In this article I am referring to a couple of differences between the Baal Shem Tov and the Kotzker Rebbe. I am not going into the original Peshis’cha ideology yet, as I still have to do a lot of reading on it.
What the Baal Shem Tov (BESHT) proclaimed was nothing new in Judaism. His ideas were not revolutionary at all although a lot of leading Litvishe Rabbis ran against the chassidic movement. What the Baal Shem Tov did was to renew various Jewish ideas that existed a long time ago, but had somehow been forgotten.
The Jewish philosopher Avraham Joshua Heschel writes in his book KOTZK: THE STRUGGLE OF INTEGRITY (the Hebrew titel is KOTZK)
Before the Besht, Jews were fasting in order to get closer to G – d.
This, of course, concers the late Middle Ages and not necessarily the times of the Tannaim or Geonim.
I think that even in the days of Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the Jewish world was very different from the dark Middle Ages in Central Europe. But, I still have to read Saadia’s biography.
The Besht brought back more joy (Simcha) into the Jewish world where, in those days, everything seemed so dark and G – d was “far away”. Orthodox Rabbis served as Jewish community heads and it was them being extremely learned in Torah and Talmud. A simple Jew, on the other hand, was glad to make ends meet and didn’t have the time to concentrate on deeper Torah studies.
Came along the Baal Shem Tov and said that every Jew can have a connection with the Creator. No matter how frum someone is. G – d is everywhere in this world. In everything we see, touch or eat. It is so easy to do a Mitzvah and thus connect to G – d.
Later on, the Peshis’cha movement basically said the same: That every Jew can do a Mitzvah and that each of us has the ability to become a Zaddik (righteous Jew). However, the Kotzker Rebbe stated that, first of all, a Jew has to purify himself before doing a Mitzvah. A body is the greatest enemy of a person and thus a Jew first has to overcome all negativity such as arrogance and pride.
According to the Baal Shem Tov, a Jew is serving G – d with his heart and with Simcha. Always look on the positive side and don’t just criticize yourself. When the Talmud speaks about the prohibition of Lashon HaRah (slander), it also mentions that a person talking Lashon HaRah about himself is doing an Aveirah (sin).
Don’t be too harsh on yourself but think positive even when you don’t feel like it. Serve G – d with joy and don’t drag yourself down into depression. Later on, The Baal HaTanya as well as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught the same Baal Shem Tov statements.
Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk always stressed EMET (TRUTH). Be honest with your Creator and serve him in a true and honest manner. Avraham Joshua Heschel calls this kind of purification before carrying out a Mitzvah “self – hatred”. You and your body are the true enemies and first of all, you have to learn how to overcome all kinds of bodily desires. This doesn’t only concern sex issues but rather emotions and behaviour. Don’t be arrogant and don’t be proud. Be very simple and honest and serve your Creator with Emet. No Lala Land but serious and strict. No messing around and no freaky hippie behaviour.
EMET EMET EMET and that’s it.
Now you may ask yourself: Who could ever join such a strict and weirdo sounding movement such as Kotzk ? The truth is: The Kotzker Rebbe had plenty of followers.
I haven’t finished reading Avraham Joshua Heschel’s book yet but what I realized when he describes chassidic thought is that I am totally infected with Chassidut. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even realize how much I have all these chassidic concepts internalized and don’t even differentiate anymore. It has become part of me and part of my dealing with G – d. Not only the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings but also Rabbi Yitzchak Luria or the Baal HaTanya. I picked up a bit from everybody and for me it has become part of my daily life. The concepts are logical and I don’t even have the slightest doubt that this could not be true.
I don’t reject the teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe and I think that it is a matter of one’s own personality. There are Jews whose mentality suits the Kotzker movement and there are others who go with the Baal Shem Tov. It depends on the individual and some like or want it stricter and more serious. Others need more spirituality and the idea that there is a merciful G – d with whom I can build a personal connection. No matter how far away I may be from Yiddishkeit. This is why the Besht was so successful: Because suddenly every Jew saw the positive side in Judaism and not only a boring dark side where the Rabbi is the great guy and I am sheep.