The Day That Satmar Became Mainstream
A critical caveat: Nothing in this submission should be taken as criticism of the Satmar position vis-a-vis Zionism and/or the State of Israel. I have no pretensions of being worthy of critiquing what is clearly a valid halachic perspective. At the same time, however, it is clear to me that the majority of chareidi gedolim never supported the Satmar Rav’s positions. Thus, I do think that I have the right to point out what I see as a shift in attitude in my own community and to try to understand what caused that change.
I was a first year beis midrash student in Mesivta Torah Vodaath when the Six Day War broke out. We had just moved from Williamsburg into the new building on East 9th. Talmidim from that era will surely recall the remarks of the mashgiach, Rav Wolfson shlit”a, at the time. He said: “the yeshiva has only three issues – illumination [the overhead recessed lighting made learning difficult and the administration had to install fluorescents much to the dismay of the architect], ventilation [the beis midrash had no windows that opened and the yeshiva could not afford to run the central air] and emigration [quite a few of the senior bachurim left the yeshiva and transferred to Lakewood].” If I remember correctly, we moved Pesach time and it was to be the last z’man that Rav Yaakov zt”l would be active in the yeshiva.
The period after Pesach was a time of intense anxiety in the Jewish world; beginning with Nasser’s demand that the UN remove its peacekeeping forces from Sinai and U Thant’s immediate acquiescence. It soon became clear that President Johnson as well as the French and English were not prepared to intervene in any meaningful way and war seemed to be inevitable and defeat a certainty. Tehillim was recited with great fervor and many bachurim added sedarim and accepted kabbalos in the hope of arousing rachamei shamayim. Rav Yaakov zt”l and Rav Schorr zt”l spoke often to try to uplift the palpable pessimism but if you looked into their eyes you saw fear.
Shortly before the war broke out, the yeshiva administration brought a television set into the building, placing it atop the staircase that led from the entrance to the beis midrash. There were numerous transistor radios on the porch that adjoined the beis midrash and they would all be turned on when WINS would rehash the headlines. When the war itself broke out, there was almost continuous coverage on the radio; the television news lagged behind because there were no live video feeds in those days. Even those strong enough to resist going out to either the porch or to the foyer to listen to the news would approach those who had done so to get their updates. I clearly remember the state of agitation that Rav Yaakov and Rav Schorr evidenced, pacing nervously inside the beis midrash and outside among those gathered around the media – what will be, what will be?
And then we heard the broadcast that will remain in my mind forever. Michael Elkins, the correspondent for the BBC and Newsweek, imbedded with the paratroopers led by Motta Gur, announced: “the IDF has captured the Temple Mount.” We heard his live broadcast of Rav Goren blowing shofar, of Motta Gur’s static filled message to his command post, “haKotel b’yadeunu, haKotel b’yadenu.” We heard singing, yes singing which turned out to be the soldiers themselves. Elkins described that most incredible and improbable scene: paratroopers, in the midst of battle, rushing toward a wall of stone, oblivious to the dangers around them, to the snipers and enemy soldiers, spontaneously breaking into song and dance. Elkins began to cry on the air, and we listening in Flatbush cried with him.
For as long as I live, I will never forget the expression on Rav Yaakov’s face or the sparkle in Rav Schorr’s eyes. It was as if the burden of history had been lifted from them. Rav Yaakov ran into the beis midrash and gave a bang on the amud. There was immediate silence and he said “shehechiyanu” – I do not remember if it was with shem and malchus. He then began to recite Hodu with tears streaming down his cheeks.
I think I understand what happened. To Rav Yaakov and Rav Schorr the great victory and the manifest nissim of the Six Day War contained an incredible Divine message. The horrible period of hester panim evidenced by the Holocaust was over – they had witnessed a tangible expression of hinei lo yanum v’lo yishan shomer Yisrael. Who knew what other great miracles might be expected in the wake of this change. They heard the footsteps of mashiach and saw his image peeking through the cracks.
On the first anniversary of the war, I was in Eretz Yisrael, studying in Yeshivat Beis HaTalmud under Rav Dov Schwartzman shlit”a. On the 28th of Iyar, the first Yom Yerushalayim, Reb Dov made a seudat hoda’ah in the yeshiva and we recited hallel without a berachah. [I seem to remember that Reb Chaim Shmulevitz zt”l made a similar seudah in the Mir. I asked a number of talmidim from that period but received conflicting replies – one told me absolutely not, one told me that he also remembers a public celebration and one recalled a private seudah in Rav Chaim’s home.] During our seudah, one of the bachurim [who today serves as the mashgiach of one of Yerushalayim’s most prominent yeshivot] questioned Rav Dov about the propriety of the seudah given that the day – Yom Yerushalayim – was an invention of the Zionists. Rav Dov became very angry at the tone of the question and proceeded to lecture the bachur as well as all of us about the necessity to express hakaras hatov – both to the Ribbono shel olam and to His shluchim, the IDF. “The Ribbono shel olam has shown us incredible chesed and you want to ignore it because he chose Jews of whom you do not approve as his vehicle! Have you any idea how this war has changed and will continue to change the face of klal Yisrael. Open your eyes and see what Hashem has done!”
And indeed such change came about! The first ba’alei teshuva yeshivot opened – the Diaspora Yeshiva on Har Tzion and Rav Noach Weinberg’s first edition of Ohr Somayach. Jews in Soviet Georgia petitioned their government to be allowed to come to Eretz Yisrael, effectively jump starting the massive aliyot from the USSR. Hundreds of thousands of American Jewry lost their embarrassment and emerged from their caves. Around the world, many Jews began to reconnect to their people and slowly to their mesorah as well.
Yet one year later, kaf ches Iyar 5729, Beis HaTalmud did not make a seudah although we continued to omit tachanun. On the third anniversary of the war, tachanun was reinstated. What happened? What changed?
Reb Yoilish zt”l saw the victories of the Six Day War as the hand of the sitra achra let loose. He went so far as to prohibit his chassidim from approaching the kotel ma’aravi which had been freed by the kochos ha-tumah. The olam ha-yeshivos may not have accepted all of the Rebbe’s hashkafot, but, in general, his pronounced and total antipathy toward medinas Yisroel became mainstream.
While we might differ as to the permissability of benefiting from the State, we do not challenge the contention – at least openly – that we consider ourselves to be legal aliens in its confines. We vote in its elections to protect ourselves rather than to try to exert real influence – even at those times when political conditions offer us real power [the Begin years when there was a prime minister who was more than sympathetic]. We draw ourselves further and further into isolation – ostensibly because the external world has become more dangerous. But is that the real reason? Or is it possible that we subconsciously realize that we are incapable of offering practical solutions to the inevitable dilemmas and challenges of self-government and therefore prefer to retreat into a ghetto and wait for mashiach. We were challenged by the Six Day War and came up short.
I am sure that others might have more profound explanations and I welcome their comments. However, I wonder, as kaf chet Iyar approaches, if we are right in continuing to ignore the ramifications of the historical occurrences to which we were witness. Let the debate begin!
[Rabbi Dovid Landesman is a veteran mechanech and writer, and increasingly becoming a fixture as a guest contributor! He muses from Israel.]