Mussar: How to Improve Your Character Within a Jewish Context

Mussar: How to Improve your Character Wiithin a Jewish Context

Introduction to Mussar
Ohef Sholom Temple
Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg
October 21, 2009

1. What is Mussar?

a. Literally, it means “correction or instruction.”
b. It also serves as the simple Modern Hebrew word for ethics.
c. But it is most accurately described as “a way of life.”

2. It’s essence:

a. It is a spiritual practice that enables one to refine one’s character traits, allowing us to transform ourselves, to move toward wholeness, to realize our highest spiritual potential and to live everyday life with happiness, trust and love.
b. In Judaism we believe that each of us is endowed with every one of a full range of “middot” or traits of character.

a. In Hebrew, middah literally means measure.
b. What distinguishes us from one another is not that you have one trait and I have another, but rather the degree or measure of the traits that exists in each of us.

i. For example, the angriest person has an excess of anger, but Mussar insists there must be some degree of calm in him as well. Just as there must be some anger in even the
calmest person.
ii. Similarly, the stingiest person still has at least a grain of generosity.
iii. So it is not whether we have certain traits, while someone else has different ones, but rather the degree, or measure, of the traits that lives in each of our souls. This is what
gives us our distinctive way of being in the world and is where our traits are measured on the continuum.
iv. The goal is not to rid ourselves of certain traits, since each has a role, but rather to correct the measure of the specific trait within us.

c. Each of us is assigned to master something in our lives.

i. You’ve already been given your assignment and you’ve already encountered it, though you may not be aware that what faces you is a curriculum.
ii. Since each self and life is unique and individual, each of us has a personal curriculum.
iii. Waking up your personal curriculum and guiding you in steps toward mastering it, is the central task of your life and the purpose of Mussar.
iv. Your spiritual curriculum is made up of the issues in your life that keep challenging you, the behaviors that get you into trouble over and over again.

1. Some examples are a sting of soured or broken relationships; financial dreams that are never realized; fulfillment that is forever elusive.
2. You may not realize that there is a curriculum imbedded in your personal history.

a. The sooner you familiarize yourself with it and master it, the faster you’ll get free of habitual patterns.
b. Ultimately, this will mean less suffering for you and others around you.
c. Then you can contribute to the world your unique and highest potential.

3. Where does Mussar come from?

a. The process of Mussar is based on several commandments in the Torah.

i. The first is from Leviticus: “You shall be holy.”

1. Mussar believes that this is every human beings job description. We are put on this earth for no other purpose than to grow and blossom spiritually – to become holy or whole.
2. Our potential and therefore our goal is to become as spiritually refined as possible.
3. This is not just a commandment, but a way to help us understand and act on an impulse that already exists within ourselves — the inner drive to improve and to make something better of our lives.

b. The other two commandments, found in the book of Deuteronomy, help us in our pursuit of holiness or wholeness.

i. On is “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart;” and the other is “And the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts.”
ii. What do these enigmatic verses mean?

1. Circumcision, in this context, is a spiritual metaphor for “removing the obstacles to having an open, sensitive, initiated inner life.”
2. The Torah gives us two choices: either we initiate the process ourselves or God will do it. There is no third option.
3. Mussar believes that each of us has an “inner adversary,” a “yeitzer harah” or an evil inclination that does not always enable us to make the best choices (bechira).

a. Our goal is to work on our soul traits so that we make better choices.
b. Read pp. 24-25.

iii. In Mussar, the belief is that God created us imperfect with the intention of wanted us to perfect ourselves.

1. Therefore all of our shortcomings, our weaknesses and failings are there for a reason, to allow us to engage in the process of becoming whole or holy.
2. The midrash teaches, “when we are improving and refining ourselves, we are in concert with the Divine plan and fulfilling our purpose for existing in this world. Not only are we created for this purpose, but we are given the ability and the capacity to attain this supreme goal.”
3. In simple terms, you are supposed to be a mensch, a decent human being who lives with integrity, honor and respect. The Kotzker Rebbe used to say, “Fine, be holy. But remember, first one has to be a mensch.”

iv. Another very important point is that, yes, Mussar is a path of spiritual self-development, but it is not for the sake of yourself alone.

1. By refining and elevating your inner life and nourishing the soul, you clarify your inner light and thus become a lamp shedding light onto the world.
2. This is why Mussar is not self-help; its purpose is not that you should gratify all of your desires, but that you should master them so that you can fulfill the potential of your higher nature.
3. Dedication to be of service and to hold the needs of the other in your heart even as you work on yourself is a central tenet of Mussar.
4. Share story on pp.40-41.

4. The movement began in Lithuania in the second half of the 19th century by Rabbi Israel Salanter.

a. But its origins can be traced back to the 10th century in Babylonia when Sadia Gaon published the Book of Beliefs and Opinions, which includes a chapter on “How a Person Ought to Behave in the World.”

i. From the 10th to the mid-19th century, Mussar remained a solely introspective practice undertaken by the personal seeker.
ii. Salanter perceived that Mussar could help relieve the tensions that were tearing apart the Jewish community and its members in Europe at that time.

1. Oppression of the Czar; attraction of communism and socialism; passionate call of Zionism; secularization of Enlightenment; and loss of some of earlier spiritual authenticity of the Chasidic movement.
2. He believed that by developing a spiritual life, people could strengthen their own hearts and the community would transcend its divisions.

b. It was his three disciples who institutionalized Mussar as a shared profound commitment to guiding the individual to the cultivation of personal inner traits.

i. Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm, Rabbi Noson Tzvi Finkel of Slabodka and Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz of Novaradok each founded Yeshivas that articulated their own versions of Mussar teachings.

1. In Kelm, the emphasis was on “the powers of mind.” They believed, “take time, be exact and unclutter the mind.”
2. In Slabodka, the emphasis was more behavioral, for them they were to internalize and then comport themselves in a way that one who truly believes we were created in the image of God would.
3. In Novarodok, the most radical of the three schools, they adopted an aggressive methodology for inner change. It is not enough to try to influence the soul; what is needed is to storm the soul.

ii. Unfortunately, many of the practitioners and students of Mussar were killed in the Holocaust.

1. But there has been of late a movement to revive its practice since it is as applicable today as it was in the 10th and 19th centuries, if not more so.
2. The one that has made Mussar most accessible to us is Dr. Alan Morinis who founded the Mussar Institute and has written two books.

a. Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, about his journey to Mussar.
b. And Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar.
c. It is this book that will help guide us through the process of developing our Spiritual Curricula and refining our character traits.
d. Share pp.5-6 of his bio.

5. How do we begin?

a. You begin by making a map of your inner life, by taking a soul-trait inventory (pp.295-297).

i. It will probably be easiest, with the partner or group that is formed, for you to determine which soul traits you might share in common that are also included in the 18 chapters in Everyday Holiness.
ii. Each chapter focuses on a soul-trait and contains observations and profound insights from Jewish classical and philosophical sources that will help you come to a new understanding of how each inner quality plays out in your life.

1. It is recommended that the material be studied slowly and thoroughly, not intellectually and passively.
2. The idea is for you to can chew on them, argue with them, compare them to other ideas, try them out with your fellow mussar travelers and with friends, let them challenge you and stir you up.
3. Stimulation is the basic ingredient of the transformative potential of mussar.
4. Try to find something in each chapter to grab onto in order to stimulate new thought and understanding and you will already have started to change.
5. Dr. Morinis recommends first reading the book from beginning to end and then returning to various sections to work on more thoroughly.

b. Mussar requires a disciplined practice, not only of study, but of other methods of introspection as well that are designed to instill change so deep that your intuitive responses to situations (your second nature) become altered. They include:

i. Text study in order to make the heart feel what the intellect understands.
ii. Meditation (hitbonenut) – concentrating on an object, word or phrase, a verse of Torah, a prayer, for a specific period of time, beginning slowly and working your way up to even an hour. For example “The soul is pure.”
iii. Silence and retreat (hitbodedut) – spending periods of time in seclusion and reflection, maybe a half hour each day.
iv. Diary practice (cheshbon hanefesh)
v. Chanting (hitpa’alut)
vi. Contemplations
vii. Visualizations (kibbutz roshim) (p.33)
viii. Doing acts of generosity, loving kindness, compassion and care for the benefit of others.

1. Holiness is the absence of self-interest.
2. Through the exercise of ethical action, we explore and develop our spiritual potential.

c. These practices imprint notions so deeply within as to be written on our hearts, becoming part of our very flesh.

i. As in the v’ahavta, “set these words which I command you this day upon your heart.”
ii. Learning in such a deep way, beyond intellectual ideas, is wehre growth and healing take place, and this is where Mussar focuses.

d. Finally, regarding the nature of change:

i. It happens slowly.
ii. It takes patience.
iii. It requires repetition.
iv. It is possible.

e. Mussar work is the spiritual preparation for real life situations. (Read p.42).

6. Introduce Matthew Weinstein.