Yes, Ḥasidic Succession Struggles Are about Power—but Not Only about Power

Jan. 22 2018

In most ḥasidic sects, the position of rebbe has been passed down from father to son (or from father-in-law to son-in-law) for several generations, and this pattern is expected to continue. Given the importance of the rebbe—without parallel in other Jewish denominations—conflicts over who is next in line can be intense. In his book Who Will Lead Us?, Samuel Heilman examines succession struggles among five ḥasidic groups in America, along with their European antecedents. Reviewing the book, Zalman Rothschild questions Heilman’s decision to examine these stories without reference to ideology or religious thought:

Heilman shows how rebbes seek to obtain positions that will afford them control over extensive assets that grant them economic security, power, and influence. Saintly as they are reputed to be, rebbes are human beings vying for what is essentially political power. This does indeed seem to be the case among, say, [contemporary] Satmar Ḥasidim. When Moshe Teitelbaum, the third rebbe of Satmar, died in 2006, Aaron and Zalman Leib, his two sons, battled for control of the dynasty. With more than $50 million of assets at stake, the fighting was fierce. As Heilman reports, defenders of Aaron used verbal and physical violence, even going so far as to hire nightclub bouncers to beat up their rival’s followers.

But what is true of the Satmars today was not necessarily true of their sect at all times. Heilman believes that the very first Satmar rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, engaged from the start in self-serving behavior. As the youngest child of the rebbe of Sighet, knowing full well that there was little to no chance that he would inherit his father’s position, he conspired, in Heilman’s account, to gain control of a ḥasidic crown by unconventional means. But Yoel was [also] well known for his piety, as demonstrated by his practice of barely sleeping, fasting regularly, and studying for long hours in seclusion. According to Heilman, however, Yoel’s pious practices were deliberate maneuvers to gain distinction and stand out in order to secure for himself the mantle of rebbe. . . .

Heilman’s cynical assessment of Yoel Teitelbaum and [likewise of the last Chabad-Lubavitch rebbe], Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is not preposterous. It is surely possible that these leading ḥasidic lights did vie for their positions and craftily sought to gain control of them. Yet of all the possible explanations for their motives, one wonders why Heilman generally opts to assume the worst. . . .

Still, Who Will Lead Us? includes many great stories, all of them sharply and engagingly told. Heilman’s account of the fight over the leadership of the Bobovers (resolved by the New York State Supreme Court after years of infighting) is worth the price of the hardcover volume alone. By zeroing in, however, on only the most material aspects of his subject, he has made some of the all-too-human leaders of Ḥasidism look more ordinary than they really are.

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More about: Hasidism, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Religion & Holidays, Satmar

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East