Anyone who thinks that communal strife over a “new rabbi” is a modern phenomenon might consider an infamous dispute that broke out in Vilna, Lithuania, in the middle of the 18th century.
When Rabbi Shmuel ben Avigdor was named to succeed his late father as Vilna’s rabbi, the younger rabbi was accused of nepotism. When he refused to resign, it created a legal battle so heated it could not be settled locally, drawing in other regional Jewish community councils, the renowned Vilna Gaon himself, and the secular government.
In a March 2 talk at Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park, Dr. Moshe D. Sherman described the sometimes tortured history of rabbinic succession, and punctured myths that the “old country” was somehow immune from communal strife and political chicanery.
A professor of modern Jewish studies at Touro College and associate dean at its Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Sherman, an Edison resident, was a guest of the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park.
He described how the succession of leadership from father to son or son-in-law — sometimes practiced by hasidic movements — has been frowned upon for much of Jewish history and is the source of current rifts among followers.
Until the turn of the 16th century, the idea of a paid community rabbi was unheard of, Sherman said. Religious scholars worked at menial jobs to earn a living like everyone else. A community “kehilla” council, appointed by the local secular governing body, instead decided religious issues. It also was given jurisdiction over many other concerns, including legal matters.
“It approved shuls and also assessed taxes,” he said. “You had to get the kehilla’s permission to move into a community. If you might become a nuisance or troublemaker or a financial burden, you were not permitted to live in town. You even had to get its permission to leave town to ensure you were not running away to avoid creditors or your tax burden.”
By the 17th century, certificates of smiha, or ordination, were issued, resulting in the “egregious” practice of a kehilla council sometimes allowing wealthy families to pay for certificates for their sons, regardless of qualifications, as a means of easing the community tax burden.
“They could bribe the unscrupulous lay leaders of the kehilla,” said Sherman. “I want to believe this practice was not widespread. It was something that happened only on occasion.”
In reaction, a ruling was issued prohibiting a rabbi with family connections or close friends in a community from being appointed its religious leader, said Sherman.
In the Vilna dispute, a financial settlement was reached after years of controversy. The community council decided “never again would there be a community rav,” said Sherman, and, in the Great Synagogue of Vilna, “a slab was placed over the seat next to the aron kodesh,” or holy ark, where the community rabbi would have sat. It remained for 150 years until just before World War I, said Sherman, when Polish authorities demanded a chief rabbi be appointed.
In recent times, competing claims by the sons of the late Satmar grand rebbe, Moses Teitelbaum, who died in 1976, have caused a bitter and sometimes violent split in that hasidic sect, resulting in Zalman leading the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, branch and Aaron being recognized in Kiryas Joel in Orange County, NY.