In most ḥasidic sects, the position of rebbe has been passed down from father to son (or from father-in-law to son-in-law) for several generations, and this pattern is expected to continue. Given the importance of the rebbe—without parallel in other Jewish denominations—conflicts over who is next in line can be intense. In his book Who Will Lead Us?, Samuel Heilman examines succession struggles among five ḥasidic groups in America, along with their European antecedents. Reviewing the book, Zalman Rothschild questions Heilman’s decision to examine these stories without reference to ideology or religious thought:
Heilman shows how rebbes seek to obtain positions that will afford them control over extensive assets that grant them economic security, power, and influence. Saintly as they are reputed to be, rebbes are human beings vying for what is essentially political power. This does indeed seem to be the case among, say, [contemporary] Satmar Ḥasidim. When Moshe Teitelbaum, the third rebbe of Satmar, died in 2006, Aaron and Zalman Leib, his two sons, battled for control of the dynasty. With more than $50 million of assets at stake, the fighting was fierce. As Heilman reports, defenders of Aaron used verbal and physical violence, even going so far as to hire nightclub bouncers to beat up their rival’s followers.
But what is true of the Satmars today was not necessarily true of their sect at all times. Heilman believes that the very first Satmar rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, engaged from the start in self-serving behavior. As the youngest child of the rebbe of Sighet, knowing full well that there was little to no chance that he would inherit his father’s position, he conspired, in Heilman’s account, to gain control of a ḥasidic crown by unconventional means. But Yoel was [also] well known for his piety, as demonstrated by his practice of barely sleeping, fasting regularly, and studying for long hours in seclusion. According to Heilman, however, Yoel’s pious practices were deliberate maneuvers to gain distinction and stand out in order to secure for himself the mantle of rebbe. . . .
Heilman’s cynical assessment of Yoel Teitelbaum and [likewise of the last Chabad-Lubavitch rebbe], Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is not preposterous. It is surely possible that these leading ḥasidic lights did vie for their positions and craftily sought to gain control of them. Yet of all the possible explanations for their motives, one wonders why Heilman generally opts to assume the worst. . . .
Still, Who Will Lead Us? includes many great stories, all of them sharply and engagingly told. Heilman’s account of the fight over the leadership of the Bobovers (resolved by the New York State Supreme Court after years of infighting) is worth the price of the hardcover volume alone. By zeroing in, however, on only the most material aspects of his subject, he has made some of the all-too-human leaders of Ḥasidism look more ordinary than they really are.
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access