The Wisdom of Kotzk

So what was a born and committed mitnaged (me) doing several weeks ago at the grave of Rav Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the celebrated Kotzker Rebbe? Kotzk is a small village in central Poland, where the Kotzker Rebbe set up his Hasidic court in the second quarter of the 19th century, and our Heritage tour stopped there and visited the tiny Jewish cemetery where his grave is located. Indeed, the Kotzker is the Rebbe that mitnagdim can most appreciate, because he favored the primacy of Torah study above all and disdained the traditional trappings of the Hasidic court, the claims of miracles and wonders, and even the customary veneration of the Rebbe. His end also had its dark and very human side.

At his grave, I shared and explained some of his more famous aphorisms, all of which contain wisdom and insight that can benefit Jews today as well. Here are some of my particular favorites.

The middle of the road is for horses.” Human beings have to ascertain all the facts as best they can, and then decide. This is especially true of leaders, spiritual and/or political. One can choose the right side or the left side, but one must choose, at least in theory. These days, only the theory remains. So-called “leaders” are prone to nuance, obfuscation, endless debates and committees, seeing all sides and then choosing none, one compelling reason why malaise and apathy are so prevalent. Decisions are often avoided so as not to offend anyone – echoing Disraeli’s famous quip: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” – with anarchy and ineptitude the general result.

The Kotzker had it right, as did General Patton (“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way”), but it is a hard sell in a world where “leaders” live in fear of laity, are forced to follow and then pretend they are courageously blazing new trails. (A distinguished rabbi who was with us explained the Kotzker’s statement as referring to the Rambam’s “golden mean,” which is not the midpoint between two extremes – the realm of the horses – but similar to the third vertex of a triangle that draws from the other two. That could be, but I still prefer my interpretation.)

Where is G-d to be found? Wherever you let Him in.” Jews have suffered for centuries from approaches to Torah that seek to confine G-d to comfortable places that will not impinge on our desires or that sought to conform the Torah to modern, Western values that are often antithetical to Torah but, strangely, are perceived by many people as superior to those of the Torah. Thus the ongoing efforts to legislate certain sins out of existence or re-define Jewish law and lore so that they satisfy modern sensibilities. Such endeavors are often presented as attempts to bring us closer to G-d but they are more accurately understood as feats of self-worship, with references to the Deity as a flimsy and transparent cover. G-d can be found in surrender to His Torah, in the voluntary abnegation of our desires that conflict with His stated will. And that is “letting Him in,” to our minds, hearts and deeds.

I could probably revive the dead but I prefer to revive the living.” There is no greater wonder than the resurrection of the dead – but reviving the living might be more challenging. Habit, the great strength of the committed spiritual life, is also its bane. If we do something today – pray, wear tefilin, eat kosher, etc. – simply because we did it yesterday, then our spiritual life has ossified and teeters on the brink of irrelevance. Such can lead people who are observant in their private lives or synagogue activities to lie, steal, commit other crimes and think nothing of it.

Religious man struggles first with maintaining the daily commitment but then with infusing that commitment with vitality and enthusiasm. That is a challenge, but where is it written that we are not to be challenged? In fact, the opposite is true. In a similar context, the Kotzker stated: “Just to (by rote) fulfill one’s obligations? Not at all! Either everything or nothing,” which takes us back to the middle of the road and the horses. If you’re going to do something, do it right, and do it right the first time and every time (within the limits of human frailties).

The Jewish people could use a little revivification of the living – to minimize the sense of routine and maximize the excitement of Torah life and the opportunities that have blessed our generation. One reason why that has become more difficult in recent times is this:

I am requesting that you not sin, not because it is forbidden to sin but rather because you should not have enough leisure time to sin.” Modern man has a lot of time on his hands, and we do not always fill that time in the most salubrious ways. The technological advances of the last century have eased the burdens of sustenance and alleviated the household chores that consumed much of our time and energy in the past, but they have also created different burdens and new obligations. Certainly, some of the social movements that have transformed the world in the last half century are the consequences of these advances that arose detached from any moral constraints or at least in a society where moral restrictions were perceived as archaic.

We have the opportunity and the means today to increase our Torah study, performance of mitzvot and pursuit of the good far more than did past generations, and yet many will argue – and with merit – that we are more disconnected from G-d than prior generations and less governed by His will. So, too, many will argue cogently that we have much greater means today of interacting with other people and yet many feel more, not less, disengaged from real, live human beings. Witness the number of people who walk the streets or sit at public events staring at their Smartphones, as if what is elsewhere is always more important and interesting that what or who is right in front of them.

Well, the Kotzker’s wish that man have no time to sin is the polar opposite of today’s reality, and how then we use that time defines our real values in life.

I can tell you what not to do. What to do, each person has to ask himself.” Of course, the Kotzker was not talking about the performance of the positive commandments but rather the expression of one’s personality and goals in the world at large. Our Sages state (Berachot 58a) that just as no two people look alike, no two people think alike. Every personality is different, and so every human being adds a different dimension to existence. Often, people will seek out the advice of others to find out who they are. That is a risky venture, often compromised more by the advisor’s biases or predilections than what the questioner really is or wants to be. Deep down, most people know who they are and what they want to be, even if it takes time to act upon it or to actualize it. But there is nothing that is more personally fulfilling than finding one’s role in life and carrying it out to perfection (or as close to perfection as man can come).

Finally, “You don’t love fish. If you loved the fish, you would not have killed it and cooked it on a fire.” Modern man tosses around words like “love” as if they are stray pennies found on a street in China. Often, love of “something” is just self-love projected outward. We don’t love “fish,” we love what the fish does for us, how it satisfies our appetites and pleases our palates (fish lovers, only). True love is love of the other for what the “other” is – spouse, especially – and not what that other does for us, what needs they satisfy or how they can be used. Love, as the term is commonly used, is much more utilitarian than we like to think; that is why so many marriages today are perceived as disposable, a short-term exchange of pleasures and comforts mutually agreed upon until the provision of pleasures ceases or one finds better accommodations elsewhere. Whatever that is, and however common that is today, unfortunately, one thing that it is not is “love.” Love remains a relationship of giving, not taking, and that is applicable to love of G-d and love of man.

Of course, there are many more such aphorisms of the Kotzker Rebbe, and straight Torah insights as well, even if the Kotzker himself never compiled them in a book. But wisdom is always beneficial, and the wisdom of Kotzk in so many ways still speaks directly to our generation.

If only we would heed it…


6 responses to “The Wisdom of Kotzk

  1. Welcome back!

    They say the hallmark of a lawyer is the ability to argue a proposition he doesn’t agree with. With that said, can you elaborate just a little on the concept your friend said about the golden mean being more akin to the third vertical of a triangle then the midpoint of a straight line? Sounds interesting.

    • That point this distinguished Rav was making was that the Rambam’s golden mean (derech hamemutza) is not a compromise between two extremes, the midpoint. It’s rather a new dimension that draws from both. Example: the golden mean of generosity is not the midpoint between profligacy and miserliness, but a new entity – a rational generosity in which the response is not emotional (how we feel) but what the situation calls for in terms of recipient, need, opportunity for other and more effect types of assistance, or other variables.
      Said another way – guy comes for money. The spendthrift wants to give him $100, the miser $0. The Rambam’s golden mean is not $50 – it’s evaluating his situation and seeing what is best. If we just seek the midpoint on everything – common approach for those trying to avoid making controversial decisions, and an occasional affliction in the Rabbinate as well – that’s not the
      golden mean. That’s the middle of the road, the domain of horses, as the Kotzker would express it.
      Shabbat Shalom!
      – RSP

  2. There is another kotzker saying that you might not appreciate so much:

    Chassidim worship the Aibishter, misnagdim worship the shulchan oruch

    • I’ve heard that one. Did he really say it?? Who knows. And the mitnaged would say the hasid worships the Rebbi, not the Aibishter or the Shulchan Aruch!
      – RSP

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