How I became fascinated with the Rebbe of Kotzk


I write this blog with no agenda. There is no formal movement of Kotzker Chassidim today, calling out for adherents or followers (or donations). In fact the Kotzker movement (if it can be argued that it ever existed as a movement) did not survive the generation of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787 – 1859). His obsession with Truth was just too much for mere mortals. A movement based on an unconditional commitment to Truth is doomed to fail before it even starts.

Yet the Kotzker’s  teachings are so powerful and compelling that they draw one in to his world even if one knows the sojourn there will be only temporary. “The world”, says the Kotzker, “wants to be deceived”. Truth is so hard to find, even in religion. Especially in religion. The Kotzker once remarked; “A G-d that any dirty old man can believe in, is not the kind of G-d I want to believe in”.

The Kotzker Rebbe was probably the most outrageous religious figure to have ever existed. If he thought something to be true, he expressed it, no matter the consequences.

The Chassidic movement in general was a rebel movement in its day. It rebelled against the staid and stagnant state in which Judaism found itself. It’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, two generations before tried to rejuvenate and reinvigorate what had become a very boring ritualistic religion void of spirituality and spontaneity. To a large extent he succeeded, and probably was responsible for saving Judaism from a slow spiritless death.

The Kotzker, too wanted to be part of this revolution. But when he looked at the Chassidim, he saw that they too were becoming staid , stagnant and spiritless. They all dressed the same, followed the same rebbes, sang the same songs and danced the same dances. The very spontaneity they sought was instead depriving them of it.

So the Kotzker became a rebel within a rebel movement.

I first came across the teachings of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, as a child while beginning to explore my own Judaism. Of course all my rabbis and teachers dissuaded me from delving into his “dangerous” teachings. They were not “mainstream” enough.  Of course I then started reading more about him. In those days there was not much available about Kotzk in English, except for a few quotations here and there (or what I later discovered were misquotations). Still I just couldn’t get enough.

The problem was that he never wrote anything down. Nor did any of his students. To find authentic Kotzk is very difficult. Then, some years ago I got hold of quite a rare copy of  probably the most accurate anthology of his teachings in a Hebrew Sefer, entitled “Emet VeEmunah”. I haven’t put that book down since.

Never before have I ever come across such profound wisdom. Simple wisdom that is at the same time so deep. Contemporary wisdom, written a hundred and fifty years ago. This is no nonsense Judaism. It has been said that many of the great fathers of modern psychology have drunk from his well, and based their sometimes radical philosophies on him.

In this blog, I hope to share with you, dear reader, teachings of a rebel rebbe that will never allow me to view the world the same way again.



About the Author
Rabbi Gavin Michal is fascinated by the psychology of belief, the difference between belief and superstition, and by whether religion makes people better or worse. Besides being a community rabbi, he is also a helicopter pilot, builds drones for anti-poaching, and restores vintage aircraft to flying condition.