Can Mussar Help Us Repair the World?

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal on July 22,2020.

Revolution is complex and not for the fainthearted. Most of us are not meant to be Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, yet the fate of the world rests upon the work of each and every one of us and the perfection of our individual path.

Judaism is built upon the concept of an interior experience of personal betterment through actions. It combines a study of past wisdom applied to the refinement of our present actions to help build a better tomorrow. Judaism’s goal, fueled by ancient concepts of the end of days, redemption and a Messianic world to come, is to cultivate and refine ourselves, each of us, as a kli kodesh, a holy vessel.

The word “holy” is one of the most prevalent words in all of Torah, and one that requires a lifelong curiosity to fully understand. What does it mean to make ourselves holy? How do we do this? This idea of personal transformation toward becoming a holy vessel in pursuit of “healing the world” is a core concept in Judaism. It asks each of us to engage in a method of self-disciplined reflection that has a long and noted history. It is called Mussar.

Mussar, a contemplative Jewish practice, is achieved through a reflective process that deepens our self-knowing through an evaluative tool of behaviors called midot. In Hebrew, midah (the singular for midot) literally means “measure.” It is not easy to look at our personal shortcomings. It is much more satisfying to take to the streets and demand others change before changing ourselves. In Mussar, change relies upon our personal fulfillment of our potential, as all of us are born with the capacity to acquire every midah through practice. Taking to the streets without such a sustained practice of inner growth is a formula for failure. However, this takes work, and this work is both difficult and rewarding.

While tikkun olam in modern parlance is outward-facing — calling us into the streets and the world — Mussar faces inward. Beginning in our homes, Mussar spotlights individual behaviors, their impacts and interdependence with one another, and the impact on family and community. Mussar views the perfection of our moral character as a formula to help heal the world.

According to Rabbi Ira Stone (founder of the Center for Contemporary Mussar), Mussar, commonly translated as “Jewish ethics,” is best translated as “discipline” (based on Proverbs 1:2) and presents a path of applying ethics and virtues to one’s life. Reading Stone’s translations of famous Mussar texts and experiencing a Mussar group lends itself to an embodied practice of process theology: to engage in a process of becoming, with one’s inner landscape as the dwelling place of God. 

Stone connects the idea of how the concept of salvation serves as an expression for the objective of all of creation: “According to [the late Rabbi Mordecai] Kaplan, God is the power that makes for salvation in the world. As abstract as that sounds, it is a fundamentally religious viewpoint — what it is saying is that the achievement of a perfectly peaceful and just world is the aim of creation and that there is some kind of power, as it were, that sets this creation on its course with the purpose of achieving this salvational status. It is not simply the big bang, but the big bang infused with goodness.

As we look outward at a broken world, Mussar invites us to consider the origins and nature of creation and its personal connection with each of us as partners with creation toward a moral good. Indeed, Mussar propels us to go beyond just “praying with our feet” and asks that we connect each footstep with our unique “soulprint” as a continuation of the origins and course of creation.

In contemporary America, it seems as if we are on a wild water ride, spinning out of control toward chaos. People are dying. Homeless crowd our streets, parking lots and underpasses. Unemployment is at unprecedented levels. Businesses are closing. Partisanship incites a new civil war fought on Twitter feeds and in media rooms. America has lost its way in its journey towards self-betterment and societal salvation.

Benjamin Franklin: Toward an Ethical America
Ben Franklin’s eponymous autobiography offers a method for character building through “13 Virtues.” Later in life, Franklin lamented that his treatise on character was only half-baked — life got in the way, what with revolution, Constitution ratifying and abolition efforts. However, his offering of virtues presented a method for how every American could improve himself or herself with the objective of the betterment of American society.

There may not be a scholarly connection between Franklin’s “13 Virtues” and Exodus 34:6-7, what became termed the 13 Attributes of God, but the parallels are clear. In that Torah passage, the ancients scribed for us a language that revealed a God through qualities of being: compassion, grace, slow to anger, kindness, faithfulness. These qualities are what we are asked to reflect upon as we move through a disciplined reflection of character accounting. For example: when we take to the streets in protest, are our hearts actually broken open over the injustices toward our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) brothers and sisters? Or are we just brokenhearted from an earlier wound or pain from our own ancestral homes of brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, whose need to heal has roots three or four generations deep?

In Mussar, the act of “accounting of the soul” is a year-round endeavor. A 19th-century pamphlet popularized Mussar and Jewish scholars have affirmed since the mid-1800s that this early-modern Mussar work, Sefer Cheshbon Ha-nefesh (The Book of Spiritual Accounting) — a Hebrew work published in 1808 by early Eastern European Jewish enlightenment thinker, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin — has some connection to the virtue writings of Ben Franklin.

Franklin’s list of virtues were: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility. In Cheshbon Ha-nefesh, Lefin’s list is: equanimity, patience, order, decisiveness, cleanliness, humility, righteousness, frugality, diligence, silence, calmness, truth and separation. The parallels are apparent; however, a secular pursuit of virtue does not replace the existential hunger for an ineffable holiness. In any case, in contemporary America, Franklin’s call to cultivate a sense of personal accountability in service of a collective benefit is more relevant than ever.

(The connection between Mussar and the work of Ben Franklin is more fully treated in Shai Afsai, “Benjamin Franklin and Judaism”, Journal of the American Revolution, November 17, 2016.)

The Rise of the Mussar Yeshiva

Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809-1883), credited as the founder of modern Mussar, was noted for his independent rulings and moral acumen that informed Jews of his time how to navigate the cholera epidemic of 1848. In a 19th-century parallel to COVID-19-era innovations in halachah, Salanter ruled that it was permissible to use technology on Shabbat and holidays to save a life. Salanter famously ate and drank on Yom Kippur to personally demonstrate the need to eat and drink for emergency health reasons. His legal rulings illuminate the elasticity of Torah law when refracted through ethical reasoning in ways that express the adaptability of Jewish law to remain relevant according to time and place. 

Salanter’s disciples promoted a Judaism rooted in Torah that shed light on matters of Jewish ethics in a modern context. These houses of study developed into an emerging modern yeshiva system for the Jewish Everyman; no longer were Jewish studies accessible to elite families or merely relegated to folk tradition. This alternative network of yeshivot arose, each with its own distinct methods and curriculum that focused on a disciplined practice of self-mastery in pursuit of holiness for a post-Jewish emancipation Europe.  

The Path into Contemporary Mussar Practice

The social unrest of our current historical moment is accompanied by a

search for meaning and connection to something greater than our individual impact. However, instead of looking beyond ourselves, in an outward-facing effort to change others, we might benefit by considering that the first step to finding an answer lies within.

Mussar has experienced a renaissance over the past 20 years, and has emerged to help those of us on this path. Individuals continue to feel as if they “discovered” this rising network of Mussar study that flourishes in the progressive Jewish world, with communities of practice throughout the United States, Canada and elsewhere, with online classes through the Mussar Institute and the Center for Contemporary Mussar, among others. Contemporary translations of popular Mussar texts are included in the curriculum in most rabbinic seminaries, and students are tutored and encouraged to engage in personal Mussar practice.

It is fair to ask how the teachings of Mussar and its call for inner spiritual discipline might be contributing to work of tikkun olam? What is the connection between the work of the inner landscape and the work of healing the world?

In Mordecai Kaplan’s introduction to his translation of Luzatto’s Mesillat Yesharim, (Path of the Upright) arguably the foundational text of the modern-Mussar revival, Kaplan asserts, “Salvation occurs primarily on the corporate level, leading ultimately to the establishment of peace among nations. Each individual’s ethical behavior directly affects this collective mission positively or negatively. Collective salvation thus presupposes individual salvation.” Echoing the work of Ben Franklin, Kaplan argues that the work we do inwardly must be for the benefit of the greater public good. Kaplan connects the concept of the yetzer harah (evil inclination) with acts of selfishness or personal self-interest, and the work of yetzer tov (good inclination) as advancing the continued betterment of society.

The practice of this work is not achieved solely at a public rally, protest or phone bank, but begins with a personal reckoning, with a small group of people holding one another personally accountable, where vulnerabilities and our “personal uglies” are encouraged to find expression. In a Mussar group, individuals learn to focus on midot such as generosity, equanimity and humility, and spend time with each midah as it relates to one’s life.

Alan Morinis, the founder of The Mussar Institute, says that the goal of Mussar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul. The roots of all of our thoughts and actions can be traced to the depths of the soul, beyond the reach of the light of consciousness, and so the methods Mussar provides include meditations, guided contemplations, exercises and chants that are all intended to penetrate down to the darkness of the subconscious, to bring about change right at the root of our nature.

Through these practices, the objective of a Mussar practitioner is to seek to remove these impediments from one’s personal spiritual curriculum to better serve the world. A Mussar practice is meant to cultivate such self-awareness in order to support our effort to “cycle up” in our lives and become holy vessels of Divine Presence, ostensibly in service of a more just and peaceful world.

The age of COVID-19 clearly illustrates our interconnectedness and deserves a shofar call to collective awareness of moral character, as the most mundane choices we make potentially dictates who will live and who will die. But it doesn’t stop there: What does it matter what you think about your Black, Indigenous and people of color brothers and sisters if you have abused your brother, neglected your kids or parents, or harbor resentment toward your neighbor?

Mussar bids us to do our personal work first and, against trend, ties it to a religious moral system of interconnectedness. Mussar compels us to understand it is on each of us to go on a “God Journey” and define that experience for ourselves, in service of a collective good, which may or may not bring about collective redemption. Nonetheless, it may save a life or two. And whether we are two people meeting in a park; jogging in our neighborhood; walking while wearing a dark hoodie; losing our cool in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s; or passing a counterfeit $20 in a corner store, Mussar calls upon each human interaction to require that we connect with our own inner-moral acumen before assigning judgment to another.

For too many Americans, there seems to be something broken in our internal system of moral self-regulation. If we continue to ignore the greater moral system intrinsic to the most aspirational pursuit of human character, for all people, our society will be at greater and greater risk.

Want to heal the world? The formula is clear: Heal our holy selves first and the world will follow.

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Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder and artistic director of The Open Temple in Venice, CA. Lori’s rabbinate is dedicated to reaching unaffiliated and intermarried families and seekers. She was a Cohort 1 CLI Fellow.  

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