Apparently, the Messiah has arrived in New York. Yes, the images of Jews lynching a Jew for not agreeing with them, attempting to murderer Hassidic journalist Jacob Kornbluth, the burning of masks, have now reverberated worldwide. They have forever stained the image of the Jewish community in New York. Yet they also mark a historical, psychological, and theological shift for many in the Hassidic community in New York. No longer do many of these communities see themselves as minorities in host countries that need to behave with cautious respect; they have arrived in the promised land. They have arrived in New York, the eternal inheritance of their forefathers and promised land of future generations. In a way, for them, the Messiah has arrived.
Nothing epitomizes this behavior like that of the Satmar community. This community has traditionally jumped through various theological rings in order to oppose the state of Israel. The state of Israel, in their view, is a rebellion against God. The Jewish people are commanded by God to be submissive and obedient to the nations of the world, particularly those whose country they are living in. In this view, a rebellion against the nations or an attempt to self-govern is a rebellion against God. Yet as Kiryas Joel—Satmar headquarters—becomes the epicenter of COVID-19 in New York State, due primarily to flagrant disregard to measures recommended by public health officials, the Satmar Rebbe reportedly said he is declaring war against Governor Andrew Cuomo. Think about that for a moment: a rabbi who time and again lambastes Jews in Israel for defending themselves with an independent army, saying they must submit to Arab and other nations, declaring open war on the Governor of the state he actually lives in.
While not as abrasive as the Satmar path, Agudath Israel of America also did not hesitate to challenge Governor Cuomo. After the Governor issues his latest guidelines for coronavirus prevention, the Agudah released a statement (October 6th), rich with poetic digs and jabs composed with a uniquely bitter personal tone, referring to Cuomo’s actions as “capricious” “offensive” and “unconstitutional.”
While the Agudah and other groups are no less American than any other American and are entitled to their opinion, one cannot ignore the fact that this approach of a younger guard is a sharp break from that of the rabbis of previous generations. The approach of prior generations emanated from not taking America for granted. Rabbis like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Aaron Kotler, Yoel Teitelbaum, and the Rebbe of Lubavitch all knew what it was like to be a Jew in a country that did not treat you equally. They knew that if Jews were to flourish in America, it would only be if they appreciated the blessing of how they are treated. And yes, America is the country we live in, but New York State is a full-fledged state. Declaring open war—whether explicitly or implicitly—on the Governor or the mayor of the city we live in is a brazen violation of that spirit of a generation with a broader perspective. So generational is this attitude that when speaking to an older very well respected Hassidic rabbi he told me: “I want you to know that the older rabbis are afraid to speak out”. A younger generation has taken over communal policies and things are sure looking different.
A generation that is a second, third, and fourth generation born in America feels more comfortable. They have no problem sticking it to the Governor, Mayor, or any number of government officials. They are entitled to do so. Yet they cannot deny the fact that this is a historic break from generations of the Jewish approach to government. The wisdom of the traditional approach? The recognition that conditions are volatile and can change overnight. One does not need a PhD. in history of political science to know that good neighborly conduct and relationship building has its impact– even in the most advanced democracy in the world. The idea that somehow living in New York, voting like Kentucky, and treating our elected officials like they were officials in a Ugandan parliament brawl will end well for our communal needs is narcissistic, entitled, and unrealistic.
I have no problem in speaking truth to power to defend Judaism. My great grandfather Rabbi Eliezer Poupko was sentenced to exile in Siberia because he insisted on uncompromising religious standards in communist Russia until the day he escaped in 1931. I have no problem respectfully criticizing government policy, which may hurt my community or any other community. Yet when attacks become personal, when elected officials know that an entire community despises them in a personal way, when entire communities laugh away city and state guidelines meant to curb a pandemic of once in a hundred years, long term collective interests are compromised. If for some reason, we find that our requests for city and state grants for our communities, schools, and synagogues are not met with the same graciousness they have been in the past, we will have a lot of time to do deep thinking about how some in our community have conducted themselves and what could have been different. We may even come to those for answers in the future.
While for some in Satmar or the Agudah, the Messiah has arrived in New York and their eternal prosperous lives in NY are taken for granted— so much so that they don’t mind to stick it to the mayor, Governor, and health officials— I will be following the words of the prophet Yirmiyahu who said:
“So said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exile which I have exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and dwell [therein], and plant gardens and eat their produce…. seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to the Lord, for in its peace, you shall have peace.” (Jeremiah 29)