The Mussar Dispute

Rav Yisrael Salanter wrote to Volozhin, the flagship yeshiva of the yeshiva movement. He offered the Netziv his services as a mashgiach ruchani. The Netziv said that he was welcome to come, but if Rav Yisrael came, the Netziv would have to leave. Rav Yisrael Salanter was a brilliant talmudist and overqualified for the job, but the Netziv felt he couldn’t operate in the same institution as Mussar.

Rav Yisrael’s student, Rav Itzele Petersburger, similarly offered in 1881. R’ Nasan Kamentzky weaves together three versions of the story to create a single plausible narrative about how his offer was received (starts at about 87 min in on this recording).

Rav Nechamiah Goldberg tells that while Rav Izele was turned down, he did get permission to give a mussar shmuess. The thrust of that talk was based on the thought from our sages that Hashem created the yeitzer hara and He created an antidote — Torah. Rav Itzele explained that the Torah cures us of evil desires the way a segulah cures a sick person. The person must perform the act or recite the text exactly, and if the segulah is to say it 7 times, there will be absolutely no effect if he only says it six. Similarly, in order for Torah to fight the yeitzer hara, it most be studied perfectly lishmah, with pure motive and no distractions. Mussar, however, is like medicine.  Even if you do not follow instructions perfectly, it will still work. Not as well, but there is still improvement. Thus, unless you are already capable of perfect Torah study, Mussar is the appropriate solution to the problem of yeitzer hara. R’ Chaim Brisker, who also taught at Volozhin at the time, was sitting near the exit. As Rav Izele left the room after his talk, Rav Chaim told him, “So mussar is for someone who is sick, but we in Volozhin aren’t ill!”

R JB Solovetchik, in Ish haHalakhah, quotes Rav Itzele Petersburger using a different idea from our sages. There is no reason to believe he didn’t actually used both, or that they are quoting the same talk.  The gemara advises: If the yeitzer hara comes upon you, sent the yeitzer hatov after it. If that succeeds, good; if not, learn Torah. If that works, good; if not say, say qeri’as shema. If that works, good; if not, remember the day of death. So you see that the final, most effective way to win out over the yeitzer hara is qeri’as shema and remembering the day of death — Mussar, not Torah study! Rav Chaim Brisker (R’ Soloveitchik’s grandfather) replied that the study of Mussar is listed is a last choice because Mussar is like castor oil — for sick people it cures, but if you don’t need it — it’s sickening! A healthy person would not need to get bayond learning Torah to vanquish his inclination.

The third version: When the Netziv found out the purpose of Rav Itzele’s visit, he expelled him from Volozhin. One detail found in Dov Katz’s Pulmus haMussar (The Mussar Dispute) that R’ Kamentzky did not retell is that students from the yeshiva bodily carried R’ Itzele Petersburger out of the building. Either this too could have been a different visit, or perhaps continues the story after the above conversation.

Where did this split come from? After all, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv, was married to Rav Chaim Volzhiner’s granddaughter, Rav Yitzchaq Volzhiner’s daughter. He inherited the yeshiva from them. Clearly he represented a tradition from Rav Chaim Volozhiner. On the other hand, Rav Yisrael Salanter was publicizing the version of Judaism he learned from Rav Zundel Salanter, who in turn was a student of the very same Rav Chaim Volozhiner! How did their two traditions diverge, and what exactly was the original point of conflict?

One can say that what happened was that Rav Chaim’s successors in Volozhin took to heart the fourth section, and therefore they pulled Volozhin to ever more exclusively focus on total immersion intellectually in Torah. (Along the way, his rebbe‘s title changed from haGaon haChassid Rav Eliyahu miVilna to just the Vilna Gaon — mentioning his brilliance in Torah, but omitting his chassidus.)  The Yeshiva Movement reads Nefesh haChaim as having 3 sections discussing the value and power of the soul, and how to develop yir’ah so that one can understand the sanctifying aspect of immersion in Torah.

Meanwhile, R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s pupil, R’ Zundel Salanter, placed more emphasis on the lessons captured in the first three sections. And so, when he spotted young Yisrael Lipkin — the future Rav Yisrael Salanter, father of the Mussar Movement — spying on his private spiritual exercises in the woods, Rav Zundel yelled out to him, “Yisrael, lern mussar zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim!” (Yisrael, learn mussar so that you can be one who feels the awe of heaven!”) A call to work directly on one’s middos in order to live a life of yir’ah; not a reliance on metaphysical effects of immersion in talmudic dialectic. According to Mussar’s understanding, the book is about internalizing the Torah’s values. To achieve this, one must develop the soul and yir’ah and only then one’s Torah can be retained within one’s being.

(Please do not take either of the previous two paragraphs as caricatures, all-or-nothing contrasts.)

In the next post I hope to explore the text. But in the meantime, I want to note that this phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

A History of Mussar, part II

The Ramchal and the Gra
The Ramchal lived in the early 18th century, primarily in Italy, but he moved to Akko shortly before his passing. He was primarily a qabbalist, although he also wrote Derekh Hashem, a philosophical work that does not overtly rely on his qabbalah. In Derekh Hashem the Ramchal describes the purpose of our time in this world is to prepare ourselves to properly receive the joy of His Presence in the next. And this structure shows in his mussar work, Mesilas Yesharim.Mesilas Yesharim is patterned after a beraisa by Rav Pinchas ben Ya’ir. Each middah listed in the beraisa becomes multiple chapters on its definition (including subcategories) and acquisition. It starts with zehirus (watchfulness) and zerizus (alacrity) and progresses upward to holiness. Like Rabbeinu Bachya, the Ramchal gives us a philosophically based path to G-d.The Vilna Gaon also lived in the 18th century, but in Lithuania. His position was quite firmly that of mussar as a path to self-perfection. Yes, the perfect person had a healthy relationship to Hashem, but that was part of wholeness, not the primary goal. This was in contrast to the nascent Chassidic movement, which was teaching people that one should relate to Hashem and let the self-perfection come as a consequence of that.
The Vilna Gaon’s students collected his thoughts and published them. In particular interest to the history of mussar are the commentary/ies on Mishlei and Even Sheleimah. Interestingly, the title of the first chapter is an echo of the approach of Chassidei Ashkenaz, “The Root of Avodah: Breaking the Middos”. And yet, we see as we read on, that the primary tool for breaking the negative middos is given as building the opposing middah. In fact, despite the great contrast on the subject of philosophy and qabbalah (the Gra himself voices discomfort with the Rambam’s Aristotilianism), his position is closest to that of the Rambam.

From the Gaon to Rav Yisrael Salanter

Rav Chaim Vilozhiner, a student of the Vilna Gaon, was the founder of the yeshiva movement. He started the first modern Yeshiva in Vilozhiner, and his work “Nefesh haChaim”, particularly sec. IV, provides the movement’s philosophical underpinnings.

In the yeshiva movement, his words about Torah leading to self-perfection were taken more mystically. By knowing the Divine Truth, one naturally is brought closer to Divine Perfection.

And yet, his work could be — and was — taken a second way. Rav Zundel of Salant took his teacher’s words quite differently, and in a manner consonant with the Vilna Gaon’s, R’ Chaim’s rebbe’s approach. Torah study is that which brings one closer to perfection. If one is learning Torah and not growing as a person, then the Torah being studied isn’t really Torah.

Rav Zundel understood life’s mission in terms of three duties: those between man and the Omnipresent, those between man and fellow man, and those between man and his soul. Man’s duty is self-perfection, but it’s not a narcissistic pursuit. Following the Vilna Gaon’s approach (and R’ Saadia Gaon and the Rambam before him), the goal of mussar is to improve oneself. But the definition of a better self is one who is better at relating to G-d and other people.

Rav Zundel didn’t set out to become a teacher. He was content simply living his own life, as a common man striving for holiness. However, one youth named Yisrael Lipkin, a gemara student of R’ Zvi Hirsch Broide, followed him around, trying to learn from his example. One time, Rav Zundel was in the woods contemplating where he stood in life when R’ Yisrael’s motions interrupted him. R’ Zundel called to him, “Yisrael, lern mussar zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim!” (Yisrael, learn mussar so that you can be one who feels the awe of heaven!”) Rav Yisrael later wrote that that moment changed his life.

The Birth of the Mussar Movement

Rav Yisrael Salanter took a very different lifestyle than Rav Zundel. He saw a Judaism that was struggling to survive the Haskahalah on one side, and one that lost contact with the basic notion of menchlachkeit on the other. He saw the needs of society too acute to allow him a quiet life of personal sanctity.

It is impossible to know which or how many of the stories about Rav Yisrael are true. However, one can learn from the kinds of stories what values his students saw were important, what he taught them to value. Rav Yisrael’s mussar taught a balance between ritual mitzvos and interpersonal ones. Yes, one must be meticulous in matzah, but stringencies beyond the minimal needs of the law can not be placed ahead of concern for the widows who made their money baking it. Balance of our relationships with G-d, men, and ourselves.

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s first major innovation is recognizing the role of the unconscious. (In that, he anticipated psychotherapy by decades.) We know right and wrong far more exactly than we actually choose to do what’s right. There is a huge gap between mind and heart. The role of mussar is to internalize truths that are minds may already know. This internalization requires emotional involvement and constant repetition; it’s a slow but steady process.

This active process was a second innovation of Rav Yisrael’s . He taught the need to actively work on self-improvement, and developed tools for doing so. He defined mussar in terms of knowing where you are, knowing where you ought to be, and tools for bridging that gap.

Rav Yisrael didn’t write any books. However, R’ Itzeler Blazer (“Petersburger”) collected many of his letters into a seifer titled Or Yisrael. In particular, R’ Yisrael’s famous Igeres haMussar (Hebrew and English; newer English translation by Rabbi Zvi Miller) became its 10th chapter.

Rav Yisrael also was a driving force behind the republishing of Cheshbon haNefesh, by R’ Mendel. R’ Leffin was himself a maskil, and the methodology in the book appears to be the invention of Benjamin Franklin, found in his autiobigraphy. Rav Yisrael was fully willing to employ any methodology, regardless of its source. As the Rambam wrote, “Accept the truth from whomever says it.”

One also sees this in the contrast between Mesilas Yesharim and the middos Rav Yisrael had them include in this edition of Cheshbon haNefesh. Following his lineage from the Vilna Gaon, Rav Yisrael’s list of middos are ones of honesty, cleanliness, silence, patience — a greater focus on perfection as a person than on a path upward to G-d.

Part of this was the realization of the need for a mussar community. At the heart of that community would be the beis hamussar, a place dedicated to mussar and introspection, separate from the shul and beis medrash. Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t set out to start a movement, but to revitalize the general misnagdic community through people more actively pursuing its basic notion of seeking wholeness.

Rav Yisrael started in Vilna and Kovno in Lithuania. He also went to Prussia and Paris to try teaching Jewish communities that had already drifted further from Judaism. He felt it would be easier to reach Jews for whom the Haskalah already ran its course than trying to “capture horses as they are charging downhill.” But he didn’t see the success establishing institutions that he did in Lithuania.

The First Generation Students

Of Rav Yisrael’s many students, 3 really set themselves apart in their further impact in the Mussar Movement.

Rav Itzeleh Petersburger was rav in St. Petersberg until he returned by R’ Yisrael’s invitation to run the kollel. As already noted, he was the one who collected Rav Yisrael’s writings into Or Yisrael. He and Rav Naftali Amsterdam brought mussar’s influence beyond the limits of the movement.

In the meantime there were also other institutions that — while not mussar in giving as central of a rule for behavior or attitude changing practices, drew heavily from its inspiration. In the Mir and Telhz mussar ideals were aspired to through a less proactice, cognitive approach. Rather than a mussar shmuess, in Telzh they had shiurei da’as (thought classes).

Rav Simcha Zisl Ziv established the first truly successful musar yeshiva in Kelm, where he was known simply as Der Alter. The Alter of Kelm’s approach could be briefly sketched as being about uncluttering the mind and engaging in objective self analysis. Kelm stressed the need for a lifetime of steady work, rather than focusing on quick or flashy results.

Novorodok and Slabodka

Of the Alter of Kelm’s students, two went on to found their own schools of throught within mussar.

Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the Alter of Novorodok, taught a focus on bitachon, a need for G-d in your life, closeness to G-d. But he did not understand this in the Ramchal’s terms; it was not a concept of mussar that defined the ideal man in terms of that closeness. Rather, he taught of the need to “storm the castle”. The only way to fight passion with passion, the only way to replace inappropriate passion is to fill one’s life with passion for the A-lmighty.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel founded Slabodka on the notion of gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man. Slabodka students were easily recognizable by their meticulous attention to dress; a student should carry an air of nobility. In the Alter of Slabodka’s approach, the student is motivated to improve by being shown his full potential. Anavah, modesty, comes from knowing one’s distance from that potential, knowing how much more he can accomplish. Therefore, rather than immobilizing people with a belief that they’re incompetent, it motivates and inspires. Whereas Novorodok fought passion with passion, Slabodka fought passion with intellect and self-respect.


Which brings us to today. Or, more precisely, to last Pesach, the 17th of Nissan, when R’ Shelomo Wolbe, one of the last remaining students of Slabodka, passed away. Rav Wolbe, “The Mashgiach”, ran a beis mussar in Yerushalaim, but was better known for the numerous yeshivos in which he gave shmuessen.

Rav Wolbe focused on the positive. His book on parenting is titled “Planting and Building in Childrearing”. The key is to build the child’s positive middos, rather than focus on pruning the inappropriate ones. Work on building patience rather than attacking anger. Track our successes in each middah, not our failures.

Where does that leave us? The goals of mussar stay on the same one or two themes: be it the school of Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbeinu Yonah and the Ramchal or that of Rav Saadia Gaon, the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon. However, the tools changed to meet the needs of the generation. I described Rav Wolbe’s approach because it might sound most correct to us, but his is the voice of our period.

Mussar is the awareness of where we are, of where we ought to be, and the means to cross that gap. We today need far more of all three. We lack the quiet and time to look into ourselves. And while Jewish learning (in the observant community) is at an all time high, our awareness of the greater picture, of the picture that should emerge from all those individual laws, is not. And we have a culture in which people who engage in hispa’alus or accepts upon themselves qabbalos, or any of the other mussar practices are looked upon as odd. We might have the das, the attempt to comply to ritual. But we desperately need the aish, the passion we can get from mussar. We can’t simply drop the torch now.

A History of Mussar, part I

The Dawn of Mussar
Why is Avraham our first forefather?
It can’t be his independent discovery of Hashem as Creator and Lawgiver, as Sheim and Ever already established such a tradition. In fact, Yitzchaq and Yaaqov each went to the school established by Sheim and Ever rather than relying on their parental tradition!The difference is that Noach and his children built an ark and saved themselves. They did not reach out to others. Avraham and Sarah, on the other hand, trekked to Kenaan with “the souls they made in Charan”. As we see in the story of his feeding the three “men”, Avraham ran to do chessed. A child of Avraham is identified in mishnah Avos (5:19) as one who has “a good eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul”. The legacy of Avraham is one of mussar. Not just a notion of Divine Law, but of morality, ethics, and personal growth. Note the idiom: they made souls in Charan.And in fact the commentators ask why the Torah doesn’t begin a third of the way into Shemos, when Hashem gives us the first mitzvah, to establish the month by the new moon. Numerous answers are given (including the well-known one cited by the first Rashi on the Torah). One of the answers Chazal offer is that Bereishis exists to give us examples of how to behave (and how not to). In fact, they call it “Seifer haYasharim”, the Book of the Upright, and the forefathers, “yesharim”. Bereishis is a mussar text; from G-d giving us existence and clothing Adam and Chavah through till the burial of Yaaqov.

“Derekh eretz qodmah laTorah.” Avraham and Sarah founded our nation because they had the derekh eretz, that basic mussar perspective, which is a precondition for Torah.


And in fact the entire Tanakh is a mussar text.

Why does it say “ayin tachas ayin“, “an eye instead of an eye”, with no explicit mention that the Torah in fact requires financial payment, not blinding the eye of the attacker? The person who committed the act can’t think that injuring another is a light thing. In truth, the person deserves to lose his eye, but the law is tempered with practicality and mercy. Note that when these other considerations conflict, the message is in the simple words of the Torah. Halachah is found in the derashah on the text.

Similarly in the rest of Tanakh. Yeshaiah condemns those who oppress the poor, the widow and the orphan, and then think they can buy G-d off with qorbanos. Yirmiyahu helps the masses take lesson from the exile and destruction of the first Beis haMiqdash. Proper behavior and attitude is the predominent theme in all of Tanakh.

Shelomo haMelech

But, of all the books of Tanakh, two are clearly mussar texts even according to people with no agenda to look for the mussar in the book.

In Mishlei, Shelomo spells out attitudes, mostly in the positive, things the student should follow. Qoheles, however, is primarily a lament of years wasted pursuing warped values.

Mishlei adds something critical to mussar. It’s written as meshalim, metaphors. Each verse can be studied at length on its own, mined for more wisdom. Mishlei is designed for learning with hispa’alus. Of the books of Tanakh, it’s Mishlei (primarily with Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary, the Gra’s also to some extent), that is studied as a primary mussar text.


Of the books of the mishnah, Avos is the one dedicated to mussar topics. Gemara is organized along practical halachic lines; even those mesechtos which focused on laws not applicable in Bavel are omitted. To find mussar in the gemara, one has to look for it strewn amongst the aggadita all across the work. It’s not that the mussar is missing. Rather, since halakhah is the organizing principle, there is no one place where it’s all gathered.

To give a sense of how central mussar is to chazal’s worldview, look at the name of the mesechta: Pirqei Avos. Usually this is translated “Chapters of the Fathers”. But in truth it’s only the first chapter and a little into the second that quotes particularly early sources. The Bartenura translates the word “avos” in the title in the same sense as “avos melakhah”, the 39 categories of work on Shabbos from which the rest are implied and derived. Pirqei Avos lists the categories and underlying principles behind the rest of the Torah.

A truly mussar perspective.

Philosophy and Qabbalah

Rav Saadia Gaon did not write a well-known mussar work. However, in Emunos veDei’os, his philosophical treatise, he does give his position on the role of mussar. According to Rav Saadia Gaon, having a proper personality make-up, the pursuit of wholeness, is a primary value and the mission for which we were given mitzvos.

A century later, Jews were forced from Bavel, and the centers of Judaism shifted to Europe. Among the first of the rishonim is Rabbeinu Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pasuqa (11 cent. Spain) the author of Chovos haLavos. He begins his work with a philosophical proof of the unity of G-d, and ends with a love of G-d. Unlike Rav Saadia Gaon’s focus on wholeness, Rabbeinu Bachya sees mussar as a means of becoming the kind of person who can have a relationship with Hashem.

Rabbeinu Bachya is not telling one to “simply” pray ecstatically and with song, and have a relationship with the creator. This is not proto-chassidus, but a forerunner of the mussar movement. In Chovos haLvavos the attention is on how to change oneself so that these expressions of a relationship are natural and authentic.

The Rambam wrote two of the more fundamental mussar works: Shemoneh Peraqim, a philosophical work about the nature of the soul and the human condition, and within his Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Dei’os, the Laws of Attitudes. The Rambam took a position closer to Rav Saadia Gaon’s. However, he adds to points. First, he gives a specific definition to this proper character in terms of balance, of the Golden Mean. Second he sees the purpose of wholeness itself to be to be like G-d.

Both Rabbeinu Bachya and the Rambam describe a “derekh Hashem”. To Rabbeinu Bachya it’s a path to G-d. Chovos halVavos begins and ends with the pursuit of G-d. To the Rambam, the “derekh Hashem” is the path He takes. The Rambam sees the purpose of character improvement is the pursuit of G-dliness.

Rabbeinu Yonah Gerdondi (of Gerona) was on the opposite side of the fence from the Rambam, and in fact was at the forefront of condemning the Rambam’s work, and instrumental in having them burnt. Soon after, when the Christians learned from example and decided to put the talmud to the fire, Rabbeinu Yonah realized his collasal blunder. In terms of mussar history, it’s most accurate to remember Rabbeinu Yonah as the one who did teshuvah for burning the Rambam’s works. The story has it that he wrote Shaarei Teshuvah, a step-by-step guide to teshuvah — and therefore for self improvement in general — as part of that teshuvah process. I do not know the primary source for drawing that connection, other than the attractiveness of the idea. He is also the author of a commentary on Chumash and the aforementioned commentary on Mishlei.

Rav Moshe Cordovero, one of the Qabbalists of Tzefas and a student of Rav Yosef Caro primarily wrote books of qabbalah. But among his works is Tomer Devorah, on mussar. Tomer Devorah quite interestingly takes a similar approach to the Rambam’s, despite being on the other side of the philosophy-qabbalah divide. The Rama”c structures the books according to the 13 attributes of Divine Mercy, and teaches what each one means, and most significantly, how to go about emulating them.

Meanwhile, Chassidei Ashkenaz saw the goal of mussar in a third light. To them, the means to closeness to G-d and wholeness were not the pursuit of either, but the elimination of the extraneous that can get in the way. Their self-improvement pursuits focused on destroying bad midos.

I think the most interesting thing to note about mussar during the rishonim is that mussar was a given that ran even deeper than the hashakafic debates of the period.
(Continue to Part II.)