Satmar Ideology and Lifestyle (part 1): Introduction to Ultra-Orthodox Sectarianism

13th May 2020

This is a cross post by Izzy Posen

In the last couple of posts I explored Satmar’s history. In the next couple of posts I will be exploring aspects of Satmar’s ideology and way of life: How does Satmar view the world? What does it expect of its members? How do Satmar individuals live? How do they support themselves? How do they relate to other Jews and to non-Jews?

To do justice to Satmar’s worldview, we will need a digression into the worldview of charedi, or ultra-orthodox, Judaism more generally. You can think of the relationship between the various ultra-orthodox communities as follows. Draw a big circle. That circle represents ultra-orthodoxy. All communities and sects within that circle are ultra-orthodox. Within the big circle draw a smaller one. That circle represents chassidism. All communities and sects within that circle are chassidic and all communities that lie outside of the smaller circle, but within the larger one, are other, non-chassidic forms of ultra-orthodox Judaism. A notable example of a non-chassidic, ultra-orthodox community is the Yeshivish community. I will talk more about what these labels and names stand for further in the series. Satmar is one sect within the small circle. That is, it is an ultra-orthodox, chassidic sect.

This illustration was to give an understanding of the nested nature of these communities: ultra-orthodoxy is an umbrella group and within it is a smaller umbrella group called chassidism, amongst whose members is Satmar. But in order to better understand the ideological interconnectedness of these communities the following illustration will prove helpful.

Think of a one-dimensional line. Let the far right end of this line stand for complete rejection of modern, liberal and secular values and for complete self-isolation and insulation from wider, secular society. Let the far left end of this line stand for complete acceptance of modern, secular and liberal values and for full integration and assimilation into secular society. We can now plot on this line all Jewish groups to understand how they interact ideologically.

Let’s start on the far left end of the spectrum. You will find there assimilated Jews and secular Jews. As you move towards the right you can imagine yourself bumping into cultural Jews, Reform Jews, traditional Jews, Conservative Jews and so on. At one point you will meet orthodoxy – perhaps bang in the middle. First you will encounter modern orthodox folk who live a fully integrated life within secular society: they go to university, to the movies, have many non-Jewish friends and so on. Towards the left end of the orthodox spectrum you will even find Orthodox feminists and LGBT+ activists, meaning that despite being orthodox and observing the ancient laws of the Torah, their value system is thoroughly modern and liberal and not Biblical.

As you move further to the write, you bump into ultra-orthodoxy. I will return to talk in detail about ultra-orthodox ideology. But for now, one thing that unites ultra-orthodoxy is that it rejects – to some extent or another – modern, liberal values and calls for some form of insulation from secular society. But ultra-orthodoxy is a spectrum too. As you come from the left you will initially encounter ultra-orthodox communities who speak English fluently (limiting myself for now to English speaking countries, like the UK and the USA), have a high-school level education, perhaps they even attend the occasional football match. Moving further to the right you will encounter increasing degrees of rejection of, and isolation from, secular culture. Eventually you bump into chassidism.

Chassidism, as an umbrella group, is on the far right end of this spectrum. But chassidism too is a spectrum. On the far left end of the chassidic spectrum you will find communities like Chabbad, which, despite their rejection of secular culture, still have many contacts with it for the purposes of outreach and proselytising. As you carry on travelling to the right end of the chassidic spectrum, you encounter other chassidic gropus, like Bobov and Belz. Eventually you come to the end of the spectrum and that is where you find Satmar, at the very far right.

Of course Satmar itself is somewhat of an umbrella term. As I’ve written in previous posts, there are lots of satellite communities orbiting around Satmar. Some of these communities even go further in their isolationism than Satmar itself, such as the Lev Tahor cult and some extreme sects in Meah Shearim. But they still all hearken back to the teachings of Yoel Teitelbaum and see themselves as the true followers in his footsteps. I therefore feel justified in saying that amongst prominent, mainstream orthodox rabbis of modern times Yoel Teitelbaum has been the most isolationist and extreme is his rejection of modernity.

It is this ideology of Yoel’s that I ultimately want to get to. This is the ideology that Satmar adheres to today. But before we get to that, I will be spending a post or two writing about charedi and chassidic worldviews more generally.