This coming Tuesday night, February 3, 2015 and extending into Wednesday February 4, 2015 is the 156th Yahrzeit of the Kotzker. The following is a piece I wrote last year and did not have a chance to put it on my website. I offer this as my 2015 Yahrzeit speech for the Kotzker.
THE KOTZKER AND THE GRA
The Vilna Goan known as the Gra – Reb Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman – lived from 1720 to 1797. The Kotzker – Reb Menachem Mendel Ben Yehuda Leib lived from 1787 – 1859. The Kotzker was 10 years old when the Gra passed away. The Gra was the first Mishnagid while the Kotzker was a Chassidic master. The Kotzker grew up in a non-Chasidic family and knew about the greatness of the Vilna Goan. The Gra signed the excommunication against the Chassidim.
Yet I believe that the Kotzker had a grudging admiration for the Gra. Both were more alike than different and it is a tragedy of Jewish history that the Gra agreed to and signed the excommunication thereby creating a split between the Gra’s world and Kotzker’s world. Had they met, they would have embraced in the kiss of Hashem and perhaps brought a new era to the Jewish people.
The Kotzker did interact with the community at large, albeit in a more limited way in the Kotzker ’s later years. The Gra had almost no contact with the community at large. The greatness of the Gra was preserved for later generations due to his 10+- students, primarily Reb Chaim Voloziner. Yet the beacon of light extended from Vilna during the Gra’s lifetime, and from Kotzk in the Kotzker’s lifetime.
I question whether anything good came out of this excommunication. It led to people turning other Jews over to the government and feeling that they are doing holy work by turning people in on charges, after all there is a ban against Chassidim. How can someone sign a ban, when his protagonist is equal to him in piety, learning, leadership, and Yiras Shaminaym. It is the height of arrogance to say that I am Lesham Shamayin, when his opponent, his equal and a leader of men is not for the sake of Heaven. I believe the evil effects of the excommunication lasted all the way to the destruction of European Jewry in 1939 – 1945. This should be a lesson today of the need for unity.
Page 249 of the book Amud Haemes brings down one of the only times the Kotzker mentioned the Vilna Goan The story is as follows:
One time the Chidusshei Harim and Reb Moshe Michel of Biala were sitting and analyzing a Tosefes. The Kotzker comes by and says that according to the explanation of the “thief” of Vilna the words of Tosefes are answered. When they asked the Kotzker why he called the Goan of Vilna a “thief”, the Kotzker answered: At the time the Torah was given and Moshe ascended to the heavens, a number of Souls hid under the cloak of Moshe, went up with Moshe and heard the entire Torah. One of them was the Goan from Vilna.
I felt that the Kotzker could not come out directly and say how much he admired the Gra, so he did it in a backhanded way.
I was at Kesser Ma’ariv in Skokie this past Shabbos – March 2014. The Rabbi is Rabbi Louis Lazovsky, a friend from my days in Brisk Yeshiva. His mother and my mother worked on the Brisk Yeshiva ad books in the late 1970s. I found a Sefer in the Shul’s library titled, “The Goan of Vilna and his Messianic Vision” by Dr. Arie Morgenstern. I am trying to reach Dr. Arie Morgenstern to determine if I am related. The title was fascinating and I was not disappointed.
How do we picture the Gra? We picture the ultimate Misnaged, a rationalist cut of the same cloth of the Rambam. Someone who did not delve into Kabbalah and the Messiah. He is the teacher of Reb Chaim Volzhin, the person who wrote the Nefesh Hachaim to counter the Tanya. The Gra was the intellectual and theological father of Volzhin and Brisk, Brisker Torah, the Bais Halevi, the Soloveichiks, and the cold rationality of Halacha.
However, Dr. Arie Morgenstern dispels this vision of the Gra and turns it on its head. According to Dr. Arie Morgenstern the Gra was a major Kabbalist, believed that the coming of the Messiah was imminent, and would happen on or around 1781, felt that he was a vessel for Hashem to bring the Messiah, made plans, and started the journey to move to Eretz Yisroel and got to Amsterdam when he turned back. How does Dr. Arie Morgenstern’s description of this aspect of the Gra square with the historical Gra known to the Yeshiva world? It does not at all. It seems as if this side of the Gra was purposely suppressed because this side of the Gra seems to be a textbook Chassidic master. The Gra who rejected and excommunicated Chassidim appears to be no different than the Besht and the Chassidic masters.
I believe that the Kotzker perhaps desired the world that the Gra created. The Gra had few students, did not mix with the general public, hid himself from the world, and was free to devote himself to learning Torah. As described by Dr. Arie Morgenstern and detailed below the Gra was also a Kabbalist, Mishicist, tried to determine when the Messiah would come, and worked to bring the Messiah. The Kotzker and the Gra were exactly the same: Great Torah masters, both in the revealed and the hidden parts of the Torah. Both were also similar in their view of the world which while deeply spiritual they had very rationalistic views. The Gra learned science and mathematics. The Kotzker gave advice that was practical. The Kotzker did not go as far as the Gra to bring about the Messiah, in fact little is mentioned on this subject by the Kotzker.
Dr. Arie Morgenstern in his book on pages 292 and 293 talks about the nature of the Gra and about who the excommunication against the Chassidiym. It is attached below. Read it in sheer amazement, especially what Yehuda Liebes wrote how Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov regarded the Gra. Read what R. J. Z. Werblowsky wrote. Haflah VePhlah. Wondrous.
Dr. Arie Morgenstern writes on page 316, “Everyone contemplated the genius of the Rabbi Elijah of Vilna in amazement and considered his very advent on earth a supernatural act. Several of his disciples said repeatedly that the Goan earned the revelation of the secrets of the Torah and the true Halacha not only by limitless toil and superhuman talent but also as a reward form God for his prodigious effort, in a chain from the patriarchs to Moses and the prophet Elijah.”
The Goan’s genius is attributed as a supernatural act, almost from God himself. The Kotzker is his comments above acknowledged the same by stating that the Gra was a “thief” when he ascended to Heaven with Moshe, also attributed the genius of the Gra directly from God in a backhanded way.
Both the Kotzker and the Gra believed that Moshiach can come in a supernatural act or Kimah, Kimah – natural means but having people start making Aliyah and through building up the land. The Gra through his students who made Sliyah (the Rivlin and Solomon families, Reb Menacham Mendel of Shklov and his brother) and the Kotzker through his grandson’s Sefer, Shoelm Yershalim, and his grandson’s desire to start an agricultural community of 1,000 families.
Postscript – Last week I was in Israel and on January 27, 2015, I was fortunate to meet with Dr. Arie (Aryeh) Morgenstern. It was a great meeting. I received an autographed copy of his Sefer, The Goan of Vilna and his Messianic Vision. Dr. Arie Morgenstern has written at least 10 books. He is one of the authors on the recent book on the history of the Chuvra Shul, written in conjunction with the rebuilding of the Chuvra Shul in 2014. Dr. Arie Morgenstern has lectured on the Goan and the history of the Jewish community in Israel over the last 200 years. We are probably not related. Dr. Arie Morgenstern’s grandfather was named Menachem Mendel, however, usually, the family would have had a tradition that they are descendants from the Kotzker and Dr. Morgenstern has no such tradition. Even though, Dr. Arie Morgenstern’s family is from near Lodz and some of the Kotzker’s grandchildren from his second wife settled in the Lodz area.