The Kotzker Rebbe who pierced the falsehood of society and taught a path of individualism was the hero of existential hippie ethos of late 20th century. The Kotzker Rebbe asked: “why do we say ‘our God and God of our fathers,’ shouldn’t it be reversed to show reverence for the past before our selves? The Kotzker answered that we first have to make God our own and then we can appreciate the God of our fathers.
I think of that piece as I read the essay by Jonathan Schorsch about his smashing the idols of the prior generation and now how he finds his own children treating him as a Terah, just as he used to view the prior generation. Schorsch adds the sociological insight that this generational change is especially acute in America where every era is flabbergasted by the prior era.
Also note the issue of Neo-Hasidism – “the serious yet easygoing, communal, neo-hasidic Judaism that my wife and I had nurtured as haven and inspiration fit neither into proper conventional Judaism nor rational secularism.” Ah, if only the Kotzker were mainstream, but then it would not be Kotzk. The Kotzker once said: “I cannot believe in a God that every common yankel can believe in or understand.” The new coda of this quote would be that the next generation of 1880 would find their father neither conventional nor secular rational. So the Kotzker’s son imitated the conventional Ukrainian style of being a Rebbe, while much of the rest of Polish Jewry chose secular rationalism.
I was young once. By my teenage years, as far as I was concerned, I knew everything, what was right and what was wrong. Mine was the only authentic perspective, my perception the only one that saw things as they truly were.
Some time into my older children’s adolescence, I noticed a pain I could no longer conceal. Someone had entered my workshop and was busily chipping away at much of what I had loved, cared for, and spent so much time and energy building. It was my own children! They seem to have mistaken the treasures that my wife and I had built ourselves for idols: Our environmentally friendly, quasi-hippy ways were deemed aberrant and embarrassing, ineffective and silly; our critique of contemporary capitalism and governmental failures and our search for alternatives were considered cynical; our lack of a television and opposition to much of popular culture were causing our children’s mental and social debilitation. Worse still was the fact that the serious yet easygoing, communal, neo-hasidic Judaism that my wife and I had nurtured as haven and inspiration fit neither into proper conventional Judaism nor rational secularism. We were aberrations — stupid, backward, and superstitious; religious tyrants imposing groundless beliefs on those less powerful. Terachs, indeed.
Our domestic intergenerational conflicts evolved into a routine of sorts. I realized that it was not my idols (ideals) that were being smashed. It was me. I had become the idol; I had become the towering statue of a false and tyrannical dictator. My orientation, values, and beliefs could not be separated from my essence; they were me.
Becoming a parent had broken through my narcissistic blindness to perspectives other than my own childish one. My failures had kindled the intelligence of withholding judgment regarding the failures of others.
With great sadness, I see that the smashing of idols has itself become an idol. American pop culture, modernity in general — in some sense even certain ways of being Jewish — seem fixated on destroying parental idols and ideals, unable or unwilling to sift through what is handed down by previous generations for wisdom, intent on wholly remaking the world anew. The idols may well have deserved reshaping, and the truth is that not all parents parent well, but the conflict has left us a world littered with the shards of countless broken hearts. How difficult it can be to consider the pain we have caused, that has been caused to us, that we continue to cause — and to move forward still.
One day, I hope they will recognize, as I have come to learn from the revolving mirror of life in which I periodically glimpse myself — that the clay that forms these new idols and ideals comes from the dust of the shattered old ones, that our unknown inner powers were likely, as not, sown by our parents.
Jonathan Schorsch is associate professor in the department of religion at Columbia University
Blumenberg bemoans those who do not know how to let institutions do the heavy lifting for them and insist on forging their own path. Perhaps children more exposed to the terrible absolutism of reality would appreciate the daylight between it and them granted them by the munificently false Gods.
Of course, there is a kind of economy here which itself might actually need smashing. Sadly for potential Abrahams, such idols no longer are sold in a place marked “Idol Store.”
Relatedly, one wonders if old Terah’s competitors finally caught a break from his deranged child’s iconoclasm.
So, we cannot all be kotzkers, unless somehow we all come to it on our own. Makes for a strange sort of paradox.
Anyway, I found much truth in Schorsch’s self portrait. We all look for our own voice in this world, breaking the previous generations voice. Yet we forget that we are mere mortals who cannot know all. Eventually, the next generation begins to see that we are not the be all and end all of all discussion, thus they also explore. The challenge is the obvious need to let go.
In terms of the image of Terach and Abraham, I think the real fear, not mentioned, is that eventually the Abraham goes out on his own, and all that is left of the Terach is VaYamat Terach B’Haran, that Terach dies without fulfilling his ultimate goal. In a sense, the final element of the metaphor might be the seeming irrelevance of the previous generation. Yet, we know that the ideal is to look to the previous generation for wisdom in old age. Perhaps, this is part of why the one idol was not destroyed. We can destroy the idols of the previous generation, but something must remain as a connection.
Kotzk can work if we add the reciprocal beirur that institutional life is often the best or only option, that cultural conservatism in an of itself becomes at least a source of doubt.