Teaching Mussar

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I recently commented on a post on Cross-Currents by R. Jonathan Rosenblum (RJR), an article that originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine on July 30th 2011, titled “Dr. Middos is not Just for Kids“. A good article, worth reading, a discussion of the centrality of middos to the entire Torah. Despite the subject line, RJR concludes, “I would like to hear from parents and educators about interesting materials and initiatives in middos development to be shared with other parents and educators.

The truth is, we have numerous middos curricula produced by organizations like the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, or shared among Torah uMesorah schools. And we have had them for decades — at least since my childhood. But as far as I can tell it is not self-evident they actually impart much.

And, as RJR laments:

Too often developing good middos is treated as something primarily of concern for young children. Much creative energy, for instance, has been devoted over the years to producing excellent children’s tapes on the subject. But while middos development ideally starts early in life, it is far from child’s play. Certainly, the Ramchal and later the ba’alei mussar did not see it that way. The fullest middos development requires an intimate knowledge of the human psyche and all the stratagems of the yetzer.

Yet too often today, middos development gets pushed towards the bottom of a crowded curriculum. If a yeshiva describes itself as placing a strong emphasis on middos development, our initial reaction is likely to be that it is not for “top” boys. Some of the most innovative materials I’ve seen for inculcating middos have been developed for use in the state school system in Israel. That is fantastic. But the subject is not only relevant for introducing Torah ideas to non-observant students, who do not learn Gemara.

I would also argue that stopping so young is a consequence of the nature of these curricula. At younger ages, we can tell stories to get children to confront fundamental truths like: anger is bad, egotism is bad, generosity is good, trust in G-d is good, etc…  But as that child approaches Middle School ages, this kind of lesson can come across as trite, as teaching the self-evidence. And at those ages and into adulthood, we deal more with questions of when various values conflict, and when are those allegedly “bad” middos actually appropriate. “For everything there is a time, and a season for every goal…”

Second is the entire concept of “Middos Curriculum”. Middos need to be inculcated, not taught. As R’ Elya Lopian zt”l, “Mussar is the art of moving something an ammah [cubit] — from the head to the heart.” Getting the ideas to the head is the far easier part.

In addition, by looking at curricula and imparting mussar the way we do halakhah, it is difficult to avoid  making it a set of required actions rather than actual character development.  This is what happens in most yeshivos that have a period for Mussar Seder. Aside from that period usually being 15 minutes that are poorly attended immediately after breakfast, the topic is typically the Laws of Lashon Hara from one of the Chafeitz Chaim’s works. Behavior, not attitude. This feeds into an attitude of doing these mitzvos the way one does the more ritual ones, reducing the other person to a cheftzah shel mitzvah, an objects used as a mitzvah. As I heard it put by a single who is tired of being invited to Shabbos meals where “I get to be their tefillin“. We teach people the mitzvah welcoming guests, so they need a guest, but they don’t relate to the person on a human level. My son with Downs tires of teens who come by to entertain him on Shabbos. As some point he realizes that teen views him as a chessedproject rather than a real friend.

Perhaps parenting tools are therefore more important than school ones. (And as Bob Miller noted in his comment on RJR’s article, “Even though yeshivos should place a proper emphasis on middos, are all essential functions of the home to be delegated now to schools? Is there such a thing as too much outsourcing of parenting?” What is parenting about if not imparting values, middos, and character?

So if we agree that a curriculum is not an effective way to impart middos, am I saying there is no role for a school?

First, there is something important about middos that is an educational project. As the first chapter in the Vilna Gaon’s Even Sheleimah is titled, “”Explaining all the ways of breaking the evil middos in general, for that is the root of the entire service of Hashem.” This is an idea, and therefore more amenable to an academic curriculum than character, but it has the potential to color the student’s entire outlook to Judaism and life. And hopefully motivate more adults to continue pursuing middos refinement through adulthood.

We could also try an entirely different approach to teaching the middos themselves. Instead of relaying assessments of each middah, We could instead interevene one step earlier and impart a middos orientation. Say there is an incident in class. Picture the effect of a teacher reframing the issue to be one of middos. “Oh, Shloime won’t share the ball? How did that make you feel? Which middos caused that feeling?” And separately, with Shloime, “Shloimele… Which middahcame out when Duvidl asked for the ball?” “Why that one?” “Do you think it was the right choice?” (And it might have been, David may be a greedy kid…) “Which middah should you have responded with instead?”I am proposing that future middos programming for schools be aimed at get children used to being aware of their middos and how they interact. Then they can be aware of when they are applying or misapplying those values they were taught about. Combined with teaching them the centrality of middos work to being Torah observant, and we are giving them the motivation to improve their middos themselves.

Similarly, the best advice I could give those potential role models, including the one writing this blog entry, is to keep a cheshbon hanefesh, a journal or some other record of their actions and reactions throughout the day. That too habituates us in being more aware of our decisions. Only once aware can we actually apply the truths we learned from teachers, rabbeim and books when the actual decision is before us.

And your thoughts...?

  1. Part of a school’s mission is to broaden the student’s understanding and practical application of mitzvot. Education in middos is in this category every bit as much as education about the 39 Melachos or about the laws of damages.

    Texts like Tomer Devorah that show the links between our middos and HaShem’s own ways of relating to our world could be helpful.

    http://www.judaicapress.com/product_info.php?products_id=482
    http://www.ou.org/torah/haber/tomerdevorah/default.htm
    http://www.naaleh.com/search/topic/187/
    http://merkazhatorah.org/Shiurim/TomerDevorah.html
    http://yadavraham.org/site-features/audio-classes/featured-classes/tomer-devorah-the-palm-tree-of-devorah

  2. We’ve (when I say “we”, I mean I) been slowly introducing Dr. Alan Morinis’ Project Pathways Mussar course into our Yeshiva. Since it’s split into twenty sections, following a certain trajectory, it’s well suited to introduce basic concepts (as well as some more advanced ideas) to a twenty-first century audience. And, I believe that that is another important thing: using ‘relevant’ language to appeal to a newer crowd. If we can draw them in initially by opening the lines of communication in a way that feels natural to the target demographic, THEN we can bring them to the classic texts; this is in part why so many contemporary books are enjoying their success, although they’re not reinventing the wheel in any way.
    Once you have them ‘hooked’, it’s much easier to get them to the original works, to drink from the source.