Kotsk, Menahem Mendel (Morgenstern) of
KOTSK, MENAHEM MENDEL (Morgenstern) OF
KOTSK, MENAHEM MENDEL (Morgenstern ) OF (1787–1859), one of the outstanding and most original leaders of the ḥasidic movement. Menahem Mendel was born in Bilgoraj, Poland, to a rabbinic family. After his marriage he was exposed to Ḥasidism and traveled to Lublin to see R. *Jacob Isaac ha-Ḥozeh but only when he met R. Jacob Isaac ("The Holy Jew") of *Przysucha (Pshishka), did he know that he had found himself a rebbe. After R. Jacob Isaac's death in 1814, he followed R. *Simḥah Bunem of Przysucha until his death (1827). An elite group of R. Simḥah Bunem's ḥasidim accepted R. Menahem Mendel as a rebbe. He moved to Tomaszow with his followers, who left their families to live in a commune, led by him in the search for perfection in his extreme, intensive way. His contempt for conventions, social or religious, was more radical than his teachers' and it showed itself bluntly in the behavior of his ḥasidim. The hostility toward him grew and so too the number of those who where attracted to him. After two years he moved to Kotsk, gradually becoming more and more saturnine and remote from his disciples. Disagreeing with R. Menahem Mendel's approach, his disciple and old friend R. Mordecai Joseph of Izbica left Kotsk to establish an alternative leadership as the dispute between them broke out dramatically on Simḥat Torah 1839. R. Mordecai Joseph, who taught the complexity of the God's demands, and who was supportive in his relations with his disciples, challenged R. Menahem Mendel's absolute truth and his harshness toward his followers. Soon after, he closeted himself in a room next to the bet midrash, rarely leaving it for the last 20 years of his life. Only his family and a small number of disciples were allowed to enter. When he did enter the bet midrash he terrified those who saw him by his mere appearance. Before his death he made sure that all of his writings had been destroyed.
His prominent disciples, who faithfully followed him until his death, were R. Isaac Meir Alter, his brother-in-law, who became the rebbe of Gur after his death, his son-in-law R. Abraham Bornstein, who was to become the rebbe of *Sochaczew, and R. *Ḥanokh of Aleksandrow, who succeeded R. Isaac Meir Alter after his death.
R. Menahem Mendel's originality as well as his influence and legendary place in the ḥasidic tradition should be attributed to his singular personality and to the way Pshishka's heritage was refracted through the prism of his unique character. In his intense life he expressed his great teachers' ideas as he carried them to extremes. He exemplified the well-known phenomenon of religious innovation embodied more in the very life of the person behind it than in the originality of his thought.
He had a strong, charismatic personality which was feared yet admired by his disciples. The main idea of his religiosity was the sincere quest for truth. This idea was well founded in the teachings of "the Holy Jew" and R. Simḥah Bunem, but R. Menahem Mendel gave it a different shade. The demands on the individual became total. He searched for the source of religiosity, striving persistently for the pure origins of the religious movement before its contamination by social conventions and the petty interests of everyday life. His laconic style is strongly connected to a striving for depth rooted in simplicity.
A dark skeptical tone characterizes his search for truth. For a short period, when he began leading his disciples in Tomaszow, he was more optimistic, but as time passed he recognized his loneliness, as there were very few who could bear the burden he demanded. His pessimistic approach is of one who is aware of the infinite chasm between godly demands and human abilities, but at the same time had deep-seated beliefs that created a strong sense of tragic duty to overcome what cannot be overcome. Recognizing how little human beings can achieve, and understanding the effort demanded in any true achievement, he understood that the value of one's deeds is related to one's effort and not to one's spiritual level. He believed that by the very performance of the mitzvot one could elevate oneself far beyond one's spiritual level. The sincere person should see himself as one who did not achieve anything, making the pretentious person despicable. Thus, R. Menahem Mendel's profound seriousness went hand in hand with disregard for himself, and for others.
The burdensome duty of bridging the chasm between man and God is above all a human responsibility. The way to God is not to be found in mystical speculation but rather in purifying one's intentions so that they bear no false echoes. Menahem Mendel's frame of reference was mainly the talmudic literature, as its prosaic nature suited the task that he had set for himself, seeing in the study of Torah the primary vehicle for getting closer to God. Unlike "the Holy Jew," his ascetic nature was not a mystical ecstatic one. His asceticism derived from the demand to give up anything that keeps a person from being attuned to his true self, which was the reason for his condemnation of social institutions, especially money and status.
God's way is hard and involves effort and suffering. Accordingly R. Menahem Mendel understood that the role of the rebbe is to help his followers meet the challenge, mercilessly exposing any hint of falsehood. The ultimate demand cannot be alleviated since there is no possible compromise with the truth.
Y.K.K. Rakatz, Si'aḥ Sarfei Kodesh (1913–32); E.Z. Ẓigelman, Ohel Torah (1919); M. Arten, Emet ve-Emunah (1940); A. Marcus, Ha-Ḥasidut (1980), index; J. Weiss, "Antologyah Koẓka'it," in: Haaretz (Aug. 10, 1945); A.Z. Eshcoly, Ha-Ḥasidut be-Polin (2000), 89–106; R. Mahler, Ha-Ḥasidut ve-ha-Haskalah (1961), index; M. Orian, Seneh Bo'er be-Kotsk (1962); M. Buber, Or ha-Ganuz (1965), 56–59, 428–44; A.J. Heschel, Kotsk (1973); Ya'akov Levinger, in: Tarbiz, 55 (1986), 109–35, 413–31; M.M. Faierstein, All Is in the Hands of Heaven (1989), 89–98.
[Yehuda Ben-Dor (2nd ed.)]