Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokach - Tomer Appelbaum - 04032012
The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokach. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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On February 21, the Supreme Court struck down the so-called Tal Law, under which ultra-Orthodox men studying at yeshivas were granted a draft exemption. Concurrently, an equally auspicious event, from the viewpoint of the Haredi community, was held. This one was a surprise meeting between the two leaders of the ultra-Orthodox courts from Belz and Machnovka.

The meeting was the result of conciliatory efforts between the Belzer Rebbe and the Satmar Rebbe - the latest episode in a soap opera that has riveted hundreds of thousands of Haredim around the world since last January. The protagonists are the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokach, and his brother-in-law, the head of the Satmar sect, Rabbi Aharon Teitelbaum. They lead two of the largest Hasidic courts in the world, they are both 64, and they are both married to daughters of Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager, the head of the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty and a wholesale producer of daughters for Hasidic courts (a third daughter is also married to a rebbe ). The two sisters, Sarah Rokach and Sasha Teitelbaum, played a key bridging role.

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Satmar, under the Teitelbaum family, is the largest Hasidic sect in the world. Based in the United States, the Satmar dynasty is identified above all with an anti-Zionist line, which it has imparted to other zealous Haredi circles, like the Old Yishuv groups in Jerusalem. The idea that became a watchword was articulated by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the most outstanding figure from the leaders of the dynasty in Hungary. He was smuggled out of Europe during the Holocaust with the aid of the Zionist movement, but settled in the United States and rejected Zionism with religious fervor.

Thanks to his ideas, and the piles of dollars he injected into the Old Yishuv communities, which declined government assistance, Teitelbaum was titled "president of the Eda Haredit." That community continues to incorporate all the anti-Zionist circles among the ultra-Orthodox groups. In the past, Belz, too, was one of those groups.

The two dynasties - Teitelbaum in Hungary and Rokach in Galicia - were considered close in terms of worldviews, even before the Holocaust. The first rift between them occurred in 1955, when the two master rabbis had begun to rebuild their ravaged communities, each in the place of his choosing: the Satmar Rebbe in Brooklyn, and Rabbi Aharon Rokach - the Belzer Rebbe - on Ahad Ha'am Street in Tel Aviv.

In 1955, the Belzer Rebbe advocated taking part in general elections in Israel, even though he still considered himself part of the isolationist Eda Haredit circles. In a visit to Israel, Teitelbaum tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to stay out of Zionist politics. In a sermon he delivered not long afterward, Teitelbaum said that he would not have believed it, "if it were not written explicitly that Aharon committed the act of the [golden] calf." His listeners construed this to mean that the "calf" was the State of Israel and that "Aharon" (Aaron ) was none other than Aharon Rokach.

According to Menachem Keren-Kartz, a doctoral student at Tel Aviv University who is researching extreme groups in Haredi society, the incident was played down at the time, despite the affront to the Belzer Rebbe. Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum died in 1979, and the leadership of the dynasty passed to his nephew, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum.

The current Belzer Rebbe launched his career at the age of nine. The death of his uncle, the childless Aharon Rokach, left him as the successor to the leadership of the magnificent dynasty, which was almost annihilated in the Holocaust. The sect's rabbis became the protectors of the "yanuka" (baby ), and cultivated and educated him. In 1966, when he turned 18, he was officially crowned admor ("our master, teacher and rabbi" ) of the dynasty. Years later, he continued to be known as "yanuka." In 1977, the ultra-Orthodox party Agudat Israel joined the coalition of Menachem Begin and the budget floodgates were opened.

The rabbis of the Eda Haredit exerted pressure on their colleagues in Agudat Israel not to take money. While the leaders of the great Hasidic courts reeled under the pressure, the young rebbe from Belz, who was all of 29, left the rabbis gaping when he explained with great brazenness why there was nothing wrong in principle about taking part in elections, as his uncle had believed in 1955. The furious reactions from the old guard of the Eda Haredit rabbis, which was accompanied by petty harassment in the streets, only made the young rabbi more determined.

A year later, he decided to establish for his followers a series of private services: a rabbinical court, a ritual-slaughter and kashrut system, and a marriage-registration bureau. Until then, these services had been provided for the Belz Hasidim by the Eda Haredit. The establishment of the private services was taken as a provocation against the Eda. Over and above the debate about governmental budgets, the move generated a private kashrut market external to the Chief Rabbinate and dealt a severe economic blow to the Eda Haredit, whose private kashrut system had until then held almost a monopoly in the ultra-Orthodox world.

The Belzer Rebbe's explanation - that he was trying to restore the glory that had existed in the town of Belz (then part of Poland but now Ukraine ) before the Holocaust - was of no avail. The Eda Haredit rabbis launched a barrage of letters, wall posters, boycotts and ostracisms. Even though he remained isolated, the Belzer Rebbe inaugurated the sect's rabbinical court in 1980, and a year later traveled to Williamsburg to visit his followers who lived there, even though the Brooklyn neighborhood is the kingdom of the Satmar Rebbe. The police were on high alert. Policemen were posted wherever the Belzer Rebbe went, and surrounding roads blocked. According to one rumor, he wore a protective vest.

Not long after that visit, at the end of 1981, the Belzer Rebbe used the occasion of his regular sermon in Jerusalem to explicate the views of his uncle, Rabbi Aharon, on issues of religion and state: in favor of taking part in Knesset elections, an act he considered a "sacred obligation"; in favor of taking budgets from the state; in favor of reinforcing the Belz camp; and against "joining up with the wicked." He also issued an injunction to the elders of the sect who had been present at the 1955 sermon delivered by the Satmar Rebbe in Jerusalem against his uncle, when he had spoken about Aharon and the sin of the golden calf. Hasidim who had heard that sermon but had not voiced a protest were now obliged to apologize personally to the young Belzer Rebbe, his uncle's successor.

In the wake of the sermon, swastikas were painted on the wall of a Belz institution, street brawls erupted, rabbis were attacked physically and printing presses were torched, in Jerusalem and in Williamsburg. Diapers were sent to a childless rabbi and ads in the newspapers invited readers to call the admor's house on Shabbat.

Clarifications issued by the Belzer Rebbe - he had not meant the Eda Haredit rabbis when he referred to "joining up with the wicked," and still less Rabbi Yoel from Satmar, who had died less than three years earlier - were to no avail. From around the world, 101 rabbis and admors, led by Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum from Satmar, signed a letter against him titled "Do not harm My prophets." "Our eyes run with tears and our pupils flow with water at the desecration of the holy and the plunging of a sword into the Holy of Holies, our holy rabbis ... by Rabbi Y. D. Rokach," the rabbis wrote, adding that he must be denounced like those who would destroy "the vineyard of Israel."

The Belz community, which in the meantime had moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, was isolated, but started to take under its wing the downtrodden and ostracized from the Haredi world who had decided to accept state funding and had been expelled from the Eda Haredit as a result.

The situation calmed down in 1984, and important rabbis started to attend joyous events sponsored by the Belzer Rebbe, notably the laying of the cornerstone for the sect's world headquarters in Jerusalem's Romema neighborhood.

Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, died in 2006, and the split in his community between his children, Zalman Leib and Aharon, became irreversible. From their father the two inherited a loathing for Belz, and of course for the Zionist state. In this period, the Belzer Rebbe began to consolidate his standing as the most important leader of the centrist Haredi stream. The Belz community, with its monumental building in Jerusalem, was now the fourth largest Hasidic dynasty in the world and enjoyed economic and political power. In these years, the Belzer Rebbe began to contemplate an act of reconciliation.

The sister-wives of the two rabbis played a crucial role in this process. According to Yisrael Cohen, a correspondent for the Haredi website Kikar Hashabbat, "Throughout the difficult period when the two courts were severed completely from each other, the pious rabbis' wives continued to maintain a secret channel of communication between them, which in time became more open."

Still, the decision ultimately came from the Belzer Rebbe himself. In the past few years, after he had positioned himself at the heart of the Haredi consensus, he sent his representative, Shimon Wolf Klein, on secret missions to the United States. The Satmar Rebbe said he would agree to meet his brother-in-law if he apologized to his forefathers for the affronts he had hurled at them, as the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law ) stipulates. "He said he could not forgo the dishonor to his father and his uncle," sources in Satmar said this week.

"All along he believed there was room for disputes, and that there is even a religious obligation to maintain disputes at a certain level," figures in Belz say. "But he reached a stage in life where he had to reconcile. These days he wants to visit places as a minister of , not as the Ahmadinejad of the Haredi world. He reached the conclusion that just as he devoted his young years to forging the autonomy of Belz, he now has to invest in . Now he can come from a position of power, declaring that no one has a monopoly on religion. Satmar is not demanding that he forgo his ideology. He is saying, 'Let us not blur the differences between us, but let us reconcile.' One can be against Zionism or for Zionism, but reconciliation is necessary."

In January this year, with the country fixated on the Haredi-related troubles in Beit Shemesh, the Belzer Rebbe sent ten senior religious judges to the Satmar cemetery to hold a ritual ceremony of begging forgiveness on the graves of the deceased Satmar dynasty leaders. The ceremony followed all the rules for requesting forgiveness from the dead. That event paved the way to a first gesture of , which took place during the Satmar Rebbe's visit to Israel about two weeks ago, as part of his visit to the members of the local community in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.

One night, a convoy took him to the community of Telz-Stone, near Jerusalem, to a house in which his brother-in-law, Yissachar Dov, was waiting for him. The break between the two had lasted 30 years. A handful of people from the two sides took part in the meeting. In the cold way of the rebbes, no one fell on anyone's shoulders.

A few days later, the Belzer Rebbe paid a reciprocal visit to the Satmar Rebbe, at the home of a Satmar Hasid in Bnei Brak. Before and during his visit, the Satmar leader assailed the Zionist state, lest his followers think that his readiness for reconciliation should be construed as validation of the views held by the Belzer Rebbe. The Satmar contingent also insisted that the Belz representatives in the Knesset, MKs Yaakov Litzman and Israel Eichler, not attend any of the meetings, even when senior rabbis were present.

But the reconciliation continued, and the Belzer Rebbe met with his cousin, the Machnovka Rebbe. The Machnovka community was established in its present form in the 1950s by a group of Hasidim who did not accept the authority of the "yanuka," and took in groups who left the Belz community in the shadow of the conflict with the Eda Haredit. They called it Belz-Machnovka as a provocation against the Belz sect. Now the conditions had ripened for in the family.

The Eda Haredit officially ignored the process, partly in order to remain nonpartisan and take in all the Satmar branches, including Rabbi Zalman Leib, who is not yet part of the process - though the Belz community is certain that he too will soon join the reconciliation. In the meantime, some Satmar groups have already dissociated themselves from the agreement and have begun to attack Rabbi Aaron for his readiness to meet with the leader of the Belz dynasty.

But in both courts, Satmar and Belz, the prevailing view is that the process is overwhelming proof of the power of the two master rabbis, who are about the same age as the Zionist state. The word in Satmar is that "no one believed that anyone could make the Belzer Rebbe apologize and retract what he said. Only our rebbe was able to do that."

As for the opposition to the process, these sources said, "The rebbe was not frightened by the wall posters. He knows only Shulhan Arukh and halakha [Jewish religious law], and he doesn't budge from them by a millimeter. There were many attempts at reconciliation by Belze, and the rebbe always said, 'There is halakha; ask forgiveness from the past admors.' In this he is continuing their path. We take no account of the wall posters and pay no attention to politics, either."

In Belz they are saying that their rebbe "won big-time. He established a vast empire, did not forgo kashrut and rabbinical-court institutions, and today enjoys a central status among the Haredi public. There are whole communities who obey his authority in all kinds of political and public matters. If he signs, others sign, too. He is now the leader of the flock. He wanted to create an empire but not to seize control, and he proved his strength in the face of the Eda Haredit."

The years ahead will see a tremendous demonstration of Belz might in the form of huge weddings he will hold for his grandsons and granddaughters, the sources say. His followers are convinced that he will take an ever more central part in the spiritual leadership of Haredi politics.

"In the next few years there will be two or three weddings of his grandsons," the Belzer Rebbe's confidants say. "He will hold huge events, and he will ensure that everyone has a place on the platforms of honor - from the Zionist Rabbi Druckman to the anti-Zionist Satmar Rebbe. He will want to seat a vast gallery of people there, and be the strong head man who sits in the middle."