Thursday 29 May 2014

006) If You Want a Part In Fiddler On The Roof…Learn To Sing First

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 later 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 Koznitz) - was because the Kotzker, whom he loved so dearly was also a student in Peshischa, 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 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 and 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 individual ‘movements’ 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 may have worn 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 these 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:. According to him, Calev and Joshua tore their clothes, ie; the clothes of the other ten spies! He writes (again sarcastically);
“These great leaders, 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.

According to the Kotzker, traditional garb is not something one wears, but something one earns. 

Wednesday 28 May 2014

005) Yes, But Do You Really Want To Be Frum?

The Kotzker Rebbe had three teachers, R Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, the Yid HaKadosh and the Chozeh of Lublin. The Chozeh once asked the Yid HaKadosh whether he had any students of substance. “No” came the reply, “but I have a student called Mendel (who later became the famous Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) who wants to be of substance.” (Emet ve Emunah p115, par 1.)

Could this be a precursor to the tired old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb…One, but the light bulb must really want to change?

Allow me to digress. Ever since I was a child, I have always been fascinated by the traditional image of the old-timer pilot. He had the hands of a surgeon but the eyes of a dreamer.  I loved the tension between the technicality of precision and the romance of soaring beyond gravity. Today, to a large extent we may have lost this type of personality because it’s relatively easy to throw some money at a flying school and emerge qualified and certified. But it wasn't always like this. The old pilot was raised on pure passion. As a child he would stand behind the fence of an airfield and press his nose against the wires and wish and dream he could be on the other side. He was too young to go for flying lessons that he would never be able to afford anyway. So he would go home and build a kite and cover it with tissue paper and dope. He would experiment with different shapes and sizes until he got it right. He would fly it and people would laugh at him; but all the while he was learning about the wind. He would progress to a rubber band powered balsa wood model plane and people would smile; but secretly he was learning about the power-to-weight ratio. He would drive in his parents car and stick his hand out the window and feel it lift and they would make him put his hand back inside; but he was leaning that at a certain angle the wind would stall and his hand would no longer fly. He couldn't afford an engine for his next model, so instead he built a glider and people felt sorry for him. They didn't realize that he was learning how to increase his glide ratio should his real engine someday fail while he was really flying. When he got a little older he would become a ‘hanger boy’ and sweep the hangar floor and wash a plane, not for money but for the reward of a five minute flight. He listened to the older pilots talk and learned more from them than any flight instructor could ever teach him.When he finally went to flight school he was so grounded in passion that his flying became instinctive.

Many of our religious youth today are first generation frum born. Their parents were part of the ‘baal teshuva’ revolution. For the most part they were passionate spiritual searchers who were willing to turn their lives around for an ideal. They were raised in ordinary schools but their children now go to religious institutions.

The parents know what it is like to want to learn about Torah. But they sometimes forget that their children aren't necessarily born with that same passion. They too can throw money at religious schools and their children can even move on to Yeshivas.

Yet sometimes these children crash.

It’s not enough that your children are learning well.
It’s not enough that they are learning a lot.
It’s not even enough that they are learning the whole day.
What matters is whether you helped them want to learn.

Not all children of old hippies go around singing ‘Kumbaya’.Not all children of old ‘baal teshuvas’ have enough passion to want to turn their lives around…Just because you did doesn't mean they will.

A good parent, or for that matter a good Torah teacher, is defined not by how much they teach, but by how much they inspire their children to want to learn.

There must always be present that tension between technical compliance to Torah and a burning yearning for it. More important than giving over the learning, is finding a way to transmit the yearning.
This seems to have been the understanding of the Kotzker Rebbe's teacher. As a consequence, the Kotzker became great not because he was great, not because his teacher was great…but because he wanted to become great.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

004) If You Don't Enjoy Davnening…This May Be For You

I think many people’s view of religion is that it is eighty percent prayer\study and twenty percent good deeds.

In some circles the eighty percent prayer\study is probably quite accurate. I haven't yet got the stats on the latter.

When I was in yeshivah, the morning prayers used to take about an hour and a half. One of my early teachers was a legendary man who on Shabbat would pray from 8am to 4pm.

When my children were at school, their weekday davening would take about an hour.
Walk past some shuls (on a workday) and it is not uncommon to find some of the men leaving shul at 10 or 11am, with their tallis and tefillin bags under their arms.

That’s great, but what about those who perhaps don’t feel like praying for so long?

This is for them.

I feel for those poor souls who come to shul and are so frustrated by the fact that they're almost held hostage by an inordinately long service. Look into their eyes and you will see how they cry out for some salvation, not from G-d but from the person /persons responsible for keeping them there for so long.

Usually when such people turn for help, they are told to learn about the prayers and to try find some meaning in them. They are told that with time and perseverance they will cherish their hours of prayer.

Let’s play open cards. Most good people will tell you that when it comes to davening, the longer one spends on it (within reason), the better. That is the safer option. No one will ever point fingers at you, and you may even win over some admirers. If you enjoy a slow davening, you are well within your rights. Continue to do so.

But what if you've tried and tried and still feel your eyelids getting heavier as you start to loose concentration?  Know that you are not alone.

Firstly there's that famous analogy of the wagon driver transporting diamonds through a town, having to hurry before he finds himself relieved of his assets. This is of course analogous to the davener who may have to speed up a little before he finds himself bereft of his powers of concentration.

Then there’s the Kotzker. I have read that in Kotzk they used to daven for no more than fifteen minutes on a weekday. ‘Yikes’ I thought when I read this. This has always been my secret desire but I never dared express it to anybody.

Then I read further (and take this only as literally as necessary): The Kotzker had a ‘cantor’ called Reb Hirsh. One day he had a little fire in his house (actually it burned down). It was said (actually the Kotzker said) it was because he spent too much time reciting and repeating the words; “And who by fire” as per the High Holiday prayer service. Apparently the whole congregation tried to hurry Reb Hirsh along because they knew their rebbe couldn't tolerate a drawn out service, but sadly he didn't listen. Even the rebbe’s personal assistant was heard to say; “Hirsh! Hurry! You know the rebbe does not appreciate a performance, nor a protracted service!” (Emet ve Emunah p109, par 2.)

On one level this is a crazy story. On another level it creates a space for the view that prayers do not always have to be protracted.

If you're not surfing on the waves of your prayers, you may instead be going on the equivalent of a spiritual walkabout. I have advised some people, who seemed daunted by the proposition of spending an hour every morning praying, yet wanting to put on tefillin – that they simply should not pray. They can put on tefillin, say the shema, take of the tefillin, and move on. That way they would not suffer fatigue nor run the risk of biting off more than they can chew. Sustainable Spirituality is what I call it. Once tefillin becomes a non-negotiable issue, one can slowly begin to introduce more prayers.

There is nothing worse than seeing people come to shul for a simcha or a Yom Tov, and stand outside because they can't handle a shul service. Sometimes I think we are turning people away from shul because shul is too long.

Oh yes, one more point. The Kotzker Rebbe was frum. And he understood the prayers. And he prayed with sincerity… And he still managed to do all that, without a fuss.

Monday 26 May 2014

003) Fix First… Refine Later

Over the years I have often been asked by distressed and distraught parents, who discovered that their children were on drugs, to provide spiritual or religious support. In their desperation they seemed to believe that if those same children could find religion, they would be cured. “Please speak to my child about G-d and Judaism,” they would plead.

In my younger days I would rush over to the house (or hospital), believing that once a disturbed adolescent was exposed to Judaism, he or she would find an alternative outlet for what they were searching for. I thought that if I encouraged the youngster to put on Tefillin or to light Shabbat Candles, perhaps a new positive addiction would grow out of the old dangerous one.

Needless to say, my tactics were never successful. On the one or two occasions when I thought I was on to something, I subsequently found out I had been horribly manipulated.

As I got a little older and perhaps more street wise, I saw that not only did drug addicts abuse drugs, they also abused religion. And so did people who were suffering from emotional pathology, abuse religion.

It’s easier to sweep one’s inadequacies under the carpet of religion, than to face or fix them.

A socially inept person could simply bury themselves in books, don flowing garb and limit their interfacing with other human beings, and be regarded as a hero ‘baal teshuva’ of sorts. Someone with anger management problems could ‘legitimately’ give vent to his or her frustrations, because now they are objecting in the name of G-d. A rude person would not have to greet another, because they were praying a section of the prayers where talking is not allowed. And in all these cases they would get away with it. Religion can be a wonderful guise that papers, with impunity, over many cracks.

The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that an individual who is not ‘chazak benafsho’(strong in character), has to be careful before throwing themselves into religion. (Emet ve Emunah p108, par1.) He believes that without a solid foundation of strength of character, religion can be misleading. Giving a distressed individual religion prematurely is dangerous and disingenuous.

Many great teachers, on the other hand, believe that religion builds strength of character. Expose people to religion, they say, and they will grow emotionally and spiritually. The waters of Torah will erode the stubbornness of our failings.

The Kotzker takes a different view:  Fix the person first, he teaches. Get the individual stable, strong and functional first. Then, and only then, does the Torah helps them grow.

If a parent asked me today, to guide a child suffering from the plethora of modern afflictions (real or imagined), I would advise them to get their child well first. I would suggest to a mother worried about her son’s addiction problem, to send the child to rehab, first. I would encourage someone suffering from depression to seek professional psychological help, first.

I have seen too many cases where religious guidance is dispensed too soon, and the healing never happens.

Religious pathology is still pathology.

002) What I learned From a Non-Frum Congregant

Meaning before Spirit

I had a non-frum congregant once. I say ‘had’ because he was so non-frum, he stopped coming to shul. I noticed that as soon as the services commenced, his eyes would glaze over with acute boredom. I wisely suggested that instead of just sitting there, he read something.  Anything! I recommended a book on F16s that I thought may grab his attention, but instead he brought along his own copy of Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning’. There he sat in front of our library shelves which were overflowing with hundreds of holy books from Rambams to Gemoras, reading a secular book about “Meaning”.  I laughed at the irony and so did he. Months later I came upon a Kotzker teaching that made me question whether I was right to have laughed.

I think I'm spiritual. So do you. So does everyone I know. I also think I'm unique, just like everyone else.
But what is “spiritual”?  I don’t know. I've been a rabbi for almost thirty years and I still don’t know. Oh yes, I know what it’s supposed to be. I know the textbook definition. Still, that doesn't mean I know what it is.

I suppose it’s like art. I can draw a stick man just like you. Picasso also could. What makes his renderings art, while ours remain just doodles? To an untrained eye they are all probably look like doodles. What makes art, art?

What makes spirit, spirit? If I can call myself spiritual, then I can call myself an artist.
Funny though how there are far more ‘spiritual people’ than ‘artists’. Few people would dare call themselves artists, but everybody thinks they are ‘spiritual’.

Religious people may consider themselves to be ‘spiritual’, by definition. They may very well be, although I would rather refer to them as ‘observant’. It could be argued that simply by keeping the Law you do become spiritual. Technically if you keep G-d’s Law you should be spiritual. You should, but are you really? Just because I draw, do I become an artist?  I may have become slightly more of an artist than I was before I started to draw, but few would be willing to pay good money for my ‘art’.
I wonder then,  what my spirituality is worth?

When the Gustniner Rebbe came to Kotzk for the first time, he was full of trepidation. He didn't think he had the capacity for the spirituality he was so certain to encounter when confronted with the teachings of Kotzk. He doubted his ability to absorb and assimilate the depths of mystic theology he expected to acquire. Imagine his surprise when the Kotzker responded
Here we do not look for things we cannot find. We simply look for meaning in the things we already have. 
(Emet ve Emunah p106, par 6.)

What an astonishing teaching from a spiritual master! While so many other Teachers tell us to look for spirituality, the great spiritual pragmatist himself tells us that spirituality is essentially elusive.  “Meaning”, on the other hand is so subjective and personal, that it is more within our grasp and reach. In other words, it’s more real.

Was the Kotzker pre-empting the now famous philosophy of that great Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Victor Frankl (1905-1997)?  He called his theory ‘logo therapy’, from the Greek ‘logos’, meaning ‘Meaning’. Freud postulated the will to Pleasure, Adler the will to Power, while Frankl believed in the will to Meaning. “Meaning”, he wrote “must be found and cannot be given.”  Meaning is like laughter. You cannot force someone to laugh. A person can only laugh once they have found the humor in something. 
So it is with spirituality. You cannot give it to someone. They have to find it. But the Kotzker says they cannot really find it. So the closest they can get, is to stop pursuing it (as counter intuitive as it may sound) and instead look for Meaning. People who seek ethereal spirituality, often either loose it or replace it with another style of spirituality. Meaning, however, can never be lost or replaced, because it is so personal, unique and essentially real.

If my ex-non-frum congregant ever gets to read this, know that you have taught me more than you could imagine: The first honest step towards any spiritual encounter is to try to find the Meaning before the Spirit.

I can fool myself (and others) that I am Spiritual. But I can’t fool myself that I have found Meaning, unless I really have found Meaning. 

001) Introduction

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. They became mere followers deprived of the spontaneity they sought.

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 always very difficult. 

Then, some years ago I got hold of what was then quite a hard-to-find 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.

The Kotzker was a rebel Rebbe that will never allow me to view the world the same way again.