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Tuesday, 4 November 2014

045) If You Can't Think...Follow

Religious independence is not for everyone. Many turn to, or continue to practice religion because they have a need to be nurtured. Independence is something of an anathema to the archetypal spiritual seeker. This type of personality is, typically, non-threatening and even beneficial to all religions that need their traditions transmitted to future generations. Judaism included.

But Judaism must be more than the mere mechanical process of transmission of texts and traditions. Surely, as long as the commitment to Halacha remains sacrosanct, Judaism must be capable of withstanding and incorporating a strong component of freedom of spiritual thought. The Kotzker Rebbe championed this concept of spiritual independence, probably more than most.

The story is told1 about an amazing interaction between two of his teachers, the Yid HaKadosh and the Chozeh of Lublin; The Yid felt some kind of premonition that he was going to die and mentioned it to the Chozeh. The Chozeh or ‘seer’ responded by saying that if the Yid spent Rosh HaShana with him, he would surely live. Strangely the Yid chose not to stay in Lublin but instead decided to move away from the Chozeh. The Yid said that he did this because had he stayed, he would have become so influenced by the Chozeh that he would have lost any sense of autonomy. He would take his chances and even die rather than lose his independence and individuality. In Kotzk a teacher is important, but independence is more important. The teacher must teach the student independence.

Only when the ‘I’ is clearly defined, can the relationship with any ‘other’ be sustainable. Otherwise who is initiating the relationship? I can't relate to G-d till I know who I am.

The Kotzker had a novel take on the well known Pesach story. The Torah says that one must take a lamb as a Passover sacrifice. Rashi comments2 that ‘one who has’ (i.e. a man of means), should take (a lamb) from himself (i.e. from his own flock) – while ‘one who does not have’ (i.e. a poor man), should simply take from the market.  But the Kotzker sees this as talking about something much deeper than the historical paschal lamb.
The expression; ‘One who has’, refers to one who has the ability to think for himself. Such a person is quite capable of taking from his own intellectual stock. Whereas ‘one who does not have’, refers to one who does not have that ability, or is afraid to use his independence. Such an individual should simply take from the marketplace of scholars who are looking for dependants, and become subservient to them.3
This is one of the great challenges of modern Judaism. Everyone knows the theory and principle that as long as you observe Halacha you are free to form any Hashkafa or weltanschauung you wish. Sadly, we only know it. We don't practice it. In reality we frown upon any thinking that is not akin to how we have been taught to think. We also seem to miss the irony that the more we progress to an openness of mind, the more we are in keeping with our ancient tradition.

Thinking can’t be taught, it has to be thought.

1. Niflaos HaYehudi 86
2. Shemos 12:21
3. Amud HaEmet p42, par 5

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