What is Mussar?

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s 125th yahrzeit begins tonight (25 Shevat), and while searching for grist for that mill for an appropriate entry, some Avodah discussion sparked some thoughts.

Foundation Stories

There are two foundation stories about the birth of the Mussar Movement (which should not be confused with mussar as a whole).

The first is where a young Yisrael Lipkin used to follow R’ Zundel Salanter around. Rav Zundel wanted to live privately, secretly, so Rav Yisrael had to sneak around to watch the actions of this ba’al mussar. One time, he followed Rav Zundel into the woods, where Rav Zundel engaged in passionate hispa’alus (pouring out his soul “with lips aflame”). (No, this really isn’t a Breslov story…) Suddenly, Rav Zundel turned around, made eye contact, and instructed, “ישראל, לערן מוסרת, אז דו זאלסט וערען א ירא שמים — Learn mussar so that you will be one who lives in awe of [the One in] Heaven!” In Nesivos Or it writes that Rav Yisrael Salanter called the moment a “thunderbolt” that changed his life.

The second was a time on Yom Kippur when Rav Yisrael didn’t have a machzor with him. At one point he got lost, and needed to peer over the other person’s shoulder. He got shoved in response to his efforts. How dare you shterr my kavanah (harm my concentration)! At that point Rav Yisrael realized that he couldn’t keep Mussar to himself, and had to share it with the world.

Hold onto those, I’ll get back to them.

So to ask again: What is mussar?

I’m going to answer that with a set of three triads.

First Triad

There are three ways to see the relationship between tiqun hamiddos (repairing the dimensions of one’s personality traits) and halakhah. They are far from mutually exclusive.

1- The Rambam’s Hilkhos Dei’os describes the obligations specific to personality. They are obligations among other halakhah‘s other obligations.

2- Without tiqun hamiddos, one is incapable of making the right decisions at the actual time one is faced with a choice. It is the means by which one is capable of following halakhah to an ever greater extent. Mussar is a central component to Judaism, but logically inferior to halakhah.

While the first notion is universal, for even the gemara asserts (for example) “whomever loses their temper it is as though they worshiped idols”, this one is only nearly universal. It is not consistent with some forms of Chassidus. Chassidus is inherently experiential in nature. Breslov argues that trying to over-analyze or work at it would actually get in the way of the experience.

3- The entire purpose of halakhah is to achieve sheleimus ha’adam (completeness of the person), to finish Hashem’s creation — “let us make man in our image”. The use of plural can be taken to include both Hashem and the person himself. Perfection of the “image” of G-d which by definition must be self made — as He is. Thus, all of halakhah is an exercise in tiqun hamiddos. Halakhah is logically a consequence of Mussar.

And it is fair to assert that the two to coexist symbioticly, seeing mussar is the only way to fully follow halakhah and seeing halakhah as the critical means of achieving mussar‘s goal. Two sides of one integral whole.

This notion is far from universal — it’s the sheleimus (personal wholeness) fork in the road of Jewish philosophy. Chassidus took the other route, deveiqus (cleaving to G-d). Others have argued non-personal perfection as a goal — perfection of society, or of the Jewish community. And Brisk would argue against the entire concept of defining goals; halakhah must be understood on its own terms.

Second triad

A rebbe-chaveir of mine, R’ Dr Ephraim Becker, describes mussar (in the third sense of the previous triad) as a three part thing:
- There is the real, knowing where one stands
- There is the ideal, knowing where the Creator wants us to be
- There is the process of getting from the real to the ideal

There is an interesting contrast in book titles. When R’ Yaakov Hillel wrote a book on Jewish philosophy, he called it “Ascending Jacob’s Ladder”. When Dr Alan Morinis documented his path back to classical Judaism by studying Mussar under R’ Yechiel Perr he titled his book “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”. (Rabbi Perr is the rosh yeshiva of Derech Ayson, Far Rockaway NY, and scion of Novhardok three different ways.) Ascending, with no mention of work, vs climbing.

To go to primary sources, note that Rav Zundel Salanter told the future Rav Yisrael Salanter “zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim” — not to gain awareness of the significance of the One in heaven, but to become the kind of person who has such awareness. As I wrote above, Chassidus tries for deveiqus. The Mussar Movement asserted that one must try to become kind of person capable of deveiqus. There could be no other reason why deveiqus isn’t achieved. Hashem would leave no break between Him and us. The break is between us and ourselves.

It is this notion of process, of climbing — literally “shteigin” — that is of value within nearly all derakhim, all paths, all approaches to the Torah. And thus lower case “m”, not specifically the Mussar Movement. The different derakhim define the ideal by stressing different aspects of it. Which will in turn suggests different paths, thus the name “derakhim“. But using tools to become the kind of person who can follow that path, to consciously pursue that derekh’s perspective on the end-goal, makes sense according to any derekh.

Third Triad

Note that the story with Rav Zundel portrays mussar as the route to becoming a yarei Shamayim. The one about the man who wouldn’t share his machzor for a moment focuses on his being so enraptured in Yom Kippur’s theme of teshuvah he neglects a central part of that — his relationship to the person standing next to him. It tells of the need to refocus the masses who were increasingly looking to rite, to defend our self-definition as Reform tried to tear it away. Following along the tefillah on Yom Kippur to the exclusion of more fundamental mitzvos. And that second theme is central to how R’ Yisrael is portrayed; most of the stories told about him are about being stringent in interpersonal mitzvos over common stringencies in mitzvos between man and the Omnipresent.

Mussar is also very centrally a third theme — tiqun hamiddos. (Thus completing our last triad.) Whether it’s Mesilas Yesharim’s working up the ladder of middos up to divine inspiration or Cheshbon haNefesh’s list of middos that have more interpersonal implications. And this is true even in the “Hilkhos Dei’os” sense of Mussar, never mind the approaches in the first triad that make tiqun hamiddos even more central.

We can view the goals of the Mussar Movement as creating a “holistic Jew”, one who works on his relationship with the Creator, with other people, and with himself. And compared to where the other man in shul and his ilk stood, that means a greater stress on interpersonal and intrapersonal (bein adam lenafsho, between man and his soul, as the Gra put it) mizvos than one sees in other paths to serving the A-lmighty. And if that’s true of 19th cent Lithuania, it’s even more true of today’s society, with its providing grist for “chumrah of the month club” jokes.

That would explain why Rav Yisrael is so associated with stories stressing the interpersonal. Had the Judaism of his day been more centered on that, the stories retold about him would be about prayer, etc… E.g. the Mussar Movement promoted tefillah behispa’alus; a minyan no less passionate (and possibly no quieter) than anything found among Karliner chassidim.

Mussar Today
Using the real-ideal-path concept:

Rav Kook taught a philosophy. He therefore defines an ideal, but no way to become the kind of person who can live up to it. For that matter, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch doesn’t either. Rav Hirsch is closer to the Mussar Movement in ideal — both aim at a refined Jew. Different focuses on refinement, but it’s no coincidence both Slabodka and Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz produced well groomed, secularly informed, doers. But Rav Hirsch didn’t discuss the means to get there.

Mussar in the loose sense is encapsulated in the notion of finding and following a path from the real me to the ideal me. It requires belief that tiqun hamiddos is a prerequisite for being able to follow halakhah. (In shorthand: Embracing the first triad, real-ideal-path, and at least the second but also possibly all three positions about the role of mussar in a halachic life.)

This kind of Mussar can therefore be applied within most derakhim. One can live by Rav Hirsch’s definition of the ideal or the Tanya’s and still seek to transform oneself into the kind of person who better lives that ideal.

And it is in that sense that AishDas strives to promote mussar.

Mussar in the sense of the Mussar Movement requires embracing all three triads in full: adopting the notion that sheleimus ha’adam is the entire tachlis of the Torah, perfecting our tzelem E-lokim. And being whole can only be possible with full attention to all three relationships. Thus Rav Yisrael was lead to balancing all three of Shim’on haTzadiq’s pillars (Avos 1:2) equally: Torah’s perfection of the self, Avodas Hashem, and Gemillus Chassadim toward others.

Notice what I’m excluding. I don’t see the darkness and harshness of the early Mussar Movement, with a focus on the evils of the yeitzer hara, keeping in mind the day of one’s death, the dark candle-lit room, etc… as defining for the Mussar Movement. Rather, mussar inherently is very subject to knowing where you are. And therefore, the same era that created the stereotype fire-n-brimstone preacher called for a very “dark” mussar. It’s as unfair to judge it from where we stand as it is to judge the role of tokhachah in contemporary Sepharadic maggidim.

And thus, the Mussar Movement had to “repackage” itself repeatedly as people changed. Slabodka’s Gadlus haAdam is no less part of the Mussar Movement even if it dovetails well with contemporary Human Potential talk. (The Alter’s Yahrzeit is just four days away, on the 29th of Shevat.) And Rav Shelomo Wolbe (who is somewhat less of the movement, since it was really a casualty of Hitler) wrote in the 1970s about the need to focus on “planting and building” (to quote the title of his seifer on parenting) rather than pruning. Carrots, not sticks, are what work for today’s Jew.

What killed Mussar? Mussar never survived the end of East European Jewry’s golden era. But why not, whereas Chassidus is rebuilding itself?

Two yeshiva students noticed that of all the Slabodka graduates who built post-War yeshivos, only R’ Dovid Leibowitz (founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim) strived to build a mussar yeshiva. Not R’ Aharon Kotler, R’ Yaakov Kamenecki, Rav Hutner, Rav Kahaneman, etc, etc, etc… They actually went around the US asking these rashei yeshiva why. Rav Hutner’s answer is telling. He felt that the American student couldn’t handle the long work that real change requires. Rav Hutner therefore chose the more modest goal (in his opinion) of inspiring them with the Maharal’s thought.

It is easy to be inspired by ideals. The trick is staring at the details, the step-by-step work, and still following through. And so today’s generation of Israeli Orthodox “seekers” find a home in some “chulent” Rav Kook’s and the Tanya’s philosophy and Breslover experiences and Carlebach minyanim. They do not search for a program, a plan for getting from here to there. In the US, Carlebachian Neo-Chassidus is popular because it provides inspiring experiences without that demand of the day-to-day attention to detail and following a spiritual discipline that defies America’s love of the “quick fix”. Rav Hutner, in the founding years of the American Orthodox community of today, thought all we can do is inspire people toward the ideal and hope for the best without conscious work or a plan to get there.

Given the increasing lack of a holistic, three pillar, approach to Yahadus, demonstrating a real need for mussar, and the greater strength of the community and its educational system today providing opportunity, I believe we have a sizable population ready to work for something better. To set out and build idealists — of all the various ways we have formulated the Torah’s ideals.

Conclusion

So, to summarize. The Mussar Movement asserted three essential points, the full acceptance of each of the above triads:

  1. You need to consciously follow a process to reach qedushah (holiness).
  2. That process is the purpose of the Torah. Life is about the completion of the “image” of G-d within.
  3. The whole person is one who perfects his relationships with Hashem, other people, and his own soul. And thus, one can’t overlook interpersonal and intrapersonal mitzvos in the pursuit of qedushah.

The lessons of mussar have value to us today, even for those who choose to view the Torah using a different framework. But one must be willing to work for qedushah if they are to fully use their potential to obtain it.

Why I’m a Man

My son Shuby said something interesting to me over lunch today. Shuby is a very cute nine-year-old little boy with Downs. His ability to actually articulate the words isn’t caught up with his ability to decide what to say, so our conversations involve some checking what he was trying to say, some signing, etc…

After I gave him his food, Shuby said “Thank you, ma’am.” I explained that I’m a man, and “ma’am” is only for women. If he wanted to add anything, the word should be “sir”.

Shuby then said something, and signed “davening” — hands holding siddur and shuckling.

Checking, I asked / translated, “I go to shul because I’m a man?”

“No,” Shuby explained, “Daddy is a man ’cause he goes to shul.”

The line of reasoning he awakened seems quite sound.

It’s not that women are pardoned from the obligation of attending minyan. It’s that souls of which G-d wants to obligate in minyan that He makes as men.

Perishus

It is difficult to understand the exact limits of perishus (restraint) by looking at the relevent chapters of Mesilas Yesharim. (In all of the following, I am using quotes from the on-line copy of the translation by R’ Aryeh Kaplan.) In the third sentence or so of chapter 13:

The rationale of Separation is epitomized in the words of our Sages of blessed memory (Yevamoth 20a), “Sanctify yourself through what is permitted to you.” This is the signification of the word “separation” itself i.e. separating and withdrawing oneself from something, forbidding to oneself something which is permitted. The intent is to keep oneself from that which is forbidden, the understanding being that a person should withdraw and separate himself from anything which might give rise to something that could bring about evil, even though it does not bring it about at the moment and even though it is not evil in itself.

Perishus is avoiding challenges that one might not successfully pass that which “could bring about evil”. Which explains the Ramchal’s progression in the text that follows the above:

If you look into the matter you will perceive three distinct levels – the forbidden things themselves, their fences (the edicts and safeguards that our Sages of blessed memory made binding on all of Israel), and the “withdrawals” that those committed to Separation must create for themselves by circumscribing themselves and building fences for themselves; that is, by abstaining from things which were permitted, which were not proscribed to all of Israel, and separating themselves from them so as to be far removed from evil.

Perishus is non-binding and non-national, but an extension of the same idea as gezeiros.

Similarly in the next chapter, the Ramchal divides perishus into perishus behana’os, (restraint from pleasures) perishus bedinim (restraint in law) and perishus beminhagim (restraint in conduct, not “minhag” in the sense of tradition. This is described as including hibodedus and shetiqah).

This is perishus bedinim:

It has already been indicated that those who practice Separation may not guide themselves by what is permitted to all of Israel, but must withdraw themselves from what is repulsive, from what is similar to it, and from what is similar to what is similar to it.

So far so good for my theory. The only problem with the above is the MY’s discussion of perishus behana’os:

Separation in relation to pleasures, which we spoke of in the previous chapter, consists in one’s taking from the world only what is essential to him. This type of Separation encompasses anything which provides pleasure to any one of the senses, whether the pleasure be gained through food, cohabitation, clothing, strolls, conversation or similar means, exceptions obtaining only at such times when deriving pleasure through these means is a mitzvah.

Whereas the Ramchal in chapter 13 talks about the permissible being fine as long as is doesn’t lead to sin, in chapter 14 he is saying the permissible is to be avoided unless it leads to mitzvah.

And in 15, the Ramchal explicitly says he is talking about both:

THE BEST WAY for a man to acquire Separation is to regard the inferior quality of the pleasures of this world, both in point of their own insignificance and in point of the great evils to which they are prone to give rise.

Both positions are pretty well documented in other sources. I would suggest that the kasuv hashelishi (a reference to the hermeneutic rule of resolving a contradiction between verses by turning to a third verse to explicate) is the continuation in ch. 15:

For what inclines one’s nature to these pleasures to the extent that he requires so much strength and scheming to separate himself from them is the gullibility of the eyes, their tendency to be deceived by good and pleasing superficial appearances..

I would suggest the Ramchal’s perishus behana’ah involves first two elements:

1- Restraint from those things that one enjoys to the extent that it overwhelms one’s self control, that get addictive. “ad sheyatzrikh kol kach vetachbulos lehafrisho meihem — that which he needs to try so hard and struggle to separate himself from them”.

2- Avoiding that which leads to sin, by leading one’s soul in the wrong way. As per our opening quote.

In both cases, the issue is desire over self-control, and thus, to explanations of the same basic idea.

This is different than perishus behalakhah, which — like a gezeirah — aims at protection of the letter of the law through habit or accident. (The same distinction, when on the level of rabbinic legislation, is that between din derabbanan and gezeirah. See this earlier entry.)

After that, one can seek perishus beminhag, practices of separation, of finding quiet time to take stock of oneself, listen to one’s soul, and spend time alone with one’s Creator.

Prayers and Requests

Yaaqov avinu lying on his deathbed, tells his son Yoseif:

וַֽאֲנִ֞י נָתַ֧תִּֽי לְךָ֛ שְׁכֶ֥ם אַחַ֖ד עַל־אַחֶ֑יךָ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לָקַ֨חְתִּי֙ מִיַּ֣ד הָֽאֱמֹרִ֔י בְּחַרְבִּ֖י וּבְקַשְׁתִּֽי׃

Also, I gave you one portion (or perhaps, “one thing, [the city of] Shechem”) beyond that of your brothers, which I took from the control of the Emori — becharbi uvqashti — with my sword and with my bow.

- Bereishis 48:22

The Targum Yonasan renders “becharbi uvqashti” as “betzelosi uva’us-hi — with my prayers and my requests”. This is also in Bava Basra 123, “‘Charbi‘ — this is tefillah,qashti‘ – this is baqashah [request].”

Based on this, R’ YB Soloveitchik explains the Targum’s “tzelosana” to refer to our immediate requests — sword-like, in comparison to the longer reach of the bow and arrow. Tzelosana is thus our request for health, income, peace in our homes, etc… Whereas the arrows of “ba’us-hon” are for things like the coming of mashiach, the restoration of justice, etc…

Personally, I don’t follow. Shemonah Esrei is such an archetype for the form of prayer, Chazal simply refer to it as tefillah or tzelosana (depending on the language). Shemoneh Esrei, even in its immediate requests speaks in the plural, referring to the Jewish people as a whole, not my own immediate needs, and the majority of its requests are a progression describing the ultimate redemption. We have the list of prayers in the gemara (Berakhos 16b) that various tannaim, “after tzelosana — his Shemoneh Esrei — he would say like this”. In contrast, E-lokai Netzor, the post-Shemoneh Esrei petition that made it into our liturgy, is written in the first person, about my own religious needs and protection from those who want ill for me personally.

So, in contrast with what Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests, it would seem from usage that tzelosana actually denotes the longer term, less immediate, requests.

If the notion that I am contradicting Rav Soloveitchik didn’t make me insecure in my position, I would think that the similarity driving the parable isn’t immediacy, but something else.

The Vilna Gaon characterizes two kinds of prayer: tefillah and tachanunim. As RYBS himself notes, as does Rav Hirsch, lehit-pallel is in the reflective; something we do to ourselves. Teaching ourselves to turn to Hashem, and what things ought to be our priorities. Our primary tefillah was therefore organized by Anshei Keneses haGdolah in the sunset of the prophetic period, as a means of impressing us with the art of dialogue with the A-lmighty.

Turning to our Father with the needs actually on our mind is called tachanunim. An ideal time for tachanunim is immediately after tefillah, as we find in the above-mentioned list of tannaim‘s requests. As well as tachanun. Tefillah is always in the plural, placing ourselves in the context of the community. Tachanunim, like E-lokai Netzor, can also be in the singular. Because E-lokai Netzor exists as a framework for what should essentially be spontaneous, we have a long tradition of adding various requests to it, rather than preserving the tanna‘s coinage untouched.

Just as the tachanunim we say as part of regular davening has this element of a pre-written framework, of tefillah, we allso do not call for pure tefillah with no element of personal outpouring. We ask for the health of a sick friend with an insertion in “Refa’einu“, or Hashem’s help showing our children how to embrace the Torah’s wisdom in “Atah Chonein“, etc… “Whomever makes their tefillos fixed has not made their tefillos into tachanunim.”

This inseparability of these two types of worship might be an implication of the opening words of Mesilas Yesharim. The Ramchal begins, “יסוד החסידות ושורש העבודה – the foundation of piety and the root of work/worship…” The words’ initials are an acronym spelling out the name of G-d. However, three of the letters are prefixes. The Ramchal could have equally written “יסוד העבודה ושורש החסידות” and still have had the same acronym. Why did he choose to associate the more artificial “foundation” with piety, and the image of the more natural “root” when it comes to avodah, which means work? It would seem to me he is intentionally showing that the two are inherently mixed. That conscious work on our relationships with Hashem and with other people must flow from natural growth from the root, and our free emotional expression can’t be divorced from consciously building a foundation. This is AishDas — the inseparable fusion of fiery passion and precise ritual.

Returning to the Vilna Gaon’s distinction, the core difference between tefillah and tachanunim is that tachanunim are a raw primeval reaching out to the A-lmighty, and tefillah is an exercise in how we are supposed to reach out to Him.

In this light, the core of the metaphor in the verse is not distance, but usability. A sword in the hands of an expert is formidable, but even in the hands of a klutz, a sword is dangerous. Arrows shot by someone with no experience at marksmanship are pretty much useless. Thus, tefillah, like those pre-composed by Anshei Keneses haGdolah or Chazal, is more like a sword — of utility to anyone. The art of techinah, of personally composed baqashos — that requires greater skill and for the person to already feel that connection to the A-lmighty that their reflexive response is to cry out to Him, to be of any value.

(The Maharsha on this gemara in Bava Basra comments as follows: “Becharbi” is in response to Esav’s “al charbekha yichyeh — you will live by your sword”, as Yitzchaq described his destiny. “Beqashti” is his defense against the Torah’s description of Yishma’el, “vayhi roveh qashas — and he became great with a bow”. Yaaqov described two tools against two kinds of threat.)

Neither Random nor Predetermined

Free Will is difficult to define. We’re saying that people make choices that are neither predetermined by outside causes, and yet non-random. Moshe Koppel, in his book “Metahalakhah” proves that such a domain exists, but without showing us what that domain might contain.

A random sequence is one whose next element is not predictable given the sequence’s history so far. But it’s easy to model, simply say that each it is random. It can be done in very few bits of a programming language.

A sequence that can be reduced to a shorter one is the product of algorithm. For example:

10101010101….

You don’t need to have every bit listed in order to reproduce the sequence. One need only have a set of bits that mean “10, repeat” in some programming language.

For example:

1010…

Looks like it’s the old “10, repeat”. Until we get to:

101000101…

Now it looks like

if not a multiple of 5
if odd 1
if even 0
if a multiple of 5 – 0

But then we get some more items:

10100010111010…

So we theorize:

if not a multiple of 5
if odd 1
if even 0
if a multiple of 5
if odd 0
if even 1

But later on we learn:

101000101110100010111010101011…

The 25th item didn’t obey this rule… and so our model gets ever more complex as we have more data to work with. We can always explain the sequence in less space than the sequence itself. So it isn’t random. However, the description of an infinite expansion of this sequence would be infinite. It’s not an algorithm because no finite model exists. They are “non-modelable”, since neither a coin tosser nor an algorithm will model the resulting output.

There is a middle ground between deterministic and random. If one watches a person’s decisions, it will fall into that class.

Dr. Koppel, following R’ JB Soloveitchik’s approach in “Halachic Man”, sees the role of halakhah as that of maximizing free ill. Man redeems himself through a creative partnership with G-d. That creativity is a product of being non-modelable; our decisions are neither inherent in our nature nor our environment nor random — they are something new, products that our uniquely our creations.

Perhaps the same dichotomy lies behind Euthyphro’s Dilemma.

To recap my summary of that dilemma from an earlier blog entry:

In his essay “Euthyphro”, Plato has Socrates ask a young student named Euthyphro, “Is what is righteous righteous because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is righteous?” The Jewish spin would be to ask: Is an act good because Hashem chose to make it a mitzvah, or did Hashem command us to do it because it is good? What is the Source of morality?

The problem is that if you say that an act is good solely because Hashem commanded it, then He had no moral reason to tell us to do one set of things and not another. Can mitzvos be the product of Divine whim, the decision between “Thou shalt murder” and “Thou shalt not” entirely without any reason on His part? On the other hand, if there is an overarching definition of good and evil that Hashem conformed to, then we placed something “over” Him, something that even He is subject to.

Notice how the options presented match the ones Dr Koppel rules out with respect to free will: either Hashem’s moral choice is predetermined by an outside notion of morality, or His choice is arbitrary.

The resolution I offered to Euthyphro’s Dilemma was:

I would argue that HQBH created the world with a tachlis, a purpose, He placed each of us in it with a tachlis, and what is righteous is righteous because it is in accordance with furthering that tachlis.

Moral good is thus defined in terms of Hashem’s purpose behind creating us. Notice again the third alternative is about being purposive. Deterministic behavior is caused by one’s past. Random behavior is arbitrary, without particular cause for one outcome over another. By not being modelable, people have the ability to make decisions based upon a desired future.

Rav Dessler: 25 Teves

Today (25 Teves 5714, 1964CE) is Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler’s yahrzeit.

Rav Dessler (or REED, as he is called on Avodah) was a paragon of Kelm Mussar, who was willing to merge that worldview with Chassidus and the philosophy of his era. In particular from Qabbalah-influenced paths, we see the influence of the Maharal and the Tanya. Rav Dessler himself explains his ecclecticism as follows (loose translation, R YG Bechhofer):

In our times: The qualities of “Emet” that personified the Ba’alei Mussar [Mussar Masters] are already extinct. We no longer find individuals whose hearts are full with profound truth, with a strong and true sense of Cheshbon HaNefesh [complete and rigorous reckoning of one's spiritual status and progress]. We have reached the era of Ikvasa d’Mashicha [the final generations before the coming of Moshaich], generations that Chazal described as superficial. If we find an individual who does learn Mussar, we find that he is primarily interested in the intellect of Mussar, the profound philosophy and psychology that are linked to Mussar. Even if he learns Mussar b’hispa’alus [with the emotional impact of nigun - melody - and shinun - repetition - that R.Yisroel prescribed], rarely does this activity lead to Cheshbon HaNefesh.

Contemporary Chassidus lacks the component that was once at its core: Avodas Hashem with dveykus. All that remains is the external form of Chassidus, something that appears like hislahavus. There is nigun, but the soul of nigun is no longer. Hitlahavus in davening is almost a thing of the past.

For today’s era, there remain only one alternative: To take up everything and anything that can be of aid to Yahadus; the wisdom of both Mussar and Chassidus together. Perhaps together they can inspire us to great understandings and illuminations. Perhaps together they might open within us reverence and appreciation of our holy Torah. Perhaps the arousal of Mussar can bring us to a little Chassidic hislahavus. And perhaps the hislahavus will somewhat fortify one for a Cheshbon HaNefesh. Perhaps through all these means together we may merit to ascend in spirituality and strengthen our position as Bnei Torah [adherents of a Torah centered lifestyle] with an intensified Judaism. May G-d assist us to attain all this!

Rav Dessler was more open to secular knowledge than the yeshiva movement today, particularly interesting given Within Michtav meiEliyahu, a collection of his writings and speeches, there are citations of Kant and Sørensen, as well as what is possibly a paraphrase of the Reader’s Digest coverage of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence people” (Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. IV, P.234; see R’ Yosef Katan’s article in Hamaayan, Nissan 5752). This probably reflects his upbringing; Rav Dessler writes of the time his father required he read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (in Russian) as a necessary Mussar work.

By the time I’m done interpreting his work, Rav Dessler comes across as an extreme Kantian. Some links to earlier blog entries that refer to his work:

Biographies: