October 31, 2020 |

Bedford Bikers and Satmar Chasidim

Some of you might have heard about the Bedford Bike Lanes controversy.

There is a major brouhaha currently going on in New York City concerning a bike path from Brooklyn to Manhattan and that goes along Bedford Avenue. Bedford Avenue goes through Williamsburg which has a very large and politically powerful Satmar Chassidic community. The Satmar Chassidim successfully lobbied the mayor of New York to remove the bike lanes from Bedford Avenue for different reasons. One major reason is the fact that they do not like the way the female bikers dress when they ride through their neighborhood.

So Mayor Bloomberg ordered the city to paint over the bike lanes.

However, the bikers were unhappy with this and so one night they repainted the bike lanes on Bedford Avenue. This controversy has so far generated more than 500 articles and a youtube video of the bikers repainting the bike lanes has so far been seen by more than 100,00 people.

Full disclosure. My brother, Baruch, owns a building in Williamsburg which gives free space to the bikers. He also gives free bikes to Chasidim who sneak away in the middle of the night to get a free ride on the bike under the cover of night. After the city repainted the bike lanes my brother was quoted in the New York Post as saying that the bikers are “stocking up on cans of white paint.” My brother has been quoted in the New York Times as “the unofficial spokesperson” for the bikers. But then again the New York Times, in a different article, also said he was “born as a Satmar chasid”…. Not true at all!

Although this might appear to be just a pedestrian issue, the controversy really cuts to an important theological difference between the Modern Orthodox Jewish community and the Hassidic Jewish community; i.e. what should characterize our relationship with the world around us.

There are many great aspects of the Hassidic community to admire; e.g. their commitment to caring for the social needs of their community and their devotion to mitzvoth and, prayer, in particular. And of course, I very much admire, their love for all Jews.

I will never forget a very special night we had in our shul earlier in the year. On the night of Hoshannah Rabbah, we got a call from a Satmar Hasid wanting to know if we were reading the Book of Devarim that night. For many Hassidic Jews it is custom to read the entire Book of Devarim on the night of Hoshannah Rabbah. This Hasid was traveling in DC on Sukkot and was seeking a public reading of Devarim. I told him we were reading Devarim that night and he was overjoyed as we were the only shul in the area practicing this custom. I then invited him to join us all for dinner in the sukkah. He came with his family, and his brother’s family. There were around 20 Satmar Chasidim who came and joined us in the Sukkah for a Hoshannah Rabbah feast with singing and dancing followed by an uplifting reading of Devarim. The spirit of unity and connection amongst the Jewish people that I felt that night was truly inspiring.

But there is an area where there is a clear bright line between the Modern Orthodox community and the Hassidim. The Hassidim view the ghetto as an ideal place to live. In their minds it was great when Jews were isolated in the Middle Ages and forced to live apart from the rest of the world. This was a beautiful and pristine era which we should long for and recreate. That is why the Hassidim still dress like the Jews of Eastern Europe and that is why they long to freeze out the spiritual dangers of the rest of the world by living in their own enclaves.

On the other hand, the Modern Orthodox community views the ghetto as a sad time in Jewish history; a time where our isolation prevented us from carrying out God’s work in the rest of the world; a time where our isolation stifled us and limited our impact. The Modern Orthodox world flees the ghetto in order to embrace the world around us.

This week’s portion, Vayigash, can offer us insight into how Jews should live in the Diaspora. The time the children of Jacob spent in Egypt is the only example in the Five Books of Moses as to how we should conduct ourselves outside of the land of Israel.

Let us look closely at how Joseph and his brothers lived under Pharaoh.

Here are three examples of how Joseph and his brothers interact with Pharaoh:

First: Before Joseph brings his brothers to meet Pharaoh. He instructs them very carefully as to what they should say. Joseph tells them to say (46:34): “Anshei Mikneh hayu avadekhah, your servants are men of cattle, from our youth until the present time.” The text then goes on to tell us the reason that Joseph told them to say this: “So that you can dwell in the land of Goshen for all shepherds are an abomination to Egyptians.”

So Joseph carefully orchestrates the conversation between his brothers and Pharaoh so that Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptians will not want to live with the sons of Jacob. The brothers are seen as abominable by the Egyptians and this is just fine in Joseph’s eyes. Now they will get to live in the land of Goshen which is called “the best of the land” and they will be able to live in relative isolation. In short, Joseph has arranged for his brothers to live in a ghetto.

Second: When Joseph brings his brothers to meet with Pharaoh, the text says that he brings only five of the brothers, miktzeh echav, from the weakest of his brothers. Rashi explains that Joseph presented the five weakest brothers so that Pharaoh would not call upon them for army service.

This idea became another rule to live by when Jews lived in the ghetto. Don’t fight on behalf of the country you live in because it is not your fight. Let the Gentiles fight amongst themselves, while the Jews should focus their energy on Torah and the like. Don’t serve the people of the land; serve yourself and benefit your own community.

And third: The text states (47:12) that Joseph nourished and gave food to his brothers (lechem lefi hataf). And the very next verse states that while they got food the rest of the people suffered. Lechem ein bekhol haaretz, and there was no food in the rest of the land, for the hunger was very great.

This was another rule for medieval Jewry to live by: Get as much as you can from the ruling authorities. Use your political power to benefit yourself and do not concern yourself with the rest of the world.

The problem with using these paradigms to run our life today is that there has been a paradigm shift. It made sense to follow these rules in a world where the ruling authorities persecuted the Jewish people and there were anti-Semites who beat up Jews on every corner. But do these rules really make sense to follow when we live in a country that has been more gracious and kind to the Jewish people than any other country in the history of the world?

The mistake that the Hassidim are making is that their original paradigm is faulty. Jews did not live in the ghetto because they wanted to, but because they were forced to. The ghetto is not the ideal place for a Jew to live.

Everything Joseph did for his brothers might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but we all know how the story ended.

The Jews were living in Goshen which is also called Ramses. Ramses becomes known as the place where the children of Jacob are enslaved. The fact that had no military strength leaves them exposed. And the fact that were doing better than the Egyptians economically breeds resentment; as the text tells us that new Pharaoh is concerned that the Children of Israel will connect with the enemies of Pharaoh and team up against him.

Since the story ends with their enslavement I am always amazed when people point to this story as an example of how to live in the Diaspora; instead it should be the example of how NOT to live in the Diaspora.

In fact, the manner in which Joseph and his brothers lived in Egypt is not the goal of the Book of Genesis.

Just the opposite. It is a rejection of the Abrahamic mission. Hashem changed Avram’s name to Avraham. The extra hey stands for av hamon goyim, a father amongst the nations.

Abraham’s role was not to be isolated from the world, but to be integrated and to lead the world by example. How can you lead the world from a ghetto?

When Joseph moved his brothers to Egypt he forgot this part of Abraham’s mission and this is the reason for the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. In order to become a nation we first needed to understand and learn what it was like to be a slave to a Pharaoh. Only then would we be able to leaders and impact the world for the better through our service to Hashem.

Ironically, Jacob himself understood this. Jacob who had spent a good deal of his life fighting with Esav and Lavan, understood that that was not the way to achieve the fulfillment of the Abrahamic mission.

Look at how Yaakov interacts with Pharaoh. He doesn’t have Yosef’s talking points. He tells Pharaoh my life is me-at ve-raim, short and bitter. He is admitting that he made mistakes and if we listen closely we can almost hear him saying and “I wish my children would not emulate these character traits of mine.”

Significantly, Jacob blesses Pharaoh twice. Twice the Torah tells us Vayevarekh Yaakov et Pharaoh. Ramban (who himself had a very good relationship with his king, James I of Aragon) understands this as, brachah mammash, osher ve-khavod and nechasim, an actual blessing of wealth, honor, and property.”

Towards the end of his life Yaakov understood that his role was to bless the nations of the world around him.

That I believe is the true way to follow in the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: to view our interactions with the world as an opportunity to offer blessings and inspiration.

Of course, we must not assimilate; but that does not mean we should live in a ghetto. It means that while living in the world at large we must not forget who we are and where we come from.

My brother, being my holy brother, is planning a series of positive dialogues with a close friend of his who is a spokesperson of the Satmar community where their different approaches will be discussed and debated.

If I can ever make it to one of those forums, and if I am given the chance to speak, I will say to the Satmar community: “Instead of using all of your political power to take away bike lanes so you don’t heaven forbid see a woman’s legs as she rides her bike through a public area, together we should join forces and follow in the path of Jacob. You should view the fact that so many bikers are riding through you neighborhood as an opportunity to embrace them and proudly show them what it means to live in accordance with the Torah And if you embrace these riders then you will truly be offering them blessings in the spirit of Jacob.”


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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