The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “A Passion for Truth” (Jewish Lights reprint, 2008, first published 1978), pp. 214-215. One of the 20th century scholar-mystic’s seminal works, “A Passion for Truth” compares and contrasts the spiritual approaches of Chassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk and his younger contemporary, Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard.
The Rebbe of Kotzk and Solitude
By Abraham Joshua Heschel
Even as a child the Kotzker [Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, 1787-1859] was inclined to loneliness. He preferred God's nearness, though it involved estrangement from people. He learned to extend his solitudes and to isolate himself. Life, he felt, should be lived apart from the self, for the sake of the greater One outside the Self. The individual had to keep his head clear of all digressions that prevented the splendor of God's thought from centering in the mind. There were tremors below and dizziness above, but the intense love must grow in silence and with painful patience.
Was it not promiscuous to mingle with people who, by mendacity and effrontery, kept the Almighty in isolation?
Even while surrounded by disciples, Reb Mendl lived apart from others. When he closed his doors, it was not he who was suddenly alone but those who followed him. In this way he rid himself of flatterers and mediocre companions and was able to foster his contemplative impulses and insights undisturbed. His soul dwelled so long in the midst of alarms, was afflicted with such frustrations, that only in seclusion could he nurture some crumbs of hope. When decisive acts have to be carried out, even God says, “I have trodden the winepress alone” (Isaiah 63:3).
There is an old tradition in Judaism about holy men, such as Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, who spent much of' their time in solitude. It was this ancient sage's example that the Kotzker announced he would follow upon assuming the leadership of his Hasidic community. As a young man, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the founder of the Lurianic Kabbalah, removed to the banks of the Nile. For seven years lie he secluded himself in meditation, visiting his familv only on the Sabbath, speaking seldom and then only in Hebrew, which was not commonly spoken in his time. Hasidic lore tells us that as a young man the Baal Shem Tov spent many years alone in the Carpathian Mountains.
Solitude was a common practice among mystically inclined Jews. Even the non-mystical Jewish writers of the Middle Ages seemed to agree that solitary living was indispensable to the attainment of spiritual purity. This view may be found in the writings of Abraham Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Badarshi, Falaquera, Gersonides, Albo, Crescas, and Abravanel among others.
What is there for one who seeks to save his authenticity other than withdrawal from the world's blaring lies and deceitful eyes? Proximity to the crowd, to the majority view, spells the death of creativity. For a soul can create only when alone, and some are chosen for the flowering that takes place in the dark avenues of the night. They may live on the brink of despair, alternating between a longing for fellowship and for privacy.
Even people who consider themselves moderately kind but also realistic tend to accept the use of God's name in association with falsehood or the daily murder of innocent people. How easily we develop indifference to evil and consent to mendacity as an indispensable fact of life.
Can a man of sense feel mercy if he himself has never experienced terror? The Kotzker is very close to us during the night – a night that lasts all day and opens up the horror that other people felt and saw, after which they died.