Satmar From As Seen By An Insider: A Review of the New English Biography of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe
by Ezra Brand
I recently bought the new biography of the Satmar Rebbe, called “The Rebbe. The Extraordinary Life & Worldview of Rabbeinu Yoel Teitelbaum. The Satmar Rebbe זי"ע”, by Rabbi Dovid Meisels (Canada 2011, distributed by Israel Book Shop). Rabbi Meisels is related to Rabbi Teitelbaum, and a staunch Satmar chossid, so you can be sure that the views espoused in the book are Satmar’s true opinions. I also recently bought Solomon Poll’s classic study if chassidim in Williamsburg in the 1950’s, during which Rabbi Meisel’s book is also mostly set. It was interesting comparing the two very different views--that of a Satmar chossid looking back at those times, and that of a contemporary secular scholar like Poll. (See also an interesting review, and comments on it, here.)
The book discusses many opinions of the Rebbe. Besides for his famous anti-Zionist opinion, the book discusses such sundry topics as the required height of the mechitza in shul, metzitza b’peh, television, derech halimud, mikvaos,tznius (married women wearing sheitels, married women shaving their hair, women required to wear thick stockings—at least 90 denier), and the times for beginning and end of shabbos. It is somewhat surprising that the book doesn’t mention the Rebbe’s famous opinion that a boy and a girl shouldn’t meet more than two or three times before getting engaged. On pg. 364 the book does mention the Rebbe’s opposition to “the chosson spend[ing] time with the kallah before and after the engagement,” but no mention is made of how many times the Rebbe held the boy and girl should meet. There is a famous story told, that Reb Moshe Bick, a prominent chassidishe posek in the Bronx, decided that boys and girls should meet at least ten times before getting married. He felt that America was different than Europe, and too many divorces were happening because of improper matches. The Rebbe was strongly opposed to this. Reb Moshe Bick explained that the difference of opinion stemmed from the fact that he was a mesader gittin, while the Rebbe was a mesader kiddushin!
Almost no sources other than Satmar publications are listed as sources. These Satmar sources are listed at the end of the book in the “Bibliography;” there are about thirty or so. The only non-Satmar sources I found were “A Concise History of Agudath Israel” (pg. 97), “Uvdos Vehanhagos Leveis Brisk” (pg. 137) (basically Satmar!), “Hamodia” (pg. 220), and “Rav Shach Speaks” (pg. 528). However, it is a breath of fresh air to see at least some sources listed; most heimishe publication until now have opted to leave them out.
The book is notable in that it is very politically incorrect. It doesn’t beat around the bush when it confronts Reb Yoel’s opinion on Zionism. Reb Yoel was famously extremely anti-Zionist—as are both camps of Satmar today—and Rabbi Meisels emotively explains the basis of his opinion. Of course, there are a lot of polemics, such as the story on page 313, where Rabbi Meisels writes:
Indeed, one measure of the impact of Vayoel Moshe is that whatever books the Zionists have since published purporting to refute it (notably Hatekufah Hagedolah and Nefesh Adah) have not been taken seriously in the general Torah world. To this day, no serious mainstream work has been written to refute Vayoel Moshe. Even those rabbis who continue to advocate voting in the Zionist elections use the terms “eis laasos” and “aveirah lishmah,” indicating that at least in theory they agree with the central concepts of Vayoel Moshe.
Notice that the all-inclusive term “Zionists” is used, without even using the word “rabbis,” even though the authors of the “Zionist books” cited were undoubtedly great Talmidei Chachomim. This pattern of not giving those who hold of Zionism any titles of respect holds true throughout the book. For example, on page 294, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the founder of Mossad Harav Kook, is referred to as “Yehuda Leib Maimon.” It is therefore somewhat surprising that on page 317, the Minister of Religious Affairs is referred to as “Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Toledano.” Maybe only Sefardim are allowed to be Zionists!
On pg. 178, the book says about the Satmar newspaper, Der Yid: “The policy of Der Yid was that whenever the State of Israel (Medinas Yisroel) was mentioned, the word “Yisroel” was placed in quotation marks to show that Torah Jewry, the true Israel, did not recognize the Zionists’ right to use their name.” (Notice “Torah Jewry,” not just Satmar.) This is followed by Rabbi Meisels himself, such as on pg. 249 (“…State of “Israel.” “). Usually, just the term “Zionist state” is used (e.g., on pg. 247). It is surprising that on pg. 523 the book mention “[t]he Israeli authorities.” I am sure this oversight will be corrected in future editions.
Throughout the book, the author hints to the Satmar opinion that kiruv rechokim is problematic. On page 13 he writes: “One of the secrets of the Rebbe’s success is that he never tried to perfect all of American Jewry and bring it into his fold. Instead, he worked hard to keep himself and his own community, which was mostly made up of post-War immigrants, unscathed.” Satmar is famous for disagreeing with Lubavitch on this point, however this disagreement is never stated explicitly. Rather, the author says that this is why Rabbonim before the War were not successful in planting Yiddishkeit in America (page 150): “A certain writer wrote that he heard from the Rebbe in 1955, ‘Why was I more successful in planting Torah in America than all the other gedolim who tried? Because they took in too much, they wanted to make the whole America good. In order to reach people, they had to make compromises. But I realized that Yiddishkeit can only grow if you plant perfect seeds. It doesn’t grow from compromises.” This completely ignores the fact that the Satmar Rebbe was working with people who had relatively recently been forcibly plucked from their homes in Hungary, straight into Williamsburg. On the other hand, earlier Rabbonim were dealing with people who had willingly left their very religious hometowns in Eastern Europe to go to America, a much more secular country. In addition, some of the American Jews had been in America for decades, and had gotten used to the freedom of acting how they pleased, without operating within the very strict confines of the Chassidic community. On pg. 515, the book discusses the Rebbe’s opposition to Lubavitcher chassidim putting tefillin on secular Israeli soldiers, based on halachic problems. Impressively, the book quotes the Lubavitchers answer back, albeit with a rejoinder.
For some reason, the Rebbe did not like the chassidim in Borough Park. This is despite the fact that there were also Satmar chassidim in Borough Park. On pg. 400 and pg. 429 derogatory remarks said about Borough Park by the Rebbe are recounted.
Very harsh words are quoted from the Rebbe about the Lithuanian derech halimud. On pg. 457, he is quoted to have said, in response to why bochurim in Litvish yeshivas “undeniably” learn with more enthusiasm and hasmadah than the Satmar bochurim: “…Here too, there is no truth in the ‘belly logic’ (boich svaros) used in these yeshivas. It’s all their own made up ideas, and it’s fun for them to think about ideas that they themselves made up.” And again: “Their style is not more than three generations old. They created it in order to save the younger generation from the Haskalah. It’s a totally new derech. We see that not one halachic authority came out from them. There is one of them who paskens shailos, and he wreaks terrible destruction. It’s a totally new derech, and it’s not Toras Emes.” The Rebbe isn’t exactly the open-minded or “eilu ve’eilu divrei elokim chaim” type. I’m curious to know which specific posek he was referring to that he feels “wreaks terrible destruction.” It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, because he is the only Lithuanian who paskens! I’m assuming he meant Reb Moshe Feinstein, with whom the Rebbe had many halachic/ ideological disputes.
An interesting story is told on pg. 474. One of the founding parents of “Bais Ruchel”-- the Satmar girls’ school—came to the Rebbe with a complaint. “He [had] discovered that the teacher had instructed the girls to write the Hebrew words “Ani ohev es habeged (I love the garment) as writing practice.” Now, you might think the parent had a complaint that the sentence is grammatically incorrect. A girl writing this sentence should write “ani oheves es habeged.” Or, he complained that his daughter shouldn’t be taught to love her clothing, but rather Hashem. But no. His complaint is: “The Rebbe founded a girls’ school to raise a new generation of girls like our mothers and grandmothers in Europe. Now I see that my daughter brought home a notebook in which she wrote ‘Ani ohev es habeged.’ The Rebbetzin argues that the girls can’t be so ignorant; they are allowed to understand what they are saying when they daven. I had a grandmother who passed away at 103, and she knew the entire Tehillim and Maamados by heart. But she didn’t understand what she was saying. That’s how our children should grow up as well.” The Rebbe said to his rebbetzin: “ ‘He’s right!’ “ In other words, this man’s grandmother had lived to such a ripe old age because she didn’t know the words she was saying! Rather, they should be some magical formula not to be understood.
The book discusses at relative length the process of founding “Kiryas Yoel.” On pg. 528, we read that “[a] Yekke from Washington Heights, who agreed with the Rebbe’s views on many issues, wanted to move to the new town. The Rebbe invited him, ‘Bring another nine Ashkenazim with you, and you can start your own minyan in Kiryas Yoel.” I wonder who this “Yekke” was., and how long he would have lasted among the thousands of chassidim in Kiryas Yoel!
On pg. 45, R’ Meisels bring the famous myth that the town “Satmar” in Hungary is named after St. Mary. He writes: “The Rebbe never pronounced the name Satmar, since it is the name of avodah zarah. Instead he would say ‘Sakmar.’ This pronunciation was also customary in Tzanz.” Throughout the book, when the Rebbe himself mentions the name “Satmar,” “Sakmar” is used instead. In truth, “Satmar” is a combination of the Latin word “Sattu,” meaning village, and the Romanian word “Mare,” meaning large. (See the beginning of the Wikipedia article on Satmar here.)
Something that I felt was lacking was any sign of Yiddish whatsoever. The Satmar Rebbe was known as a smart person, and the book brings a nice amount of stories that contain the Rebbe’s witticisms. I enjoy seeing the actual expression used, and since the Rebbe only spoke Yiddish, as the book says on pg. 26, the Rebbe obviously said whatever he said in Yiddish. Most such biographies quote the exact expression, and then translate. Possibly, Rabbi Meisels didn’t use any English lehavdil bein kodesh lechol. I’ll explain. On pg. 13, R’ Meisels writes that he really shouldn’t be writing the book in English, since the Rebbe was against the use of English “as a medium of speaking and reading within the Jewish community.” But since there were many outside of Satmar who were interested in the life of the Rebbe, the decision was reached to write a book in English. On pg. 488, R’ Meisels writes with pride that in the Satmar summer camps, for two months the campers “did not even hear a single English word.” I guess once the decision was reached not to use Yiddish, Yiddish could never be used!
Some surprising stories are told about talmidei chachamim, which seem to be against halacha:
1) On pg. 144, R’ Meisels talks about how after the Rebbe came to America from Israel in 1946, R’ Michoel Ber Weissmandel (Rosh Yeshiva of Nitra Yeshiva in Mount Kisco) wanted to make sure he wouldn’t return to Israel. He therefore took the Rebbe’s passport and ripped it up. What is the heter to destroy someone else’s passport just because you think he shouldn’t continue travelling?
2) The book speaks about how the Rebbe was “very particular not to use tainted or impure money” (pg. 187). It goes on to write that “[m]any times, they also witnessed him taking undesirable money and flushing it down the toilet.” Similarly, on pg. 190-191, it is told that after accepting a ten-dollar bill from “a man who was not properly observant,” the Rebbe “took that ten-dollar bill, rolled it up and began to use it to scratch his ears. Soon he tore off a piece, and continued to scratch his ears with the remainder. He tore off another piece, until the entire bill was gone.” First of all, didn’t all those people who gave the money give it to support charitable causes? Didn’t they want the zchus of their money being put to good use? If the Rebbe was planning on destroying the money, he should not have accepted the money in the first place. In addition, according to American law, it is illegal to destroy money. What happened to dina d’malchusa dina? However, it is possible that the Rebbe wasn’t aware that this was illegal.
3) On pg. 193-194, the book tells how the a man gave money to the Rebbe to pay his debts: “…As soon as the old man heard this, he brought the Rebbe 20,000 crowns. ‘Now you can go and pay your debts.’ “ Soon after, the Rebbe gave the money to a poor girl for her dowry. When the person who gave money to the Rebbe found out, he protested: “ ‘But I gave you the money only on condition that you would use it to pay your debts, not for tzedaka!’ the old chassid protested. The Rebbe replied: ‘The yetzer hara has already been arguing with me for quite some time, trying to convince me to stop giving tzedaka. And now you are arguing with me as well. Don’t worry, I will soon give you back your money.’ “ Here ends the story. The problem is, the halacha clearly states that if a person gives tzedaka with intentions that the money should be used for a specific purpose, the money cannot be used for any other purpose. See Rama; Yoreh De’ah 256:4; Shach ibid. s”k 10; Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 125:1; ibid. se’if 5; ibid. se’if 6; ibid. se’if 7; Shach ibid. s”k 25. However, it is possible that the Rebbe thought that the donor wouldn’t mind. But if so, the book should speak that out.
On pg. 268, the book describes the tricks Neturei Karta used to make sure they would win control of the Eidah Hachareidis: “Shortly before the election, the Neturei Karta divided their candidates into two parties, Neturei Karta, under Reb Amram, and Mesores Vene’emanus, under Rabbi Eliyahu Nachum Porush. In the second party they placed candidates who were not so well-known. The goal was that some voters who did not support Neturei Karta would vote for this party and thus take away votes from Agudah.” This kind of book obviously doesn’t bring any stories about its allies which they feel were done wrongly. It is therefore surprising that the book describes these devious schemes were used to rig the election.
All in all, the book tells many interesting stories about the Satmar Rebbe. It also provides a good overview of the growth of Satmar in America from after the War until the 1970’s. However, some of the stories and views are a little extreme for the litvishe palette, and the book is very polemical in nature. However, this biography will be treasured for giving over a truly unique viewpoint of a gadol, a biography so different than other “heimeshe”, biographies.