Inspiration and Spirituality

Mussar: Jewish Spirituality for the Modern World

mussar illustration
Illustration by Helene E.R. Oppenheimer/claywisdom.com.

Congregation Beth Elohim, one of the largest Reform synagogues in Brooklyn, N.Y., a group of about 20 adults is seated in a circle, discussing the pros and cons of zealousness. The informal conversation ranges from taxes—“we all tend to put them off,” says one member—to Steve Jobs, who had “alacrity in creating Apple but could be too quick to speak,” notes another. The participants—including a librarian, a brand strategist, a Wall Street trader, lawyers and teachers, thirtysomethings and retirees—are learning the contemporary Jewish ethics discipline of mussar. This evening’s subject is zerizut, which means alacrity, zealousness or enthusiasm, one of the character traits that is a focus in mussar.

The group, which has been meeting every other Monday night for 10 years, discusses strategies like prioritizing and establishing deadlines as ways to promote zerizut and then veers into the personal, punctuated by short breaks to record their thoughts in a journal and a meditation focused on the affirmation found in the ancient teaching of Hillel, “If not now, when?”

“Mussar attracts people who care about wanting to improve the way they live their lives,” says member Judy Wild, the librarian, who joined the group in 2011. “Being a good person not only helps other people but helps you, too. You can live a more satisfying and rich life when you are aware of yourself and the traits you exhibit.”

Wild is among the growing number of Jews who are finding mussar meaningful as a practical discipline to uncovering individual holiness. In the United States, the practice is being taught in synagogues across the Jewish spectrum as well as at nontraditional settings, like a women’s prison and a yoga studio. Literally defined as correction, instruction or ethics, “mussar means working on yourself—but not for the sake of yourself,” says Alan Morinis, the 67-year-old dean and founder of The Mussar Institute, which advances the study and practice of mussar throughout the world. The Vancouver resident is also the author of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path to Mussar and other books on the topic. “It takes others into consideration as a priority, whether it’s another person or God. The sense of divinity, holiness and sacredness is what separates mussar from self-help.”

He explains that each of us is endowed with the same set of ethical characteristics, or middot, at birth—humility, gratitude, truth, patience, honor and more—but what sets us apart from one another is the measure of these middot in each of us. Mastering these middot forms the core of a “spiritual curriculum,” Morinis says. “Some will have too high or too low a measure that will veil the soul. Our task in life is to uncover the brilliant light of the soul.”

The study process, Morinis explains, begins with knowing yourself—identifying your behaviors and the list of traits that are potential areas of growth. In general, mussar practitioners focus on a specific trait for a limited period of time, maybe a week or two. In the morning, practitioners recite a phrase, which can be from the Bible or a favorite book or show, that captures the essence of the trait. During the day, they take conscious pauses to think before responding to challenging situations. In the evening, they write about their experience in a journal.

The Beth Elohim group is led by Gary Shaffer, 64, a mediator and lawyer, and discusses a different trait every month. In advance of the meeting on zerizut, Shaffer sent an email to members, offering examples from the Bible that considered both sides of the trait of enthusiasm and zeal. “Look how quickly Abraham prepares a meal for the three visiting angels! O.K., that works. Look how quick Abraham is to load up the donkey to take Isaac to be sacrificed! Hmm, maybe thinking it over wouldn’t be so bad,” wrote Shaffer, a former president of The Mussar Institute. “Perhaps zerizut can be the result of a process, rather than something that bursts forth from sudden inspiration or desire.”

No mussar group is identical, Shaffer says, but there is overlap in the basic approach. His group sometimes supplements the 18 traits examined in Everyday Holiness, the focus of most groups, with extra middot like tolerance, vulnerability, grace and authenticity. “Intellectually, we all basically know right from wrong,” Shaffer says. “Mussar practice transfers some of that knowledge and moves it over to our heart so our ‘instinctive’ reactions begin to change.”

Mussar is a great tool to smooth out the craggy edges in how we relate to others,” says Meg Goldenberg Marion, 58, an educational coordinator in Little Rock, Ark., who studies mussar with Barry Block, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Reform synagogue in the capital city. The classes feature chanting, visualization and discussions of Jewish texts. “The more centered I am the more useful I am to my family and community,” says Marion. For instance, she says, “we all encounter people who are like fingernails on a chalkboard. By focusing on the trait of honor (kavod)—looking for the honor in them by remembering that we are all made in God’s image—you can flip annoyance on its side.”

Shayna Lester, a psychotherapist and volunteer Jewish chaplain in her 70s, has used mussar to help inmates at a women’s prison develop both compassion and humility. She started her mussar-based Jewish ethics class for inmates of all faiths at the California Institution for Women, a state prison in Corona, Calif., in 2007 and has repeated it five times in nine years. The number of participants has ranged from 50 to the dozen she works with now, says the Santa Monica resident and Hadassah life member who calls Morinis her mentor. “We sit in a circle in the interfaith chapel with a Jewish star on the eastern wall and a cross on another,” Lester says. “There’s no hierarchy. We’re teaching the women to look past anything they see on the outside—tattoos and worn-out looks—toward the deeper soul.”

Linda Badger, 63, who was released from the prison in March 2014 after being wrongfully incarcerated for 28 years on a murder conviction, says the ethics class prepared her for the future. “It gave me a path,” she says. Badger converted to Judaism under the guidance of Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, who also taught at the institution. “When things go wrong, mussar helps you identify the possible consequences and what to do at the beginning, before you get into further problems,” says Badger, who continues to study mussar at Hamrell’s synagogue, Ahavat Torah Congregation in Los Angeles.

Mussar has been practiced in more physical ways as well. “I bring up mussar in my regular classes at the yoga studio,” says yoga instructor Edith Brotman, 51. She suggests, for instance, that her students bring humility into their yoga poses. “While practicing humility,” she tells them, “pay attention to your thoughts, ask yourself if you are thinking that you have nothing new to learn—arrogance—or will never be any good—self-effacement. Also pay attention to your physical efforts. Are you working too hard or stretching too deeply? Or, are you not taking some risks or demanding enough of your body?” Brotman has written a book on her practice, Mussar Yoga: Blending an Ancient Jewish Spiritual Practice with Yoga to Transform Body and Soul, with a foreword from Morinis.

Mussar has international appeal, with groups scattered from Israel to the Netherlands and Brazil, says Miami-based Jeffrey Agron, director of administration at The Mussar Institute. The institute has until now functioned only virtually but recently opened an office in Philadelphia. About 800 people a year sign up for online or in-person courses offered by the institute, which holds an annual conference in the United States and organized its first European meeting in 2014. The institute has trained about 100 people to be educators, is collaborating with the Union for Reform Judaism to provide training for rabbis and hopes to initiate training sessions for Conservative rabbis. A new children’s curriculum integrates a monthly Jewish value with classroom and family activities and pairs the traits of forgiveness, patience, friendship, trust, silence, responsibility, courage, generosity and kindness with Jewish holidays. There are also online mussar Torah commentary courses offered by the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.

“Not much in Judaism addresses the reality that each of us is a unique individual,” says Morinis, who was born and raised in a culturally Jewish but nonobservant home in Toronto. A Rhodes scholar in anthropology at the University of Oxford in England, he was a university professor before he switched careers and became CEO of a successful film production company. His company collapsed in 1997 and, during the ensuing professional and personal crisis, he says, he felt a “calling in his soul” to search out the “real depths of life.” He happened upon mussar, which draws on Jewish teachings developed over thousands of years and grew into a movement led by Lithuanian Rabbi Israel Salanter and his disciples beginning in the 19th century. The Holocaust destroyed many of mussar’s established scholars, but in Far Rockaway, N.Y., Morinis found an Orthodox rabbi, Yechiel Perr, who had married into a family of mussar masters and had learned the tradition from his wife’s father and grandfather.

“What I saw in mussar,” says Morinis, “was the recognition that you’re not like anyone else. Everyone has to walk their own path and here are the guidelines.”

In the past, mussar took on a finger-wagging approach in the Orthodox yeshiva world, explains Rabbi Avi Fertig, associate dean of The Mussar Institute, who is a yeshiva graduate. “Historically, mussar began with a focus on fear of heaven and the repercussions of sin. With this backdrop, the term took on the connotation of rebuke,” explains Fertig, who currently lives in Israel and teaches at Yeshivat Reishit in Beit Shemesh. Today, mentors encourage students to focus on the positive, both in terms of inner joy and improved relationships, but some of the original connotations persist. Most yeshivot have a mussar curriculum, including a sermon once or twice a week and an optional half-hour daily study period. The intensity of mussar has largely been lost, Fertig says, but several contemporary rabbis are propagating it within the Orthodox world, particularly in Israel.

Mussar’s distinctiveness is that it helps inform contemporary Jews that they don’t have to abandon Judaism to find a spiritual tradition, says Philadelphia-based Conservative Rabbi Ira Stone, 67, another leading proponent and teacher of mussar. “If you’re struggling with what it means to be Jewish, mussar is a powerful prescription,” says Stone, who stumbled onto it through a pamphlet for a mussar anthology while he was in rabbinical school in 1972.

Stone’s Mussar Leadership Program has about 100 students nationwide. “Mussar offers a refreshing perspective that life is not all about us,” he says. “It’s an avenue of escape from the self-centeredness of the culture we live in and a spiritual vocabulary to articulate that it’s more important to serve the other than the self.”