I have often wondered “What exactly is the Mussar Movement?” The first time I heard the word was over a decade ago when I was visiting another community for Shabbat. I stayed with a wonderful Chassidic family. Friday night at the Shabbat table we had a lively discussion about developing more holy character traits. The patriarch of the family alluded to mussar but in a somewhat derogatory way (or so I thought.) From the way the term was used in that conversation, I concluded that mussar was a punitive way of correcting wayward behavior. The picture of a stern, Dickensonian-type taskmaster of a teacher, whacking a student’s knuckles with a ruler as punishment for an incorrect answer came to mind. That was the picture I carried with me for years whenever the term “mussar” was mentioned. Not for me. No way. Not the way I learned. (I should have asked questions. But, I did not want to appear dumb. Silly me.)
Years later, while chatting with a dear friend, the term came up again. This time however, I was startled by the way in which my friend, Rachel, spoke about mussar. Rachel was telling me how a good friend had given her some mussar, and now my friend, Rachel, was sharing that learning with me. Didn’t sound so harsh and punitive to be honest. In fact, Rachel sounded appreciative of the fact that someone had offered her some teaching on how to improve some area of her life. I know I appreciated the learning that was being passed on to me. Hmmm. Maybe my notions about mussar were a bit off kilter .
Just recently the term popped up again. Can’t remember how exactly, except that I began asking my husband about the definition of mussar (finally asking questions! hmmm.) About this time mussar also showed up on my amazon.com page suggestions list: EVERYDAY HOLINESS: THE PATH OF MUSSAR, by Alan Morinis. I am a firm believer that things come to us when we are ready to receive, in order to provide direction as we go forward. I ordered the book. Within a few days I was reading about mussar!
First of all, what is mussar? I discovered that mussar, a discipline of trans-formative practices to refine the soul, is a rich tradition dating back a thousand years. Yes, there were leaders in the Mussar Movement who took a stern approach to “soul refining.” After all, one doesn’t mess around with matters of the soul! However, the stern approach is but one approach. Mussar includes any method that works to shine a light on the causes of our suffering, and thus guide us toward our highest spiritual potential. The basic question regarding methods of applying mussar is “does it work?“ Different approaches work for different people. Mussar is highly mystical practice lived out in a very down to earth manner. Soul refining. Ethics. Correction, or instruction. All those terms refer to mussar. Bottom line, it teaches us how we ought to behave in this world.
Mussar is taken from classic writings such as “The Path of the Just,” (Moshe Chaim Luzatto) and “Duties of the Heart,” (R.Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda). But R’Salanter, who was witness to a very fragmented Jewish community that seemed to have lost its mooring, is considered the founder of the Mussar Movement. It was a time of great chaos (Czarist Russia and pogroms, communism, socialism, enlightenment, secular Zionist movement, etc.) with many voices vying for the Jewish soul. R’Salanter felt he must develop a way for Jews to learn and practice mussar as a defense for spiritual life and growth.
Out of these beginnings, the Mussar Movement grew into three main streams, named for the Yeshivah out of which each sprang:
- KELM MUSSAR: highly introspective; power of the mind; “Take time, be exact, unclutter the mind.”
- SLABODKA MUSSAR: behavioral; conduct self to reflect true, sincere belief of “imago dei”; “the majesty of man.”
- NAVARODOK MUSSAR: radical; aggressive methodology for inner change; “storm the soul.”
Over the years, the differences between the three schools of thought changed and blended to the point that modern Mussar teachers generally draw from all three streams… and anything else that will deliver the point.
Where does one start when embarking on the mussar journey? We start with Vayikra/Leviticus 19.2: “You shall be holy…” That is our job description, to be holy. Daunting, I know. That means that our goal in this life is to become as spiritually refined and elevated (holy) as possible. Holiness. Purity. Transformation. Elevation. Those are key terms when practicing mussar.
From the mussar perspective, all our weaknesses, failings and shortcomings are there for a reason. In striving to correct those weaknesses and failings, we are working with Hashem to become the holy people we are intended to be. Keep in mind, the only person that we can “perfect” (or move toward perfection) is our-self. We cannot do the work for someone else; we cannot change them. In the words of the Chofetz Chaim:
“I set out to change the world, but failed. So then I scaled back my efforts and tried to change the Jewish community of Poland, but failed there, too. So I targeted my hometown community of Radin, but achieved no success. Then I gave all my efforts to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that is how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
During this time of the counting of the omer, we are intentional about soul correction, or developing our middot/character traits. We are moving toward har Sinai and receiving of the Torah on Shavuous. Every day there is a trait to consciously work to improve. Mussar is the method of improving our character as we move toward holiness.
To be continued…