Monday, April 17, 2006

The rebbe and the chancellor

JEWISH RELIGIOUS MODERATION IS OUT OF FASHION


The theological distance between 3080 Broadway, the Manhattan headquarters of Conservative Judaism’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and 500 Bedford Avenue, home of the Satmar hassidic dynasty across the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is best measured not in miles but in light-years.

It was always a stretch to find any common denominator between the foremost insular ultra-Orthodox hassidic sect with its vilification of political Zionism, rejection of modernity and theological rigidity, and the stream of Judaism that was first to embrace the Zionist idea, foremost in pursuing a golden mean between religious practice and secular ideals, and which preached that Halacha need not calcify into irrelevance but could evolve to meet contemporary needs.

Both groups, however, are in the throes of leadership changes that reflect polarization and radicalism as the dominant trend in Jewish religious practice. “Mainstream” Judaism, it appears, is becoming passé.

Satmar, self-obsessively, has long thrived on religious and political intemperance. Now it is to be mirrored, or so it seems – at the opposite extreme – by Conservative Judaism, which is on the brink of rejecting Judaism’s admittedly unprofitable middle road for a theological radicalism that would make it nearly indistinguishable from Reform Judaism.

FIRST THE Satmars. Their transition crisis results from the grave illness of Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, 91, who has led the dynasty since 1980. He hovers, unconscious, near death in Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital. His dynasty, which originated in the Transylvanian Mountains of Hungary during the late 1700s, looks set to break apart.

The ailing rebbe is the nephew of the fiery, charismatic grand rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. In the late 1940s, following Hitler’s war against the Jews, rebbe Joel brought the sect’s survivors to the New World and settled in Williamsburg.

As a little boy, I met Rebbe Joel when my father – a hassid, but not a Satmar – took me to him for a blessing. We were ushered into the rebbe’s study; he spoke briefly to my father, offered us his blessings, and gave me a ritual wine cup as a keepsake. It is the one I use to this day.

(In the hassidic haredi world the rebbe serves as a spiritual conduit to God. A hassid makes no milestone decisions, in either business or private life, without the rebbe’s blessing. For a hassid the rebbe’s mystical powers trump mere talmudic prowess.)

With no natural successor – rebbe Joel, who died in 1979, and his rebbetzin, Feige, were childless – their nephew, Moshe, was anointed the sect’s leader in 1980. The transition was not a smooth one; the community was bitterly divided between supporters of rebbe Joel’s widow (who had her own candidate) and those of her nephew.

Eventually, Moshe’s leadership was solidified and the sect continued to thrive. It now numbers perhaps 100,000 souls, some 20,000 families.


EVEN BEFORE he took sick seven years ago, two of Moshe’s four sons – Aaron, 57, the eldest, and Zalman Leib, 53, the youngest – had contested for their father’s mantle. Aaron was named (by his father) chief rabbi of Kiryas Joel, north of New York City, while Zalman Leib was brought back from Jerusalem to became the chief rabbi in Williamsburg.

As the April 7 New York Jewish Week phrased it, “the sons have waged an unstinting, contentious battle for control of the Satmar Empire during their father’s long decline.” At stake is a communal estate estimated at $500 million, including 26 properties throughout New York State, plus the political clout and religious direction of the movement.

That struggle has forced the factions to turn to the New York State courts, which appear reluctant to intercede. Rabbinical courts controlled by the respective sons have issued halachic rulings in their own favor. And when push comes to shove – as it did one recent Simhat Torah – the NYPD had to be called to physically separate the warring factions.

Chris McKenna of the Times Herald-Record, which serves the Hudson Valley and Catskills, described the scene outside the hospital where the dying Moshe lies: “As Zalman Teitelbaum, chief rabbi of the main Satmar congregation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was about to be driven away in a black SUV, his older brother, Aaron, leader of the dominant Satmar congregation in Kiryas Joel, arrived in front of him on Fifth Avenue in a black Cadillac and swept into the hospital with his entourage. No words were exchanged.”

Observers predict the Satmars, with their two religious courts, will fragment into separate factions with Aaron controlling upstate and Zalman downstate; but only after a bitter dispute over a division of the communal assets. Neither will lead the sect toward a more centrist Judaism. Each seems intent on putting his own narrow interests above the good of the kehilla, forget the larger Jewish world.


ACROSS THE East River in upper Manhattan, a new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary was announced last week. There were no traumatic deathbed scenes, no charismatic rabbis vying for supremacy, no NYPD breaking up unruly factions. Everything was done with the decorous understatement one would expect from a moribund movement. The previous chancellor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, simply retired. His successor is Prof. Arnold M. Eisen, 54, chairman of Stanford University’s Religious Studies Department.

The seminary does not formally control the movement; but, as its flagship institution – whither JTS goes, so goes Conservative Judaism.

Eisen, and those who backed his appointment, clearly want to take the Conservatives to the theological Left. Schorsch had opposed the ordination of gay rabbis and the authorizing of Conservative rabbis to perform same-sex marriages. Eisen, in contrast, seems intent on championing the cause of gay and lesbian ordination.

Whether Conservatives will also sanction homosexual marriage may be decided in December by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

It’s worth recalling that Conservative Judaism broke away from the Reform movement – not Orthodoxy – in the late 1880s in order to “conserve” traditional values and as a reaction to Reform radicalism. Some say the catalyst was Reform’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which abandoned Jewish dietary laws and the idea of Jewish peoplehood.

But now the Conservatives – once the largest non-Orthodox stream – are shrinking. Reinvigorating middle-of-the-road traditional Judaism seems beyond its leadership’s abilities. With Orthodoxy moving theologically ever more rightward and Reform moving ever more to the left, Conservatives have failed to make an appealing case for a centrist alternative.

Once the movement joins the more liberal branches in (what amounts to) dispensing with Halacha, the trend toward religious fragmentation will accelerate further.


ALMOST paradoxically, then, the new leaders of both the Satmars and the Conservatives share a commitment to parochial interest over what is best for Jewish civilization as a whole, thus devaluing the idea of striving for a religious consensus.

Each faction professes to know God’s will. Indeed, as this momentum spirals one can foresee a Judaism that is ever more heterogeneous, losing its philosophical, civilizational and theological core.

It is already happening. What do Chabad and other millennial sects have in common with Satmar? What does ultra-liberal Judaism – which increasingly is to Jewish observance what homeopathy is to traditional medicine – have in common with Orthodoxy? Left unchecked, this scenario of religious disintegration will result in a Jewish people with no sense of a common past and no aspiration toward a shared future.

Such worries seem irrelevant to the protagonists on both sides of the East River. But to this Jew, who long ago left the insular haredi world into which he was born for what he hoped was a more centrist Judaism, the trend is tragic.

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