I have heard a number of people talking about Mussar of late. It sort of seems like it is this year’s Kabbalah, so to speak. From what I understand, it is a Jewish self-improvement program from the past. Can you enlighten me?
I am not sure if Mussar is this year’s Kabbalah or not. They have very different sets of traditions and teachings, but both are time-honored and authentically Jewish. Each offers individuals deep insights about the world and themselves. Kabbalah, on one hand, seeks to explore the mystical and to create a dynamic relationship with the Divine through experience, while Mussar seeks to probe the human psyche and change human behavior.
All that notwithstanding, I too have heard that the teachings of Mussar are suddenly “in.” This revival may be on account of a new book, Everyday Holiness – The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, by Alan Morinis. This work makes the once esoteric, little-known Mussar teachings highly accessible to readers who may not be acquainted with the long-established volumes that are staples in the more traditional community.
Though the Mussar movement is usually assigned a start-up date during the 19th century, it truly hearkens back to ancient values and wisdom found in the Torah, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Proverbs and Pirke Avoth. Subsequent works such as Emunot Vedeot by Saadiah Gaon (10th century),Chovot ha-Levavot by Bahya ibn Paquda (11th century) Tomer Devorah by Moshe Cordevero (16th century) and Mesilat Yesharim by Moshe Chaim Luzzato (18th century) became the classics that laid the ground work for the movement that was to blossom in 19th-century Eastern Europe.
True confession: as a child growing up in a Jewish school, I experienced these teachings within the framework of middot training — proper character traits. Posters would line the hallways of our school espousing proper conduct. Teachers would lay it on thick, as you can imagine. Not the most appealing part of the day for your typical fun-loving, happy-go-lucky youngster.
If I only knew then what I know now, I may have scoffed less at the lessons and appreciated them more. Though these teachings are compelling guidelines for how to treat others — which is, of course, critical — they really are more about becoming a deeply fine person, embracing a significant spiritual discipline, and realizing your unique potential and mission in this world.
It was in college that I turned a more mature countenance to Mussar. I began to truly value the teachings found in the classic works mentioned above. I would read a chapter each night before falling asleep, keeping these books on the dorm nightstand beside my bed at all times — attempting to embrace their lessons with every opportunity. Mussar teachings eventually took a backburner to other pursuits, and with the business of life and raising family it became folded into a more generic Jewish approach to life’s foibles.
For some reason though, this current iteration of Mussar is resonating in a whole other way. Instead of simply being part of the mass of Jewish teachings, it is emerging with its own particulars, which I never really appreciated. This may very well be because of this new framing by Morinis, which blends his own experiences with traditional teachings and modern dilemmas.
His techniques trace themselves back to the original movement. Though there are several schools within the Mussar movement, the most essential individual — without whom there probably would never have been a Mussar movement — is Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810–1883). He is seen as one the most influential and original leaders of Eastern European Jewry and the father of the movement. Immanuel Etkes, in his extremely thorough work Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement, describes Rabbi Salanter’s groundbreaking contribution as a unique blending of modern psychology, theology and personal ethical development.
Mussar teachings became a movement as they spread through the yeshiva world of Lithuania. In a climate in Eastern Europe where Chassidim on one hand swept up those seeking religious fervor and haskalah, Jewish enlightenment, on the other promoting scholarship and secularism, Mussar was for those Jews who were looking for more than the negative identification of being neither. Mussar, to a large degree, became the spiritual engager for those in between, a path of transformation that involved neither ecstatic Hassidism nor haskalic distancing. It was a path of personal growth within everyday life.
Let’s get to some of the essentials of Mussar teachings. A core element of the practice is to select 13 middot, character traits, which may be a challenge for you, that you would want to work on. Morinis calls them soul traits and selects the following ones for particular examination in his book: Humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, order, equanimity, honor, simplicity, enthusiasm, silence, generosity, truth, moderation, loving-kindness, responsibility, trust, faith and awe.
After you create a list of traits to which you would like to pay attention, you devote one week to keeping track of your performance in regard to each trait. You self-scrutinize; analyze alone, with a partner or within a group of Mussar devotees. You are urged to create a journal to record your ups and downs in regard to — let’s say — humility. During the week: Where did you succeed? Where did you fail? After the 13 weeks, you loop back and begin again. This work never ends, you see. The purpose is not to selfishly perfect yourself, but rather to perfect the world through your own perfection.
The great rabbi known as the Chofetz Chaim put it this way:
I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So, I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community of Radin, my hometown, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and I failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself. And that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.