Random Thoughts on the Asifa

I have kept out of the fray and much of this post was written before the asifa but I was way too busy to post my comments due to finals, MA defense et. al.

First, the broader Satmar context: The Hungarian Hasidim are not following some pre-Enlightenment relic, rather a 1950’s product. Reb Yoelish Teitelbaum was important for rebuilding and recreating Hungarian Hasidism after the war by collecting all survivors from all over Galicia and Hungary. According to Poll, Reb Yoilish turned them into petit bourgeois of store keepers, merchants, and American trades. He made them adapt modern medicine, clocks, electricity, bookkeeping, and the way of the modern world so that in regard to “material culture” they were of this world. No more folk medicine, magic, graveyard rituals, or rural Judaism. (If I had more time, I would cite some teshuvot where he says that we dont do things like in the old country.) Since life in America needs a newspaper, he founded one. He taught them the world of apartment life, NYC bureaucracy, voting, and transit. Yes, he was obsessed with stockings and hosiery but that was not his major contribution in life. He also made everyone dress in shtreimel and capote, even if they dressed in work shirts and caps before the war, to look different from the goyim. For a good study of the changes of the 1960’s, see Solomon Poll’s readable 1970 book on Satmar, The Hasidic Community of Williamsburg: A study on the Sociology of Religion. George Kranzler’s book is also good but better yet study Reb Yoiish’s letters and responsa. (Today’s authors waste all their time talking about his politics.). Electrical timers became “shabbos clocks” and modern hospitals needed a new form of bikur holim. He created a community for the 1960’s and now there has been enough social and political to warrant some leadership for guidance for the new challenges. But they lack new leadership.

However, it is important to note that there were 1930’s Eastern European rabbis, even some Agudah members, who were proud that they and their students resisted electricity, light bulbs, telephones, beds, and indoor plumbing. There were strong Luddite and anti-medicine trends before the war. In an alternate history, it would be interesting to imagine that if WWII had not occurred how these Jewish Luddite and Amish thinking groups would have continued and played themselves out.

Satmar Website- For those who remember, there were one or two Satmar websites in 1997-1998, that were competing with Chabad. They were removed after a few months.

On assifos: The traditional term for a gathering was a kenes or yarah kallah. The term seems to have taken on its current meaning sometime in the late 1990’s for gathering by organizations with lay leadership like Yad laAhim, Keren Birchas Shmuel, or Pe’elim. It got transferred to gatherings called by rabbinic leadership in 2005, but already in 2004 Leib Pinter anachronistically used the term in an Artscroll to discuss an Agudah kenes of prewar Europe. Hmm..
We then have in quick succession a number of assifos. See any patterns?

2005 – for bnos yisrael and a good shidduch
2005 against the internet
2005 tzniut
2006 against the internet by Rabbis R. Ephraim Wachsman and R. Mattisyahu Solomon.
2008 – tzniut
2010 – rubashkins [This was Chabad and not Lakewood or Hungarian.]
2011 – heart-death definition of the end of life
2011- anti-eruv
2011 Leiby Kletzky
Fall 2011 – in BMG- before Tishrei banning the internet and smart phones with both Rav Kotler and R. Mattisyahu Solomon
Fall 2011 internet- both R. Mattisyahu Solomon and Skulner Rebbe-
This big asifa was announced then in September and why would you expect different speeches for the larger venue than the originals in sept?
Fall 2011 against internet in Boro Park

R. Mattisyahu Solomon has been concerned for six years. He has been repeating himself for six years. This asfia was just a culmination of a number of asifos. Here is the write-up by Mississippi Fred of the 2006 asifa and if anyone wants I have mp3s of the internal Lakewood Elul 2011 asifa.(Very large zip file- It was sent to me for the halber –shabbos mention). If R. Mattisyahu Solomon has been repeating himself for six years, then why did anyone expect a new message? He said what he had to say in 2006- 2011. Is it his Torah method to consult some psychologists, social workers, and web filter companies to come up with a new message or give a practical message?

How big is 40, 000 and another 10, 000 in another stadium?
The West Indian-American Day Carnival brings together three million merrymakers to the streets of Brooklyn. September 3.
National Puerto Rican Day Parade has nearly two million people. June 11.
NYC Gay PrideFest Parade hosts more than one million participants
The Celebrate Israel day parade which has become the Modern Orthodox pride parade gets over 30, 000.
The March in Washington in 2000 organized by Honelin and Avi Weiss got over 100, 000 (subject to debate how much over 100k)

Evangelicals, Muslims, and others

Ultra- orthodox Jews are not the first to do this. Evangelicals started with stadium gatherings in the 1990’s for men’s problems and for them it is a regular part of their preaching.. However, the better analogies are the large gathering against the internet in Egypt and Turkey, with the same dynamic of being secular states with a minority who want a more sectarian approach. Turkey bans censorship so it will be a self-imposed ban that many are trying to make public. The direct similarity of the worst elements here is to the recent anti- internet rally by Muslims in Indonesia they have a rapidly changing country. There in Indonesia, we talk bans, exclusions, and fighting back. Here is the US, we already have Mormons ready to work together with Orthodox Jews to ban the internet. There really is an issue with the internet that may take a while to find guidelines without censorship. Remember, 1930’s movies had no ratings and then most countries created ratings systems.

A peeve of mine is the absolute Jewish ignorance and making themselves feel better by comparing it to papal infallibility. This should be a complete post but listen up Jews. Papal infallibility only applies for definitions of doctrine promulgated publicly. The only clear example in the 20th century is Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII, 1950, defining the Assumption of Mary. But when the pope speaks privately or even gives a public speech or homily it is not infallible. So too when he issues letters, positions, and statements they are not infallible. And certainly nothing he says about policy, social theory, or sciences is infallible. I repeat there was only one clear case in the 20th century and several disputed ones. Papal Encyclicals, Vatican councils and Magisterium statements are binding as practice because they have authority, not because of infallibility. There are levels of tolerated dissent and debate. But certainly personal Papal opinions do not stifle legitimate discussion.

Now, the new stuff after the asifa itself. I gave into my evil inclination and listened to the event as it happened, however here is a video recording of the event. Things I notice.

There seems to be a new alliance of Lakewood and the Hungarians that has been growing in past years. Nobody thought to discuss the alliance or get separate opinions from Satmar, Belz, and Lakewood. Those most in the know, did not seek to understand how each group related to it.
All speakers spoke a pidgin and the translation from Yiddish to Yiddish was a great display of different language usages.
It did go off the rails the internet filter company was to have had a display or tech-expo, which groups were included was still open days before the event, speeches ran overtime, the language was not coordinated, the order seems to have gotten messed up, R. Ephraim Wachsman was listed as moderator just hours beforehand. Yet, for most it was the chance for an outing, some mussar, a few derashos, and to be reminded of new problems. The language of the destruction of the holy vessels is standard for their sectarian worldview. There is talk of another one next year and yes it still created enough of a buzz for the Haredi world to create guidelines over the course of the coming year.

Since this is a structural change based on many changes since the 1960’s, and based on reading and listening to the prior asifot, I did not think there was one issue of the internet. The issue was change –same-sex marriage, new knowledge and technology, and those pesky Zionists with their Tal bill. The language that the internet is destroying holiness and is animalistic and klipot is standard for items rejected in Satmar. Outsiders were busy pilpulim the implications for a clear answer, but it was basically banned in BMG since Tishrei and in the Hasidic groups- what counts is the version in the takonos.

Great op-ed at the NJJN by Andy Silow-Carrol on why everyone is fixated on this.

But none of this questionable press fully explains the Jewish majority’s fixation on haredim and their sometimes questionable behavior. The truth is that to be a Jew is to identify with other Jews, no matter how their choices or lifestyles differ from your own. We cultivate this sense of peoplehood.
The haredim compound this sense of collective responsibility — and guilt — by looking as they do. The haredi uniform of black hat, black coat, and beard shouts “JEW” in capital letters. Arrest a haredi rabbi and you’re not just indicting a Jew — you’re indicting an archetypical Jew.
But it’s not just misbehavior that fuels our fixation on the fervently Orthodox. For good and bad, the haredim represent a version of Judaism we thought we left behind with the Enlightenment. Jewish success has been associated with Enlightenment values: higher education, scientific inquiry, cultural achievement, freedom of conscience. Jump ahead a century or two and you can add feminism and acceptance of gays and lesbians.
Haredim push buttons among the most and least engaged Jews. Observant Jews who aren’t haredi cannot forgive the “black hats” for suggesting that Torah values and modernity are in conflict. Many observant Jews will say that Torah comes alive only when it encounters the real world and all its shmutz. To drag Jews and their Torah behind a self-made ghetto wall is a hillul Hashem, a desecration of Torah and its real intentions. Read the rest Here

However, what I don’t understand is the great amount of modern Orthodox hostility to the event, even facebook pages making fun. Do you get involved with Satmar takanos in general? Do you discuss the stockings, hair coverings, and mikvah rules? Are you going to tell them your Modern Orthodox posek says you don’t need the stocking so it is OK not to wear them or that your have decided for them that they dont have to wear the “Palm” thickness? Do you regularly make fun of Lakewood for not having the same rules as YU? Shall the modern Orthodox tell Rav M. Solomon that they know better about what is bitul Torah for our age? They are separate communities with separate standards.

There was a nervous need to macht a gelechter fin de asifa. Was it a sense of superiority or anxiety? Provincial narcissism or unreal grandiosity? Do you ever play by the same rules as those communities? Their minhag is not going to bring in tech guys and a psychologist to speech about practical solutions. The patterns of derashos are usually four minutes on the practical topic and the rest is mussar and castigation, its not your style but it is theirs. College and public libraries can be used for good, but then they would not be Hungarian Hasidim but modern. Why is your approach different than a liberal rabbi criticizing an Orthodox conference for their lack of academic and social science knowledge, lack of social responsiveness, lack of the historical setting of a text, and how they can show you how to live a better life as non-Orthodox. When a modern Orthodox rabbi takes a piece of pop-psych from 25 years ago and uses it together with a tangential Rav Soloveitchik story for a major talk to address a social problem, do you want people to groan and make fun? No, because this is your minhag. What gives?

19 responses to “Random Thoughts on the Asifa

  1. “Solomon Poll’s readable 1970 book on Satmar”

    What book is that?

  2. This Oiberlender Hungarian Jew and American refugee does not believe the revisionist Satmar history presented here.

  3. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alan: MO rabbis don’t speak about their rulings as being binding on all Israel and that if you don’t accept their views you have no share in the world to come. I also think you dismissed too casually or did not address some of the real criticisms. It was the organizors, after all, who promised to have a tech expo which they then cancelled. It’s not just a question of their not following the MO minhag.

    • Larry, Why worry now? This is not a new juncture of expecting daas torah to be “binding on all Israel and that if you don’t accept their views you have no share in the world to come.”?

  4. Lawrence Kaplan

    Alan: You are right that in that respect it’s nothing new. I just felt that your gezerah shavah with MO was overstated.

    • Lawrence: Are you so confident that MO rabbis don’t speak about their rulings as being binding on all Israel? There may be more nuance, but that is arguably the bottom line position of many who self-identify as RWMO.


      In a related vein, I was struck today by a passage in Peter Schjeldal’s review of the Barnes in the current New Yorker: “This special character of the Barnes is germane to debates about ‘reception theory’ in art history and ‘relational aesthetics’ in performance-based art. Those dry terms skirt a widespread dissatisfaction with the modernist dogma of art’s hermetic autonomy […] The notion that art and life are somehow separate has worn out.”

  5. Hey, I DO want people to groan and make fun. It annoys me to no end that the MO community doesn’t groan and make fun.

  6. Yoel Finkelman

    Good thought provoking post, Alan! I actually do not think that the modern Orthodox reaction was out of proportion. Modern orthodoxy responds constantly to things that the right does. The more soft-spoken and thoughtful the right’s position, the more likely they modern Orthodox response to be soft-spoken and thoughtful. The more bombastic, self-righteous, public, and attention-getting the right’s behavior, the more likely they modern Orthodox response to be ridicule.

    Just a thought!

  7. ‘However, it is important to note that there were 1930’s Eastern European rabbis, even some Agudah members, who were proud that they and their students resisted electricity, light bulbs, telephones, beds, and indoor plumbing. There were strong Luddite and anti-medicine trends before the war.’

    Thanks for your reflections, are you able to elaborate further concerning the Luddite tendency that existed in the 1930’s? I’m curious to know more about the history of Jewish reponse to change particulary from the perspective of the Rabbis.

  8. I think it’s worth pointing to the MO/modernist ideology that underlies the response/ridicule of the Asifa: the idea that technology is morally neutral- a mere tool – and all that matters is how it is used. In contrast one of the main speakers at the Asifa (the charismatic guy who was mostly on topic the whole time) emphasized that some technologies are not neutral, they are in fact socially disruptive, and these disruptions may undermine forms of religious life, social relationships, and how we relate to God and Torah.

    Even if technological change is a fait accompli, the tools we use can profoundly change the tool-users and I very much wish that the MO would take this seriously instead of pretending that they have already meaningfully engaged these issues.

  9. To me, what was troubling about the asifa was the repeated explicit pronouncements that it involved all of Klal Yisroel.Never mind MO – are Conservative, Reform, unaffiliated, etc. no longer included in Klal Yisroel? I fear that this was not a careless misstatement.

    • cyberdov,
      The event was announced by Rav Matisyahu Solomon and the Skulner Rebbe- you are not part of that world on many levels. The content of the asifos from 2005-2011 are available online- there were no surprises. There are even fine summaries on blogs. They were gathering all the Haredi groups to attend. When they have used the words “klal yisroel” in the last decade, you were not included.
      The big update is that there was a individual, maybe several, who do kiruv and are Haredi now but come from more modern backgrounds who were self-appointed organizers. They seem to have called lots of pulpit rabbis and OU/YI type individuals saying that this is for you. They made statements about content and organization that the Skulner Rebbe would never agree to. From the organizers of Rav Salomon and the Skulner, it never was for you. Why this person did what he did, i will leave to politics and psychology.

      • “When they have used the words “klal yisroel” in the last decade, you were not included.”

        I find this interesting because many outside the Haredi world have a definition of “Jews” that includes both them and the Haredi. Would these organizers have some different term, aside from “klal yisroel,” that also includes the MO, or the Conservative and Reform, for that matter?

        I have heard in Flatbush the term “Torah Jews,” referring apparently to Orthodoxy minus MO. People who use that term appear to be acknowledging that others are still Jewish — they’re just unfaithful to Torah.

        This speaker, however, appears not even to consider others Jews at all. One thing that keeps non-Haredi Jews willing to support Haredi institutions is that they don’t feel personally de-legitimized. So I’m curious whether that line truly has been drawn.

      • ITIM has shown that it has been crossed in Israeli statements on marriage and conversion in which the modern are not part of the clal. The source of the language according to Itim is Rabbi Menashe Klein.

  10. “The Celebrate Israel day parade which has become the Modern Orthodox pride parade gets over 30, 000.”

    Dr. Brill,
    The parade gets over 30,000 MARCHERS. Attendees are estimated in the hundreds of thousands. (The organizers say around a million but don’t provide a source). That’s a lot of asifas!

    • Thanks. Good point. Can you get the statistics of attendees in recent years? Check JTA and Jewish Week.

      • Dr. Brill,
        Couldn’t find anything definitive online, so I emailed Michael Mittleman, the Director of Celebrate Israel. Here was his full response:
        “NYPD doesn’t keep statistics of crowd estimates like the type you are looking for. That’s why we estimate that we have hundreds of thousands of spectators and leave it at that.”

        What gets me is that so many speakers at the asifa (reportedly) referenced the fact that so many Jews at one gathering gave the event some sacred/halachic status making pronouncements at the gathering binding. But even by fairly conservative estimates, just a few weeks later three or four times as many Jews were at one gathering. Does that give the parade some sacred/halachic status? (Though I suspect various asifa speakers might not consider many of the parade attendees to be Jews…)

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