Menahem Mendel of Kotsk

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Hasidic master (1787–1859), also known as ‘the Seraph’ because of his holy life and fiery temperament. In his youth Menahem Mendel was a follower of Simhah Bunem of Przysucha. The Przysucha branch of Hasidism placed the emphasis on intellectual ability, inwardness, and sincerity. When Simhah Bunem died, Menahem Mendel was elected by his colleagues to the leadership of the group. Menahem Mendel was a stern master, having little truck with the ordinary Hasidim who came to ask him to pray on their behalf for children, health, and prosperity. His appeal was chiefly to the select few, the sincere God-seekers willing to sacrifice everything to the quest. He once declared that his ambition was to raise 200 chosen disciples who would go onto the roofs loudly to proclaim: ‘The Lord, He is God.’ The Kotsker Hasidim were notorious for their disdain of outward religiosity and moral pretence. It was said of the Kotsker group that, unlike others who sinned in private and were virtuous in public, they were sinful in public and virtuous in private. Some Kotsker Hasidim would often sit up all night playing cards and then meet together in stealth to recite the morning prayers. Such a parade of apparent impiety was anathema to the staid, even in the Hasidic camp. The rigours of Menahem Mendel's tormented life and his total disregard for the opinion of others (he is similar in this respect to the Danish thinker Kierkegaard) seem to have produced in him severe traumas. The Kotsker regime, with all its severities, seemed doomed to failure but was saved through the activities of the Kotsker's brother-in-law, Isaac Meir Alter (1789–1866), who functioned as Hasidic master in the little town of Gora Kalwaria, known to the Hasidim as Ger. The Gerer dynasty, still very powerful, considers itself to be in the traditions of Kotsk but with a more humane face.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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