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KOTZK BLOG 2 – Meaning before Spirit

What I learned from a non-frum congregant



Rabbi Gavin Micha

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.

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  1. Israeli

    Jun 9, 2014 at 7:15 am

    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. Rabbi Gavin Michal

    Jun 11, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    ‘I don’t have an explanation but I can offer an opinion.

    Perhaps you have found Meaning in Eretz Yisrael, and hence Spirituality?


  3. Israeli

    Jun 12, 2014 at 11:42 am

    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. Rabbi Gavin Michal

    Jun 12, 2014 at 6:10 pm

    ‘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. Israeli

    Jun 13, 2014 at 11:11 am

    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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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




Musings on the teachings of Kotzk

By: Rabbi Gavin Michal



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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Rabbi Gavin Micha

KOTZK BLOG 9 – Must it always matter?

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




Musings on the teachings of Kotzk

By: Rabbi Gavin Michal



 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.”


By: Rabbi Gavin Michal
By: Rabbi Gavin Michal

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Rabbi Gavin Micha

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…




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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