God Likes New Things

Abraham Joshua Heschel,
translated by Jonathan Boyarin

The following is a translation, by Jonathan Boyarin, of an excerpt from Abraham Joshua Heschel's last book, a study of the life and teachings of the Hasidic Rebbe Menachem Mendl of Kotsk. Professor Heschel wrote his study in Yiddish in an attempt to capture the vivid sharpness of the oral Torah of the Kotsker and his circle, and this is the first published attempt to convey those qualities in an English translation. The excerpt exemplifies the Kotsker's emphasis on the absolute necessity of constant self-interrogation and the near futility of rote worship.

Pious Jews try with all their strength to preserve tradition; even customs become holy if they're old. They look askance at any new practices, even those that do not contradict the Shulkhan Arukh. "Innovation is forbidden by the Torah" is a major rule. But the Kotsker Rebbe comes and interprets:

"They chose new gods [Elohim]; then was war in the gates" (Judges 5:8) - God [Elohim] prefers novelty. When you innovate, you are close to winning the war, says Reb Mendl.1

The Kotsker ethos holds that Jewishness must be new.

Prayer must be as fresh as a new insight in interpretation, and thought must be quivering with novelty.

Therefore it was taught as a key principle: repetition and imitation are forbidden. Just as a pair of shoes won't fit someone else's feet, so too God cannot be served with someone else's ideas. Action without conviction is a lie. Don't say it if you don't really believe it. "No dog shall sharpen its tongue" (Exodus 11:7) - he interpreted as: his tongue should not be more clever than his heart. Just as the heart is, so should be the tongue.2

"The seal of the Holy One is truth."3 A seal has to be made in such a way that it cannot be counterfeited. Only speak your convictions. Truth is that which cannot be imitated. If it is imitated, it is no longer true.4

If a person worships in ways that are too exalted for him and he is not worthy of them, this is false self-aggrandizement. If a person expresses an utterance that he does not believe, if he utters a sigh that's deeper than the feeling it expresses - that is a kind of theft. Such thefts go on day and night. A person can fool himself completely and end up believing that he's such a wonderful person, it's beneath his dignity even to speak to himself. In Kotsk they investigated and interrogated their very selves.

The main principle in Kotsk (as in Psishkhe) was: not too deceive and not to imitate. Reb Ben-Tsiyen Ostrover says: Do you think that this means not to deceive someone else, not to imitate someone else? No, what it means is: not to deceive, not to imitate oneself.5

1 Yekhahen Pi'er, 69
2 Emes VeEmuno, 384
3 Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 55a
4 Emes VeEmuno, 504
5 Heykhel Kotsk, 302

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