Defining 'hillul Hashem'

The New York courts should not be a Satmar battleground.

Even before Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, was buried, and even before his funeral began, representatives of his battling sons were in court, showing once more no concern for the important halachic principle that reliance on secular courts to resolve disputes between Orthodox Jews is a hilul Hashem - a desecration of God's name. Few halachic transgressions are more serious, yet some who are demanding regarding other religious obligations are lax when it comes to this cardinal principle of faith. It may be impolitic to ask the Satmars what license they have to desecrate God's name, but in view of the seriousness of their violation, the greater wrong is not to ask. Sadly, intra-hassidic conflict is escalating, increasingly ending up on legal dockets. Rabbis Aharon and Zalman Lieb, the Satmar disputants, are by now fixtures on legal briefs, and it is likely they will continue to utilize the services of lawyers and attract media attention. Brooklyn State Supreme Court has for more than a decade also been a primary venue for legal fisticuffs among battling Lubavitchers; and that, too, isn't likely to end any time soon. Succession issues also brought the Bobovers to court, although, thankfully, that path seems to have been abandoned. The hillul Hashem committed by Satmar leaders is an issue that we should not duck as if it were an internal Satmar matter. The key characteristic of hillul Hashem is its public nature and, therefore, for religious Jews the reaction cannot be "see no evil, hear no evil, know no evil." The Satmar conflict is being aired in public because the Satmars have put it there. American Orthodox leaders and groups must not sit idly by as our Code of Jewish Law is purposely violated. They should declare that Satmar succession issues and similar conflicts must be decided by religious tribunals - perhaps rabbinical courts based in Israel - and not in the secular courts of Orange and Kings counties. The respected rabbinical body of Agudath Israel of America - to which Satmar does not belong - should nevertheless call for restraint and reliance on religious courts. This message should be echoed by other Orthodox groups and respected rabbis. Newspapers serving the haredi community, such as Hamodia and Yated Ne'eman, should include in their eulogistic coverage of Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum words to the effect that what is obligatory for other Orthodox Jews is also obligatory on Hassidic groups. As if to illustrate the familiar point that "one sin begets another," a public relations firm hired by Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum's supporters sent out a press release during the shiva mourning period inviting the media to come to Williamsburg, where its client would be leading services on Shabbat. The press was asked to "be respectful of the religious observances and practices" of the hassidim and to limit their photography to stills and prints. SATMAR WILL likely split into competing but not distinct parts, each with its leadership and communal infrastructure. But at the rank and file level, loyalties may be divided given family and other connections between adherents of each of the sons. This pattern has been evident for a while as there has been a degree of autonomy among the various Satmar subgroups during the nearly 30 years that Rabbi Moshe headed the movement. Maintaining Satmar's relative cohesion was Rabbi Moshe's most important achievement. In other spheres, he was a pale shadow of his uncle and predecessor, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, who built the movement in America and imbued it with vitality and its distinctive characteristics. Rabbi Joel was an epic figure, a man of surpassing intellect, vision and charisma who was respected, even admired, by many who could not accept his ideology or theology. He ingrained in the Satmar ethos an instinct for charitable giving that may be nonpareil in contemporary Jewish life. SATMAR HAS internal problems apart from the question of succession, including sharp disagreements over ideology. It also has its share of problems arising from those who deviate from the group's social norms. There are those who drop out, act up or engage in wrongful activity. There are mental health problems, children with special needs, and problems that are a consequences of an extraordinarily high fertility rate. In short, Satmar exists in the real world. For all of the difficulties, however, the group enjoys a remarkably high degree of retention of identity and commitment. In Satmar shuls there is, as Rabbi Hertz Frankel has noted, the common sight that is rare for nearly all other American Jews of four generations being together. Another measure of the community's vitality is that 20,000 youngsters, or 10 percent of all students enrolled in elementary, high school yeshivot and Jewish day schools in the United States, attend Satmar institutions. These are impressive achievements, and there are others. Which is all the more reason that whatever internal discord lies ahead, they should be conducted in a framework of peaceful coexistence. Satmar rabbis and lay leaders must come to understand that there is no excuse for perpetrating a hilul Hashem. The writer is president of The Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva in New York City.