The Torah tells the story of a famous fanatic.

His name is Pinchas. The Torah itself calls him a fanatic. He takes the law into his own hands and kills some people who were publicly showing disregard for the high moral standards required by Jewish Tradition.

As a result of Pinchas’ actions he is hailed as a hero, has a section of the Torah named after him, averts a plague and is given eternal priesthood.

Great story.

But the Kotzker Rebbe fills in some of the blanks:

Before this episode, Moshe had always held Pinchas in high regard. He believed that Pinchas (not Joshua) would succeed him, and lead the nation into the Land of Israel. However, when Moshe saw the fanaticism of his actions, committed in the name of G-d – even though he was praised and lauded by G-d Himself – he quickly changed his mind.


This is a fascinating point. You can’t get a more prestigious approval and sanction than that emanating from G-d. Pinchas’ actions were endorsed by the greatest power in the universe. What he did was right and necessary and holy.

Yet, because he was driven by fanaticism, albeit ‘endorsed’ fanaticism, he no longer qualified for leadership.

No people should gamble their collective future on a fanatical leader.

So, instead of Pinchas, Joshua led the people into the land. Joshua was no lame duck either. He too was a fighter. He waged war for fourteen years and expelled seven nations from the land. The difference was that Joshua was committed, but not a fanatic.

It’s strange to see a teaching against fanaticism emanating from the Rebbe of Kotzk who was thought to be quite radical himself.

I’ve never liked that description of him. I find him more realistic, reasonable and rational than radical.

The following incident may serve to illustrate just how open minded, non-dogmatic and non-fanatical he was:

Once when Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk took ill, he sent a messenger, with an unsigned note, to R Ber of Rodshitz. He wanted a blessing for good health, but he didn’t want R Ber to know who it was for. At that time there was much conflict and animosity between the schools of Kotzk and Rodshitz.

R Ber looked at the note and after a few moments exclaimed that this was from his opponent the Kotzker.

The messenger became alarmed and worried that perhaps now the Kotzker would not receive a blessing. 

Then R Ber explained that the difference between the school of Kotzk and essentially the rest of the Chassidic world was:

  • Most Chassidim believe that a rebbe has the ability to change reality where necessary. They believe that ‘G-d decrees and the rebbe nullifies the decree’.
  • In Kotzk, however, they believe that one has to be strong enough to deal with reality and not rely on the supernatural at all. 

The messenger then asked: “Does that mean that you will not bless my rebbe, now that you know who he is?”

R Ber replied: “It’s too late. I already gave my blessing before I realized who it was for.”[2]

This somewhat amusing anecdote underscores the open mindedness of the Kotzker. While he rigorously didn’t subscribe to the principle of rebbes handing out blessings, he was nevertheless prepared to hedge his bets when he felt he had to.

He allowed himself to remain open to another point of view. Even to another style of theology.

He was committed to his philosophy but he was not prepared to risk all for it. This is the difference between commitment and fanaticism.

A fanatic would never warm to an opposing view.

Maintaining this constant tension between idealism and pragmatism is what makes for good leadership.

Without it we may as well get rid of all our leaders and revert back to just reading the manual ourselves.

A leader must know the difference between doing something just because it’s right, and doing the right thing.


[1] Emet ve Emunah p122, par2.

[2] Emet ve Emunah p 119, par 1.