Of course my thoughts are my thoughts. I’m thinking them aren’t I? Could it be that perhaps, even though I am the one doing the thinking, some of my thoughts have been ‘pre-programmed’ in one way or another?
Could I have ‘inherited’ a pattern of thought that I am not even conscious of?
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk firmly believed that our thoughts are indeed more contaminated than we realize:
The Rebbe of Sochatchov (who was later to become the Kotzker’s son-in-law) was a master at constructing intricate Torah concepts in his mind. Once, while in the middle of such an exercise, he had to stop and go to shul. Afterwards he continued from where he had left off. Later, after fully developing and completing the Torah concept in his mind, he said it over to the Kotzker Rebbe. The rebbe listened attentively only to the section that was formulated before the Sochatchover went to shul, but refused to listen any further. He said he didn’t want to hear the Torah that was affected and influenced by the shul. (Emet ve Emunah p 115, par 5)
According to the Kotzker, even a shul (or more likely a particular community), can and does yield tremendous subliminal influence on the way a person thinks.
When I was a yeshiva student, one of my friends suddenly developed a distinctly audible lisp. No one knew where it had materialized from, as he was usually quite well spoken. Then it dawned on us, the Rosh Yeshiva had a lisp. With or without realizing it my fellow student was not only influenced by what the Rosh Yeshiva said, but also by how he spoke. If we could have looked into his mind, we probably would have also found an intellectual ‘lisp’.
Much to our amusement, many of our contemporaries would leave for study in America and come back sometimes just months later with terribly fake American accents. If such external and superficial changes occurred in relatively short periods of time, can you imagine what was going on in their minds?
Some observers welcomed these instant metamorphoses and even compared this to the oil of Torah which soaks deeply into the pores of the soul and affects even such external and mundane things like speech. Others viewed these simply as external superficialities.
The Kotzker demanded unconditional and uncontaminated originality of thought. His mind could pick up an influenced superficiality even quicker than our ears could detect a false accent.
I know a person who recently went for a job interview at a well known educational institution. They were asked such ‘penetrating’ questions like which shul they went to, what nusach (rite) they davened and what if any Chassidic philosophy they studied. The interviewee responded that they had once studied Kedushat Levi (a book by the famed R Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev). To which the interviewer responded; “You mean Kedushas Levi”. The poor young interviewee was made to feel desperately inadequate because, besides going to the wrong shul, davening the wrong nusach, she had answered in Sefardit instead of the more ‘authentic’ Ashkenazis.
Superficiality seems to be the name of the game. Now, not only do they want us to think funny, but we also have to talk funny.
In another teaching about the importance of integrity of thought, the Kotzker quotes a well known Gemara:
Forty days before the foetus is formed, a Heavenly voice declares; ‘The daughter of so-and-so will marry so-and-so.’ (Sota 2a)
Why, asks the Kotzker, is the Heavenly voice not consistent in its declaration? Either it should say; ‘so-and-so will marry so-and-so.’ Or it should say; ‘the daughter of so-and-so will marry the son of so-and-so.’
The reason for this inconsistency is to teach the bride that she should never marry someone just because he is the son of so-and-so. The essence of a person is what he is, not where he comes from. (Kochav HaShachar p 22, par 4)
Besides his wonderful advice to brides, the Kotzker is also defining for us the ‘ideal man’ as someone who thinks for himself irrespective of his influences. As soon as one begins to detect too much of where the person comes from, know that his thoughts may also come with an agenda. If a thought comes with an agenda, it ceases to be a ‘thought’ but becomes an ‘indoctrination’.
In such a case the salient question that needs to be asked is: ARE OUR THOUGHTS OUR THOUGHTS?
After listening to a stranger talk for just a minute or so, I can tell (in a religious context); where they were schooled, what their philosophy is and what it is they want us to know or do.
It is rare to find a thinker not burdened with influences he is not even aware of.
In Kotzk, though, they bred such men.
In Kotzk, Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, might mean…the only time I truly am I, is when I think for myself and when my thoughts are indeed my thoughts.