Allan Nadler thinks he knows where and why the Spinka Rebbe went wrong. Nadler makes a compelling argument that cuts to the heart of hasidic theology and worldview.
It begins with a rebbe who was rich beyond his wildest dreams. He was chauffeured about town in gold plated vehicles. He wore luxurious clothes embroidered with gold. He had his own orchestra, dozens of servants. "All the money in the world belongs to…
…me," he said.
Allan Nadler writes in the Forward:
…The mind-set of numerous smaller, mostly Rumanian and Hungarian Hasidic sects is typically mired in a romance with the “glory days” of their respective founding Rebbes. In the case of Spinka, this harkens back to the distinctly inglorious late 19th century era of what Jewish historians have dubbed “decadent Hasidism” in the loosely Austrian-ruled district of Bukovina, in the infamously lawless land of Rumania.
Indeed, it may all go back to the father of “decadent Hasidism,” Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin — who, you’ll recall, was also the very man suspected of putting out the hit on Oksman and Shvartzman in the Mayseh Ushits. Following his release from prison in February 1840, Rabbi Israel fled Tsarist Russia to the Austrian-ruled Rumanian district of Bukovina, there to establish the wealthiest and most unabashedly materialistic dynasty in Hasidic history. As the Israeli scholar David Assaf has richly documented in his magisterial biography of Rabbi Israel, this Rebbe inaugurated a uniquely opulent style of Hasidic leadership that spread like prairie fire to Hasidic courts all across Rumania, modeling itself after the decadent lifestyle of Central Europe’s most debauched royal families. Rabbi Israel unabashedly demanded enormous sums of money from his Hasidim (presumably without offering kickbacks or illegally inflated tax-receipts). He wore outrageously lavish, silver and gold-laced outfits, favored royally decorative walking-sticks, was serenaded to sleep by his personal orchestra and was transported in a gilded chariot said to have been drawn by a dozen white stallions (some say six Arabians, while others argue three Rumanian nags). And he infamously was fond of declaring, as a kind of personal motto, “All the money in the world belongs to me.”
Historians of Hasidism have long considered the establishment of R. Israel of Ruzhin’s palatial headquarters, and those of his followers such as the Rebbes of Sadigora and Buhush in Bukovina and Tchortkov in Galicia, as the inception of a period not only of material decadence but also severe theological and intellectual decline within Rumanian Hasidism. For alongside the amassing of considerable fortunes by these Hasidic Rebbes of Rumania, there was a discernable descent in learning and a steep rise in superstitious gullibility on the part of their Hasidim, particularly relating to the Rebbes’ alleged supernatural abilities and personal immaculateness.
While the early secular historians of East European Jewry saw nothing but decadence in 19th century Hasidism, the reality is more complex. For example, in 1869, Rabbi Hayyim Halberstam of Zanz — whose descendants founded the flourishing Bobover Hasidic sect, the largest today in Boro Park — inaugurated an all-out war against the Sadigorer Rebbe’s debauched style of leadership, one that lasted for many years. It is for this reason that Rumanian Hasidism was rife with all manners of financial corruption and vulnerability to a host of criminal tendencies, in marked contrast to the more scholarly, at times pseudo-rationalist, major Polish and Russian Hasidic dynasties — such as Bobov, Ger and Lubavitch.
Less than a hundred miles east of the palatial courts of the Hasidic dynasties established by the Ruzhiner Rebbe and his heirs, lies the tiny Rumanian hamlet of Spinka, in the Maramures region bordering on Hungary. It was there that the first Spinker Rebbe, R. Joseph Meir Weisz (b. 1838), known as the Imre Yosef after the title of his entirely unremarkable Torah commentary, established his small sect.…
What Nadler does not seem to know is that the behavior of fourth Lubavitcher rebbe, Shmuel Schneersohn, the Maharash, mimicked the behavior of Israel of Ruzhin. After his father's, the Tzemach Tzedek's, passing, the Maharash ran the town of Lubavitch like a royal court, just like the Ruzhiner. He had golden carriages and royal garments, servants and all the pomp of royalty.
The hasidim of his brothers and nephews, who needed to come to visit the graves of the Tzemach Tzedek and his predecessor the Mittler Rebbe, had to pay a tariff, so to speak, in order to visit. The Tzemach Tzedek is said to have had 100,000 hasidim. Most followed the other brothers. The Maharash grew rich on tourism.
The Maharash, who was by most academic accounts the least of the brothers in all but physical size (he was said to weigh well over 300 pounds and stand about 5 ft 3 in), was not much of a manger, either. His son, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn would inherit a much smaller court with far fewer hasidim, stripped of much of its wealth, power and prestige.
Nadler also notes:
…The mood of this deeply insular ultra-Orthodox community only darkened further as copies of the 45-page federal indictment detailing no fewer than 37 criminal charges against the Rebbe and his cohorts, as well as the juicy FBI transcripts richly documenting the surveillance methods employed to uncover the Spinker Rebbe’s elaborate schemes, hit the Internet.…
Where on the Internet did that indictment hit? Right here.
The entire article is posted here.