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The Satmar Are Anti-Zionist. Should We Care?

Few Jews today agree with the late Satmar rebbe’s attacks on Zionism. All the more reason to read them.

Shaul Magid
May 21, 2020
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shooki Lerer via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shooki Lerer via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shooki Lerer via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Shooki Lerer via Getty Images

Recently, I was giving a seminar at the Kraft Center for Jewish Life at Columbia University, and I included a series of passages from the anti-Zionist manifesto Vayoel Moshe, by Yoel Teitelbaum, known as the Satmar rebbe, or the Satmar rav. Teitelbaum (1887-1979) was the founder of the Satmar Hasidic sect in Satu Mare (also known as Szatmernemeti), Hungary, and is known as being the exemplar of ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism. Afterward, a friend and colleague who attended the seminar told me that when he was studying at a religious-Zionist yeshiva in Israel, some of the students used to read Teitelbaum’s signature anti-Zionist treatise, Vayoel Moshe, and laugh, an interesting form of entertainment for the victors of the debate about Zionism. Why study the work of the loser, even for fun? Even more curious is that in 2011 Shlomo Aviner, a leading settler rabbi, published a book titled Alei Na’aleh, a chapter-by-chapter Zionist response to Vayoel Moshe. And in 2012 Chabad-Lubavitch published Iggeret Ma’aneh Hakham, by Yoel Kahn, responding to Teitelbaum’s prohibitions against engaging with the Israeli secular state. Given that Zionism has won the day, why would such rabbis spend the time and energy writing such books? Why should they care?

While many people know of the general position of Teitelbaum and his Satmar community toward Zionism, few have actually read his works and understood the arguments from within the dense and complex context in which they were written. This is unfortunate, because his two anti-Zionist works, Vayoel Moshe, published in 1959, and ’Al Ha-Geulah ve ‘al ha-Temura (On Redemption and Exchange, taken from Ruth 4:7), a response to the Six-Day War published in 1967, offer detailed and intricate arguments that, contrary to what many believe, Zionism poses an imminent danger to the Jewish people and a deflection, rather than a procurement, of the impending messianic era. In what follows I offer a schematic rendering of his argument in context, then ask why we should engage with it seriously, even if most of us obviously disagree with it.

Vayoel Moshe and ‘Al ha-Geulah are two very different books. The first is primarily a halachic treatise, offering intricate legal discussions about three separate but related topics. First, the legal status of the talmudic discussion of the “Three Oaths” between God and Israel. The Talmud toward the end of Tractate Ketubot delineates three oaths between God, Israel, and the world as the condition of the Jews’ exile. One, that the Jews should not go en masse up to the land of Israel. Two, that Israel should not rebel against the nations of the world. And three, God will adjure the nations not oppress Israel too much. The first essay in Vayoel Moshe offers a detailed account of these oaths in midrashic and medieval legal code literature, arguing that since Zionism transgresses the first oath, God is no longer bound to the third one. The second essay is a lengthy halachic discussion on the question whether there is, in our time, a positive commandment to settle in the land of Israel. The question is relevant for his readers because, given the secular nature of Zionism, if there is no longer an obligation to live in the land, how can religious Jews justify colluding with the secular Zionists to settle there? The third essay is on the secular status of the Hebrew language and its relation to lashon ha-kodesh (the holy tongue), a fascinating study on the halachic nature of Hebrew as a lingua franca. By contrast, ‘Al Ha-Geulah is a theological work. Teitelbaum wrote the introduction, but then he got sick, and the remainder comprises redacted transcriptions of oral discourses he gave over the years. ‘Al Ha-Geulah develops a series of theological arguments focusing on the nature of miracle, idolatry, and false prophecy, ideas Teitelbaum felt were particularly relevant in the aftermath of the 1967 war.

Significantly, in the hundreds of dense pages of Teitelbaum’s works, he rarely mentions Zionism or Zionists outright, although he alludes to them often, usually with terms such as “minim” or “apikorsim” (heretics) or “horsei dat” (destroyers of religion). These terms are not particular to him but were commonly used by ultra-Orthodox thinkers in reference to Zionists. Teitelbaum almost never discusses Zionist thinkers, although in his essay on the Hebrew language, “Essay of Lashon ha-Kodesh” he often refers to Zionist educational initiatives and debates regarding the secularization and profanation of the Hebrew language. I have found only one reference in a halachic responsa where he mentions Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine and architect of contemporary religious Zionism, and only in passing. Teitelbaum is not interested in direct polemics but rather creating a primary Torah source warning against the heresy of Zionism. His two major works are therefore replete with long digressions on talmudic dicta and their commentaries. They are clearly not meant for secular Jews, certainly not secular Zionists. In fact, one not conversant in the language of the beit midrash (“study house”) would have a difficult time unpacking his midrashic and halachic arguments.

These works are directed to his ultra-Orthodox community, who he believed were being, or could be, seduced by the Zionist narrative. This is particularly true with ‘Al Ha-Geulah, written when Teitelbaum saw the Six-Day War interpreted as a miraculous victory for Zionism. He often noted, half-jokingly, that all these secular Jews who didn’t believe in miracles suddenly started talking about miracles when it came to the Six-Day War. But more significantly, these works also represent a Jewish political theology, drawing on thousands of traditional sources, deployed to caution against the dangers of succumbing to the contemporary Zionist heresy.

Yoel Teitelbaum was saved from almost certain death in Bergen-Belsen by the (Zionist) Katzner transports. He spent about a year in Mandate Palestine before immigrating to New York, where he spent the rest of his life, shuttling between a home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the Satmar enclave Kiryas Yoel in Rockland County, New York. In 1952, visiting Jerusalem and donating substantial funds to the ultra-Orthodox community there, he was appointed titular head (av beit din) of the Edah Haredit, the largest ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court in Jerusalem. He remained the Edah’s honorary president until his death. His prodigious learning and vast knowledge made him one of the great Torah sages of the 20th century, acknowledged as such even by those who strongly disagreed with him.

Teitelbaum was largely responsible for rebuilding the communities of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Hungary and Romania decimated in the Holocaust. While his Hasidic court in Satu Mare (commonly known today as Satmar), near the Hungarian/Romanian border was relatively small, he became a magnet for survivors from those regions after the war. His extreme ideology was transplanted from the Marmaros region of Hungary, where ultra-Orthodoxy espoused, as an act of redemptive piety, rigid separation from all forms of secularism. Zionism served for him, and most other religious leaders from that region, as a volatile mix of secularism dressed in Jewish redemptive language that was particularly dangerous because it held the seductiveness of resolving the diasporic Jewish problem of anti-Semitism.

In many ways, the Holocaust was at the center of Teitelbaum’s thinking about Zionism. In fact, he begins Vayoel Moshe by gesturing to the catastrophe that had just befallen the Jews:

Because of our many sins, in these past years we have suffered bitterly in ways that Israel has not suffered since it became a nation [goy]. “Had the Lord of Hosts not left us some survivors [we should be like Sodom, another Gomorrah].” (Isaiah 1:9). But with the mercy of God, bless His Name, some of us have survived, albeit small in number. Not a few from a multitude but a few from a few, all because of an oath that the Holy One blessed be He made with our ancestors not to annihilate us completely, God forbid. We have survived even in our great many sins, embodying the verse, “God will inflict extraordinary plagues [upon you and your offspring].” [Deuteronomy 28:59] “[Truly, I shall further baffle that people,] with bafflement upon bafflement; and the wisdom of its wise shall fail, and the prudence of its prudent shall vanish.” [Isaiah 29:14] We waited “for a time of relief—instead there is terror!” [Jeremiah 8:15] And still today rest and comfort has not come. Our hearts are totally broken and there is nothing by which we can be comforted and strengthened. Rather, our weak eyes and our languishing souls turn heavenward until God will see all this from heaven. God will see our suffering and heal our wounded hearts with God’s great mercy.

In addition, Teitelbaum believed, like many religious Zionists, especially after the Holocaust, that we stand on the cusp of messianic redemption. We often misunderstand Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionism as diametrically opposed to the Zionism of Abraham Isaac Kook. In truth, Kook and Teitelbaum disagree less than we think. From deep within the canonical tradition, both had a similar task: to make sense of the secular nature of Zionism and how that could square with traditional understandings of both catastrophe and redemption. Kook argued dialectically, using a romantic and mystical mindset, that the secular and largely anti-religious nature of early Zionism was a necessary, albeit temporary, deviation from tradition that would be transvalued in the immanent redemptive future. Teitelbaum, who lived more deeply in the binary framework of talmudic literature, also believed that Zionism played a central role in the coming redemption, except that for him its role was not a Kookian inversion of tradition for the sake of redemption, but the pre-messianic heresy that Jews were required to resist in order for redemption to come.

Zionism was thus the false messiah that needed to be rejected for the true messiah to arrive. If Jews succumb to the temptation of the “final test,” and Teitelbaum knew that temptation was strong given its post-Holocaust context, redemption will come, but it will come though catastrophe. As Jewish historian Amos Funkenstein put it, according to Teitelbaum “[a] catastrophe is imminent, after which only a few, the ‘remnants of Israel,’ will survive to witness the true redemption. Indeed, Teitelbaum’s whole argument is embedded in the apocalyptic premise that the true redemption, through divine miracle, is very close at hand.” Kook believed that secular Zionism had to be embraced in order to be overcome; Teitelbaum believed Zionism had to be rejected in order to avoid catastrophic redemption. Another similarity between Kook and Teitelbaum is that both viewed the messiah, false and true, in terms of the more abstract idea of Zionism. For Kook, Zionism was the embodiment of messianism, for Teitelbaum it was its satanic prelude.

If we think Teitelbaum’s position is unique in its extreme rejection of Zionism we would be mistaken. In general terms, Teitelbaum’s ideological commitments against Zionism are not new, but part of a much longer trajectory of traditional anti-Zionism that stems back to the early 20th century in the work of Hayyim Elazar Shapira of Munkacz (1868-1937), the “Old Settlement” Jews in Palestine, and, later, Neturei Karta in Israel. This anti-Zionism was also shared by much of the prewar ultra-Orthodox world, from Lithuanian rabbinic giant Elhanan Wasserman (1874-1941) to Yitzhok Zev Soloveitchik (1886-1959); and much of the Soloveitchik dynasty; and the Lubavitcher Rebbes Shalom Dov Schneershon (1860-1920) and Yosef Yizhak Schneershon (1880-1950), among many others.

The difference between Teitelbaum and many of his colleagues was that only Teitelbaum spent significant intellectual capital developing a political theology that not only reacted to the circumstantial instantiation of Zionism as heresy but placed it in a theological context that has its roots in the biblical narrative, for example, the Israelite rebellion of the golden calf, Job’s blasphemous response to his suffering, the Israelites’ rebellion against Moses in the desert, and the history of miracle in the Israelite and Jewish tradition. In addition, Teitelbaum rejected the largely pragmatic acquiescence to Zionism in groups like Agudat Yisrael, viewing them like the righteous who were fooled into serving the golden calf in the Sinai desert.

In his dissertation on Teitelbaum, Menachem Keren-Krantz of Tel Aviv University writes, “Most Jews and Orthodox rabbis [after the Holocaust] were sympathetic to the Jewish state, even if they were suspicious of its secularism and the success of religion [in Israel] in the coming years. For the first five years, R. Yoel [Teitelbaum] was the only one who continued to maintain a staunch anti-Zionist position which had emerged [earlier] from the schools of radical Orthodoxy in Transylvania and its environs.” Until the late 1950s, however, Teitelbaum did not publish anything substantive on the subject but made his views known in oral sermons and in various media such as the Yiddish newspaper Der Yid, which he founded in New York and was widely read in the Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox community. By the late 1950s, seeing the ultra-Orthodox community softening toward what he considered the Zionist heresy, he decided to publish his views in book form, in Vayoel Moshe.

I suggest that one way of understanding Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionism is that it constitutes a full-blown Jewish theology of the Antichrist. Here I think antecedents to Teitelbaum’s work can be found in the medieval Christian monk Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) and particularly in Martin Luther in the 16th century. Beginning with Fiore and then more so in the Reformist writings of Luther, the Antichrist moves from apocalyptic, mythic, and oblique biblical references to apply to historical events and the immanent end-time. Once we move deeper into Reformed theology, institutions, specifically the papacy, become the target of Antichrist accusations. Luther’s 1545 Against the Roman Papacy: An Institution of the Devil shifts the discussion of the Antichrist to a presentist model, where it remains for the next two centuries. On this, scholar of Christianity Bernard McGinn notes, “What was Luther’s real originality in the history of the Antichrist traditions? The reformers’ rejection of the legendary accretions to the scriptural picture of Antichrist and his adherence to a totally collective interpretation of the Final Enemy distinguish him from any medieval view, even those that identified the institutions of the papacy with the Last Enemy.” Teitelbaum utilizes similar satanic imagery drawing from classical Jewish sources and connects these episodes to the contemporary reality of Zionism and the Israeli state. For him, Zionism functions in a similar way that the papacy functioned for Luther.

The idea of the Antichrist is rooted in the figure of Satan in the Book of Job and the Book of Daniel 9-11, where we read: “The King will do as he pleases; he will exalt and magnify himself above every god, and he will speak awful things against the God of gods. He will prosper until his wrath is spent, and what has been decreed has been accomplished” (Daniel 11:36). This is one reason Teitelbaum includes a long excursus on Job in ‘Al ha-Geulah ve ‘al ha-Temurah. Understanding the relationship between Satan and Job and examining the midrashic deployment of Satan in the golden calf episode (another central motif of ‘Al Ha-Geulah) is crucial for Teitelbaum’s assessment of the world around him, especially given his belief in the proximate opportunity of redemption after the Holocaust.

The idea of an Antichrist, or false messiah that precedes the true one, is taken up in Jewish apocryphal and medieval literature such as Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer and books of the 13th-century Rhineland pietists, taking on special potency when it merges with messianism, arguing that the final redemption is by design preceded by the emergence of a satanic figure, or figures (individuals, communities, or even ideologies) who test the community of believer’s fidelity to God’s word and will. One prominent Jewish example is the figure of Armilos, a son of Satan who kills the Messiah son of Joseph in Sefer Zerubbavel, a short messianic work written in Hebrew in the seventh century CE. This satanic figure appears in subsequent literature as an arbiter of divine will, often performing miraculous feats, having great, almost unprecedented success such that by all appearances he is an emissary of God. While Teitelbaum, to my knowledge, never mentions Armilos, he was certainly aware of traditions of such pre-messianic figures in medieval literature.

This success of Zionism speaks to a significant difference between Teitelbaum and his anti-Zionist predecessor, and one-time mentor, R. Hayyim Elazar Shapiro of Munkacz. Jewish philosopher Aviezer Ravitzky describes this difference succinctly. “The Munkaczer Rebbe need only ask, ‘Where is the source of this wickedness?’ The Satmerer Rebbe, however, needed to go on and ask, ‘What is the source of their worldly success?’” Simply put, this means that since Shapiro died in 1936, he never had to confront the worldly success of Zionism, only its existence. But it also speaks to the way this worldly success serves as the cornerstone of Teitelbaum’s political theology of the Antichrist. The success of Zionism, even more so after 1967, is the crucial question Teitelbaum must answer, and thus, for him, Zionism’s success does not prove its divine provenance (the claim of many religious Zionists) but rather fortifies its status as the Antichrist. To make that case, he must resort to Jewish sources and ideas that informed the various Antichrist ideologies of the past.

In most Antichrist theologies, Satan is an emissary of God but functions as a tool of seduction, one who arises immediately before the impending redemption as a final test to community of believers. Antichrist theology is also almost always connected to a messianic claim. What is required of the community of believers is resistance, rather than acquiescence, to such satanic seduction. This amounts to a kind of Jewish post-tribulationist idea that the Antichrist comes to test the faithfulness of the community of believers. By all accounts, Teitelbaum knew that Zionism appeared as a liberating force for the Jews, saving many, including him, especially in the wake of the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. And yet it is precisely Zionism’s success, especially after 1967, that convinces him of God’s real use of Zionism as that final test that requires resistance.

One of the repeated tropes in Teitelbaum’s works is that “good does not come from evil,” or “sin cannot bring about the holy,” an idea in my view intended to undermine the Kookean notion, drawing from mystical sources, of dialectical transvaluation of the secular into the holy. If good does not come from evil, then what work does evil do in the impending end-time? In ‘Al ha-Geula ve al ha-Temurah we read, “It is known in our literature that as soon as there is a sign of our redemption and the salvation of our souls, Satan devises ways to exchange it with false redemption that brings sorrow, anguish, and darkness to the world. Rabbenu Gershom (960-1040 CE) notes in his gloss to Talmud Tractate Tamid 32a on the word, “Satan will be successful,” “Do not be surprised that Satan is successful in leading them astray by offering them redemption and then leading them to hell.” (AG 31, 32 in my translation) Later on, Teitelbaum further quotes a rabbinic source that I have been unable to locate: “Satan is given permission to perform miracles and wonders in its establishment of idolatry.” (AG 11, my translation) This sentiment appears in various medieval kabbalistic texts but, to my knowledge, not this exact citation.

The irony of succumbing to the Antichrist is that it is a sin that is in large part unintentional. Here Teitelbaum leans heavily on Moses Nahmanides (1194-1270), the great leader of 13th-century Spanish Jewry and author of a widely read commentary to the Torah. In his explication of the golden calf narrative, Nahmanides suggests that the majority of those worshipping the calf did so with the intention of serving God and not idolatry. Those who were guilty of idolatry were killed immediately (Ex. 32:27), while the remainder were punished but not killed (Ex. 32:30) precisely because their intentions were noble. Teitelbaum views this entire narrative as an illustration of the calf as the Antichrist. This is based on a late antique Aramaic translation of the Torah, Targum Yonatan’s rendering of Ex. 32:19: “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged.” Cleverly shifting the verb “dancing” from the Israelites to Satan, the Targum reads: “Satan was in the calf and leap out before the people” (see AG 6). The miraculous nature of that event was interpreted by the Israelites as divine intervention, and so they responded in kind. The miracle was precisely the trap. This is how Teitelbaum understands the Six-Day War. It was indeed a miracle, like Satan jumping from the fire and dancing in celebration of its ostensible victory of seducing the Israelites to worship the calf.

What does this all mean for most of us who are unwilling to buy into Teitelbaum’s belief that Zionism is an Antichrist ideology? Put otherwise, why take interest in this at all? What role can it play in our understanding of Jewish history and the story of Jewish modernity? One of the curious products of our time is that the success of the religious Zionist rendition of Jewish history has resulted in a view that Zionism is both an obvious and adequate understanding of the Jewish tradition. In fact, the understanding proffered by Abraham Kook and others that the ingathering of the Jews to the land of Israel is a sign of the coming redemption that supports the theological justification of the Zionist project, is highly problematic from the perspective of tradition itself. The religious Zionist readings of the sources are often forced, and frequently require stretching the elasticity of traditional sources beyond credulity. This is not to necessarily discount it, only to suggest that it is certainly not at all obvious or in some cases, even plausible. Teitebaum argues that working strictly from within midrashic and legal canonical sources, his view is the stronger one. This is not to say he is correct in his assessment, only to say that justifying Zionism through the tradition is a much harder sell that we think, especially without having read Teitelbaum’s work.

There was good reason that the traditional communities in prewar Europe were largely opposed to Zionism. Teitelbaum often claimed that his views were the dominant ones in the world where he lived before the war. In that he is certainly correct. The strength of Teitelbaum’s arguments from canonical sources can also explain why Rabbis Aviner and Kahn would bother writing responses to Vayoel Moshe in the 2000s, long after it seemed the battle has been won. Both are rabbinic figures deeply invested in the tradition and thus they see, even as they may disagree, that Teitelbaum’s work poses a serious challenge to Zionism, one worthy of a book-length response.

The true nature of Zionism from a theological point of view is, of course, unknown. We are all living in the midst of a drama that is still unfolding. Whether in Kook’s dialectical theology of transvaluing the profane to the holy, or in Teitelbaum’s theory of Zionism as false messiah, the struggle to understand a radical turn in Jewish history remains. The religious Zionist yeshiva students who laugh as they read Vayoel Moshe certainly now have reason to celebrate. But the chapter on who gets the last laugh has yet to be written.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

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