Baal Shem Tov / Books / Chassidic History / Chassidut Gur / Kotzk / Peshis'cha / Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel about Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

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Photo: Miriam Woelke
B”H
Although I am not too much of a Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel fan I still like reading some of his books and essays from time to time. The Israeli bookstore chain Steimatzky is selling one of Rabbi Heschel’s books for 69 Shekels:
KOTZK is the name of the book which is about the “chassidic” Peshis’cha movement of the  Kotzker Rebbe Menachem Mendel Morgensztern. Rabbi Heschel used to be a famous Jewish philosopher and this is how he approaches Kotzk: By comparing some ideas of the Kotzker Rebbe to statements of the famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
Avraham Joshua Heschel points out a few times that he is on the side of the Baal Shem Tov but his other half belongs to the Kotzker Rebbe. I have to say that Heschel explains both movements in a very professional and learned way. 
What really bothers me about the book is not the author but a guy called Dror Bondi who wrote a 40 pages long introduction. I bought the book because I want to read what Avraham Joshua Heschel has to say and not wasting my time with a Heschel fan. Almost everything Bondi writes, Avraham Heschel explains later on. Thus, the 40 pages are totally unnecessary. Heschel himself only writes a very brief introduction of his book.
Many Jews have heard the name of the Kotzker Rebbe but this is basically all they know. However, the Rebbe and the Peshis’cha movement play an important part in chassidic history. The Kotzker Rebbe Menschem Mendel Morgensztern used to be a student of the famous Rebbe Simcha Bunem of Peschis’cha. After Rabbi Simcha Bunem passed away, the  Kotzker Rebbe became the new Peshis’cha leader and moved to Kotzk. By the way, all these places are located in Poland.
At the end of the 18th century, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz (the HOLY JEW) left Lublin and founded his own Peshis’cha movement. He used to be a close student of the Seer but got a little fed up with the role of the Zaddik his Rabbi stressed. The Seer’s teacher, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhansk, as well as the Seer himself saw the Zaddik as tremendously important. The Holy Jew, on the other hand, was not too much into the Zaddik “cult”; neither was he into miracle work. What the Holy Jew started proclaiming was “Going back to the Roots !” Torah study and every Jew has the potential of becoming a Zaddik.
Despite the differences, the Seer and the Holy Jew still kept in touch. Other chassidic Rebbes considered the Peshis’cha movement of being a traitor to Hasidism. After the passing of the Holy Jew, Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Peshis’cha became the new leader. After Rabbi Simcha Bunem died, the Kotzker Rebbe took over leading eventually to the foundation of Chassidut Gur
Not only Gur but also other chassidic groups. However, the majority of Chassidim remained with the Seer and other Rebbes who didn’t follow Peshis’cha ideology. Chassidic groups such as Satmar or Belz originate in the Seer of Lublin’s community. Chabad Lubavitch, on the other hand, had never anything to do with the split – off because Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi had, after the death of the Mezritcher Maggid, founded his own movement and was neither connected to Lublin nor to Peshis’cha. In terms of ideology.
Until today, the differences between the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov and the Kotzker Rebbe are obvious. “Tremendous differences”, as I would call it. The Kotzker Rebbe remained very famous because he locked himself up in a room of his house and never came out again. For the last 19 years of his life, the Rebbe lived inside one room. The food was put on a tray in front of his door. This kind of behaviour made him as famous as the Seer of Lublin and his fall out of a window. We are still not able to find an answer to the WHY. The Kotzker Rebbe never told anyone why he kept himself locked up and nobody will ever be able to say whether the Seer committed suicide or just fell out of the window because he was drunk. These are the secrets of chassidic society and secrets always attract a lot of people. Thus the Kotzker Rebbe is still very famous.
Whereas the Kotzker Rebbe stayed in his room, his Chassidim outside started quarreling. In the end, some of the followers decided to join the Izbitsher Rebbe. Others remained with the Kotzker Rebbe until his passing and then joined Rebbe Yitzchak Me’ir Alter (the Chiddushe’i HaRim) who became the first Rebbe of Chassidut Gur. Today, Gur is the largest chassidic group in Israel. And probably also the wealthiest.
I am going to explain the differences between the Baal Shem Tov and Peshis’cha in a further article !
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2 thoughts on “Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel about Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk

  1. B”H

    I have the book in Hebrew but the English title is “Kotzk: The Struggle for Integrity”. I am sure the English edition is available somewhere.

    By the way, Avraham Joshua Heschel wrote the book in Yiddish.

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