But I can assure you that such is the brilliance of Heschel as a writer that he creates a fascinating and very accessible drama out of the lives and ideas of these two figures, showing how they were each wrestling with similar religious questions and issues, though in completely different contexts.
What they were both aware of – and found themselves battling against – were the ways in which religious experience becomes institutionalised, how an individual’s possibility of engaging with the divine becomes bogged down in tradition and ritual and repetition, how religious formalism and religious institutions can become a barrier to religious experience, rather than a vehicle for it.
Heschel was accustomed in his books to divide his thoughts up into short sections, each with their own ‘headline’. The section I want to share is entitled ‘Against Trivialization’, and starts as follows:
The Kotzker apparently felt that overemphasis on strict adherence to patterns of religious behaviour tended to obscure the individual’s relationship with God. He never questioned the validity of the traditional pattern and regarded living by the Law as essential. Observance as a matter of routine, however, he considered odious.
So: observance of the law and the traditions of Judaism is central, ‘essential’, for Reb Mendl, but observing as a ‘matter of routine’ is ‘odious’: strong language from Heschel. Although Heschel stresses that Reb Mendl is halachically observant, the emphasis of his religious stance is not on mere repetition of rituals or prayers, but something else.
Let’s see what else:
What appalled the Kotzker was the spiritual stagnation of religious existence, the trivialization of Judaism. He scorned praying by rote. In opposition to the traditional preference for verbose recitation, he pleaded for brevity, even taciturnity. He dared to teach that the preparation for prayer surpassed prayer itself in spiritual value and found a basis for this reformative principle in an ancient tradition: ”One should not stand up to say a prayer save in a reverent frame of mind. The pious of old used to wait an hour before praying in order to concentrate their thoughts upon their Father in Heaven.” (Berachot 5:1). One would expect the phrase “while praying” to appear at the end of the sentence, since the goal is concentration in prayer. The intention, however, is to teach us that concentration should precede the act of prayer. Preparation for prayer is valuable in itself, perhaps more so than prayer itself.
Let’s unpack this: first there are the powerful phrases Heschel uses to describe what the Kotzker set himself against – ‘spiritual stagnation’ and ‘the trivialization of Judaism’. And what’s an example of that? : ‘prayer by rote’. And then Heschel illustrates the radical nature of what the Kotzker was teaching by quoting how the Rebbe used a traditional text from the Talmud as the basis of his ‘reformative’ stance: the tradition of having a period of reflection or meditation before a service starts, a quiet personal time before the collective prayers. It’s interesting to see Heschel describe this as a ‘reformative principle’. Implicitly he is raising the question: Does our tradition, our prayer life, need “reforming”? Have we got our priorities wrong? Maybe we have. Because ‘preparation for prayer is valuable in itself, perhaps more so than prayer itself’, (i.e. the fixed prayers of tradition). How threatening an idea is that?!
He’s not saying we can or should dispense with the words of tradition. But Heschel is saying, following the Kotzker’s lead: maybe we have our priorities the wrong way round - that what we might do before the formal prayers begin has a spiritual value in and of itself and maybe, (and this is the radical note), maybe that quiet time is more valuable ’than prayer itself’. What would our services look like if we followed that approach? They would surely be different.
Although he’s focused here on prayer, I just want to note in passing how Heschel’s greatness as a teacher is evidenced in that subversive phrase he slips in en passant: the phrase ‘the trivialization of Judaism’. Because in using that language he is inviting you to think: ‘and what else goes on in Jewish life and practice that is a trivialization? where else do we concentrate on stuff that misses the point about our religion? that avoids the essence of religious and spiritual life?’ And I imagine these questions might resonate too for other religions.
We can each create our own anthology of things that we might point to as the ‘trivialization of Judaism’. My list would probably be a long one but off the top of my head I’d think about: obsessionism about aspects of kashrut, or frenzied pre-Pesach cleaning, or substituting Zionism for Judaism as the heart of religious life, or seeing the Bar/Bat-Mitzvah party as needing more attention than the ceremony itself, or anything that prioritises ritual obligations at the expense of the ethical vision and inter-personal dimension of Judaism with its focus on compassion and justice.
In the Kotzker’s synagogue one could see the disciples with prayer shawls over their shoulders walking up and down the room, their lips hardly moving. They gave the impression that they had not begun to pray yet and were still immersed in preparation. They prayed quietly. Suddenly they would stop, take of phylacteries and shawls, join one another at the table, and consume a little vodka together…
Heschel brings to life a lost world, with a charming (and seductive) picture of weekday prayer - quiet immersion in prayer, each individual alone in community, together in community, and then: tephillin off, and time for a different connection to the spirit, sharing a drink together…
And how does Heschel bring this theme to a conclusion?
Even piety will not sustain the tedium of unlimited repetition. To preserve one’s commitment with the intensity of its first ardour requires more than obedience. Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation – all these are necessary ingredients for religious renewal.
Judaism lived because it was both a religion of finality, conclusive and irrevocable, and a faith of commencement, of inauguration. To act as a Jew, thought the Kotzker, meant to make a new start upon the old road. (quotations from ‘A Passion for Truth’, pp.92-3, Farrer, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1973).
So here’s the Kotzker’s recipe for religious aliveness, channelled through Heschel. Another way of saying that might be: here we have Heschel’s 20th century agenda for religious renewal – but a renewal programme utilising and rooting himself in the spiritual tradition to which he was an heir. Heschel was of course born into a Hasidic heritage: his grandfather, Reb Abraham Joshua Heschel, who died in 1825, was the ‘Apter Rebbe’, the last great Rebbe of Mezbizh on the Polish/Russia border, who was buried next to Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, who came from that same village.
In this paragraph Heschel is teaching us what is required for an enlivened religious life: ‘Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation..,’ that is the search for new approaches to the tradition. These are the ‘necessary ingredients’ not just for one’s own spirituality and prayer life but for collective ‘religious renewal’. That’s what Heschel was after: collective and individual ‘religious renewal’. And what a great trio of ideas he puts together here: ‘Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation…’.
Do the religious services we attend meet that demanding standard? Can they? Is religion even the best place to look? What is the antidote to what Heschel calls ‘spiritual stagnation’? That’s a condition that might afflict any number of people - synagogue-goes, Church attenders, secularists, alike.
Heschel speaks directly to some of my own preoccupations, including trying to keep on guard against the ‘trivialisation of Judaism’; and keeping myself (and others)on track, focused on, the elements of adventure, of surprise, of new approaches, in our eternal journey through the wilderness away from spiritual stagnation, towards spiritual richness, aliveness, new possibilities.
[adapted from a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, May 5th 2018]