Through a Mussar Lens: the Beauty of Tradition
To study and practice Mussar is to be in an encounter and a dialogue with an old tradition. Indeed, the Hebrew term for tradition is “mesorah” [mem-samech-vav-resh-heh], which some take to have a common linguistic root with the word “mussar” [mem-vav-samech-resh]. Whether or not that is a valid derivation, there is no disputing that Mussar is a tradition and traditional.
I date the first work that focused on the unique question addressed by Mussar to the 10th century—Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon’s Sefer Emunot v’De’ot (completed in 933). That title is usually translated as The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, but it is equally correct to translate it as The Book of Beliefs and Soul-Traits, since medieval writers (including Rambam) tended to use the term de’ot where more recent writers would use middot [traits of the nefesh-soul].
Since that time, every generation has carried on the investigation that Sa’adia Gaon began in the chapter of his book called “How it is Fitting for a Human Being to Behave in the World.” The chain of Mussar teachers addressing that question is unbroken into the present.
Bringing you into engagement with tradition is a significant basis for my writing and teaching because that has been the course of my own journey and it has been rewarding. One of the greatest weaknesses I see in this individualistic, entrepreneurial world that celebrates the new more than the good and propagates the myth that we make ourselves is that we can be deprived of the benefit of living our lives informed by the experience of the many generations of wise people who have walked this path of human life before us.
I find the encounter with tradition exhilarating. But there is no doubt that it is challenging as well. Read a Mussar text like Orchot Tzaddikim [Ways of the Righteous] or Mesillat Yesharim [Path of the Just], and the modern sensibility is bound to be offended by some attitude or value expressed there. I have tried for years to help students see the hidden beauty in the middah of tzniut [modesty], but no matter how creative and diligent I am in my efforts, some people react forcefully to the idea that there could possibly be spiritual benefit in not revealing every aspect of personal life, emotional as well as physical. Or even more provocative, if you have ever visited the synagogue of the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, author of Path of the Just) in Akko, Israel, you will have seen that one of the remarkable features of this building is that it is only one room, meaning that there is no women’s section. Ramchal forbade women entry because he expected they would foul the holy precinct with secular matters.
Does the existence of unpalatable bits such as these provide enough reason to reject the whole of the text or teacher? Many people seem primed to be on hawk-like lookout for anything that will permit them to feel justified in dismissing a source. This is as true of people on the liberal end of the Jewish spectrum as it is of those within the Orthodox world. It is as if we are all defense attorneys setting out to discredit a witness by dredging up one bounced check or unpaid traffic fine. Aha! We’ve found a flaw; now we don’t need to listen to that testimony. People are studying along and all is fine until they come to a comment on the role of women, or the character of non-Jews, or the role of God in history, or homosexuality or something else they don’t agree with and they close the book. More likely, slam the book shut.
Too many of us do not even realize how insistently we seek out ideas that confirm only what we already think, rather than wanting to be challenged to think again. We read the columnist we agree with and tune the radio to the commentators who think like we do and attend the classes of the teacher that we find stands closest to our own views. And with all that, because we read and watch and listen, we consider ourselves well informed.
This is no way to learn and grow. I am not asking you to read the old texts uncritically (or necessarily to listen to different talk radio). There is no reason to think that every value and assessment expressed by a rabbi writing in his world of the 14th or 18th century will be acceptable in the world we inhabit. Fine. But that rejection of an idea should not become an emotional reaction that closes you off to everything else that the teacher has to offer you. In fact, it is entirely possible that with some struggle and sincerity, the rejected teaching will offer up a gem, and a new way of seeing things. I have had that experience.
Instead of reading the old sources as if you are a cross-examiner, I encourage you to see yourself as being in dialogue with the writer, as you would with a dear friend or beloved teacher with whom you are discussing a contentious subject. You might disagree, even vehemently, but you never put the relationship aside for that. You never put that other person out of your heart and reject him or her from your life. Why would you do that to yourself, just because you disagree about something?
The sages described the process well in the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a). Though their subject is about two people who are learning a text together, what they say extends to any sort of dialogue we might get into over an idea, including with people who lived centuries before we do.
Even a father and son, or a teacher and student, who study Torah together in the same place initially become enemies of one another. Yet they do not move from there until they come to love one another.
Argue, but love your study partners. Disagree, but love your teachers. Fight, but love your tradition. Engage critically but not for the purpose of reaffirming what you already think. Instead, let the search for truth be your motivation and your guide. Argue only for the sake of heaven, not to feed your ego and so stymie your own learning and growth.
The dialogue and argument I am encouraging is, in fact, traditional. This is a Jewish principle, as in the story about the new rabbi who comes to town and finds that the community is divided over whether it is proper to stand or sit during kaddish. No matter which way he rules, he finds half the community opposed. Finally he asks one of the elders, “What is the tradition? What did your grandparents do?” And the man answers, “The tradition is that they argued. And so we follow the tradition.”
At the same time, we do well to recognize that there is nothing new under the sun. We do not have new hearts and modern neshamas. We have human hearts and eternal neshamas, just as our ancestors did. Their experience and wisdom is relevant. Relevant? It is precious.
When we look at the tradition of Mussar over the last 200 years, we can identify an interesting and important pattern. Every generation of Mussar teachers has not taught Mussar as the previous generation did. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter brought Mussar to the masses in a movement, but his own teacher, Rabbi Yosef Zundel, could not have been more of a recluse. When Mussar passed to Rabbi Salanter’s students, they took it into the yeshivas in a way he never attempted (his own focus being more the mature adults in the community, whereas Mussar in the yeshivas focuses on teenage boys). In the mid-20th century, when Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler began teaching Mussar at the Ponovezh yeshiva in Israel, despite the fact that he learned Mussar for 18 years in the Lithuanian yeshiva founded by Rabbi Salanter’s primary disciple, the other Mussar teachers of the time confronted him, saying that what he was teaching was “nit mussar”—not Mussar. And so it continued and continues to this day.
We feel as if we are moving forward in time when, in fact, time is not just linear but looping as well. One big loop closing was when my only remaining uncle (my father’s brother) died in Philadelphia at the age of 94. All my uncles and aunts, save one, were born in Europe and when Uncle Joe died, so passed the direct link to Europe. I grew up in a very European, Yiddish-inflected household, complete with plastic covers on the green and yellow upholstered furniture, and raised my kids in a completely North American one. My father was born in 1909 in Kishinev (now in Moldava) and my younger daughter, Leora, was born in Vancouver in 1986. All that stands between those two is me.
When my daughter Julia and her husband Aaron moved into their newly purchased house in Toronto a few years ago, I was so delighted to see this young couple blossoming in their lives together. Their house is in a cool downtown neighborhood which happens to be the very one the immigrant Jewish generation flocked to when my family first landed in Toronto. My whole extended family lived in a similar little row house only blocks from where Julia and Aaron are living. That very urban neighborhood is hyper-popular now, and I am struck by the image of them finding the old holes in the doorpost where they will affix the mezuzah. Just the kind of house my Uncle Joe grew up in and left to build a better life elsewhere as an American. A big, historic loop closed that year in those small nail holes.
So too in our study of Mussar. We inhabit new and unique lives. But someone has walked this way before us. The old holes they drove are still there to guide our nails. Do not deny yourself what they have to offer, even if you stub a finger now and again.
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