The Satmar Rebbe, Reb Yoel Teitelbaum ZTz”L

Among all of the Chassidim, the most despised are the Satmar Chassidim. Their anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli government position make most Jews cringe. Having spent time with this sect, I have a very different opinion of them.

Stemming from the city of Satu Mare, the capital of Satu Mare County, Romania, in the Carpathian Mountains, they became known as very extreme in their ultra-orthodox observance of Judaism. Their Rebbe, Reb Yoelish Teitelbaum (as he was known) became the Rebbe of Satmar in 1934 and reigned until his death in 1979, he was 92 years old.

In 1960 I went to study in Yeshivah Torah Vodaas in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. My day consisted of Judaic studies in the mornings, a lunch break, more Judaic studies in the early afternoon, the rest of the afternoon we had secular High School, supper and then more Judaic studies in the evening. My mother had a sister in New York and I didn’t call her upon my arrival. A few days after my arrival I was in night Seder (studies) and suddenly my aunt Blimchu burst into the class room, came over to my seat and pulled me out of class. She was livid.

Aunt Blimchu took me by the hand and began walking through Williamsburg. We arrived on Bedford Avenue to a large brownstone building and entered a large reception area that was filled with about 30 people all waiting for an audience with the Rebbe. Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and having gone to Yeshivah Beth Yehudah in Detroit, I really didn’t know Chassidim. I saw pictures of them but other than a few teachers, I hadn’t had any contact with them. Williamsburg was the seat of many Chassidic sects and I was enthralled by their very presence.

We entered the reception area and my aunt went to the Rebbe’s Shamas (aid) spoke to him briefly and we took our seats. After ten minutes or so, a couple came out of the Rebbe’s library and the Shamas immediately ushered us in. My aunt took me by the arm, we entered into the room and she spoke briefly to the Satmar Rebbe. She told him that I was the eldest son of her younger sister Chaichu, that I was learning in Yeshivah Torah Vodaas and she then asked the Rebbe to give me a blessing. I didn’t understand what she meant but I couldn’t take my eyes off the Rebbe. He was sitting behind his desk, was dressed in a black satin kaftan and wore a wide brimmed black beaver hat. What grabbed my attention was his face, it was aglow and he looked utterly angelic. He asked me how my studies were going, took hold of my hand and then proceeded to give me a Beracha (blessing). He asked God to aid me in my studies and that I should grow-up to be a Talmid Chacham (scholar) and a Yorei Shomayim (one with the fear of God in his heart). I felt like I was in the presence of holiness and left there with a very strong sense of dedication.

The Yeshivah fed us three meals a day, six days a week. For the Shabbat Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch meals we were farmed out to eat within the community. If a boy had family or friends in the area he could have his meals with them provided that they met the religious standards of the Yeshivah. Those of us who didn’t have personal connections to families in Williamsburg were assigned families to eat by. Since I didn’t have anyone close by, I requested that I eat by a Satmar family. Shabbat morning I would walk to the Satmar Shul (synagogue) for my prayers and then go home with my host for the Shabbat lunch meal. One Shabbat while walking to Shul, I passed the Rebbe’s house as he was being escorted to Shul and I began joining this procession every Shabbat.

In the three years in Williamsburg I spent almost every week with Satmar Chassidim and only when I was 19 years old did I find out that they were anti-Zionist, it was not number one on their agenda. Though I had very strong feelings for Israel, they were not politically motivated. The remaining living kin on my mother’s side of the family lived in Israel. My father bought Israeli Bonds, our synagogue celebrated Israel Independence Day every year and I remember that the day before the 1967 Six Day War, when it looked like Israel was about to be destroyed, I saw my father cry for the first time.

When I found out about the Rebbe’s stand against Zionism I decided that I must try to understand his position. Quoting Wikipedia, The core citations from classical Judaic sources cited by [Rabbi] Teitelbaum in his arguments against modern Zionism are based on a passage in the Talmud, Rabbi Yosi b’Rebbi Chanina explains (Ketubot 111a) that the Lord imposed “Three Oaths” on the nation of Israel: a) Israel should not return to the Land together, by force; b) Israel should not rebel against the other nations; and c) The nations should not subjugate Israel too harshly.

According to [Rabbi] Teitelbaum, the second oath is relevant concerning the subsequent wars fought between Israel and Arab nations. He views the Zionist State of Israel as a form of “impatience” and in keeping with the Talmud’s warnings that being impatient for God’s love leads to “grave danger”. Satmar explains that the constant wars in Israel are a fulfillment of ignoring this oath.

[Rabbi] Teitelbaum saw his opposition to Zionism as a way of protecting Jewish lives and preventing bloodshed.” 

Let me explain. Our Torah states that when the Israelites left Egypt, God took them on a roundabout route through the Sinai desert rather than the direct route by following the coastline directly to Canaan. “And it came to pass at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even on that very day it came to pass, that all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt (Exodus 12:41). “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest perhaps the people regret when they see war, and they return to Egypt (Exodus  13:17).”

Our Midrash explains that 30 years before the exodus, members of the tribe of Ephraim calculated that the 400 years that was prophesized to Abraham had ended and the exodus must begin. They escaped from Egypt and proceeded to Canaan where they were slaughtered, their bodies were never buried and their bones remained visible as a warning for all to see. This place was called the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-4) and the death of the tribe of Ephraim was caused because they tried to preempt the actual exodus with their false belief that the exile had ended.

Whether you accept the Satmar Rebbe’s belief that attempting to settle the Land of Israel on mass, before the actual redemption begins, is not irrelevant. His motivation was because of his love for the Jewish people and his belief that tens of thousands of Jews will die unnecessarily if they too attempt to preempt the redemption.

In my many years as a congregational Rabbi and as a Jewish Chaplain in the New York Department of Corrections, I have seen that Satmar Chassidim (also ChaBaD) devote much time, effort and funds to aid Jewish prisoners, provide for Jewish orphans around the world and alleviate the suffering of Jews wherever they may be. They do not promote their work to the public, look for no recognition by the organized Jewish establishment and try to help Jews by reaching out and helping where they can. Their position against Zionism is most familiar to us, but their efforts in other areas far outweigh that position. It should be noted that there are many ultra-orthodox, anti-Zionist sects and often because most Jews cannot distinguish between one sect and another, they are all lumped together and identified as “Satmars.”

I do see myself as a Zionist, I lived in Israel for 13 years and served in the Israeli Armed Forces, but I understand the Rebbe’s motivation, it was and remains an act of love, not an act of hate. He was a saint of a man and made the world a better place.

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