April 6, 2022 Satmar Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum’s fierce anti-lockdown speech
Among the many bits and pieces of records for the archives that I collected on Covid, I find the Satmar rebbe’s anti-lockdown speech most fascinating. To commemorate two years since we set out to flatten the curve, I am publishing the text and an English translation of it.
It’s important to note that Reb Aaron’s position was extremely controversial, and it was vetoed by other voices from within and outside the community, which pushed for abiding by public health measures and led to a lockdown (with exceptions for prayers and such). All the other Hasidic leaders, as far as I know, either did not take any active position, thereby leaving it to their activists, community organizers, and the secular authorities, or eagerly encouraged their congregations to follow the government guidelines. For instance here is the Karlin-Stolin Rebbe as he “rips into” Haredi violations, or here is the Bobov Rebbe of Boro Park wearing a mask to make a statement. I’ve also posted many excerpts from the Hasidic Yiddish media, all of which reported Covid rather faithfully in line with secular media.
This makes Aaron Teitelbaum’s words an enormous exception, and very brazen. Indeed, he was roundly criticized after this speech, and soon after, rumors circulated that he and his wife were sick. It was as if he had been proven wrong. At the time, I told an acquaintance that I found his perspective to be very insightful, but it was a really dangerous time to share this text on my blog. There was a terrifying hatred for Hasidim all around, and if I shared something like this I’d probably (perhaps rightfully) be accused of enormously endangering Hasidim. It’s hard to remember now how venomous things were then, but for many months, Hasidim were an unabashed target of the whole world’s animosity, as they were seen as spreading disease to everyone else. I think things have settled enough that we can now post this here for posterity.
Text of the speech of Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum
At the session of Tehillim prayers on Monday, March 16, 2020, in the Mesifta Yeshiva
King David says in Tehillim Chapter 1, “He shall be as a tree planted beside water, which brings forth its fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wilt; and whatever he does prospers.” This looks like a promise and a blessing; “He shall be as a tree planted beside water, which brings forth its fruit in its season,” that the fruits will yield in its time. And “and its leaves should not wilt; and whatever he does prospers.” This is a promise. But there is also a request here: that the fruit may yield in its time.
We are now living in a difficult time. Sadly, a disease has spread all over the world, and the disease is sadly spreading quickly, from country to country, not only among the gentiles of the world, but it has also sadly already hit Jewish homes, where the disease has struck. May god help them to have a speedy and complete recovery.
The government seeks to curb the disease, to help the people, and they go according to their philosophies and ways. And one of the things that they understand in this vein is to prevent people from congregating — they believe that this will prevent the disease from spreading from person to person. On shabbes we all lived through it: They don’t allow the congregating of large crowds of people. We tried on shabbes to figure out how to get around that so that we can organize [for services].
Last night they issued an ordinance that we need to close the boys’ schools, the girls schools, the young boys’ yeshivas.
I have to say, I had a very hard night! A very hard night! I couldn’t sleep! I had to lock ten thousand Jewish children here in Kiryas Joel — and that’s not even counting the large yeshiva — ten thousand Jewish children who study the Torah! It broke my heart!
I said on the spot: We are opening the yeshivas today, and we will continue. The sages said, the Torah protects us and saves us, and so it is written in the gemara: The Torah shields us from calamities. It protects! [As it is written:] “the world would not exist if it weren’t for the words of study of the little children.” So can we close the boys’ schools?
We try to stand on guard and to do all that is within our means, all legal avenues, to ensure the boys’ schools and even the girls’ schools are able to continue with their studies, to keep alive the “words of study of the little children” [which sustain the world]. This protects the community. We need great mercy for the people of Kiryas Joel, just as the Jews everywhere need great mercy from above, to be spared from all catastrophes. We hope that the prayers of Jewish children and the Torah study of Jewish children will have an effect on the community and on all Jewish people.
Of course we have to act with common sense, to take care of physical health, to deal with things in the best way.
We have to explain our way to those who hold positions in the government. They don’t understand what a Jewish home is, they look at us with the secular perspective on life.
We are unlike the gentiles. They have families of two or three children, with an apartment, with a room for the television, a room for videos, entertainment. And if there is no school, then they have entertainment at home — there are ways to stay entertained. The gentile won’t just wander around in the streets [out of boredom], so the gentile thinks that locking down is a way to limit contact with people.
They do not at all understand what a Jewish Hasidic family is; a family thank god with many young ones, where the space at home is tight and there is hardly any room. We set up beds to sleep in the dining room, there is none of the secular entertainments, and if the kids are sent home from the school and there is no room in the home, then the children will roam the streets. And there they will meet again, so the whole effort is for naught, no good comes of it!
Jewish children need to go to the synagogue to pray. A child prays from age six or seven; he prays in a class of twenty-five boys. So what will happen if we lock the schools? Everyone will come to the synagogue to pray, every child will come to the synagogue to pray, every child will come to the synagogue to learn, the synagogues will be packed with children… a gentile mind doesn’t understand this! He doesn’t understand what Torah is for a Jew, what prayer is for a Jew, the whole Jewish lifestyle.
These are the institutions we live in…
I was afraid of this, sadly!
We are trying to do everything possible to keep going with the boys’ study programs, not to lock the yeshivas, or the institutions for the adolescent boys, or for the little boys, or even the girls’ school.
In this difficult time we offer a prayer and plea to the One Above, “that your fruit may yield in due time,” that we should be able to give the fruit of Torah, of commandments and good deeds. May we be able to give it during this time, and may the studying not be disrupted among Jewish children, may we be able to continue to educate, and keep the schools open.
Of course, it is simple and self understood that we will do anything that is related to “guarding the health.” We also understand the dictum “guard carefully your body,” and this is an obligation. So we will take care that those who have health issues, be they the elderly or those who are ill, to spend less time among crowds, to protect them, and on all matters that are necessary for matters of health.
May god keep his right hand on all his Jewish children, and bring upon us the blessing of “and I healed the ill from among you.” May he guard all Jewish homes from every calamity and suffering, from every illness, be they physical or spiritual. And may god help all people — and we have to include non-Jews — that there should be no epidemic, “To prevent destruction and epidemics from among us,” that the whole population should be completely healthy. And may he help us to be able to serve him with peace of mind, with healthy bodies and continued growth and eternal good.
Of course, Reb Aaron’s mission to keep things open failed, as not only did Hasidic schools close for a few weeks but almost everything.
Many months later, I saw the following note circulate in Hasidic twitterville but I could never verify if it is authentic and which rebbe it is (although it sounds like it would be Aaron). In it, a rebbe tells his activists that the mistake of locking down will not occur again, and that “the job of activists is to convince the government on our behalf, not to convince us in favor of the government.” Regardless of if these are the words of a Hasidic rebbe, it’s true that after the first lockdown Hasidim adopted Reb Aaron Teitelbaum’s approach and insisted that they would no longer shut down any of their institutions.
Meanwhile, Hasidim have done okay getting around the rules because their isolated bubble gives them tremendous room to get around the rules. Here is Reb Zalmen Leib Teitelbaum flying off somewhere on a private plane, giving him room around Covid testing, masking, and vaccines.
Note: I welcome your comments on my translation and any additional notes on this post.