Through a Mussar Lens: More Than Studying Torah, Acquiring It
By Alan Morinis
Rabbi Itzele Peterburger (1837–1907) was one of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s closest disciples and collaborators. There is a famous story about a visit R’ Itzele paid to the Volozhin Yeshiva, where he argued for the importance of Mussar. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the head of that yeshiva, replied that the study of Mussar is like castor oil: only sick people need it and if you don’t need it, it will make you sick. Healthy people do not need any practice other than learning Torah.
I once heard my own Mussar teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, reflect on the same subject. He said that a person who learns Torah perfectly has no need of Mussar or anything other than Torah study. “The problem, though,” he said, “is that you have to learn it perfectly for it to have that effect. If you aren’t sure you are learning perfectly, then you might need to do something additional to stay on your path and moving forward.”
These two anecdotes reflect a debate that has long raged in the Jewish world between proponents of Mussar and those who dispute the need for a spiritual practice other than Torah study. More than once I have faced someone in an audience objecting that all anyone needs is Torah study: “None of those gymnastics,” as one critic phrased his rejection of Mussar.
It’s so interesting, then, to notice that an important source brings the two subjects together in an enlightening way. Pirkei Avot is perhaps the mostly widely quoted section of the Mishnah, and in Chapter 6 we find a teaching that tells us what it takes to be one who “acquires Torah.”
Pirkei Avot uses the phrase “acquire Torah” and not “learn Torah.” Those two terms are not synonymous, and if the sages had meant learning Torah, they could and would have said just that. Indeed, the first quality they bring up that leads to the acquisition of Torah is talmud, meaning “study.” So learning Torah is one practice necessary to reach the goal of acquiring Torah. And there are 47 others!
How are we supposed to understand what it means to “acquire Torah”? Torah contains truth we are meant not only to learn but to work into the very core of our being, into our hearts, so that truth will be the guiding light of our thoughts, feelings, words and deeds. “Acquiring Torah” is the process of internalizing the Torah’s ideals to bring about a genuine transformation of the inner self, giving rise to inspiration, a passionate and joyful infusion that effects change in every aspect of being, and hence daily life.
Usually, we acquire things by offering something of value in return. What can we offer when we undertake to acquire Torah? That thing is our effort. We have to “toil in Torah” to get what Torah has to offer. Because acquiring Torah means instilling its teachings in the heart and not just the mind, acquiring Torah is achieved through a variety of practices that include but then go beyond the realm of learning.
Pirkei Avot catalogues 48 methods for bringing about the inner transformation that is called acquiring Torah. The approach is holistic and so some of the 48 methods are cognitive, such as deliberation in study and asking and answering. Others are social, including close association with colleagues, serving scholars and discussing matters with students. Some are behavioral, such as moderation in conversation, moderation in pleasure, and the like. There are emotions, including love directed in several ways. Many are traits of character, like humility and cheerfulness, patience and a good heart.
Maybe people who argue that learning Torah alone is completely transformative are speaking from their own experience. Maybe that’s what happened to them and it worked so well they believe it can work for everyone. But Pirkei Avot sees it differently, and I think Pirkei Avot’s vision addresses the more common situation, which is that the things one learns come to lodge in the mind and they may or may not influence the heart. Acquiring Torah, which refers to a fundamental reworking of life in spiritual ways, requires learning, but much more as well.
Rabbi Elya Lopian (1872–1970) reflects on this very issue in a single phrase that I often quote as a clear and concise definition of Mussar itself: “Mussar is making the heart understand what the mind knows.” Yes, learning Torah is necessary and, in a very small percentage of cases, it is all that is needed. For the majority of us, however, learning generates ideas and not much more. The ideas learned by Torah study are crucial to living a life rooted in truth, however, and so we need them. But to embody those truths, we must take another step to convert intellectual knowledge into the kind of living truth that guides us from within.
The acquisition of Torah takes effect when what we learn is transformed from an intellectual concept into da’at (or da’as)—intimate, internalized knowledge. My colleague, Rabbi Avi Fertig (in his book, Bridging the Gap, p.148), writes:
Acquiring Torah [kinyan] is a function of da’as. Intimate knowledge is knowledge that connects every part of my being. Man is composed of several dualisms: body and soul, mind and emotions, and seichel [intellect] and middos [character]. When Torah penetrates our entire being, when not just our seichel …, [this is the acquisition of Torah].
From this perspective, the argument between proponents of Torah learning and proponents of Mussar seems about as useful as the debate that raged for some time in the world of psychology about whether human character is the product of nature or nurture. What a naïve question! Anyone familiar with the life process knows it is both. And so it is with Torah vs. Mussar. The wisest approach sees that each is valuable and brings something different to our lives.
Learning Torah provides the highest ideals, goals and priorities we can have for our lives. If you are not drawing your ideals from that source, I suggest you ask yourself two questions: What compass am I using to direct my life? Should I have more confidence in that compass than in Torah?
But if a person only has learning, then there is a very real possibility that whatever they have learned will become lodged between their ears, not playing much of a role in shaping the feelings, words and deeds that are the major influences in how our lives actually unfold.
This brings to mind a story about Rabbi Yisroel Salanter himself. R’ Yisroel started the Mussar movement and continues to have a major influence in the Jewish world, over 125 years after his passing. He said that what inspired him to start the Mussar movement was an experience he had going into a synagogue to pray when he happened not to have a prayer book with him. He found a place to stand next to a man who did have a siddur, who happened to be one of the more learned members of the community. When R’ Yisroel leaned in to look at the learned man’s book, he received a sharp shove from that man’s elbow. That negative experience of a person who might know a lot of Torah but who was not transformed spiritually was enough to motivate R’ Yisroel to start the Mussar movement, from which we continue to benefit.
R’ Yisroel could not imagine a world that celebrated anything more than Torah learning. And yet he started a movement for personal growth and change. Why? Because both are necessary for one who would not just learn Torah but would integrate it into his or her heart.
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