The Kotzker Rebbe was very close to his brother in law R Yitzchak Meir, also known as the Chidushei HaRim.
The two studied together under their mutual teacher R Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, and married two sisters.
Interestingly enough, the Chidushei HaRim recounts that one of the main reasons why he went to study under R Simcha (and left his original teacher the Magid of Koshnitz) – was because the Kotzker, whom he loved so dearly was a student in Pshischa, and he wanted to be with him.
Such was their friendship and loyalty that as long as the Kotzker was alive, the Chidushei HaRim refused to accept any leadership position. It was only after the Kotzker Rebbe passed away in 1859, that he undertook such a role, and became the founder of the Gerer Chassidic dynasty (a position he held for seven years until his passing in 1866).
Notwithstanding all this closeness, they did have one major fall out.
It was all about traditional Jewish clothing!
This is what happened:
The Polish government at the time issued a decree that Jews were no longer allowed to wear their traditional clothing in public.
The Chidushei HaRim was of the opinion that they should openly defy the ban, even if it meant risking their lives. Apparently, the Chidushei HaRim even ended up spending some time in jail for his unwavering stance.
The Kotzker, however, had a different approach. He was so opposed to his brother in law’s attitude that he grabbed hold of the Chidushei HaRim, shook him and said (sarcastically):
“I once even opened a Sefer myself, and looked inside. I too know how to read the small writing that is found in the back sections of these books of law. I also know my way, a little, around Halacha. And I don’t agree that one needs to sacrifice one’s life for something as mundane as this. You are going to be responsible for spilling Jewish blood, unnecessarily!”
(Emet ve Emunah p 49, par 6.)
At the best of times the Kotzker had no patience for “shtick” or idiosyncrasies. He wasn’t into religious dress codes or elevating theological polemics of individuals or ‘sects’ to an art form. He found no great value in externalities.
Yes, of course he was aware of the famous teaching that one of the reasons why the Jews were saved from Egypt was because they kept their dress codes.
But remember, even in Egypt only one fifth of the Jewish People were redeemed. That means that four fifths were not worthy, even though they wore their Jewish garb.
Anyway he wasn’t all that interested in practically applying that insight to Poland in the mid 1800’s.
Another striking example of the Kotzker Rebbe’s attitude towards traditional clothing can be found in his interpretation of the well known Torah story about the twelve spies:
Moses sends spies to scout the Land of Israel and only two of them bring back a truthful report, Calev and Joshua. The Torah goes on to say that the two good spies “tore their clothes”.
The commentators explain that the tearing of clothes was a sign of grief. They were grieving over the fact that their colleagues, who were all great leaders of their respective tribes, had told untruths about the land.
The Kotzker, however, takes a completely different tack: Who does ‘their clothes’ refer to?
According to him, Calev and Joshua tore, not their clothes, but the clothes of the other ten spies!
He writes (again sarcastically); “These great leaders (the other ten spies), with their Shtreimels (fur hats) and white robes, had their ostentatious attire ripped apart. They no longer had a right to wear them.” (Emet ve Emunah p 76, par 4)
Let’s extend this idea to our times:
I (and I’m sure you too) have noticed a growing trend towards people becoming more religious.
One of the first things they often do is ensure they look the part.
That’s great. But quite frankly, some people should wait a little longer…
I recently saw a person enter a bank, dressed like he was extra in Fiddler On The Roof, and everybody turned respectfully aside to view this great spectacle. How embarrassed I was to see him push his way to the head of the line.
I have seen people with Tzitzit down below their knees, using language weather beaten sailors would grudgingly only use on occasion.
And I have seen intoxicated boys with white yarmulkes staggering outside shopping malls on a Saturday night.
Please…if you are going to look the part…play the part.