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INTRODUCTION: Musings on the teachings of Kotzk

Rabbi Michal explains his life-long fascination with the Kotzker Rebbe

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Rabbi Gavin Micha


 

 

KOTZK BLOG – musings on the teachings of Kotzk

By RABBI GAVIN MICHAL

I write this blog with no agenda. There is no formal movement of Kotzker Chassidim today, calling out for adherents or followers (or donations). In fact the Kotzker movement (if it can be argued that it ever existed as a movement) did not survive the generation of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787–1859).
His obsession with Truth was just too much for mere mortals. A movement based on an unconditional commitment to Truth is doomed to fail before it even starts.   
Yet the Kotzker’s teachings are so powerful and compelling that they draw one in to his world even if one knows the sojourn there will be only temporary. “The world”, says the Kotzker, “wants to be deceived”. Truth is so hard to find, even in religion. Especially in religion. The Kotzker once remarked; “A G-d that any dirty old man can believe in, is not the kind of G-d I want to believe in”.
The Kotzker Rebbe was probably the most outrageous religious figure to have ever existed. If he thought something to be true, he expressed it, no matter the consequences.
The Chassidic movement in general was a rebel movement in its day. It rebelled against the staid and stagnant state in which Judaism found itself. It’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, two generations before tried to rejuvenate and reinvigorate what had become a very boring ritualistic religion void of spirituality and spontaneity. To a large extent he succeeded, and probably was responsible for saving Judaism from a slow spiritless death.
The Kotzker, too wanted to be part of this revolution. But when he looked at the Chassidim, he saw that they too were becoming staid, stagnant and spiritless. They all dressed the same, followed the same rebbes, sang the same songs and danced the same dances. The very spontaneity they sought was instead depriving them of it.

So the Kotzker became a rebel within a rebel movement.

I first came across the teachings of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, as a child while beginning to explore my own Judaism. Of course all my rabbis and teachers dissuaded me from delving into his “dangerous” teachings. They were not “main-stream” enough.
Of course I then started reading more about him. In those days there was not much available about Kotzk in English, except for a few quotations here and there (or what I later discovered were misquotations). Still I just couldn’t get enough.
The problem was that he never wrote anything down. Nor did any of his students. To find authentic Kotzk is very difficult. Then, some years ago I got hold of quite a rare copy of probably the most accurate anthology of his teachings in a Hebrew Sefer, entitled “Emet VeEmunah”. I haven’t put that book down since.
Never before have I ever come across such profound wisdom. Simple wisdom that is at the same time so deep. Contemporary wisdom, written a hundred and fifty years ago. This is no-nonsense Judaism. It has been said that many of the great fathers of modern psychology have drunk from his well, and based their sometimes radical philosophies on him.
In this blog, I hope to share with you, dear reader, teachings of a rebel rebbe that will never allow me to view the world the same way again.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Israeli

    Jun 13, 2014 at 10:54 am

    As lover of Eretz Yisrael, I found the following attitude of the Kotzker Rebbe towards Israel very inspirational. I know of many Rabbis and their students who do not consider Yishuv Eretz Yisrael as a mitzvah. The righteous R. Manachem Mendel of Kotzk, however, in a reference to a verse in Parsha Eikev – \”If you will listen to the ‘light’ mitzvoth that a person tramples with his heel, the Lord will keep His promise to you….\”, asked of this. Is it possible to say about the Jewish people that they trample underfoot (ref. to eikev-heel) some of the mitzvoth, belittling them, and calling them ‘light’? Did our sages z’l not teach in Pirkei Avot (2:1) \”Be as careful with a ‘light’ mitzvah as with a ‘weighty’ one, for you do not know the reward given for (the respective) mitzvot?

    The Kotzker Rebbe answers: Come and see. Which Mitzvah does a person literally trample with his heels in order to follow? It could only be the mitzvah of Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Walking on the soil of the Holy Land and dwelling therein is a biblically ordained mitzvah. However many Jews consider this a ‘light’ mitzvah (or no mitzvah at all) which can be ignored. Therefore the Torah here says, If you observe properly the mitzvah that one fulfils with his heel – by walking on the soil of Eretz Yisrael- Hashem will likewise keep His promise to do good to you. (Parpera La Torah vol 5 p63)

    Rabbi, did the Kotzker Rebbe encourage his students to make Aliyah, as did the Vilna Gaon?Oo

    Kind Regards

    Choni Davidowitz

  2. Eli Mallon

    Aug 21, 2016 at 2:14 am

    ‘Someone asked the Kotzker \”Where is God?\”

    The Kotzker said, \”Wherever you let Him in.\”

    Someone once asked me, \”How do you let Him in?\”

    I said, \”By knowing that He’s here already.\”‘

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Rabbi Gavin Micha

KOTZ BLOG 10 The rebbe who didn’t like mysticism

The Kotzker Rebbe has shattered almost every notion we have of a Chassidic leader

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Musings on the teachings of Kotzk

By: Rabbi Gavin Michal

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THE REBBE WHO DIDN’T LIKE MYSTICISM

Chassidic Rebbes are generally portrayed as great mystics, steeped in ancient knowledge, and masters of practical mysticism.

In our studies so far, we have seen how the Kotzker Rebbe has shattered almost every preconceived notion we may have had of a Chassidic leader.

He doesn’t disappoint us when it comes to his attitude towards mysticism either.

 

Beginning with his teachers, we see a new trend emerging  –  an attempt to divest Chassidism of its Lurianic, kabbalistic and mystic foundations.

 

Take the act of eating for example. Much has been written about the mystical aspect of incorporating lower levels of existence (mineral, animal and vegetable), into the human being who consumes them. When the human then performs a holy act, all levels are simultaneously elevated to the realm of the Divine.

 

Juxtapose this on a statement by one of the Kotzker’s teachers, the Yid Ha Kadosh, who said that the only ‘mystical intention’ one should have while eating, is not to overeat.

In a similar vein, his other teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, said that the only ‘mystical intention’ one should have while eating is to properly chew one’s food.

 

Gone is much of the deep and sophisticated esoteric-based theology that so characterized the Baal Shem Tov’s Chassidism.

 

Another example of the growing trend away from mysticism can be found in the Kotzker’s attitude towards the classical concept of “Yichudim” (unifications).

Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that with each mitzvah we perform, we cause a unification to take place between heaven and earth.  Each mitzvah cements that bond between the two diametrically opposed realms of spirit and matter. This bridging of realms can be accomplished by anyone who has appropriate kavanah (concentration) at the time they perform the mitzvah.

But in Kotzk they said that only two “Yichudim” are possible:

One already took place when Moshe merged heaven with earth at Sinai.

They other will only take place one day in the future when the Messiah arrives.

And nothing else will happen in between.   

 

The irony is that the Kotzker studied kabbalah every night with his teacher, R Simcha Bunim. (Eser Niflaot 8)

Yet in the writings of R Simcha (Kol Simcha), there is only one reference to the Lurianic Kabbalah, and just 19 vague references to the Zohar. The word ‘yichudim’ occurs only once. In the Kotzker’s book (Ohel Torah), the Ari is mentioned only once, and the Zohar only five times. This is most unusual for Chassidic works of that time, since most of the corresponding contemporary literature is absolutely satiated with such references.

 

 

The story is told about a visitor who once arrived in Kotzk just before Shabbos. It was too late for him to go to the mikva (as is customary for some to do every week at that time).

Instead he relied on a well known mystical procedure that is said to have a similar effect to a mikva. Suddenly the Kotzker Rebbe burst into the room saying: “Stop. In Kotzk we do not make use of such mystical practices.”

 

He made such an interesting comment about Chabad Chassidism; “They start from the top and work down… we start at the bottom and work up.” (Emet ve Emuna)

Here he is referring to the preoccupation of many Chassidic schools of thought, with the cryptic concept of Ten Sefirot. By distancing himself from such an approach, the Kotzker again highlighted how surprisingly grounded his theology was.

 

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once asked R Yaakov of Radzmin: “For what purpose was man put on this earth?”

The Radzminer responded; “To fix, work on and elevate his soul.

To which the Kotzker boldly retorted: “No. That’s not what we learned in Pshischa.

Man was put on this earth for something far more useful – to elevate heaven!”

(Emet ve Emunah p 109, par 4.)

 

This needs to understood against the following backdrop:

Popular Chasidism had effectively reinterpreted the traditional understanding of kabbalah which spoke about the mystical ‘mechanics’ of G-d, to one which now spoke about the mystical ‘mechanics’ of man. Chassidism had become like mystical psychology focusing more on man and his soul, than on the altruism of something outside of man, namely ‘heaven’.  

To work on one’s own soul is a mystical journey. A trip. It’s wonderful but it’s self absorbing.

According to Kotzk however, a true spiritual encounter could not only involve the soul. It had to incorporate a higher, truer, greater and more altruistic good.

 

Thus, for the Kotzker, the secret of true religion lay, not in mystical delights. Not in out- of-body or out-of-mind…but rather in out-of-self experiences. As long as Truth is connected to the Self (as it is with a mystical experience), it can no longer be absolutely true. Truth must be connected to something out-of-self. Like “heaven”.

 

In Kotzk, Truth is not found in mysticism. Truth can only be found in altruism.

Kotzk moved the widespread Chassidic emphasis on mysticism, to something far simpler, more elegant and transparent. When man behaved at his most noble, this was “heaven”.

 

The reason why the Kotzker was so against mysticism was because he was such a spiritual pragmatist. He believed there was so much confusion and falsehood in our mortal minds that needed sorting out, without confounding ourselves with mysteries of esoteric thought. Truth was more important than anything else.

And by Truth, he meant simple, honest, real and human truth. Not mystical truth.

In Kotzk, you were most spiritual when you were most real.



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KOTZK BLOG 9 – Must it always matter?

The world tells us to worry about prayers and transgressions, but not the Kotzker so much

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By: Rabbi Gavin Michal

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MUST IT ALWAYS MATTER?

 The Kotzker Rebbe was asked by one of his foremost students: “I often feel uninspired during prayer. Is there something that I can focus on to uplift myself when I pray?”

Before we continue, imagine yourself a great rebbe and having someone pose such a question put to you. If you were worth your salt you would probably advise your student to study more about the prayers, or to try contemplate with greater intensity upon the meaning behind them (or something to that effect).

Not so the Kotzker.

His response was; Do not worry about it at all. The power of prayer is so great that if, at some later stage, you happen to pray that prayer with even just a little fervor – it will draw all the previous imperfect prayers towards it and elevate them all together.” (Emet ve Emunah p5, par 1.)

The question was a serious question. The question is interesting. But how can one trivialize prayers by saying; “Do not worry about it at all”?

There was another rebbe who made a similar, but possibly even more astounding statement: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that; “…even if someone committed a transgression, he should not be concerned.” (Hishtapchut HaNefesh)

This, he explains is because the purpose of the evil inclination is not, as is commonly assumed, to physically get us to sin. It has no real interest in the act of the sin itself. Rather its purpose is to make us miserable and depressed after we have sinned. That sense of worthlessness and spiritual despair leads us right to where the evil inclination wants us to be – in a state of depression.

Depression, say the mystics, is the antithesis of holiness. No one can be miserable and holy at the same time. If you feel depressed after committing a sin, you have fallen into a snare.

Isn’t that interesting? The whole world tells us to worry about prayers and transgressions, while the Kotzker and Breslover Rebbes tell us not to worry about them so much (for the reasons they gave).

Some people by nature are rather idealistic. They seem to have the most difficulty with this concept of ‘moving on’. How can you move on when you know something to be wrong?

I recall some sagely advice I once received from a senior rabbi who had been in the business of guiding people for over fifty years: “You don’t always have to be the one to fix everything that’s broken.” 

Sometimes (maybe most times) one needs to allow life to happen.

Not everybody needs to be reprimanded every time they deserve to be.

Not every mistake you make needs to leave you devastated even if that’s the way you feel.

There was the story of R Yeshaya of Mokov. His father was a simple man who was the only ‘official’ musician in the town of Mokov. He was the only person allowed to play at weddings. After he passed away, his son R Yeshaya, who knew how to play the fiddle, was asked to take his fathers place.

R Yeshaya, was more learned than his father, and decided to journey to Kotzk to ask the rebbe if he should take that position. He was concerned that the frivolous nature of weddings on a continuous basis might impinge on his Yiddiskeit.

The Kotzker responded; “There is more Torah literature concerning the importance of making a living, than about the importance of fearing heaven. Let your mind be occupied with ideas of the spirit, but your hands with earthly matters.” (Emet ve Emunah p115, par 7.)

R Yeshaya promptly became the new ‘official’ musician of Mokov.

He was later to play at the very wedding of the Kotzker Rebbe himself.

More often than not, the most meaningful and pragmatic response to the seeker of guidance, is simply: “Your baggage is trying to trap you. Move on.”

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KOTZK BLOG 8 – Chains of spirit

The Kotzker Rebbe warned about the danger of unwittingly creating a culture of dependence within the mindset of the recipient of kindness….Above all else he valued independence…

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Musings on the teachings of Kotzk

Rabbi Gavin Michal

It is difficult to find anything more noble than one person caring for, or nurturing another. Not much can be greater than one individual stepping out of his selfish bounds and giving to another. It warms the heart to witness an act of kindness. Any organization that aims to further the advancement and development of those less fortunate, is to be encouraged and supported.             

Our tradition is replete with accounts of great good people dedicating themselves to helping others. How many rabbis and rebbes have we read about who chopped wood to keep fires going in freezing winters for poor people. How many great sages have we read about who took the time to painstakingly teach Torah to people who had not yet been exposed to its light. 

Long may such people continue their good, charitable and spiritual work. 

While certainly believing in the concept of goodness, the Kotzker Rebbe took a slightly different approach. He warned about the danger of unwittingly creating a culture of dependence within the mindset of the recipient of the kindness. 

The Kotzker described how his teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Pshischa; “…lovingly cared for and elevated all those who came to him for guidance.”

But the Kotzker himself expected all his students to rather be self reliant and to elevate themselves. (Emet ve Emunah p11, par 7.) 

Absolute independence was necessary before any spiritual or for that matter, material growth could take place. As long as a student is encapsulated within an, albeit loving embrace of care, he remains bound. His growth is somewhat limited. He will probably always remain a student. 

Perhaps this is why the Kotzker never wanted masses of people to flock to him. He didn’t want to perpetuate a culture of continual reliance. Many spiritual teachers, however, are tempted to keep their disciples just below them in order to retain an element of dominancy and even control. This was never the attitude in Kotzk.

Independence was elevated almost above all else. 

I have always liked this teaching.

Over the years I have seen people get involved in Judaism, and while they may have become more observant, many of them have never progressed outside of their comfort zone. They remain totally dependant upon the exact same system they adopted all those years ago. They still have a need to attend talks, for example, geared at the same basic style of Torah living, and are one hundred percent reliant on such for their inspiration. They still seek constant attention and basic nurture that they should have outgrown a long time ago. They seem unable to sustain themselves spiritually, and certainly do not instill much spiritual confidence within their children either. They never tried to push the boundaries and learn, for example, to read a text for themselves. They seem to take comfort in always having everything Torah related, explained to them.

To such people the Kotzker pleads – become more spiritually independent! 

The Kotzker Rebbe would often go into the forests, away from people, and take time to reflect upon his personal development – unhindered even by other Masters.

One of his colleagues once rebuked him for such displays of privacy and independence. He mockingly asked if the Kotzker wanted to be a “second Baal Shem Tov”. (The BaalShem Tov, seven generations earlier, was known to conduct himself in a similar manner.)

To which immediately came the reply; “Yes. And if I want I can be even greater than he. Even the Baal Shem Tov does not have the sole monopoly on spirituality.

I can be whoever I want to be.”  (Sneh Bo’er be Kotzk p 30.) 

And so can you.

Yes, even you can outgrow your teacher if necessary. You do not have to remain in a state of spiritual dependency. Everyone needs a teacher. But a good teacher will give his student tools to potentially outgrow him. And a good student will use them.

If, however, you choose not to become independent, you wont. As they say: If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got. 

Rabbi Kook wrote: “Do not keep me in chains of material or of spirit. ( Orot HaKodesh 2.)

We must never allow our spirituality to chain or cage us. 

Isn’t is strange how that, that can most set us free –  is precisely that, that often tends to tether us to the ground (and to others)…

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