The Kotsker Rebbe: The More Knowledge,the More Pain

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

"The one who increases knowledge, increases pain (Kohelet 1:18). And what's this? It is worth it for a person to increase pain, provided that they increase knowledge as well."

— Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, as quoted in "The Sayings of Menachem Mendel of Kotsk" by Simcha Raz, translated by Edward Levin, cited by Alana Suskin.

There is no doubt that information about the suicide bombings of Israelis by Palestinian terrorists causes pain to everyone of us It breaks our hearts to absorb this knowledge. We may flinch when we receive it, but we do not refuse to hear it.

Yet when we receive knowledge about horrifying behavior by Israeli troops, some by individual soldiers who are ignoring or even disobeying orders, some by whole units that are operating without rebuke, and some by the IDF as a whole acting in accord with official policy — some of us are so pained that we reject the knowledge. Some of us demand that it not be published on our list, or howl in grief and anger at those who do publish it.

There can be only one legitimate challenge to this information: that it is false. If it is true, it does not matter who supplies it: a Palestinian on a fast-failing cell phone, a British reporter with a camcorder, an Italian pacifist, a Jewish dove who is accused (correctly or incorrectly) of insufficiently deep agony over Jewish deaths, an Israeli rabbi, an Israeli journalist publishing in Israel's most distinguished newspaper, or a long-serving Israeli soldier who has publicly announced that he will continue to defend Israel against attack but cannot and will not serve to oppress a subject population in the Occupied Territories.

It is certainly legitimate to question every source, and to have stronger doubts about some than others. (I was trained as an historian, and I both have real-life practice in making such distinctions and firmly believe they need to be made.)

But when the evidence builds and builds, coming from a range of different sources; when we take into account that the Israeli government has banned independent Western and Israeli journalists from the scene of attack, and ask ourselves why it is doing that — there comes a point at which for an historian the issue is not the truth of these descriptions but how to respond to them.

For me, and for many on this list, that point has been reached. I understand that for many others on this list, it has not been. Why is there this difference? —
For one thing, many of us on this list have not opened ourselves to the range of information that is available, and are at first incredulous when suddenly assailed by information that is painful.

For me, the range of credible sources of information has expanded during the last two years.

Even before Camp David failed, even before the present intifada began, as I heard more and more reports of increases in the number of Israeli settlers sent to the West Bank by the govt, and of home demolitions, and of the use of huge areas of Palestinian farmland for "bypass roads." So I began to check Israeli news more regularly and with more concern that a disaster was in the making.

I started checking the reports of Haaretz, the Israeli equivalent of the New York Times in its independent-Labor-leaning establishmentarian politics and its high-quality reporting. Haaretz (

I started checking B'Tselem — an Israeli human-rights organization that is widely respected for accuracy across a wide spectrum (not all) of Israeli opinion. (

I began asking questions of Rabbis for Human Rights about what they were observing and who their experience on the West Bank indicated was likely to be telling the truth. (

I took into account that I could see for myself, out of direct knowledge of my own, that other possible sources of information were telling false stories.

Then more recently, some American Jews created the Jewish Peace News, an information service that included a wide range of articles from as wide range of sources — much more, much deeper, and much more idependent artuicles than what was usually available in the American press. (Much of it comes from the Israeli press.)

JPN is not monolithic — the articles it carries often disagree with each other — and for that very reason, I find it an excellent resource to draw on, from which I can make my own judgments and decisions.

Anyone can get to receive its material by writing

Other articles related to Peace in a World of Change on our website, can be found here..

There may be other reasons as well that some of us wish not to have put before our noses not only the reports of disgusting attacks on Israelis (and more recently, Diaspora Jews) but also extremely troubling reports of behavior under the Israeli flag that denies human rights to Palestinians:

Some of us may have great difficulty in holding in our hearts at the same time our grief for dead and suffering Israelis, ansd our grief for dead and suffering Palestinians.

Some of us, already conscious that we are treated as marginal by some of the "mainstream" institutions of Jewish life, do not wish to give those institutions another stick to beat us with.

Some of us may dread the intensity of argument and feeling that arises not only on the list but also in our home communities, congregations, havurot.

And yet — and yet — and yet — I think the Kotsker is in this matter correct: If pain is the cost of new knowledge, then let us pay the price.

Shalom, Arthur