Each middah unit contains at least one traditional Mussar text. Most units have the text in both the original Hebrew and in English translation. The texts we will explore include, Chovot HaLevovot (Duties of the Heart), Messilat Yesharim (Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (18th century), Tomer Devorah (Palm Tree of Deborah) by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (16h century), Ohr Yisrael (Light of Israel) by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (19th century), Cheshbon HaNefesh (Accounting of the Soul) by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin (19th century), Alei Shur by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (20th century) and Michtav M’Eliyahu (Strive for Truth) by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, (20th century), as well as others.
Reading and learning a traditional Mussar text is meant to be done in a specific way. Although the details of the process are beyond the scope of this document, the general approach should be understood. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the modern-day Mussar movement expressed the goal of all Mussar practice as bringing together the “I” that thinks and identifies with things, with the “I” that feels and is aroused by things. In short, to get the heart to understand what the mind knows.
Therefore, the goal is to study the text in such a way that the learning becomes transformative and not have the learning remain a dry, intellectual process. In a general sense, one accomplishes this through a three-step process:
- Intellect: Identify one or two concepts from what you are studying. Clarify the concept intellectually and discern the fundamental principle or idea being expressed. Expand the concept by deriving details and ramifications of the concept.
- Heart/Will: Ask yourself the types of questions that drill into the subject, even if they make you squirm! Do I agree with this idea? Where in me lies my inability to accept the truth of what is being said? Get in touch with how your feel about the concept, and your desire to accept or reject what you are learning. DO NOT just accept it even when it appears self-evident. Be brutally honest and introspective. Examining everything that comes up in your response to a text is an opportunity to seek a reflection of your own personal spiritual curriculum. In fact, the primary principle in Mussar learning is to encounter yourself in new and different ways.
- Bring the Concept Alive: Discern real life illustrations where the concept is relevant in your life. Use your imagination to walk through actual scenarios. Use repetition or chanting of one phrase that you feel captures the essence of what you are learning. [See the “Program Practice” document where we describe this process for “Accounting of the Soul.” The same process can and should be employed in text study as well.] Make gentle “suggestions” to your innermost self or scream loudly. There is no right way to do this and the important thing is to find some way of bringing the concept alive to you.
We generally provide Study Questions that help to clarify the essential issues of the text and help stimulate your reflection of the ideas on a deeper level. The questions are only suggestions and you should not feel bound by them in any way.
Until now, we have described the process of studying a Mussar text alone. However, there is a distinctive and celebrated tradition of learning in the Jewish world, which is to study with a chevruta, a study partner. Chevruta is a Hebrew word meaning “companionship.”
One valuable usage for the study questions is within the context of studying a text with a partner, or chevruta:
The chevruta method of study:
Chevruta-style learning describes the process whereby two people jointly and carefully work their way through understanding and interpreting a text. The point of chevruta learning is to dig collaboratively into a text so that by your joint efforts you emerge with more learning and insight than can come from a solitary reading. Ideally, each partner brings differing perspectives to the text. Those differences may cause each of you to highlight different elements of the text and by hearing what your partner finds important, you will likely be brought to focus on something you might otherwise have overlooked. Similarly, the texts contain images, metaphors, and allusions, which each of you might understand or appreciate differently. The master pedagogues of the Jewish tradition realized long ago that exploring different perspectives in an immediate and vibrant person-to-person encounter with a text expands and deepens learning, and this is why we do chevruta learning.
Similar to the process we described above when studying alone, the partners’ first responsibility is to ensure that they both understand the text in its simple meaning. But the investigation of the text doesn’t stop there. Digging beneath the surface will reveal the premises, assumptions, and principles that can be drawn forth.
Chevruta learning should involve contemplating, analyzing, formulating, and discussing the material under study just as when studying alone. You are to engage actively and personally with the materials, impressing your own thought upon the text and the writer’s thought upon yourself. It is helpful to begin by reading the text aloud to each other, pausing at the end of each paragraph to share reflections and questions. You may choose to use the study questions provided with the text in order to help facilitate this process.
Do not to be satisfied with mere understanding of the text itself but go beyond to investigate how the subject under discussion applies in your own life. Bring out examples from your own experience that bear on what the author is saying. That way, the learning connects to your life and so moves beyond the intellect into lived experience.
All of this is meant to be done with an attitude that is open, attentive, and above all else supportive of your partner’s efforts. Each partner is to endeavor to help the other see more facets of what the text has to offer.
You may want to spend some time alone, chanting or suggesting, as described above, or you may wish to chant together. Again, there is no one way or right way to engage this process and we have only delineated the major facets of the process. It remains an individual process and that is how it should be, considering the unique personality and soul-curriculum of each individual.