If you are wondering what that title means, you’re not alone. Most Jews have never heard of this word. Even many Orthodox Jews have only the vaguest notion of what it really means. To clear up that issue right off the bat, Mussar means ‘instruction’. The literal meaning is ‘something that is delivered’. Instruction is frequently ‘delivered’, so there you have it. But it really doesn’t mean instruction, at least as far as we are concerned. It refers to a method of personal growth and inner awareness that became highly influential among Lithuanian Torah scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This activity, though relatively brief and largely restricted to a somewhat elite group, has become known as the Mussar Movement.
To understand why such a small movement is considered such an influential force in Judaism, we have to look back to its origins. Mussar has really been there all along. From the Chumash to the Tanakh, the Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash, the philosophers, the mystics – all of them have Mussar spiced among the major themes. What is the phrase, ‘Life and death I have placed before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life so that you and your descendants live’, if not Mussar? What are the countless harangues of the Prophets and the wisdom of the Writings, if not Mussar? What is the entire tractate of the Mishna entitled ‘Ethics of the Fathers’, if not Mussar? Rambam devoted most of an entire section of the Mishna Torah to Mussar related ideas. The mystics and the Kabbalists always had Mussar themes woven within their ethereal ideas about God and creation.
So what really is Mussar? It is the long, laborious, and frequently frustrating process of changing oneself into a different person. The human personality is highly complex, with many different forces at work. As anyone who has actually made a serious attempt can testify, changing one’s personality is enormously difficult. Better than anything else, it resembles those shopping carts at supermarkets that have wheels that are going to go in whatever direction they want to, no matter where the person steering them around is trying to go. Mussar is the very personal process of attempting to gain control of that runaway shopping cart.
What are the forces at work in the mind? They go by different names depending on cultural norms and current understandings. In ancient times they were the gods – the spiritual powers that wrought havoc on human beings and played with them like they were toys. The Bible itself is rather vague on what they were - simply recognizing them as forces to be reckoned with was enough. To the rabbis of the Talmud they ranged from the irrational powers of demons and spirits to the more rational sway of the good and evil inclinations (yetzer tov and yetzer hara). The philosophers refined the rational approach and broke the inclinations down into their components. They examined in depth each of the various manifestations of the good and evil inclinations. They called these manifestations by the Hebrew term ‘middot’, roughly translated as ‘measures’, but really meaning character traits.
The multifaceted human personality fascinated these early explorers of the uncharted regions of the mind. Long before psychoanalysis and behaviorism was ever dreamed of, Jewish scholars from the entire spectrum were chipping away at the huge obstacles that blocked off all access to the mind. They explored anger and pride, joy and humility. They pondered the battles of the will against the formidable forces of the yetzer hara, and the subtle ways that the yetzer tov can gain control. When we in the 21st century glance back at these medieval speculations they frequently strike us as simplistic and hardly practical. We are used to the methods of therapy to solve personality problems, which bear little resemblance to these highly theoretical and disturbingly general observations. But sometimes, if one is willing to dig deep enough, and to question certain preconceived notions about psychology and human behavior, there are jewels to be found in these antiquated ideas.
Maimonides wrote a great deal on the middot and their powers. Other major works from this period were devoted entirely to this examination, deeming it the essence of the Torah. These were the first works of Mussar. Included among them are the Sefaradi classics ‘Obligations of the Heart’, and ‘Gates of Repentance’. These, and several others of the period, became primary texts of the 19th and 20th century students of Mussar.
The mystics also made major contributions to Mussar. Among these were ‘Gates of Holiness’ by Rav Chaim Vital, the student of the Ari and the author of the Etz Chaim. But the classic of the entire genre is a remarkable work by Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato called Mesilat Yesharim, the Path of the Just. We shall be looking into this book more deeply in one of the subsections of Mussar, but suffice it to say that it's probably the most organized attempt to lay out the practical foundations for attaining the Jewish version of a meaningful and righteous life that has ever been written. The kabbalistic background to this book is hardly noticeable, even to those intimately familiar with it.
All the various approaches agree on certain major principles. They agree that the human personality is complex and that a simplistic approach based only on faith and following Halacha and tradition is not a complete answer. They all recognize that each individual must put serious time into knowing his or her personality and make a life quest out of molding it in the proper direction. The only real disagreements are in the methods used to get there. The philosophical approaches tended to focus entirely on the human mind, while the kabbalistic approaches included the spiritual effects coming from outside. One important kabbalistic text of Mussar integrated middot development with the ten Sefirot of the Zohar.
All this changed with the Mussar Movement during the 19th century. Founded largely by the influence and enthusiasm of one man, it revolutionized the Jewish approach to the personality. This one man was Yisrael Lipkin, more commonly known as Rav Yisrael Salanter, referring to the town of Salant where he spent the most formative years of his education. Rav Yisrael took an approach to Mussar that was decidedly non-mystical, but also avoided the dry and intellectual orientation of the philosophers. His approach can probably be defined most accurately as ‘experiential’. Mussar, the process of refining and modifying the personality, was not to be restricted to the brain. It had to apply also to the heart.
We shall look more deeply into the methods that he advocated in the course of his long and controversial attempt to integrate Mussar into the daily lives of Ashkenazi Jews in general and into the curricula of Yeshiva studies in particular. There is no question that he was successful in starting a genuine movement. He succeeded, despite fighting against the powerful forces of a long-established tradition, and despite the necessity of blazing largely unknown paths in the mind, in nothing less than integrating psychology into the Torah lifestyle. And he accomplished this decades before the field of psychology existed as a science. Prior to him, the Torah view of the inner emotional battles of the mind could be summed up as the war between the yetzer hara and the yetzer tov, with a few ‘outside’ factors stacking the deck in one direction or another. His great revelation consisted of recognizing the role of subconscious or unconscious motivations in human behavior. Rav Yisrael’s Mussar program was largely a method to delve into these subconscious motivations and to change them for the better.
Among his inner circle of students, one in particular was responsible for enlarging what was a minor innovation into a highly influential movement. His name was Simcha Zissel Ziv, but he is better known as the Alter (elder) from Kelm (a town in Lithuania). Among the schools he started was the Yeshiva in Kelm, in which Mussar was the main emphasis of the Torah studies program. Substituting Mussar for traditional Talmud study was a radical departure from the norm and did not go unnoticed by those opposed to Mussar. This was one of the earliest of several controversies surrounding the Mussar Movement that prevented it from fulfilling its founder’s dream. The Alter from Kelm produced numerous disciples who founded their own schools and spread both the doctrine and the controversy far and wide. By the time of his death in 1898, Mussar was a force to be reckoned with.
Among the major figures in the post-war Mussar/yeshiva world was a product of the Kelm school named Eliyahu Dessler. He best represented the transition of Mussar from a primary focus among a minority of yeshivot to a secondary focus among a majority of yeshivot. With Rav Dessler, Mussar had come full circle. By his time, and partly due to his influence, Mussar had made it into the mainstream of Judaism. Hardly a yeshiva in the world did not have Mussar as an important element in its goals for its students. In the Orthodox world as a whole also, Mussar had become a vital part of Judaism. In non-Orthodox circles Mussar also gradually became known and applied within the religious framework.
More than anything else, Mussar can be seen as a modern extension of the rational emphasis of philosophy. While the concerns of the medieval Jewish philosophers were largely irrelevant to most Jews by the time Mussar became popular, the idea that Judaism had a rational basis was not. One direction this rationalism took was towards the movement known as Modern Orthodox, an integration of Torah and the scientific outlook. A second direction was rejection of tradition. A third was in Mussar. It is really the goal of the philosophers without all the Aristotelian baggage. It is simply applying Torah ideas to the very rational and very human goal of improving ethical behavior by connecting with the inner self. To many, this should be the primary goal of every human being. What are we doing here, if not to make ourselves decent human beings? If that very real but very elusive goal requires a long and difficult process such as Mussar in order to be achieved, why aren’t we all doing it?
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