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, vegetable and animal), 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.

The 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[1].

Yet in the writings of R Simcha[2], 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.[3]

Here he is referring to the preoccupation of many Chassidic schools 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.


[1] Eser Niflaot 8

[2] Kol Simcha

[3] Emet ve Emuna