work for a living.

    Menachem;

    3. Also, the “we” I was referring to was religious Zionists, not Zionists in general. I would hope you would agree that Religious Zionists are not involved in a “host of sins”

    But that is precisely where I disagree. Really, you cannot think of ANY downside to religious Zionism? Even if it turns out that your shittah is wrong? That is simply astounding.

    I don’t think there is any point in my pointing out the downsides. It will simply not be “heard” by anyone here.

    Moishe:

    4.The fact that charedim fulfill the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is wonderful, but it doesn’t at all diminish the fact that much of this yishuv ha’aretz – even that of the Edah Charedis – is largely or completely the result of Zionism.

    There is no basis for that statement. The yishuv began well before Zionism came on the scene. It would have continued with or without Zionism. True, the Charedi world has to deal with the fact that the Zionists control EY — but what are they supposed to do? No one asked them, the Zionists took control forcibly. If I want to go to EY, I have to deal with the Stae or I will be arrested.

    Suppose a government (let’s say the former Soviet Union, for those who can remember it) decides to set up a monopoly on matzoh. No one else may bake matzoh on pain of imprisonment. Be leis bereirah, those who want to fufill the mitzvah buy the matzoh from the government at whatever price it sets.

    One would certainly admire those Jews for their mesirus nefesh. But anyone who said, “they owe their kiyum of mitzvas matzoh to the benevolent govt” would be considered foolish. Who asked the govt. to monopolize matzoh in the first place?

  11. dovid says:

    “the Satmar rav didn’t think it was a sin to live there.”

    But he did think that going to the Kossel or Kever Rochel is an averah, and instructed his chassidim to this effect.

  12. dovid says:

    I will take a stab at explaining Menachem Lipkin’s position for the kannaim of this thread. One shittah regarding yishuv EY states that it is a Mitzva Chiyuvis (like matza on the first night of Pesach). Another shittah holds that’s a Mitzvah Kiyumis (you do it if you can). The third shittah is interpreted by some to the effect that no one should step foot on admas kodesh until Meshiach comes, but actually it is understood to mean that we should not conquer it against the will of the nations of the world. Reb Menachem agrees that no one transgresses by holding any of these shittos because we just don’t know which one is the correct one. Therefore, he holds that in addition that the odds of being correct by living in EY now vs. waiting for Meshiach to do the same thing are 2:1, he also holds that by settling EY now, one has only the upside (fulfilling the Mitzva either Chiyuvis or Kiyumis of yishuv EY) and no downside.

  13. dovid says:

    “yishuv ha’aretz – even that of the Edah Charedis – is largely or completely the result of Zionism.”

    Largely but not completely so. Talmidei HaGra and talmidei Baal Shem came to settle EY, at a time when there were practically no secular Jews in the world, and definitely no secular Jews interested in yishuv EY.

  14. Esther says:

    “I’m sure the Esthers of the world would say that that just by making Aliyah being part of the system I’m sinning and pushing off the Geulah.”

    Menachem, please don’t paint me a bogeylady. There are plenty of Satmars living in EY, with mosdos, shuls, and a shikun, and as far as I know the Satmar rav didn’t think it was a sin to live there. He just argued that the danger of being influenced by Zionism overrides the mitzva of ישוב ארץ ישראל.