So what was a born and committed mitnaged (me) doing several weeks ago at the grave of Rav Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, the celebrated Kotzker Rebbe?
Kotzk is a small village in central Poland, where the Kotzker Rebbe set up his chassidic court in the second quarter of the 19th century, and our Heritage tour stopped there and visited the tiny Jewish cemetery where his grave is located.
Indeed, the Kotzker is the rebbe whom mitnagdim can most appreciate, because he favored the primacy of Torah study above all and disdained the traditional trappings of the chassidic court, the claims of miracles and wonders, and even the customary veneration of the rebbe.
At his grave, I shared and explained some of his more famous aphorisms, all of which contain wisdom and insight that can benefit Jews today as well. Here are some of my particular favorites.
* “The middle of the road is for horses.” Human beings have to ascertain all the facts as best they can, and then decide. This is especially true of leaders, spiritual and/or political. One can choose the right side or the left side, but one must choose, at least in theory.
These days, only the theory remains. So-called leaders are prone to nuance, obfuscation, endless debates, and committees, seeing all sides and then choosing none, one compelling reason why malaise and apathy are so prevalent.
Decisions are often avoided so as not to offend anyone – echoing Disraeli’s famous quip: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” – with anarchy and ineptitude the general result.
The Kotzker had it right, as did General Patton (“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way”), but it is a hard sell in a world where “leaders” live in fear of laity, are forced to follow and then pretend they are courageously blazing new trails.
(A distinguished rabbi who was with us explained the Kotzker’s statement as referring to the Rambam’s “golden mean,” which is not the midpoint between two extremes – the realm of the horses – but similar to the third vertex of a triangle that draws from the other two. That could be, but I still prefer my interpretation.)
* “Where is God to be found? Wherever you let Him in.” Jews have suffered for centuries from approaches to Torah that seek to confine God to comfortable places that will not impinge on our desires or that sought to conform the Torah to modern, Western values that are often antithetical to Torah but, strangely, are perceived by many people as superior to those of the Torah.
Thus the ongoing efforts to legislate certain sins out of existence or re-define Jewish law and lore so that they satisfy modern sensibilities. Such endeavors are often presented as attempts to bring us closer to God but they are more accurately understood as feats of self-worship, with references to the Deity as a flimsy and transparent cover. God can be found in surrender to His Torah, in the voluntary abnegation of our desires that conflict with His stated will. And that is “letting Him in” – to our minds, hearts, and deeds.
* “I could probably revive the dead but I prefer to revive the living.” There is no greater wonder than the resurrection of the dead – but reviving the living might be more challenging. Habit, the great strength of the committed spiritual life, is also its bane.
If we do something today – pray, wear tefillin, eat kosher, etc. – simply because we did it yesterday, then our spiritual life has ossified and teeters on the brink of irrelevance. Such religion by rote can lead people who are observant in their private lives or synagogue activities to lie, steal, commit other crimes – and think nothing of it.Rabbi Steven Pruzansky