Mussar — a tradition of religious instruction, developed in 19th-century Lithuania, that assists Jews in working toward a more ethical life — has had a minor resurgence in recent years, both locally and nationally. Right here in the area, Rabbi Ira F. Stone of Center City's Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel has been at the forefront of reintroducing the tradition to his congregants and others in the community through the Philadelphia Mussar Institute at his congregation and his book A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar.
Nationally, the spokesman has been Alan Morinis, founder and director of the Mussar Institute (which, like Stone's organization, can be found online), and author of Everyday Holiness and Climbing Jacob's Ladder.
Just in time for the High Holiday season, Morinis has published a new, compact work, titled Every Day, Holy Day, published by Trumpeter Books. The author has been assisted by Rabbi Micha Berger, and together the two have provided "365 days of teaching and practices from the Jewish tradition of Mussar," as the subtitle of their book announces.
At the center of Mussar teachings, according to Morinis in his introductory remarks to Every Day, Holy Day, sits the phrase from Leviticus 19:1, "You shall be holy," which provides the primary guidance for living. The great Mussar teachers, says the author, perceived that "each of us at our cores is inherently a holy being, and the issue of living is to recognize and then to remove the obstacles to that inborn holiness."
These obstacles appear as inner traits, or middot, that tend toward extremes and are different for each individual. They make up what Morinis calls "a personal spiritual curriculum." The traits can be things like "too much or too little patience, an excessive tendency to generosity or miserliness, rage or indifference, and so on."
The path of Mussar begins with an awareness of such characteristics, and then doing the work necessary to change them, to bring them back to some more manageable level. "Mussar has developed as a perspective on life, an insightful body of knowledge about human nature, and as a path of practice, all devoted to helping each of us overcome negative tendencies, strengthen the positive, and take steps in the direction of the holy," explains Morinis.
According to the author, the phrase Mussar had its origins in the Bible (see Proverbs 4:13: "Hold fast to mussar and do not let go"; the word itself is most often translated as "instruction" or even "correction"). It first emerged as an area of study in the 10th century, in the writings of the Babylonian sage Sa'adia Gaon (892-942), and came into its own in the 19th century. This later resurgence, known as the Mussar movement, occurred in Lithuania, and was led by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.
The Holocaust very nearly did away with Mussar, just as its henchmen had murdered most of its adherents.
But people like Stone and Morinis have revived it, and the teachings have been catching on in many parts of the Jewish world.
Since Mussar is a daily practice, Morinis has organized his new book accordingly: "Every page in this book is given over to one day in the year, and each contains the following elements:
· The name of the trait that is in focus that week;
· An inspiring or insightful teaching from a Mussar teacher or source;
· A phrase that captures the essence of what that trait is about;
· A space for keeping a daily journal."
One example will have to suffice. Since we are approaching Rosh Hashanah, "awe" seemed an appropriate trait to settle upon.
"Awe and love are the two pillars of our divine service. One of these pillars, indeed, holds the key to all the secrets of this service, and that is awe."
— Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-1592)
Phrase: The beginning of wisdom is awe.
Practice: Wherever you may be, in the city or the country, indoors or outdoors, find moments to open yourself to experience the wonder of creation."