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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.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

How the U.S. Can Strike at Iran without Risking War

In his testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Michael Doran urged the U.S. to pursue a policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East, and explained how this can be accomplished. (Video of the testimony, along with the full text, are available at the link below.)

The United States . . . has indirect ways of striking at Iran—ways that do not risk drawing the United States into a quagmire. The easiest of these is to support allies who are already in the fight. . . . In contrast to the United States, Israel is already engaged in military operations whose stated goal is to drive Iran from Syria. We should therefore ask ourselves what actions we might take to strengthen Israel’s hand. Militarily, these might include, on the passive end of the spectrum, positioning our forces so as to deter Russian counterattacks against Israel. On the [more active] end, they might include arming and training Syrian forces to engage in operations against Iran and its proxies—much as we armed the mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Diplomatically, the United States might associate itself much more directly with the red lines that Israel has announced regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has, for example, called for pushing Iran and its proxies away from its border on the Golan Heights. Who is prepared to say that Washington has done all in its power to demonstrate to Moscow that it fully supports this goal? In short, a policy of greater coordination with Jerusalem is both possible and desirable.

In Yemen, too, greater coordination with Saudi Arabia is worth pursuing. . . . In Lebanon and Iraq, conditions will not support a hard rollback policy. In these countries the goal should be to shift the policy away from a modus vivendi [with Iran] and in the direction of containment. In Iraq, the priority, of course, is the dismantling of the militia infrastructure that the Iranians have built. In Lebanon, [it should be] using sanctions to force the Lebanese banking sector to choose between doing business with Hizballah and Iran and doing business with the United States and its financial institutions. . . .

Iran will not take a coercive American policy sitting down. It will strike back—and it will do so cleverly. . . . It almost goes without saying that the United States should begin working with its allies now to develop contingency plans for countering the tactics [Tehran is likely to use]. I say “almost” because I know from experience in the White House that contingency planning is something we extol much more than we conduct. As obvious as these tactics [against us] are, they have often taken Western decision makers by surprise, and they have proved effective in wearing down Western resolve.

Read more at Hudson

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen