Satmar (Hebrew: סאטמאר or סאטמר) is a Hasidic group originating from the city of Szatmárnémeti, Hungary (now Satu Mare, Romania), where it was founded in 1905 by Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. Following World War II, it was re-established in New York, becoming one of the largest Hasidic movements in the world. After Rav Joel's death, he was succeeded by his nephew, Moshe Teitelbaum. Since the latter's death in 2006, the dynasty is split between his two sons, Aaron Teitelbaum and Zalman Teitelbaum.
Satmar is one of the largest Hasidic dynasties in the world: The estimated number of affiliated men, women, and children ranges between 65,000 and 75,000. It is characterized by strict religious adherence, rejection of modern culture, and anti-Zionism. Satmar sponsors a comprehensive education and media system in Yiddish, and its members use Yiddish as a primary language. The sect also heads the Central Rabbinical Congress.
When Chananya Yom Tov Lipa Teitelbaum, the Grand Rebbe of the Sighet Hasidic dynasty, died in 1904, he was succeeded by his oldest son, Chaim Tzvi Teitelbaum. A small fraction of his Hasidim regarded his second son, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, as the appropriate heir. Rabbi Joel left Sziget, and on 8 September 1905, he settled in Szatmárnémeti (in Yiddish: Satmar), where he began to attract a small following in addition to his few old supporters. Hungarian journalist Dezső Schön, who researched the Teitelbaum rabbis in the 1930s, wrote that Rabbi Joel started referring to himself as the "Rebbe of Satmar" at that time.
Rabbi Joel's power base grew with the years. In 1911, he received his first rabbinical post as chief rabbi of Ilosva. In 1921, the northeastern regions of Hungary, which were densely populated with Orthodox Jews, were ceded to Czechoslovakia and Romania under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon. Many Sziget Hasidim, unable to regularly visit Rabbi Chaim Tzvi's court, turned to Rabbi Joel instead. In 1925, Rabbi Joel was appointed chief Orthodox rabbi of Nagykároly. On 21 January 1926, Rabbi Chaim Tzvi died unexpectedly, leaving his twelve-year-old son Yekusiel Yehuda Teitelbaum (II) to succeed him. His mother emphasized Rabbi Joel as successor, his grandson being too young for the position, but Rabbi Chaim Tzvi's followers would have accepted Rabbi Joel (who was highly regarded, but barely liked there) as their leader, but only as a "guardian", and only until Yekusiel became old enough. This way, Rabbi Joel became the dynasty's head in all but name, which was unacceptable for him and his mother, and they left Sziget again. In 1928, Rabbi Joel was elected as chief Orthodox rabbi of Szatmárnémeti itself. The appointment resulted in bitter strife within the Jewish community, and he only accepted the post in 1934.:320
Rabbi Teitelbaum rose to become a prominent figure in ultra-Orthodox circles, leading an uncompromisingly conservative line against modernization. Among other issues, he was a fierce opponent of Zionism and Agudat Yisrael.
World War II
On 19 March 1944, the German Army occupied Hungary. The Jewish population, which was spared wholesale destruction prior to that time, was concentrated in the Satu Mare ghetto, and deportations to the concentration camps ensued. Joel sought to reassure the frightened people who for the most part weren't able to leave the country, saying that by the merit of their religiosity, they would be saved. However, when the Germans invaded, he was saved by his devoted followers, who paid a huge ransom to have him included in the passenger list of the Kastner train. Rabbi Joel reached Switzerland on the night of 7–8 December 1944, and soon immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine. Many of Rabbi Joel's followers who were left behind were killed by the Nazis.
Rabbi Joel settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a small group of followers, and set out to re-establish his sect, which was destroyed in the Holocaust. His arrival in America allowed him to fully implement his views: The separation of religion and state enabled the Satmars, as well as numerous other Jewish sects, to establish independent communities, unlike the state-regulated structures in Central Europe.:30 In April 1948, his adherents founded "Congregation Yetev Lev", which was registered as a religious corporation.:47 Teitelbaum appointed Leopold Friedman (1904-1972), a former bank director, as the congregation's president, while he was declared supreme spiritual authority. After his death, Friedman was replaced by Leopold Lefkowitz (1920–1998). The Grand Rebbe's policy was to maintain complete independence by refusing to affiliate with, or receive financial aid from, any other Jewish group; his Hasidim established a network of businesses that provided an economic base for the community's own social institutions.:32–34
The Satmar group grew rapidly, attracting many new followers. A 1961 survey established that its Williamsburg community included 4,500 people. From the 860 household heads, about 40 percent were neither Satmar nor Sighet Hasidim in the pre-war years.:47, 262 In 1968, Satmar was New York's largest Hasidic group, with 1,300 households in the city. In addition, there were many Satmars in other parts of the United States, and worldwide. As part of his vision of complete isolation from the outside world, Joel encouraged his followers, many of whom were immigrants from former Greater Hungary who spoke primarily German or Hungarian, to use only Yiddish. The sect had its own Yiddish-oriented education system and several publishing houses which provided extensive reading material. His work in this matter made him, according to Bruce Mitchell, the "most influential figure" in the maintenance of the language in the post-war period. The uniformity of Satmar in America made it easier to teach young people the language, unlike in Europe: George Kranzler noted already in 1961 that the children speak Yiddish much better than their parents.
On 23 February 1968, Rabbi Joel suffered a stroke, which left him barely functioning. His second wife, Alte Feiga, administered the sect for the remainder of Joel's life with the assistance of several Satmar functionaries.:85
In 1974, the sect began constructing the housing project Kiryas Joel in Monroe, New York for its members. It was accorded an independent municipal status in 1977.:207 On 19 August 1979, the Grand Rebbe died of a heart attack.
Rabbi Joel was not survived by any children - all three of his daughters died in his lifetime. After prolonged vacillations by the community board, his nephew Moshe Teitelbaum, Chaim Tzvi's second son, was appointed as successor, in spite of Feiga's severe objections. Moshe was proclaimed Rebbe on 8 August 1980, the first anniversary of his uncle's death by the Hebrew calendar.:126–128 The great majority of Hasidim accepted the new leader, though a small faction called Bnei Yoel, which was unofficially led by Feiga, opposed him. The tense relations between both led to several violent incidents in the 1980s.:229 The new Rebbe appointed his oldest son, Aaron Teitelbaum, to chief rabbi of Kiryas Joel in 1984. Both incurred opposition from elements within the sect. They were blamed for exercising a centralized leadership style and for lack of sufficient zealotry.:209–211
In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in the case of Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, that a school district whose boundaries had been drawn to include only Satmar children violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Until the late 1990s, Moshe's heir apparent was his oldest son, Aaron Teitelbaum. In 1999, his third son, Zalman Teitelbaum, was recalled from his post as Satmar chief rabbi in Jerusalem, and received the parallel post in the sect's largest enclave, Williamsburg. He was later proclaimed successor, and a struggle between both brothers ensued. Aaron resided in Kiryas Joel, New York, where he was considered as the local authority, while Zalman held sway in Williamsburg.
Following Moshe's death in 2006, both groups of followers announced their candidate was named successor in his will and declared them Rebbes. Zalman and Aaron were engaged in prolonged judicial disputes as to who should control the Congregations assets in Brooklyn. The sect has effectively split into two independent ones.
At the time of Reb Moshe Teitelbaum's death, sources within the sect estimated it had 119,000 members worldwide, making it the world's largest Hasidic group. A similar figure of 120,000 was cited by sociologist Samuel Heilman. However, anthropologist Jacques Gutwirth estimated in 2004 that Satmar numbered about 50,000. As of 2006, the dynasty controlled assets worth $1 billion in the United States.
The two largest Satmar communities are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Kiryas Joel, New York. There are also significant Satmar communities in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Monsey and Bloomingburg, New York. Smaller communities can be found in other North American cities such as Los Angeles, Lakewood, New Jersey, and Montreal; in some European cities such as Antwerp, London, and Manchester; and in Argentina, Australia, and Israel.
In addition to the Grand Rabbis two main congregations, Chaim Yehoshua Halberstam, chief rabbi of the Satmar community in Monsey, New York, became its local leader. Unlike the two brothers, Halberstam does not lay claim to the entire sect, though he conducts himself in the manner of a Hasidic Rebbe, accepting Kvitel and holding tish. Another son, Reb Lipa Teitelbaum, established his own congregation and calls himself Zenter Rabbi, after the town Senta, Serbia, where his father served as Rabbi before World War II.
Both the demeanor and principles of Satmar reflect Joel Teitelbaum's adherence to the Hungarian Ultra-Orthodox school of thought (not to be confused with 'Ultra-Orthodox Judaism'). This stream was founded by Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein and his son-in-law Akiva Yosef Schlesinger in the 1860s, on the eve of the Schism in Hungarian Jewry. Faced with rapid acculturation and a decline in religious observance, Lichtenstein preached utter rejection of modernity, widely applying the words of his teacher, Moses Sofer: "All New is Forbidden by the Torah." Schlesinger accorded Yiddish and traditional Jewish garb a religious status, idealizing them as a means of separation from the outside world.
To reinforce his opposition to secular studies and use of vernacular, Akiva turned outside of Jewish Law and based his rulings on the non-legalistic Aggadah. The Ultra-Orthodox believed the main threat were not the liberal Neologs, who advocated religious reform, but the moderate traditionalists; they directed their attacks chiefly against the modern Orthodox Azriel Hildesheimer. Their power base lay among the Unterlander Jews of northeastern Hungary—roughly present-day eastern Slovakia, Zakarpattia Oblast and Northern Transylvania—where progress made little headway, and the local Galician-descended Jews were poor, unacculturated and strongly influenced by Hasidism. Sighet, as well as most other Hungarian Hasidic dynasties, originated from these regions.
Lichtenstein's successors were no less rigid: The leading ultra-Orthodox authority in the Interwar period, Chaim Elazar Spira of Mukačevo, regarded the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel as a demonic force, as much as both religious and secular Zionism. He demanded complete political passivity, stating that any action to the contrary was akin to disbelief in divine providence. While the Aguda opposed Zionism for seeing it as anti-religious, Spira viewed their plan for establishing an independent state before the arrival of the Messiah a "forcing of the end", trying to bring Redemption before God prescribed it. In addition, he was an avowed anti-modernist: he sharply denounced Avraham Mordechai Alter, Rebbe of Ger, for introducing secular studies and allowing girls to attend school, and criticized modern medicine, believing the treatments recorded in the Gemara to be superior. Though personal relations between Spira and Joel Teitelbaum were tense, his ideological stance had a strong influence over the younger rabbi. Aviezer Ravitzky believed it remained unacknowledged in the latter's writings due to the personal animosity between both.
Already firmly anti-Agudist and anti-Zionist in the Interwar period, Teitelbaum had to contend with the issues which baffled world Jewry in the aftermath of World War II: the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. In 1959, he laid down his theological response in the book And Moses Was Content (Hebrew: "Va-Yo'el Moshe"; the title is from Exodus 2:21). The book contained three segments; the first was devoted to Teitelbaum's interpretation of an Aggadatic text from tractate Ketubot in the Talmud, the Midrash of the Three Oaths. It discusses the meaning of a phrase quoted thrice in the Song of Solomon (2:7, 3:5, 8:4): "I charge you... that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, until he please." The passage explains it as a reference to three oaths forced by God; two on the Children of Israel—that they "shall not go up" (migrate en masse) to their land before redemption, and neither rebel against the gentile nations among which they are exiled—and the third upon all nations, "that they shall not oppress Israel too much".
Teitelbaum argued that the first two are binding and eternal, and that their intent was to keep the people in divinely decreed exile until they would all fully repent their sins and earn a solely miraculous salvation, without human interference. He sought to demonstrate that Rabbinic sages of the past were all aware of this nature of the Oaths, and even those who did not mention it, like Maimonides, did so because it was self-evident. His thesis was also meant to refute contrary pro-Zionist religious arguments: that its Aggadatic source made it non-binding, or that the Oaths were no longer valid, especially after the Gentiles "oppressed Israel too much" in the Holocaust. Based on this, Teitelbaum stated Zionism was a severe heresy and a rebellion against God, and that its pursuit brought about the Holocaust as a divine punishment; the continued existence of Israel was a major sin in itself, and would unavoidably lead to further retribution, as well as to the delaying of redemption. And Moses Was Content crystallized the Rabbi's uncompromisingly hostile stance toward the state. The Oaths were not utilized as a central argument beforehand, and his analysis of them is Teitelbaum's most notable contribution to Rabbinic literature. The link between Zionism and the Holocaust became a hallmark of his religious worldview.:63–66:168–180
Teitelbaum's rabbinic authority and wealthy supporters in the United States made him the leader of the radical, anti-Zionist flank of the Orthodox Jewish world. He adopted a policy of utter non-recognition towards the State of Israel, banning his adherents residing there to vote in the elections or to affiliate in any way with the state's institutions. When he visited the country in 1959, a separate train was organized for him, with no Israeli markings. The educational network of Satmar and Edah HaChareidis, the latter also led by the Grand Rebbe, were fully independent and received funding from abroad. Satmar and allied elements refuse to receive social benefits or any other monetary aid from the government, and attack those non-Zionist Orthodox who do. He and his successors routinely condemned the Agudah and its supporters for taking part in Israeli politics. As to Religious Zionism, the Satmar Rebbe described its chief theologian, Abraham Isaac Kook, as "wicked adversary and enemy of our Holy Faith." In 1967, when the Western Wall and other holy places fell under Israel's control after the Six-Day War, he reinforced his views in the 1968 pamphlet Concerning Redeeming and Concerning Changing ("A'l ha-Ge'ulah v-A'l ha-Tmurah"; Ruth 4:7), arguing the war was no miracle—as opposed to statements by Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Chabad and others, which he condemned severely—and forbade to pray in the Wall or in the other sites, as it will grant legitimacy to Israel's rule over them.:36–40 While providing support for the otherwise unrelated Neturei Karta, Satmar has not always condoned its actions. Joel denounced them in 1967 when they cooperated with Arabs, and in 2006, the Rabbinic court of Zalman Leib's groups placed an anathema upon those who visited the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust.
Satmar women are required to cover their necklines fully, and to wear long sleeves, long skirts, and full stockings. Upon marriage, they must shave their head after which Satmar women wear a wig, some even covering the wig with a kind of pillbox hat or scarf. The Grand Rebbe also insisted that the stockings of women and girls be fully opaque, a norm accepted by other Hungarian Hasidic groups which revered him.:30
In 2016, it was learned that the sect issued a decree warning that university education for women is "dangerous". Written in Yiddish, the decree warns: "It has lately become the new trend that girls and married women are pursuing degrees in special education... And so we'd like to let their parents know that it is against the Torah." Satmar fear that higher education would lead to women being more concerned about their careers than their families. Thus, they see higher education as being against Torah and family values. This is a common idea in many Hasidic communities.
The sect operates numerous community foundations. Bikur Cholim ("visiting the sick"), established in 1957 by the Grand Rebbe's wife Alte Feiga, concerns itself with helping hospitalized Jews regardless of affiliation. Rav Tuv, founded in the 1950s to help Jews in the Soviet Union, aids Jewish refugees. Today, the organization mostly helps Jews from Iran and Yemen. Keren Hatzolah is a charitable fund to support yeshivas and the poor in Israel, providing for those who shun government benefits.
Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum founded a network of large educational institutions, both yeshivas and girls' schools. If its schools in New York were a public school system, it would be the fourth-largest system in the state, after those of New York City, Buffalo, and Rochester. In most places, the girls' schools are called Beis Rochel and the yeshivas Torah VeYirah. In 1953, Rabbi Teitelbaum founded the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, which provides various services, including a kashrut supervision.
The sect has a Yiddish newspaper called Der Yid, now privatized, and various other Yiddish publications. It is currently identified with Zalman's group; Der Blatt, established in 2000, is owned and run by a follower of Aaron.
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