Even readers of the New York Times are now familiar with the battles going on amongst Satmarer Hasidim (actually the biggest and most powerful of all Hasidic movements) over the succession. It is about money and power, of course. Hasidic dynasties are hereditary aristocracies (no meritocracy here, heaven forefend), and they are now very wealthy ones, too.
A similar battle for succession is going on Viznitz. Ynetnews reports:
The conflict among the two opposing camps in the Viznits Hasidic community in Bnei Brak doesn’t include stealing money or ideological arguments; instead, the Hasidic way of quarrelling entails “swiping” shtreimels and bartering their return. . .In each fight, the Viznits Hassids try to snatch as many shtreimels off their opponents’ heads, so as to have as many bargaining chips as possible ahead of the next barter. . .
. . .When Hasidic leader Rabbi Moshe Hagar fell ill, a war was ignited between his sons – the elder Yisrael and the younger Menachem Mendel – over who will succeed him. . .
. . .Attorney Moshe Meroz, approached by Mendelists immediately sent a letter to the Tel Aviv Police, asking them to handle the pogroms [sic–No doubt they’ll call them Nazis next] issued by the Yisraelists against the Mendelists. . .The police claim they are doing their best. . .
I find it so sad that supposedly religious organizations, ostensibly devoted to spirituality, Torah, and good deeds, should descend to this sort of street fighting over succession. Is this Torah? Is this Judaism? Is this what God wants of humanity? Never mind that in every religion there are turf wars and rivalries, and that monks fight monks. I do not want it in mine! There is something rotten in the state of Torah.
In my Yeshiva days in Jerusalem the excuse was that the stone throwers were kids out on a Shabbat afternoon while their parents slept. Then it was young hot bloods in vacation time with nothing better to do. But as religious violence increased other excuses appeared. We were so traumatized by the holocaust that we told ourselves we must rebuild the wells of Torah at all costs, pour money and manpower into survival, use every means at our disposal to avenge the millions who died. The only “good” was to survive and recreate Eastern European ghettos in the Free World.
In the pursuit of such noble a cause, kanaut (zealotry) was not only excusable, but necessary. I agree that you save a drowning man any way you can. But once you have saved him, you have to give him good medical care to ensure he recovers and lives a constructive life. In this case, we have overindulged and gone on pouring artificial sweeteners, chemicals, and drugs into what is now in danger of becoming a Frankenstein.
I used to have inordinate respect for Viznitz. As a teenager, I went to Benei Brak and stood in awe at the passionate spirituality, powerful and moving singing, and intellectually stimulating drashot I experienced in modest surroundings in 1956. I was profoundly impressed. It was this that convinced me that colder, watered down, western versions of Judaism were not the future. The Rebbe, Reb Chaim Meirel Z”L, was a wise, enlightened, charismatic leader who recognized the realities of Israel and indeed encouraged young Hasidim not suited to long-term study to join the army in special units.
It was nearly thirty years later that I married into a Viznitz family and reengaged. By then Reb Chaim Meirel Z”L had been succeeded by his elder son, Reb Moishe Yehoshua. His younger brother, Mordechai, thought that he ought to be the rebbe. He had studied in Satmar Yeshivot in New York and decamped to Monsey where he set himself up as a Viznitz Satmar clone, anti-state, excessively rigid, and uncompromising.
Poor Moishele felt himself pulled to the right. When I met him, he confessed that on certain issues he gave in to pressure from his Hassidim–never a healthy sign. His wife, Leah, was a very impressive woman. I really admired her and took my elder daughter to meet her. Sadly, she died and what strength and insight there was disappeared with her.
I am not going to go into the merits of the succession. But where such battles turn into fisticuffs over shtreimels in the streets of Benei Brak, that involve litigation and police intervention, it is clear to me that Torah Judaism is in deep trouble. I hear of too much violence all over the religious world, so one cannot pin it on Israeli militarism! I suspect that the hothouse force-feeding is producing a reaction in some (thank goodness, not all). I also suspect the pressure of social and mental conformity, the way anyone who disagrees or steps out of line is so rubbished and excoriated in verbally violent terms by religious inner circles, also contributes. This is a warning and we who care about Charedi Judaism had better take notice.
For, as long as so many of us are so superstitious as to fear getting on the wrong side of any man in a shtreimel and long beard, so long as we collude in this travesty of spirituality, then Torah hides her face in shame and so should we. We owe a lot to Hasidism, its devotion to a religious way of life and to Torah study, which I regard as so essential to the spiritual health of the universe. But if we do not condemn this travesty of religion then we will be leaving a distorted rump of Judaism like the Sadducees, the Dead Sea sects, and the Karaites. Pious and strong in their time, verging on becoming the deciding voice of Judaism at moments in history, they all eventually lost their moral authority and disappeared.
I am not a prophet, but I say this will happen here, too, if all Hasidim can do is fight over fur hats, burn stores that sell mp3s, and behave as if Might Makes Right.