Mussar is a traditional Jewish path of spiritual development that leads to awareness, wisdom, and transformation. It is a treasury of teachings and practices that help individuals understand their true nature as holy souls, then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner holiness or light. The goal of Mussar is to release the light of holiness that lives within each soul.
The methods Mussar include the study of classical and contemporary Mussar literature, and engaging in regular practices such as meditations, silence and retreat, journaling, chanting, visualizations and exercises, and doing actions on behalf of others. All are intended to penetrate the darkness of the subconscious, to bring about change at the root of our nature.
The Orthodox Jewish community spawned Mussar to help people overcome the inner obstacles that hinder them from living up to the laws and commandments—the mitzvot—that form the code of life. That community tends to see Musar as inseparable from its own beliefs and practices, but the human reality Mussar addresses is actually universal, and the gifts it offers can be used by all people.
“You Shall Be Holy”
One of the key understandings that all students of Mussar need to acknowledge is that “Each of us is a soul. Mostly, we have been told that we ‘have’ a soul, but that’s not the same thing. To have a soul would indicate that we are primarily an ego or a personality that in some way ‘possesses’ a soul. The first step on the path of Mussar is to unlearn that linguistic misconception and to realize that our essence is the soul and that all aspects of ego and personality flow from that essence. At its core, the soul is pure, but habits, tendencies, and imbalances often obscure some of that inner light.” (Alan Morinis, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder)
The soul fills the body, as God fills the world. The soul bears the body, as God bears the world. The Soul outlasts the body, as God outlasts the world. The soul is one in the body, as God is one in the world. The soul sees and is not seen, as God sees and is not seen. The soul is pure in the body, even as God is pure in the world.– Rabbi Simeon Ben Paz
Neshama is the most elevated and purest aspect of soul and it shines at the deepest core of our being. “In my body, he has kindled a lamp from his glory,” begins a poem by Moses ibn Ezra, referring to the light of the neshama. In the morning prayers, we say, “God, the soul [neshama] you have given me is pure”.
The next dimension of the soul that Mussar identifies is called ruach, that aspect of the soul that is the source of animation and vigor – no more, and no less, than the “spirit of life.”
Nefesh, the third level of the soul is the aspect that is most visible and accessible to us. It includes all those inner aspects that link us to our lives on earth, including the physical body, so that body and soul are, in fact, a single, indivisible whole. Without the soul, the body is dust. Without sensation and the play of physical forces, the soul has no connection to the earth. It is the union of body and soul that gives rise to human experience.
The nefesh is the seat of all our emotions and appetites, the realm of personality and identity. If our nefesh is clear and unblemished, the light of the neshama will shine through without obstruction; if it is foggy, the light will be obstructed. Just as clouds determine how much sunshine makes it to earth, the nefesh acts as the “atmosphere” of our lives.
The features of the soul that connect us to this world – personality, character, appetites, aversions, strengths, weaknesses – determine whether the holiness that is there at our core shines out or not, or to what degree.