Contemporary western society puts its trust in science to the extent that things outside its domain are assumed to have a lesser reality. The current stance toward morality is therefore one of uncertainty, which is paraded as the virtues of tolerance and relativism. It also means that instead of lauding free will as the ability to choose to be good, the west values it as an end in itself. There is no common moral code, since morality is perceived as only “true for” a given person, not absolutely real the way gravity is. This then translates into America’s oft-copied rights-based legal system, one in which the law’s only goal is protecting rights, rather than one based on duties to serve a higher goal.This disbelief in an absolute moral standard also shapes the self-help and psychology industries. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM IV is a guide to diagnosing mental illness. Its definition of illness is that which interferes with the person’s function. IOW, the goal of psychology is to help a person gain the internal freedom to be what they desire to be. Not to align those desires to some particular, more productive goal.The following is from my notes taken of R’ Ephraim Becker’s lecture at the Mussar Kallah in Houston (2-May-04).
Self-help addresses (1) loss of productivity; and (2) personal pain. In Torah (including Mussar) we’d call these yisurim (trevails). But Mussar wouldn’t want you to attack yisurim. Yisurim are triggers, part of the solution. They aren’t the things that need changing, they are causes to get up and change something. Mussar adds to self-help the notion of duty. One doesn’t try to eliminate yisurim, but their causes — which reside in flaws in our ability to carry out our mission.
Self-help, tries to eliminate the bumps in life’s paths, eliminate the restrictions of one’s autonomy. Mussar, being about growth as a Jew, sees them as tools.
One presumes that the person is his own best moral guidepost, and therefore the unwanted in one’s life is certainly appropriate to eliminate. The other is based on the idea that the Torah describes for us an absolute objective morality. It’s our job to study that terrain and live by ever-improving maps of it as we learn more over time. Problems in our lives wake us up to inconsistencies in that map.
Miriam Adahan’s EMETT is “Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah”. Its goal is not to find the Torah’s definition of the emotional ideal. It’s to help someone with a Torah-based lifestyle find “emotional maturity”. The goal is defined by the zeitgeist, as are nearly all of her tools (despite the words “established through Torah” in the acronym). Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Twersky’s variant of the 12-Step approach is self-help, not Mussar.
I don’t see this as an inherently negative goal. The self-help movement is to my mind a positive thing. But it’s not Mussar. In both cases of the Orthodox writers I named, they believe in the Torah ideal, that there is an absolute goal to which one should be working. However, they keep it distinct from their psychological advice. (With the exception of citing traditional Jewish texts to make their points.) The approach is more that one first strives through self-help and psychology to be a fully productive being, then one applies that increased productivity to being a good and happy Jew.
Mussar is truly a synthesis — fully religion and fully psychology. It’s not psychology as a precursor to being able to live a religious life, but shaping oneself into an eved Hashem. Mussar is the approach to Judaism in which the self-improvement is a defining feature of the Judaism. Inseparable. One is improving oneself not simply in order to be able to reach the spiritual goal, but because that very goal is to constantly “shteig” (Yiddish: climb) as they’d say in Slabodko.
(Because of this relationship, it’s possible for Mussar to use self-help techniques — and still pursuing a distinctly different goal. R’ Leffin of Satanov can adapt Benjamin Franklin’s diaries to produce Cheshbon Hanefesh, and perhaps Rav Dessler’s notes on tolerance are based on a Reader’s Digest version of “How to Win Friends and Influence people” by Dale Carnegie. But they were put into drastically different use. Not merely “how to win friends” but how to embody gemillus chassidim (supporting kindness) and mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (mitzvos between a person and his peer). Even the very title, giving it a value in aiding you produce (“winning friends” “influencing people”) rather than a moral goal, speaks volumes about the difference between self-help and mussar.
Psychology is internal work. Without an anchor in an external value system, its goals tend toward the narcissistic. Mussar is entirely about living in step with the true moral terrain of creation. Therefore, while it too is internal work, it doesn’t end there. The shteiging is to improve relationships that bridge outward from you by improving the one thing in your control – yourself.
Very existentialist. The ideal is to be striving for the ideal. The constant process of becoming, rather than to statically be.