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Mussar Tradition, Revived in Center City, Seeks the Key to Goodness

December 7, 2006 By:
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Rabbi Ira F. Stone
It's an age-old question: What does practicing religion have to do with being a good, ethical person?

While working to formulate his own personal theology as a seminary student in the 1970s, Rabbi Ira F. Stone himself struggled with the notion of whether observing Judaism's commandments in itself leads to ethical behavior.

"The Judaism I encountered up until that point focused on ritual as though there were almost no ethical consequences," recalled Stone, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1979, and has served as religious leader of Center City's Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel since 1988.

"And then the ethics I had encountered in secular life were completely unconnected to one's spiritual being," he added.

But while still a student, Stone discovered a little-known tradition within Judaism that would deepen his understanding of the faith, and would ultimately help him develop a worldview that upholds the primacy of religion in the postmodern age.

Namely, Stone became enamored with the texts of Mussar (literally "correction," or "instruction"), a body of Jewish ethical writings that stretches back to the ninth century. These works formed the basis for a full-fledged movement that sprang up in 19th-century Lithuania, then the center of the non-Chasidic Orthodox world.

Founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), the Mussar movement -- which never gained a mass following, and unlike other sects essentially did not survive the Holocaust -- was considered highly controversial at the time since it placed ethical literature on a par with talmudic learning, the core of the Eastern European yeshiva education.

Even more unorthodox was that well before the development of modern psychology, Mussar thinkers developed a specific, step-by-step program that required adherents to contemplate their behavior toward others on a daily basis and discuss their progress in group settings.

"They presented a program in which one's spiritual growth was intimately connected with one's ethical actions and decisions. I found that was exactly what I wanted out of Judaism," said Stone, founder of the five-year-old Philadelphia Mussar Institute and author of the just published A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar, which outlines the movement's major teachings and practical approaches, as well as the rabbi's own theological journey.

In his teaching of Mussar, Stone said that he presents the tradition -- developed in an ultra-traditionalist milieu and nourished by notions of reward and punishment in the afterlife -- through the prism of contemporary Conservative Judaism and the modern philosophy of Emanuel Levinas (1905-1995), a French-Jewish ethicist.

The Mussar Institute -- housed at Beth Zion-Beth Israel, but not restricted to its members -- began with just a handful of students. (Actually, BZBI recently received a $30,000 grant from the New York-based Legacy Heritage Foundation to offer synagogue-wide programming utilizing Mussar teachings, including Mussar for families.)

Now, the Mussar Institute boasts more than three-dozen students who represent a diverse age range and a wide spectrum of Judaic background, including two ordained rabbis and several students who cannot read Hebrew.

Participants are expected to study on their own, as well as with a partner, and attend a weekly lecture session, followed by a group discussion. Students must commit to participate in the program for at least 13 weeks, and spend each week focusing on one of the 13 middot, or "characteristics," outlined in Mussar thought, including humility, frugality, patience, decisiveness, cleanliness, order and calmness.

'Insights Into How We Live'

"It's not studying just for the sake of information. It's studying for insights into how we live our lives," explained the 50-something Phyllis Jacobs, a member of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.

Spending a week focusing on how to make her own life more orderly yielded some interesting revelations, said Jacobs.

"If I'm looking for my keys, I'm using time and energy and attention which could go toward other people," she said. "The idea is to try to intentionally create order around me so I'm better with other people, less hassled."

Likewise, Beulah Trey, 48, a Mount Airy resident who has studied with Stone for more than three years, said the practice has offered her a deeper appreciation for Judaism.

The Mussar tradition, noted Trey, does not say that "we are born and it's easy to be good," but that being good is a challenge we must struggle with daily.

Currently, relatively few Mussar texts are available in English, and not many places throughout the country foster study of the practice. But Stone said that Mussar is on the verge of being discovered by the wider Jewish community -- just as the once obscure body of Kabbalistic literature gained widespread exposure after the German-Jewish scholar Gershom Sholem wrote about it extensively.

So, in the end, what does the teacher wish for his students to take away from the experience?

Stone replied, "I hope that they're able to negotiate life in a way that makes more room in life for service of the other person."

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