Lecture #04b: Redemption in Radical Ultra-Orthodox Thought

  • Rav Tamir Granot


A.  Rabbi Yoel Moshe Teitelbaum of Satmar


Rabbi Dessler's unwillingness to admit any ideological change is not only the result of philosophical conservatism.  His view of Divine redemption – "an awakening from Above" – leaves no room for the idea that earthly processes of politics and settlement can represent a legitimate or desirable religious response.


The strongest opponent to the Zionist view of redemption was Rabbi Yoel (Yoelish) Moshe Teitelbaum, the Rebbe and rebuilder of Satmar chassidut, and leader of the Eda Charedit in Jerusalem for the thirty years following the Holocaust.


He was born in 1887 in Sighet, Hungary, to Rabbi Chanania Yom-Tov Lipa Teitelbaum, author of Kedushat Yom Tov.  When his father died, he moved to the town of Satmar (Satu Mare) in Transylvania, and in 1929 he became rabbi of Satmar, where he developed the community and thus acquired renown amongst the Orthodox community in Hungary.


After Hungary was overtaken by the Nazis, Rabbi Teitelbaum was transferred by his followers to Klausenburg, where he was imprisoned and moved to the ghetto.  Ultimately he was saved, departing on Kastner's train, but many of his followers died.  He was criticized by Zionist circles for having abandoned his followers at a time of great distress and danger, and among extremist Charedi circles – for having agreed to be saved by of a Zionist.


In 1945 he moved to Palestine, then left in 1946 for the U.S., where he established an ultra-Orthodox community based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  At the same time, he was accepted as the leader of the Eda Charedit in Jerusalem.


Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum extended his institutions beyond the boundaries of Williamsburg and even of the U.S.  In 1947 the town of Kiryas Yoel was established in Monroe – a drive of an hour and a half from New York City.  Today it is home to about ten thousand inhabitants, with close to a hundred batei midrash.  Many Satmar communities maintain their own abattoirs, mikvaot, matza factories and other religious services.[1]


B.  The Satmar Rebbe's View of Redemption


Va-Yo'el Moshe, the Satmar Rebbe's composition addressing redemption and Zionism, in both Halakha and aggada, is perhaps the most extensive and thorough work written by any Torah sage on the subject.  His anti-Zionist position is an extremely radical one; he views Zionism as the mother of all sins.  Obviously, he did not invent opposition to Zionism, but sages of the previous generation had generally viewed the Enlightenment as the greatest enemy of Judaism, while Zionism was either regarded as a mistake, or identified as radical Enlightenment.  Similarly harsh denunciations of Zionism had previously been uttered by the Rebbes of Chabad (Rabbi Sholem Dov-Ber Schneerson and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson) in Russia, and by the Muncaszer Rebbe in Hungary.  However, the Satmar Rebbe took the battle against Zionism a step further: he accused the movement as having been responsible for the Holocaust.  In his book he develops a complex philosophical position, suggesting that Zionism bears direct guilt for what happened to the Jews of Europe.


In order to understand his anti-Zionist philosophy, let us first examine his view of redemption, which in and of itself is a fair representation of the prevalent Charedi view.  He introduces the book by setting forth his main argument: any religious discussion of history must address the causes of events that happen.  From a religious perspective, the true causes of events can be only sins or good deeds.  In other words, any discussion of national catastrophe must, by definition, be a search for the sins that led to it.  He then asserts:


And now, in our very generation, we have no need to seek and search in hidden places for the sin that brought this disaster upon us, for it is stated openly and explicitly in the words of our sages.  They told us explicitly, based on their understanding of biblical verses, that in response to transgression of the [Jewish people’s] oaths "not to ascend the wall" and "not to hurry the end," heaven forefend, [God promises that] "I will abandon your flesh to be like the deer and the gazelles of the field."  And, for our many sins, so it was: the heretics made all kinds of efforts to violate these oaths – to ascend the wall and to appropriate for themselves sovereignty and freedom, before the proper time, which is a "hurrying of the end," and they caused the hearts of most Jews to be drawn to this impure idea. (Va-Yo'el Moshe, Introduction)


And so it was with this bitter golden calf of creating a [Jewish] commonwealth before the coming of the Messiah, for it is several years since this impure idea was introduced by the Zionists, and intensive activity was undertaken in various forms for the purpose of violating those oaths.  And for our many sins, most of the nation, in all its sectors, was party to and aided in this, even the most pure of Israel. Even from among those who strongly opposed the Zionists because of their actions in destroying religion, and [bringing] heresy and blasphemy, heaven forefend – nevertheless many of these pure ones were caught up by the impure ideas of Jewish autonomy and sovereignty prior to the coming of the Messiah, which is the root of corruption and punishment. For the power of the inclination that blinds the eyes is great in this, and they did not take it to heart, and most of the nation were accomplices to this – some in action, others in speech, in various and strange ways, for their eyes did not see that it was a matter of mortal danger… And on the basis of what I shall write below, at length, it shall become clear that this idea of creating Jewish sovereignty by themselves, prior to the coming of the Messiah, itself represents apostasy and heresy against the ways of the blessed God.  For only God subjugates and redeems; there is none other than He, may His Name be blessed, who will be our Redeemer in the days of the Messiah. (Va-Yo'el Moshe, 7)


Why is the Satmar Rebbe so vehemently opposed to Zionism? It should be noted that he never attacks Zionism on the basis of its secular character.  Rather, his discussion focuses on Zionism's "religious" thesis – the thesis that redemption comes about through earthly, mortal acts.  In other words, he is opposed to the idea that historical change is the result of the Jewish people's actions in history, and that, furthermore, there is no necessary connection between this change, and its degree of success, and the spiritual state of the Jewish people.  According to Zionism, he charges, it is possible that the Jewish people could be redeemed as a result of their own initiative, even though they are not spiritually worthy of it, and even though they continue to maintain the evil ways of their fathers, if not even worse.


As against the Zionist perception, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum presents his own view of redemption, which rests upon two contradictory principles, as we shall see below.


a. Redemption is in the hands of Heaven


Let us consider some of Rabbi Teitelbaum's arguments in this regard:


I have already cited the view of our Sages, of blessed memory, who said, concerning the verse, "Know surely (yado'a teda) [that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs]" (Bereishit 15:13) – "Know that I will scatter them; know that I will gather them together.  Know that I will subjugate them; know that I will redeem them" (Bereishit Rabba 44, 18).  At first it seems strange: why does Scripture need to use this repetitive language, "yado'a teda," to inform Avraham that specifically these matters – i.e., exile and redemption and the ingathering of the exiles - emanate from God? Do believing people not know that even in other matters, everything that happens is from God? Indeed, it is one of the thirteen principles of faith to know that He alone, His Name be blessed, has performed, and does perform, and will perform, all actions.  And Ramban writes at the end of parashat Bo, that a person has no portion in the Torah of Moshe until he believes that everything that happens to him is a miracle; there is no "nature" or "way of the world" involved, whether on an individual or a national level … This being so, we must ask: why do our Sages explain this repetitive phrase, "yado'a teda," as teaching that specifically matters of exile and redemption should be recognized as emanating from the Holy One, blessed be He, as though – heaven forefend – in other matters this is not the case?


However, the clear truth is that in other matters, even though everything happens by Divine Providence, nevertheless the Torah says, "in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all of your endeavors which you undertake" (Devarim 14:29) - meaning that a person must not sit idly.  They (the Sages) also taught that we do not rely on miracles, and Ramban writes at the end of parashat Ekev, on verse 13, as follows: "Know that God does not perform miracles, of either a positive or negative nature, except for the completely righteous or the completely wicked.  Average people are treated by God in accordance with the way of the world; He acts kindly or strictly towards them in accordance with their ways and their deeds."  But that which Ramban wrote in parashat Bo, that everything is a miracle – what this means is that even that which is clothed in nature is really hidden miracles, but they must follow the custom of the world.  This is not so concerning matters of redemption.  We need to know that [in this area] only God acts, and we have no right to do anything except for repentance and good deeds.  Therefore the text takes the trouble to say, concerning this: "You shall surely know" – for this is not like other matters… (Va-Yo'el Moshe, 58)


Faith in God's absolute Providence is one of the foundations of our religion.  From this perspective, there is no difference between matters of redemption and any other aspects of reality.  The Satmar Rebbe raises the question of the relationship between trust in God and human effort, and he adopts the conventional position: although God watches over and directs everything, a person has a duty to make an effort and to act in accordance with the way of the world.  The fact that during normal periods of life and history the world appears to function in accordance with natural laws, serves to create the conditions for the human experiment – i.e., to see whether man will do that which is good and upright before God, or not.


However, all of this holds true only up until – but not including – redemption, because this is precisely the significance and purpose of redemption: to reveal, retroactively, that all that happened in the world was by God's command, and that His rule over the world is absolute.  "On that day God will be One and His Name will be One" (Zekharia 14:9) – meaning, His hidden presence in the world will become a revealed presence.  A Jew who believes in and anticipates redemption demonstrates that although he behaves, in matters of this world, according to the custom of the world, this is not because he does not believe in God's Providence, but rather because the Torah commands him to behave in this way.  The proof of this is his faith in redemption and his avoidance of any attempt to influence it, even in times of danger. 


On the other hand, when Jews perform earthly actions in order to be redeemed, they are rebelling against God's Kingship, since they are "expelling" God, as it were, from the very place where His Kingship is supposed to appear.  Thus, they deny His rulership over the world altogether, since if redemption does not make His Kingship known, and it can take place – as it were – without Him, then this must certainly be so, heaven forefend, in the course of the normal historical existence of the world.  The passive anticipation of redemption through the hand of God is, therefore, the most profound expression of faith in the Kingdom of Heaven, while active initiative represents heresy.[2]


But how is it that these heretics, rejecting the Kingdom of Heaven and taking redemption into their own hands, enjoy success in their endeavors? Why does God not withhold success from them? Rabbi Teitelbaum has a very simple answer:


And if we observe, on some occasions, the success that comes to those who grasp at redemption unlawfully, it is simply like the success of idolatry, concerning which it is written in the Gemara (Avoda Zara 55a), "One who seeks to be defiled, will find the way open for him."  Great miracles are even performed for them, as the text teaches, "And the sign or the wonder comes about… for the Lord your God is testing you" (Devarim 13:3-4).  And see Sefer Chassidim (#1054), that a wicked person is more successful in his wicked endeavors than is one who performs good, in order that [the former] will be driven from the World to Come.  See Midrash Talpiot (anaf hatzlacha), where the matter is discussed at length, noting that if those who violate a cherem enjoy success, it is in order that they may later be punished for this success, too.  In the days of Ben Koziba (Bar Kokhba), [his army] enjoyed enormous success, as recorded in the midrashim of Chazal, and their success continued for fifteen years, as recorded in Seder ha-Dorot … and finally, after twenty-one years there was a terrible catastrophe, and a great slaughter, the likes of which had not been seen even in any of the preceding destructions.  In connection with the blessing [in the Grace After Meals] of "ha-Tov," which was established with regard to the slain of Beitar [that ended the Bar Kokhva revolt], the Rosh (Berakhot 7:22, also cited in the Beit Yosef, OC 189) cites the Yerushalmi (Sukka 5:1): "When Beitar was destroyed, the horn of Israel was broken, and it is not destined to be restored until the coming of the son of David," and [the Rosh adds that] therefore this blessing is placed right before the blessing "Boneh Yerushalayim, Builder of Jerusalem."  And behold – the people of Beitar were completely righteous, as evidenced in the sources that I cited above, but through them the horn of Israel was broken, because the act of hastening the end before its time is more evil and more bitter than any other sin, even the most severe of all the strict prohibitions in all of the Torah. (ibid.)


The severity of "hastening the end," as for example in the case of the people of Beitar, would also appear to arise from the fact that a lack of patience for redemption testifies that the aim of the redemption is not for the sake of Heaven, but rather for human needs – i.e., the desire of the Jews to rule, to be liberated from their oppression, etc.  One who acts for the sake of Heaven will wait for the manifestation of Divine Kingship, and will not act presumptuously with human achievements.


b. Redemption is dependent upon repentance


The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97b) records a debate between two Tannaim:


Rabbi Eliezer said: If Am Yisrael repents, they will be redeemed; if not – they will not be redeemed. 

Rabbi Yehoshua answered him: If they do not repent then they will not be redeemed?! [This cannot be.] Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, will appoint a king over them whose decrees are as oppressive as those of Haman, and then Am Yisrael will repent and return to the proper path.


The Satmar Rebbe proves from several biblical and rabbinic sources that the process of redemption cannot proceed without repentance on the part of Am Yisrael.  How, then, can there be any position such as that of Rabbi Yehoshua, who maintains that there is a redemption that comes without repentance? Rabbi Teitelbaum explains, based on the Rambam at the end of his Laws of Kings, that only the Messiah himself can come without any proceeding repentance, but other processes that are related to redemption – such as sovereignty, the ingathering of the exiles, and the rebuilding of the Temple – can happen only after there is repentance, and there is no dispute on this matter, since – according to his view –the full picture is set out in the biblical passage concerning repentance (Devarim 30).


Obviously, a deeper reason underlies this assertion: it cannot be that redemption deviates from the principle that guides all of history.  The Torah and the Prophets have taught us that the historical fate of Am Yisrael is a function of their spiritual behavior.  How, then, could it be that redemption would come before Am Yisrael is worthy of it? This would represent a retroactive negation of the entire significance of Jewish history and of the exile!


Moreover, the superiority of spiritual existence over physical existence demands that redemption appear only through repentance.  For if the physical situation of Am Yisrael were to improve, and we were to witness the ingathering of the exiles and a State and material abundance, while the nation was still in its sinful state, then what would be the point of all of these phenomena; how would they be worthy of being regarded as signs of redemption? Only the repentance that precedes redemption imbues the latter with its religious significance. Let us consider a further excerpt in this regard:


But the Rambam z"l maintains that following the coming of the Messiah, before he performs any act of redemption or ingathering of exiles, he will certainly cause all of Am Yisrael to repent, and concerning this there is no debate….


It is set forth in the Torah that repentance precedes all [redemptive actions] while they are still at the end of their exile, as it is written at the beginning of the verse, "And you will call it to mind among all the nations into which the Lord your God has driven you, and you will return…" (Devarim 30:1-2).  Rambam z"l maintains that since this is a promise from the Holy Torah, it cannot be denied and there can be no argument in this regard, and therefore he asserts, in his Laws of Kings, that the King Messiah will bring them to observance of the holy Torah, and this is a matter that is universally agreed.  For obviously if they will engage in repentance even before the Messiah comes, then they will certainly observe the holy Torah, but even if we say that he may come without any prior repentance – then he will certainly bring them to repentance, for the Rambam himself has already written, in his Laws of Repentance, that "Israel are redeemed only through repentance".  Hence, we are forced to conclude that he means that this will happen even if only after the coming of the Messiah, as he wrote in his Laws of Kings.  He was referring to the redemption itself, which – even after the coming of the Messiah – cannot be a redemption without repentance; rather, the King Messiah will have extensive influence, with Divine aid, to bring them to repentance, and this is what is meant by the verse, "Bring us back, O Lord…." (42)


… This matter [that the King Messiah will first bring all of Israel to repentance, and then he will perform the rest of his special tasks] is very important to know now, in order that there be no room for mistaking a false redemption.  See here: if all of Israel repent and observe the holy Torah, with all its statutes and its judgments, then certainly the redemption will come immediately, as it is written: "All of the calculated dates [for the coming of the Messiah] have come and gone; so the matter depends solely on repentance" (Sanhedrin 97b), and as the Messiah himself told Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: "Today [I shall come] – if you listen to My (God's) voice" (Tehillim 95:7) (Yalkut Shimoni, Zekharia 576; Tehillim 852).  And if they have not yet repented, then Rambam has made it clear, in his laws, that it is impossible for there to be any redemption, and he writes that this is clear in the Bible, and there is a promise from the holy Torah that repentance precedes redemption.


This being the case, one who thinks the opposite – that there can be a reality of redemption without repentance – thinks contrary to what is set forth in the Bible, and he is a heretic who denies the Torah, heaven forefend…


There is no doubt that there is no difference between a heretic concerning this promise – that there can be no redemption without repentance – and a heretic concerning the promise that the Messiah will come.  In fact, the former is worse. The Chatam Sofer (YD 356) explained that although logic does not dictate that redemption is one of the principles of our faith - for if our sins were, heaven forefend, to bring about a situation where we would be forever banished (as Rabbi Akiva believed had happened to the Ten Tribes, which were lost forever [Sanhedrin 10:3]), this certainly would not justify removing the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven from upon them, or to change so much as the corner of a 'yud' in any matter even of rabbinical origin; and so this is not a principle, nor a foundation upon which to build – nevertheless, since the foundation of everything is the belief in the Torah, where our final redemption is described in the parashot of Nitzavim and Ha'azinu, then one who has doubts concerning the redemption is denying the truth of the Torah (see there, where he explained this clearly and at length). How much more so one who denies this promise, in the same unit, that there can be no redemption without repentance!  Since aside from denying that which the Torah tells us, the very fact of taking redemption and sovereignty for himself, before the coming of the end, represents an act of heresy, heaven forefend. (Va-Yo'el Moshe, 54-56)


It is appropriate that we conclude our discussion of the Satmar Rebbe's view of redemption with a story that he recounts (Va-Yo'el Moshe, 9) concerning the Divrei Chayim of Zanz, whom he held in high esteem and regarded as his guide, expressing the same ideas in different language.  Tradition has it that before the Temple will descend from heaven, the supernal Temple will be built in heaven.  And who will be its builders? The tzaddikim, by means of their special kavvanot and yichudim.  The Rebbe of Zanz was asked by his disciples: "Our teacher, if the building of the Temple is dependent on the tzaddikim – see, you are the tzaddik of our generation - why do you not build the supernal Temple through your Divine service, and let us already achieve redemption?" He did not answer them.  After some time he said: "You think that I haven't done anything? Of course I have done much; all that remained was for the curtain to be placed over it, but then a wicked person came and tore it with his sword."  Unquestionably, in the Satmar story the "wicked person" is Herzl.  In other words, the time was right for redemption, but the work that was needed was spiritual in nature rather than any earthly endeavors.  The earthly activity of the wicked postpones the true redemption, rather than bringing it closer.


A similar idea is expressed most scathingly by Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, the rabbi of Komemiyut and a Gerrer chassid:


Know that all of the tzaddikim endeavored, each in his own way, to bring about the words of the holy Rabbi M. Papirush, may his merit protect us, who wrote that our righteous Messiah would redeem us in the year 5666 (1906).  But Accuser brought confusion to the world in the year 5657 (1897), and Am Yisrael sinned in the declaration of the First Zionist Congress that Am Yisrael is no longer subjugated to Torah, and is a nation like the other nations.  This was a sin that struck at the very foundation of our nation, and caused all the transgressions, and postponed the coming of the Messiah.  Had it not been for this, we would be fulfilling the commandment of settling the land of Israel together with the King Messiah.  And our teacher the Sefat Emet, may his merit protect us, died in the year 5665 because he wanted to fulfill the commandment settling the land of Israel only with the King Messiah… (Letters of Rabbi B. Mendelson, letter 44, p. 42)



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]       The Satmar Rebbe left no heirs, and following his death there was a split among his followers.  Some followed his nephew, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, as the new Satmar Rebbe, while others, supported by R. Yoel's widow Rabbanit Alta Feige, refused to accept any other Rebbe, and eventually came to call themselves "Benei Yoel."


[2]       As part of his argument against the Zionist "hastening of the end," Rabbi Teitelbaum also develops an interesting theory of the obligation of exile as a mission to the nations, based – as I understand it – on Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi's metaphor of the seed, which he develops and into which he introduces additional meaning. This approach is also adopted by humanist Jewish thinkers (from whom he certainly did not draw his inspiration) such as Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and Hermann Cohen. The Satmar Rebbe writes:


In the gemara Ta'anit 3b this is formulated slightly differently, where the Sages declare: "'For to the four corners (lit., winds) of the heavens I have spread you, says God' (Zekharia 2:10) – what is He telling them?  … Just as the world cannot exist without the winds, so the world cannot exist without Israel." … The Maharsha explains (Avoda Zara 10b) that this means that through the dispersion of Israel in all four directions of the world, belief in God and in His Torah came to be publicized, and this gives the world its existence, such that it will not be destroyed.  What this means is that this itself is the very existence of the world – the fact that we see, all over the world, among all the nations, that there is Torah and belief in the blessed God, and this would not be possible had there not been Jews in all of these places.