Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Look At A Different Social Power Structure

I made up this post while walking Henrietta the Hound in the woods. For some reason the story interested me, and I couldn't get to the basic reason right away. Take this beginning quote from one of the many articles discussing the Hasidic succession crisis:

Hasidic king was buried Monday night, even as two of his sons fought in secular and religious courts to claim his throne.

Satmar Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, the 91-year-old leader of the world's largest and
most powerful ultra-orthodox Hasidic sect, had been dead only three hours when thousands of Hasidim -- bearded and wearing black felt hats -- jammed into the main synagogue in Brooklyn for his funeral.

The scene was from another age -- 17th-century Eastern Europe, to be precise. Teitelbaum's sons loosened high-pitched wails and bowed again and again in prayer toward his wooden coffin. Male mourners, pressed so tightly together that breathing was difficult, surged across the floor, pushing, shoving, elbowing to get closer to the casket.

Upstairs, Satmar women watched, unseen, from behind wooden screens.

Outside the synagogue, loudspeakers pumped out the sons' eulogies and prayers into the night air, their cries echoing off the tenement walls of the Williamsburg neighborhood. More than 20,000 Satmar followers packed the streets, sat shoulder-to-shoulder on brownstone stoops, climbed trees or watched from rooftops and balconies.

There is the sex segregation to make me take notice, of course, and the suggestion of something wild, something emotional, something different than I expect from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. Violence simmering under the funereal grief.

The reason for that violence is explained here:

The Satmar community is the fastest-growing ultra-orthodox sect in the world, controlling a $1 billion real estate and social services enterprise. It claims more than 100,000 members -- in Brooklyn; Montreal; Antwerp, Belgium; and Jerusalem. An additional 19,000 live in Kiryas Joel, an entirely Hasidic town 25 miles north of New York City.

But no one has devised a clear process for picking a new grand rebbe -- succession wars and angry splits are common among Hasidic sects. In theory, the grand rebbe anoints a successor, a rabbinical court agrees, and the choice meets with approval.

In the case of the Satmar, Teitelbaum's eldest son, Aaron -- who is chief rabbi in Kiryas Joel -- expected to succeed his father. But in his later years, Moses Teitelbaum came to see Aaron as headstrong and, perhaps, not capable of leading the entire sect.

So the father appointed a younger son, Zalmen, to run the Williamsburg congregation, splitting his empire.

Aaron never fully accepted the decision. Save for a few brief words of commiseration Monday evening, the middle-aged brothers have not spoken to each other in more than seven years, say advisers to the two men. Most Satmar Hasidim have lined up behind one brother or the other -- the sides are known as the "Zalis" and "Aaronis" -- and the past decade has been punctuated by fistfights, broken legs and arms, torched cars and homes.

Ignore the money stuff. It's a red herring in what I plan to say about the story. What is crucial here is to note that the grand rabbi was truly the ruler of the sect, that whatever he said was accepted as the ruling and that his reign was quite dictatorial. Patriarchy. True patriarchy shown in action.

Reflect on it a little. We have a social power structure where one old man decides everything, and people go along with this power structure, because it makes life easy for anyone who doesn't want to make decisions and keeps everything clear and simple.

Then the grand rebbe violates the basic rule of the patriarchy by rejecting the first-born son as his heir and favors a younger son instead! What to do???? Here is the absolute authority making a decision that clashes with the way absolute authority is supposed to be administered. Whose side are you going to take here??? Are you going to say that the utmost authority, based on maleness and age, is correct, and that therefore a younger son can be favored over an older one? Or are you going to decide that it's the older son of the great patriarch who is supposed to inherit the earth, whatever the patriarch himself happened to say?

Interesting, isn't it? Maybe not to anyone else, but I find it fascinating. It's really a living lesson about the fragility of patriarchy and of any system that is based on total accumulation of power and simple rules on how it is to be passed on. The sect has no procedure for solving this debate because such procedures would require democracy of some kind. Hence the violence. The violence is also a sign about the severity of the breakdown this quarrel represents. The wealth associated with all this is not the ultimate reason for the violence, as the article appears to suggest. The ultimate reason is the fundamental threat to the whole social power structure caused by Rabbi Teitelbaum's decision. He really put his followers into an impossible bind.