The Mussar Ideal

(This is a rewrite and expansion of a couple of comments I made to something someone posted on an online course offered by The Mussar Institute. )

There are many middot that one can apply in relation to others, or reflecting back to themselves. For example, kavod (respect) or ahavah (love) are attitudes I must have toward others, but must also feel toward myself. But while we may simply be expressing the same fundamental attitude, but in different directions, I think there is a fundamental difference between a middah when directed at someone else than when directed at oneself.

Because self-help is so much part of our surrounding culture, and because it shares many of the same tools as Mussar, we have to take special care to keep the two distinct. Mussar is a spiritual practice because it has a spiritual definition of what it is we are trying to shape our character into. Mussar is a means of refining one’s soul, one’s Image of the Divine. I think it’s for this reason Dr. Alan Morinis tends translate “middot” as “soul traits” rather than “character traits”, even if we intend the same thing. The advantage is that it keeps in focus the idea that we are on a spiritual path, not a self-help one. Self-help is about being able to be who we wish we could beMussar is a perspective into the Torah and thus of Jewish teachings about who G-d made us to be.

Which is what?

From within the Mussar perspective (and there are many other traditional Jewish perspectives), that ideal we are reaching for is to be a giver. The Creator made this world for the sake of bestowing His Good on others. To be in the Image of the Divine thus similarly means to be focused on bestowing Divine’s Good on others. Rabbi EE Dessler’s “Discourse on Lovingkindness”, in Strive for Truth vol. I, pp 118-159, is a nice introduction to this worldview.

One of Mussar‘s foundation stories tells of a Yom Kippur when Rav Yisrael Salanter realized that his community needed a Mussar Movement. Rav Yisrael was away from home, and didn’t have a machzor, a Yom Kippur prayer book. At one point he lost his place, and needed to peer over another person’s shoulder. He got shoved in response to his efforts. How dare you interrupt my concentration! At that point Rav Yisrael realized that he couldn’t keep Mussar to himself, and had to share it with the world. Rav Yisrael realized that when people value their own prayer more than helping someone else — and think THAT’S what is going to get them forgiven on Yom Kippur — Judaism got derailed somewhere.

For that matter, the entire genre of R’ Yisrael stories and those of other Mussar greats extols their making the interpersonal central to their worship. Like the Yom Kippur when R’ Yisrael heard a baby crying, looked in and saw an overwhelmed older sister trying to watch the baby while her parents were in synagogue for Kol Nidre (the solemn first prayer of Yom Kippur, one of the liturgical year’s most significant moments). Rav Yisrael Salanter missed Kol Nidre himself to help the girl and the baby. Or when his students asked him how to be meticulous in baking matzos to have the best possible matzos for the seder night, R’ Yisrael told them that the greatest stringency in matzah was to be careful not to overtax the widows who worked in the matzah bakery. Or…

There is a famous story in which three converts approach Shammai and then Hillel asking to convert — but each posing their own precondition. The third:

There is another story with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s amah-stick which was in his hand.

He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”

- Shabbos 31a

Similarly, Rabbi Akiva and (less famously) Ben Azzai teach:

“And you shall love your friends as yourself [I am Hashem].” (Vayiqra 19). Rabbi Aqiva said, “This is a great principle in the Torah. Ben Azai said, “‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5) — this is a greater principle than that.”

-Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4 (vilna 30b)

Mussar makes it very clear that the whole point of the Torah enterprise is about bringing G-d’s Good to other people. Taking the words of Hillel, Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai at face value — it is the summary of the entire Torah, and its great principle. Those are the “golden eggs” we were made to produce. Including acts expressing love and honor. Returning to our opening examples, showing others respect and love are direct expressions of Mussar‘s ideal; it’s a person producing what we were designed to produce. Mussar‘s ends.

The same middot when expressed toward myself — self-respect and self-love – are more caring for the “goose”, making sure one can be better at bestowing good. Not producing, but developing further capacity to produce in the future. Having the resources to share with others. Making sure that what I think of as “doing good” matches what the soul’s Manufacturer lets us know really is good. Not driving oneself to burnout. Being able to assess all of the above clearly rather than being caught in reflex, prejudice or the desires of the moment, etc… Mussar‘s means.

2 thoughts on “The Mussar Ideal

  1. Neil, I thought about being explicit and quoting Shaarei Yosher, and then thought “broken record”. After all, for however central the introduction is to my own worldview, no one would consider it one of Mussar’s core texts. I think the reference to Qunterus haChessed makes the point, although perhaps I should have included a quote.

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