The Kotzker Rebbe certainly wasn’t your typical ‘Baruch HaSheming’ Jew. Not everything Jewish or even religious had automatic and unconditional appeal to him.
In Kotzk, if you weren’t real on the inside, your outside was disqualified no matter who you were, what you looked like, who your father was or how much Torah you had studied. If they did had labels in the early 1800’s he didn’t believe in them.
Remember, the original Chassidic movement started out as a rebellion against the conformist lethargy of the then mainstream Jewish establishment. Chassidism was supposed to be about giving the individual room, within the framework of Halacha, to express himself as a unique constituent of the whole.
Seven generations later, however, the Kotzker realized that the movement that had made the individual almost sacrosanct seemed to have forgotten about individuality and had become even more conformist than non-Chassidic Jewry.
He fearlessly came out with a number of hard hitting attacks, some against his very own followers whom he felt were perhaps becoming cult-like conformists.
In one instance, he quoted a verse referring to the giving of the Torah at Sinai: “And the people saw and trembled and stood from afar.” (Shemot 20,15) -Sometimes a person can see holiness and even ‘shokkel’ (‘tremble’ i.e. sway back and forth as Jews do in prayer), yet still remain afar.(Emet ve Emunah p 123, par 4)
On the surface it may seem as though one is conforming to, and well integrated within, the system, because his actions match superficially with what is ostensibly required.
On a deeper level, however, he may be spiritually and emotionally bankrupt.
Another time, he took a swipe at some ‘shtrimel’ (fur hat) wearing Chassidim:
The Chidushei HaRim said in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe: “I don’t know what you people want from me. During the week you all do as you please but come Shabbos you put on black clothes, black ‘gartels’ (belts) and don ‘shtrimlach’ (fur hats). And suddenly you become ‘mechutanim’ (in-laws) to the Shabbos bride.
I wish you would just be consistent. As you are during the week, so you should be on Shabbos.”(Emet ve Emunah p 125, par 3)
Again the Kotzker appeals for people to stop being pretentious and to be real. If the outer apparel is insincere, instead of covering up over the insincerity it just draws more attention to it.
The Kotzker also makes an interesting reference to the ‘mechutanim’ (in-laws) of Shabbos. The Sabbath is compared to a ‘bride’ who becomes allegorically betrothed to the ‘groom’, the Jewish People. But, as we all know, with brides and husbands come in-laws. In-laws are close but not always that close. The rebbe bemoans the number of not-so-close ‘religious in-laws’ he has to deal with. They are there but not really there.
On another occasion he let fly at an unsuspecting group of Talmud students:
“You harbor evil in your hearts and think you can cover over them with a few pages of Gemorra.”(Emet ve Emunah p 107, par 2)
These poor students probably thought they were immune from any form of criticism. After all they were doing the right thing. They were doing what Jewish students are supposed to do, and were doing it well.
Yet the Kotzker was not fooled by outward appearances. His eyes only saw the inside. And what a poignant comment he made! Pages of Gemorra are holy of holies. But they are nevertheless pages. Just like you can’t paper over cracks in a wall, you can’t fix a soul from the outside in.
These are three examples of how outspoken the Kotzker Rebbe was when it came to people who were in fact ‘doing the right thing’. Most of us wouldn’t have given any of these people a second glance. They would all have trustingly been accepted on face value.
In Kotzk, though, face value has no value.