Rabbi Gavin Michal - The Kotzk Blog

The Kotzk BlogRabbi Gavin Michal is a student of the philosophical teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe. His short philosophical offerings from the inspirational words of the Kotzker Rebbe have become the stuff of legend since he started publishing them some years ago on MyShtetl. Rabbi Michal built his own congregation, Baal Shem Tov, in Orange Grove almost two decades ago, and has a thriving congregation.

Rabbi Michal says that “In these blogs, I have tried to present as accurately as I can, many of the teachings of the Rebbe of Kotzk that have absolutely captivated me personally.”

“These teachings appear in bold font, and many of them (to the best of my knowledge) have never before been translated into English. I have attempted to be as true to the original text as possible.” 

KOTZK BLOG 2 - Meaning before Spirit

by Jewish Report | Jun 08, 2014

Meaning before Spirit

Musings on the teachings of Kotzk


What I learned from a non-frum congregant

I had a non-frum congregant once. I say ‘had’ because he was so non-frum, he stopped coming to shul. I noticed that as soon as the services commenced, his eyes would glaze over with acute boredom. I wisely suggested that instead of just sitting there, he read something.  Anything! I recommended a book on F16s that I thought may grab his attention, but instead he brought along his own copy of Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning’. There he sat in front of our library shelves which were overflowing with hundreds of holy books from Rambams to Gemoras, reading a secular book about “Meaning”.  I laughed at the irony and so did he.

Months later I came upon a Kotzker teaching that made me question whether I was right to have laughed.

 I think I’m spiritual. So do you. So does everyone I know.

I also think I’m unique, just like everyone else.

But what is “spiritual”?  I don’t know. I’ve been a rabbi for almost thirty years and I still don’t know. Oh yes, I know what it’s supposed to be. I know the text book definition. Still, that doesn’t mean I know what it is.

I suppose it’s like art. I can draw a stick man just like you. Picasso also could. What makes his renderings art, while ours remain just doodles? To an untrained eye they are all probably look like doodles. What makes art, art?

What makes spirit, spirit? If I can call myself spiritual, then I can call myself an artist.

Funny though how there are far more ‘spiritual people’ than ‘artists’. Few people would dare call themselves artists, but everybody thinks they are ‘spiritual’.

Religious people may consider themselves to be ‘spiritual’, by definition. They may very well be, although I would rather refer to them as ‘observant’. It could be argued that simply by keeping the Law you do become spiritual. Technically if you keep G-d’s Law you should be spiritual. You should, but are you really? Just because I draw, do I become an artist?  I may have become slightly more of an artist than I was before I started to draw, but few would be willing to pay good money for my ‘art’.

I wonder then, what my spirituality is worth?

When the Gustniner Rebbe came to Kotzk for the first time, he was full of trepidation. He didn’t think he had the capacity for the spirituality he was so certain to encounter when confronted with the teachings of Kotzk. He doubted his ability to absorb and assimilate the depths of mystic theology he expected to acquire.

Imagine his surprise when the Kotzker responded: “Here we do not look for things we cannot find. We simply look for meaning in the things we already have.”   (Emet ve Emunah p106, par 6.)

What an astonishing teaching from a spiritual master! While so many other Teachers tell us to look for spirituality, the great spiritual pragmatist himself tells us that spirituality is essentially elusive.  “Meaning”, on the other hand is so subjective and personal, that it is more within our grasp and reach.

In other words, it’s more real.

Was the Kotzker pre-empting the now famous philosophy of that great Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Victor Frankl (1905-1997)?  He called his theory ‘logo therapy’, from the Greek ‘logos’, meaning ‘Meaning’. Freud postulated the will to Pleasure, Adler the will to Power, while Frankl believed in the will to Meaning. “Meaning”, he wrote “must be found and cannot be given.”  Meaning is like laughter. You cannot force someone to laugh. A person can only laugh once they have found the humor in something. 

So it is with spirituality. You cannot give it to someone. They have to find it. But the Kotzker says they cannot really find it. So the closest they can get, is to stop pursuing it (as counter intuitive as it may sound) and instead look for Meaning. People who seek ethereal spirituality, often either loose it or replace it with another style of spirituality. Meaning, however, can never be lost or replaced, because it is so personal, unique and essentially real.

If my ex-non-frum congregant ever gets to read this, know that you have taught me more than you could imagine: The first honest step towards any spiritual encounter is to try to find the Meaning before the Spirit.

I can fool myself (and others) that I am Spiritual. But I can’t fool myself that I have found Meaning, unless I really have found Meaning.


  1. 5 Israeli 09 Jun

    I, too am a non-frum Jew, and after many years of searching for spirituality the closest I' ve come to it is walking and breathing the air of Eretz Yisrael.

    The minute I' m chutz la'aretz (outside of Israel) the spirituality seems to desert me. Perhaps you have an explanation Rabbi?

  2. 4 Rabbi Gavin Michal 11 Jun
    I don't have an explanation but I can offer an opinion.
    Perhaps you have found Meaning in Eretz Yisrael, and hence Spirituality?
  3. 3 Israeli 12 Jun

    Thanks Rabbi for your answer. Since you have given your opinion, may I give mine based on the fact that I have lived inside and outside of Israel for the 81 years of life Hashem has granted me. I believe that for any member of the nation of Israel true meaning, and spirituality can only be found in Eretz Yisrael. Anywhere else meaning and spirituality is the same for Jews and non-Jews.

    Looking forward to hearing from you. I really enjoy your insights.

  4. 2 Rabbi Gavin Michal 12 Jun
    I have nothing but respect for your beliefs which you have obviously cultivated over many years. You were around before 1948. I was not. You know more about the world before 1948. I do not.
    Perhaps passion is even more important than meaning?
    Passion is an indication that one is still young.
  5. 1 Israeli 13 Jun

    Thank you so much for your encouraging words. I never received them from 'other' Chassidim.

    I would use my own name, but the editor has seen fit to 'censor' me.

    P.S. Have sent a comment on your Ist. essay.


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