Satmar History (part 3): The Narcissism of Minor Differences

8th May 2020

This is a cross post by Izzy Posen

(Pictured: Ahron to the left of the image and Zalman Leib to the right)

By the late 90s Satmar was flourishing in all chassidic centres around the world. Wherever chassidim lived Satmar had a strong influence. Institutions were being built at unprecedented rates and enough babies were being born to fill the newly built schools. Moshe was getting old and frail and two of his four sons emerged as contenders for leadership positions.

The eldest, Ahron, had been appointed as the rabbi (not to be confused with rebbe) of Kiryas Yoel – the Satmar village in NY State. He emerged as a strong leader in his community, keeping on top of things with a heavy hand. He was seen as someone with a stronger personality than his father and who wasn’t afraid of doing things a bit differently – all within the limits of the legacy of Yoel’s cult of personality.

The third son, Zalman Leib, held leadership positions in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where the main court of his father was based. Zalmon’s personality is less authoritarian and he has inherited more of his father’s humility. The people closest to Moshe and with the most power over him in his deteriorating mental state favoured Zalmon – perhaps since he was seen as someone who could be controlled and manipulated more easily. They started marginalising Ahron and with him increasingly being denied access to his father, the scene was set for Moshe to be led in the direction of appointing Zalmon as his successor.

At this point the reader may wonder why this all sounds like some of the dirtiest and most cynical politics out of a Machiavellian handbook. Isn’t the rebbe all about spirituality and holiness? Isn’t his court all about leading his flock to serve God and to adhere to tradition? And how has the rebbe – who is meant to be the supreme leader – become a puppet in the hands of laypeople?

Well, it is no secret that power corrupts – especially power that is absolute without checks and balances, is not accountable to anyone and which has no transparency. An institutionalised community like Satmar is a mega international enterprise, with assets and riches. There are going to be power hungry individuals looking to get their share. With a senile rebbe and no clear procedure for succession, it is going to get dirty.

And so, with Moshe still several years before his death, Satmar was splitting on the Ahron vs Zalmon Leib fronts. The supporters of the former saw Ahron as the natural successor as the eldest son – indeed, the Jewish customs of inheritance do give precedence to the eldest son. They became the Ahroni faction, or the Ahronim. But supporters of the latter saw Ahron as unfit for leadership due to his overbearing personality, arrogance and experimental approach seen as deviating from tradition. They became the Zaloni faction, or the Zalonim.

All over the world communities were splitting on these lines. There was a rapid escalation and suddenly thousands of institutions – synagogues, schools, charity organisations – found themselves being pulled towards either of the camps. None could remain neutral and every last one was bitterly fought. In some cases the camp in which a given institution landed was a matter of whose name was signed as its legal owner. In other cases it was violence, with the physically weaker side being pushed out. Families split with brother not talking to brother and neighbours cutting off all contact. It was total war.

Refer back to my last post, where I mentioned two types of followers of Moshe. There were those who accepted him as a bona fide rebbe and spiritual leader. Others saw him as a caretaker of his uncle, Yoel’s, community. There is no data on this, but it is widely understood that the former group preferred Ahron and the latter group favoured Zalmon. Ahron’s followers are seen as those who are in need of a strong personality to lead them. They were happy to accept Moshe as their rebbe after Yoel died and they were now looking for a strong authority towards whom they can look for guidance and direction. Zalmon’s followers are seen as more sceptical and libertarian. They were not eager to embrace Moshe as their rebbe and nor were they now looking for someone who will be in their face. Zalmon was someone who would be an administrator and caretaker rebbe, rather than a full-on spiritual leader – just like his father was for them.

By the time Moshe died in 2006 the split was complete. Since then you can no longer talk of Satmar as one community. Instead there are two Satmars. Unsurprisingly, Ahron has served as a rebbe and spiritual leader to his followers. They believe in him, revere him and heed him, just like any chossid (chassidic devotee) would his rebbe. Similarly unsurprisingly, Zalmon has served as more of a caretaker rebbe. He fulfills the function of keeping up the entertainment value of the court with its pomp and glory, but few are those who think of him as a holy man. If he has any special qualities to him it is due to his kinship with Yoel and if his words of guidance carry any force it is because he doesn’t open his mouth without quoting Yoel.

On a personal note, my family are amongst the founders and leaders of a Zaloni shtieble (chassidic synagogue) in London. I cannot think of more than one or two people in the shtieble who actually took either Zalmon or his father Moshe seriously. Over four decades after his death it is still a cult of personality dedicated to Yoel and his teachings.

I’ll finish off this post with a brief discussion about the nature of sectarianism in chassidism. There’s nothing unique or new about Satmar splitting. Schisms and infighting are inherent to chassidism. Belz is split in two, Bobov is split, Vizhnitz is split and Gur is going through its own split currently. One can say semi-sarcastically that you have not made it as a genuine chassidic sect if you have not gone through a messy and dirty schism. And this is no modern phenomenon either. From the very earliest days of chassidism rebbes and their followers were always fighting with each other over succession, ideology and even territory. Why?

I’m no sociologist, but I find Freud’s idea of the “narcissism of minor differences” illuminating. It’s somewhat analogous to how sibling rivalry can get so nasty. When you are so close to someone the small differences matter so much more and get amplified. Chassidic rivalries are like civil wars and brotherly strife. It is precisely because of how tight knit the community is that minor differences blow up and get out of hand.

A second factor I would add to that is the black-and-white mode of thinking that chassidic communities – and especially Satmar – are prone to. In Satmar, and in chassidism more generally, there is very rarely a neutral or mundane category. Things are either holy, pure and righteous, or they are evil and profane. To an extent this way of thinking is built into the philosophy of chassidism and perhaps I’ll come back to this in more detail in a future post on Satmar’s philosophy. For our current purposes though, chassidim seem to have an inability to deal with nuance and with grey areas. As soon as something is not absolutely pure, it is absolutely evil. And I think that this way of thinking has the consequence that as soon as minor disagreements arise, each side of the argument sees itself as absolutely right and the other as absolutely wrong. There will be no concession to acknowledge complexity.

I think that this is enough of me speculating. I’m sure that people with greater sociological knowledge and insight are far better placed to carry out these analyses. If you find my speculation insightful, then take it for what it’s worth, and if not, no harm will be done in discarding it.

This post finishes the part of the series dealing with the history of Satmar. In the following posts I will explore some of the beliefs and practices of Satmar. What does the day of a Satmar chossid look like? What is important to the Satmar chossid? How does he or she see the world? Stay tuned!