The Kotzker Rebbe

This week we marked the 157th yahrzeit of one of the most fascinating and forbidding figures in Jewish tradition, R. Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the Kotzker rebbe [1787-1859]. He is best known in our circles of American Jews through Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings, especially Passion for Truth, Heschel’s final book, comparing Kotzk with the Danish Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. In that book, Heschel writes about himself that his religious life is shaped by the tension between the Baal Shem Tov and the Kotzker, between simple joy and relentless, self-scouring anxiety. “My heart is in Mezhbizh,” the Baal Shem Tov’s home, Heschel wrote. “My mind is in Kotzk.”

The Kotzker was an immensely influential figure in 19th century Polish Hasidism. He was a central actor in a reforming movement within Hasidism, seeking to shake up the now-popular movement and purge its overly easy emotionalism and ostentatious piety. He demanded uncompromising honesty and self-scrutiny. He and his followers did not play well with others, displaying unconventional behavior and showing no deference to authority. Ultimately, his story turned tragic, as he was overcome by what looks – from modern perspective – like mental illness. Instead of bringing the Messiah, he ended his life as a recluse, with only a few remaining Hasidim, most of the others having followed his students R. Mordecai Leiner of Ishbitz and R. Itzhak Meir of Ger.

But in his day, the Kotzker was a brilliant and inspiring teacher. One of his best sayings was on this week’s reading, Parshat Mishpatim. After prohibiting Jews to eat carrion – the specific meaning of the word treyf means carrion, or “road kill” – the Torah [Exodus 22.30] exhorts “you shall be holy people –אנשי קודש – to me.” With a dash of word play, the Kotzker rephrased this as: “you have to be holy in a human way.” God has plenty of angels. Don’t try to be a disembodied spirit.

The Torah’s true plan and the goal for the commandment is to take us in all our humanness, with all our temptations and struggles, and to ennoble us as people. It is easy to see how this teaching applies to the specific context regarding Kashrut, as in the parasha: you must eat, but do not eat like a vulture or a rat. Refine eating into a reflective, dignified, sacred act.

And it applies throughout life, in all Jewish practices and in all human interactions. Sanctify business. Sanctify interpersonal encounters. Sanctify all the embodied, social, mortal reality of your human life.