Shtei Derachim – Two Paths

Shtei Derachim – Two Paths

Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan zt’’l

Originally printed in Yiddish in 1923

Translated from the Hebrew by Rabbi Nosson Ungar and Jeremy Rovinsky1

In the days of Rav Yisrael Salanter, the great founder of the Mussar Movement in Lithuania, there also lived Rav Shmuel of Lubavitch, the “Rebbe Maharash”, the 4th Rebbe of the Chabad Chassidim.2

These men were two stars, and each descended from a sun in a different orbit – the Gra and the Baal HaTanya – each one in its place, with its great uniqueness and different power to radiate light. One (the Baal HaTanya), was the masterful revealer, and the other (the Gra), was the guardian and fortifier of the Judaism that was passed onto him. Let us now examine their paths.

Rav Yisrael Salanter wrote: “I drew from the wells of my Rebbe, Rav Yosef Zundel of Salant, and I have yet to reach his ankles in greatness. His ‘ladder was firmly on the ground’; he involved himself in making a living, and was busy in commerce like a “baal habayis”, although his head would remain in the heavens, as he worked hard to make a living. His main priority in learning was to learn in order to do, and all of his learning – Gemara, Shulchan Aruch, Achronim b’iyun, especially the Gra on the Shulchan Aruch – he would learn, in detail, section by section, with the goal of coming to a practical halachic conclusion for how to conduct himself properly. He would study deeply and carefully, until he could issue a definitive p’sak, and then review many more times, until it was ingrained in him and his learning was firmly ‘in his pocket’. Everything he learned – Tanach, Gemara, Midrash, Zohar – he learned with the purpose of practical application.

On top of it all, he strove to perfect his character and the duties of the heart. I explained at length about the attributes of this great man, the light of the world, the way I saw him, may Hashem grant him long life, so the baale batim hear about him and follow in his ways.”

Rav Yisrael Salanter wanted to fill the world with Jews like these, full of Yiras Shamayaim, like Rav Yosef Zundel of Salant. This is what led Rav Yisrael to form the Mussar Movement. He felt that every person, and especially every Jew, must think about his place in his world. His conception was to imbue the need for a person to remove himself from his busy and distracting surroundings for a short amount of time on a consistent basis in order to look inside himself and delve into a sefer mussar. In doing so, a person would be almost guaranteed to clarify his lacks and forge a path forward to constantly become a better person.

Specifically, he would be able to shake off the dust of the world – the forces of jealousy, lust, and ego – the three most corruptive forces in the world. Only through learning mussar3 would a person be able to strengthen himself in his understanding of what is required of him in his world, to leave the dark and confusing places they are found and move himself into a place of clarity. Rav Yisrael taught that only through the study of mussar could a person exchange his superficial ‘piety’ and monotonous mitzvah observance with a true internal awakening by opening himself up to his internal world. Then a person could come to love and fear Hashem, and act appropriately in relation to his Creator and his fellow human beings.

Rav Yisrael brought this model of mussar to the Jewish people. He would discuss ideas related to learning mussar at any place he could reach, but he encountered substantial resistance from all types of Jews. Only select individuals listed to his voice and walked in his ways. However, Rav Salanter was eventually known to all as a teacher of Yiddishkeit, a person with a unique and new take on Torah.

Rav Yosef Zundel, so great was his piousness that he would walk the streets as a simple and unassuming Jew. People knew him simply as “Zanda”; he was a merchant who would travel to marketplaces to sell goods. Nobody outside the walls of his home even suspected that this seemingly simple merchant was, in fact, the talmid muvhak, the most exemplary student, of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the disciple of the Gra!4

At the same time in Lubavitch lived the great Rav Shmuel, “MahaRash”, the 4th Rebbe of Chabad, a direct descendent of the Baal HaTanya, who was a talmid of the “Great Magid”, himself the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov who carried the torch after the Baal Shem Tov’s death. Rav Shmuel inherited this great world of Chassidus, a world full of energetic chassidim.

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s name was recognized even as far as in Lubavitch. The chassidim in Lubavitch knew his name because Rav Salanter was not an ordinary Gaon like the rest of the big people of Lithuania; he was head and shoulders above everyone else and influenced those close to him with lofty visions and exalted paths. Even in Lubavitch, where the chassidim would pejoratively refer to non-chassidim as “worldly Jews” (because they didn’t want to give credence to Chassidism as a new revelation within Judaism) they nevertheless would refer to Rav Salanter and his followers almost as another sect of Chassidus, just that they espoused a unique approach – “Chassidim Misnagdim”.

The Lubavitcher Chassidim would look to Lithuania with a form of excited curiosity, wondering what will become of the Jews there who follow “the Great Rav Yisrael”. Would they gather in houses of mussar? Will Rav Salanter garner the strength to warm up and unite all the disparate and cold groups of Jews in Lithuania under his movement? These were the types of questions the wise chassidim were asking in Lubavitch – to the extent that they would tell over the following types of stories:

One time Rav Shmuel of Lubavitch and Rav Yisrael Salanter met face to face while staying at the same inn during a Rabbinical conference in St. Petersburg. Rav Shmuel came with a large entourage, crowds of people seeking his advice, while Rav Yisael came with only his tallis and tefillin. Rav Shmuel’s room was packed with people and his door remained open the entire day. One came to him for advice, another for a bracha, another just to see the Rebbe, another to wish him Shalom Alaychem or to make the bracha upon seeing a talmid chacham. Rav Shmuel would teach chassidus between mincha and mariv, and his chassidim would sing Chabad niggunim; they would then doven with lots of energy and emotion, and after Alaynu they would leave the room with fiery dancing. They brought the party to the heart of Petersburg!

This public “Kiddush Hashem” would bring Rav Shmuel lots of pleasure. Was this a small matter? To him, it was clear it was evidence of a passionate and lively Judaism.

One time during this conference, when his room was packed with chassidim, Rav Shmuel snuck out, alone, and popped into Rav Yisrael Salanter’s quiet room, where there was nobody there besides him! Alone, Rav Yisrael sat at a desk, learning mussar.

Rav Shmuel was overcome with emotion – he was filled with compassion, but also, simultaneously, with anger. While Rav Shmuel was still standing by the door he just opened, Rav Yisrael quickly raised his head and asked what he wanted.

Rav Shmuel quickly replied, “I’m not looking for you! Only for your city of Zmut! I’m looking for your Jews of Lithuania! If you sit by yourself, if nobody is to be found here with you, in what world are they found?”

We don’t know what kind of answer Rav Salanter gave to Rav Shmuel. The chassidim end the story with their Rebbe’s punchline, and the mussarniks don’t tell these kinds of stories.

The story, however, demonstrates the deficiency of the Misnaged approach that was felt in the heart of Rav Shmuel and was previously known in the minds of the leaders of Lithuanian Jewry. Even at the time of the great machlokes between the Gra and the Baal HaTanya, Rav Menasha Alir, the Lithuanian Gadol who would oppose Chassidus with his sharp mind and a brilliant quill, said that both groups are chayiv malkos (deserving of punishment). The Chassidim – because they say, “Why do I need a sefer? I have a Rebbe!”; and the Misnagdim – because they say, “Why do I need a Rebbe? I have a sefer!” Put another way (said over in the name of R’ Yisrael), Chassidim think they have a Rebbe; Misnagdim think they don’t need a Rebbe – and both of them are equally mistaken!

The philosophy of the Lithuanian Gedolim was that, in truth, having a Rebbe does not mean simply traveling to him often to receive brachos and hear extravagant stories, or even reviewing or telling over his divrey Torah, learning from his acts of righteousness, or doing everything he commands. In Lithuania, having a Rebbe simply means coming to him with a sefer in hand, and he explains how to learn it. The proper synthesis – Rebbe and sefer – is the key thing missing from the world – and it is missing from the chassidim as well as from the “worldly Jews.” And when Rav Yisrael was sitting alone with his sefer mussar in his room in the inn, he wasn’t interested in hosting visitors in the way that the chassidim were packed into Rav Shmuel’s room, because they didn’t have a sefer in hand.

To clarify, in the early days of the Chassidic movement, the days of the Baal Shem Tov, the Magid of Mezrech, and even after them in the days of the Baal HaTanya, who systemized the intellectual philosophy of Chassidus, and Rav Nachman of Breslov, who systemized the chovos halevavos, there were to be found many chassidim who really had a Rebbe who taught them how to learn Torah. For these people, although there may have been other valid criticisms, the criticisms of Rav Menashe and Rav Yisrael were not really applicable. However, in later generations things changed drastically, and there was a definite place for these criticisms.

On the other side, the flawed Jewish culture in Lithuania produced people who would learn texts – the scholar with his halacha books, the working man with his drasha books, the simple man with his psalms, and women with the Tzena Urena (a Yiddish collection of medrash on the parshah). Here there was each kind of person with his or her own fitting Jewish flavor, but when a Gadol would try to teach about living a full Jewish life, he would be hard pressed to find an interested buyer, because the people there were too boxed into their narrow fit of one particular area.

And in Lubavitch a mantra emerged, which was told to me by an old and wise chassid: “Once in a few generations, HKBH’s rachamim would be awakened and directed toward the lowly misnagdim; and He lowers a soul like Rav Yisrael Salanter’s from the heights down into Lithuania – and even he was ignored by these Jews!”

This tale was true in regard to the Lithuanian baale batim, as only a handful of them purified themselves in the cleansing waters of mussar study. The vast majority of the population viewed Rav Yisrael as a Goan like all other gaonim, and they didn’t follow in his footsteps.

However, there were many Lithuanian men who secluded themselves in the Beis Medrash – the young lomdim who possessed sharp minds and would be constantly engaged in learning Torah. They were sought after for marriage, received promises to be supported by fathers-in-laws, became Rosh Yeshivas and other Torah greats. They built themselves into Gedolim B’Torah and probed the depths of the Gra’s Torah; they put the obligation to learn Torah upon their shoulders and constantly searched for the truth in deciphering the correct pshat in Gemara and through the Achronim.

It was among this crowd of Torah intellectuals in which the Mussar Movement entered Lithuania. As they probed the halacha, mussar study aided in their acquiring yiras shamayim. From this group emerged the founders and leaders of the great yeshivos of Z’mut and Lithuania, in them the mussar movement was incubated and preserved, within the study and parameters of halachic normative Judaism. This is how mussar became the inheritance of the yeshiva world, specifically of the lomdim, and the mussar movement did not penetrate much beyond the walls of the yeshiva into the marketplace of life, even though this was the original goal of the movement (and specifically, this was the shita of Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, one of Rav Yisrael’s three close disciples – he maintained that mussar must influence even the baale batim outside the yeshivas).

Therefore, while Chassidus spread and influenced all kinds of Jews, mussar remained generally closed off and relegated to the four cubits of halacha. This produced a phenomenon in which the mussarniks were familiar with the tenets of Chassidus (even if they didn’t become experts in the world of Chassidic thought), but the chassidim did not have much of a clue about the tenets of the mussar movement. And from this it emerged that the chassidim did not give credence to mussar, but mussarniks gave a lot of thought to Chassidic philosophy (and therefore developed criticisms of it). And when a chassid would encounter a mussarnik, his criticisms would be no different than those aimed against any regular ‘misnagid’; but when a mussarnik would encounter a chassid, he would tailor his criticisms, knowing the basics of Chassidic philosophy. As opposed to the chassid’s, the mussarnik’s attack against the chassid was much more focused than just a general critique of a “non-mussarnik”.

Mussar is not incompatible with Chassidus. There are times it even derives benefit from it. From Chassidic philosophy we appreciate the stability, ability to withstand assimilation, to sensitize a Jew’s heart to his fellow Jew, which softens the superficial and foolish European culture, to help a Jew give over his entire being to a greater cause, to let go of a life of comfort with ease, and to focus on Torah, mitzvahs, and good deeds with a youthful spirit throughout his entire life, and similar virtues.

However, like we said earlier, Chassidus also has its criticisms. The biggest critique is that Chassidus looks too external and abstract. More than a chassid benefits from Chassidus, Chassidus rules over the chassid, containing lofty and deep ideas and a call to greatness in a person’s actions. But, when these ideas reach the chassid, they fail to penetrate his essence and remain outside of who he really is.

While Chassidus leads to infusing a chassid with the focus of a person’s relationship with his Creator and relationships among the Creator’s creations, it fails to infuse the focus of the “I” of a person – to analyze where he stands in his own thoughts and own world, to think about all his personal duties in his unique world. A sign of this: a chassid is always happy to do something for others, but how much time does he spend working on himself? A chassid follows the feelings of deveikus in his heart, convinced his singing and feelings eminate from the depth of his soul. But eventually the niggun ends and the emotions fade, and it is very possible there is no real lasting connection to his essence.

We certainly cannot lightly pass judgment on matters like these. We can’t say to the chassid – even not to the simplest simpleton – at the time he feels most connected in deveikus, that his connection is not fully authentic. However, that constant self-introspection, asking if I am in control of myself, constantly inquiring: “Have I veered from the straight path?” – This idea of refining the “I” exists more in Mussar than Chassidus (in fact, if I would be sharper, in today’s Chassidus it virtually cannot be found at all), even though the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples definitely understood and spoke about this point, as is evident in the Chassidic publication “Keser Shem Tov”. However, slowly over time this idea became lost.

While the chassid may constantly be thinking about the verse “I put Hashem before me always”, we recognize through mussar that there must first be an emphasis on refining the “I” to place before and serve Hashem. Put another way, mussar would say: “I must place myself before me always, constantly refining my character, so that I can then properly put Hashem before me always.”

Aside from the truly great aspects of Chassidus mentioned above that give life to the chassidim, the central theme of Chassidus over time evolved into a form of Rebbe worship – “Rebbbe-ism” instead of Judaism – the individual giving over himself and yearning for a connection, love and longing toward one Gadol among the Jewish people.

The greatest benefit of this phenomena is that a person comes to see the Rebbe as a G-dly figure constantly looking over him, making the verse “I put Hashem before me always” more of a tangible living reality. The chassid constantly feels the eyes of the tzadik on him, and is constantly concerned that the Rebbe watches or will hear about his every act. This is similar to the idea espoused by the wise men of ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks did not have in their mythology a conception of a Creator who created the world ex-nihilo and rules over it uncontested. Thus the Greeks, in filling this gap, conceived of great men with G-dlike powers who were constantly watching over the affairs of man (“I put Hashem before me always”) and inspiring human behavior (“Walking in G- d’s ways – like He is merciful, you should be merciful”). Thus did Seneca write in his letters regarding Epicurus5 (this did he ‘merit’, that in all future generations, non-believers would be called ‘Apikorsim’ after his name), in epistle 11, that he commanded his disciples: “A man must always think about one of the great righteous men, so that it will be as if the man will be always under his watch, and as if he would have the ability to watch all of a man’s actions.”6

What emerges from this fusion of Epicurus’ idea with the concept of Divine Providence is precisely how the Rema describes the verse “I put Hashem before me always” at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch!7

As for us Jews, we certainly appreciate the need to constantly place before us the picture of a great man. However, we understand this to be a secondary principle, as it says in Pirkei Avos: “You should revere your Rebbe the way you revere the Heavens”. This verse illustrates the appropriate order – first the Heavens, and then, afterwards, your Rebbe. Even the smallest person among us doesn’t need to be dependent upon a Gadol. The proper approach is to focus on Heaven and the Rebbe simply calibrates your focus – nothing more. This was how the original and greatest Rebbe of the Jewish people acted, Moshe Rebaynu; he said, “I taught you the path upon which to go” (Shmos, Yisro). Chassidus also understands this to be the essence of a Rebbe, and there also exists this concept of a Rebbe among the masters of mussar, but the student’s relationship to him is not so externally apparent.

The prominence of “Rebbe-ism” in Chassidus has become what appears to be the complete nullification of the individual, which has spurred much criticism against Chassidus within mussar circles.

To illustrate with a story: Chassidim tell over about an encounter between Rav Shmuel of Lubavitch and Rav Yisrael Salanter in the days of summer, at a lodge in Germany.8 Every day they would need to draw water from the well located outside of the lodge. Rav Shmuel would travel with a large group and in a carriage, and Rav Yisrael would go alone, by foot. This gave rise to astonishment among the chassidim. A rumor emerged that Rav Yisrael was not pleased with the Rebbe’s carriage. People began searching for the reason, looking for some prohibition that might be involved in riding in the carriage. They assumed Rav Yisrael might suspect the presence of shatnez (a mixture of wool and linen) in the upholstery. One brazen chassid told this to the Rebbe. Rav Shmuel, in amazement, replied that the Shevus Yakov had declared this permissible. Subsequently when driving to the spa the Rebbe encountered Rav Yisrael going on foot in the same direction. He told the wagon driver to stop, and invited Rav Yisrael to enter the carriage. Jokingly he exclaimed, “It’s better to ride on the Shevus Yakov than to walk by foot!”

The story ends with the Rebbe’s clever punchline and we don’t know whether Rav Yisrael joined Rav Shmuel in his carriage or not. However, we know something else from this place in Germany – by the springs it was forbidden to wear a head covering when drinking or collecting water.

The Rebbe asked Rav Yisrael how he had dealt with this halachic difficulty, namely the obligation to go bareheaded. Rav Yisrael acknowledged that there was a problem, and began to answer. Rav Shmuel cut him off and exclaimed, “What’s the problem? Let me provide a solution! Before I come to the springs, I put on a toupee.”9

The story teaches two important things: First, we see that in Lubavitch there was no shortage of learning taking place – Rav Shmuel’s entourage carefully thought about the carriage situation and Rav Shmuel knew of the Shevus Yaakov’s heter. Second, beyond the Talmud Torah we see the value they placed on adhering to even the smallest details of halacha in the best degree possible. Finding creative ways to avoid sin was a hallmark in both Lubavitch and among the disciples of Rav Yisrael.

However, it had never even occurred to any of Rav Shmuel’s chassidim that Rav Yisrael was not concerned with possible shatnez in his carriage, but was instead concerned with the question of pride and arrogance. In my mind it is crystal clear that a Jew like Rav Yisrael, who purposely wore simple clothes and constantly worked on refining his character traits, could not conceive of travelling so lavishly – in a glorious carriage, surrounded by princely splendor, every day, to acquire water – without fearing his humility would be affected. Rav Yisrael’s followers, who focused on working on their character traits, and especially on subduing arrogance and nurturing humility, would never voluntarily ride in such luxury. By the chassidim there was an answer to this as well, as recorded in early Chassidic writings, that this was the only real test to achieve real humility – specifically staying humble “in the carriage” and not by walking on foot.10

There is a story told in the name of the Rav, the Goan, the Baal Shem Tov: a king wanted to create a formula that would allow him to live forever. He commissioned all the doctors to create this potion. One simple man appeared before the king and said, “I know the formula for eternal life,” and he instructed the king to choose the path of humility. “And with this you shall live eternally.” The king began to train himself in humility. What did he do? When he wanted to travel on the royal carriage, he commanded that the carriage go in front of him and he would walk on foot behind it. The simple man said to the king, “This is not the way. Exercise humility while sitting in the royal carriage. This is true humility, humility of the heart, and this is truly difficult.”

Indeed, exercising true humility is difficult! Rav Yisrael didn’t trust himself to this degree. Rav Yisrael would agree that the highest form of humility would be for a person to put himself into a situation of grandeur and honor, and to nevertheless exercise humility in that moment. However, to be constantly in a position where other people shower you with honor, day in and day out, and to still cultivate a sensitivity to mussar refinement in such an environment – this is a great danger, according to the mussar philosophy.

The Lubavitchers are completely unable to understand or appreciate this opposing mussar philosophy. If you don’t ride in the carriage, the concern must be shatnez. But humility? A self-denying reason? Who should ride in the carriage, if not the Rebbe?! Did Hashem make the carriage for the foolish and emptyheaded? Hashem put the carriage in the world for the Rebbe’s honor! How is it possible for the Rebbe to walk by foot? What about the honor of Torah?!

If he would not hear the criticism of the mussar masters, the true chassid would shrug his shoulders and tease: What amazing piety Rav Yisrael Salanter must possess, to the point that he could muster up enough chutzpa against the Heavens to be able to trample upon the honor of Torah and walk by foot! He must certainly be confident in his humility!

Another story, which I heard from the mouth of a disciple of Rav Yisrael Salanter: One time Rav Yisrael traveled to a German resort with one of the Gedolim of Lithuania. They arrived at a train station, and Rav Yisrael bought 2 rolls for breakfast that were pas palter, baked by non-Jews without Jewish supervision. The Rav took from his pouch some cinnamon biscuits he had packed from home. Rav Yisrael felt the Rav’s curious stare and explained to him: “I’m not spending my own money to travel to this resort. A close friend is paying for my trip, and when he gave me the money, he was worried I would be overly stringent with issues of kashrus outside the borders of Lithuania. He made me pledge to him these exact words: ‘I will guard my health and avoid all things that could cause sickness.’ Therefore I must eat fresh bread while I travel, forcing me to refrain from the stringency of not eating pas palter, as this is merely a stringency and not a prohibition, as the Shulchan Aruch writes in Siman 112 and the Shach explains. If I don’t buy fresh bread I will violate the Torah prohibition of stealing, since I have no right to any of the money for this vacation if I don’t honor this pledge.”

Rav Yisrael never considered himself completely clean of theft. As Rav Yitzchok Belzer writes in Ohr Yisrael:

“As he aged, he was forced to derive benefit from others, and his livelihood was provided by one of his great students. This pained the great tzadik very much, all his days … he was extremely afraid and trembled at the thought of leaving this world with theft in his hand. One time, a great Rabbi happened to visit him while he was eating. Rav Yisrael offered him something to eat, and said: ‘You don’t have to worry about eating it, because it is kosher.’ The Rabbi asked Rav Yisrael to explain. Rav Yisrael responded: ‘By me it is possible the food is not kosher, since I may have stolen it. However, I acquired it b’shinui maysa, (making a change to it), and therefore for you there is no doubt it is kosher.’”

How amazing is this picture! A massive Goan, an outstanding tzadik, a unique individual to grace any generation, yet he lived with the constant thought that perhaps stolen money clung to his hand! Is it possible to foster this seemingly conflicting dual nature in one person?

I am certain that Rav Yisrael’s sincere and constant concern about thievery elicited smirks on the faces of many who heard about this. Is it possible that Rav Yisrael, who definitely recognized his worth in Torah and actions, who viewed himself fitting to singlehandedly pave new paths in Judaism – could such an individual honestly think that his meager sustenance that was provided for him was not fitting? That he was unworthy of accepting this? That he was harboring stolen goods?!

However, in truth, we cannot properly deduce the inner workings of Rav Yisrael’s mind. In the same way, we cannot understand how Moshe Rebaynu, the greatest of prophets, whose stature was unmatched in all generations, was also the humblest individual on the face of the Earth. He viewed himself as less than all others, for who he was.

The greatness of our Gedolim is not dependent on their actual lofty levels they were able to reach, since this usually does not come through their own merit. Rather, their greatness is a gift bestowed upon them from the heavenly court. Even greater than this, their true greatness lies in their attention to the smallest details, to avoiding the transgressions labeled by the Gemara (Avodah Zara 18a) as the seemingly insignificant sins that people trample upon with their heels and that ultimately surround them at their time of judgment. For example, what really belongs to me, and what really belongs to someone else? Such areas can seem so insignificant at times, making them so difficult to avoid. These sins seem small as a hairsbreadth, but accumulate into a thick rope that ultimately entraps a person. However, these great people view all these “small hairsbreadth” sins as mountains (as the Gemara explains on Sukkah 52). They live in constant fear of transgressing these “small” sins, worried to the same degree as a regular person would be regarding “larger” transgressions.11

Consider the mind of Pharaoh, the infamous tyrant who viewed himself as divine and ruthlessly murdered so many innocent civilians. At the moment he sent the Jews out of Egypt, he experienced a monumental epiphany and realized he was not as powerful or invincible as he thought he was.

Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, thought the opposite way. At the time he would consider his own shortcomings, he always viewed himself as less worthy than others. Only when one reaches this level can the Torah testify both that “No prophet would ever rise to the level of Moshe”, and “The man Moshe was the humblest of all men on the face of the Earth.”

This idea symbolizes the Jewish understanding of a person’s proper personality balance – the unification of the greatness of spirit, lifting a person to the uppermost heights, together with mundane dealings: the daily grind, fulfilling one’s obligations in all their simplicity, etc. The flight in the heavens, the hovering in the heavenly spheres, and the enthusiasm borrowed from the signing of the angels, the touch of Chassidus – all of this must be intertwined with meticulous observation of mitzvos in all their details, with proper reverence. The same daily- life problems that stand before us, murky and concrete questions alike, become elevated to the highest heights when approached with the mussar mindset. The loftiest ideas will return and become truly rooted in the physical, to create a space down here for faith and devotion to Hashem, for justice and righteousness. With this one can understand how a Jew can declare with passionate enthusiasm, in complete freedom from the material world, one of the loftiest expressions of our praises, the Brachos of the Torah, and then immediately without any interruption, he involves himself in the legal analysis of “if an ox gores a cow.”

Chassidus, especially in its Chabad form – deeply nourished by the spirit of the highest Kabbalistic world of emanation, the exalted and radiant world, the song and the ecstasy.

The Torah of the Gra – drawn by an alternative spirit of illumination, measured and steady, with trust and firmness. In the glory of the “hall”, next to that pure table that is ready and prepared for its guests; a passage from a Gemara or Sifri, Yerushalmi or Rambam, becomes clear in the depth of the law, it is tested and examined again and again, until the matters become clear as if they went through a trial. And if they, too, are even in their most basic form and not drizzled with spices, still their taste is as good as it gets.

Those who travel in the Kabbalistic worlds, although they are certainly worthy, yet they surely do not all travel the same path, their ways are different. However, we err if we think that they are completely separate. Nevertheless, it is true that each path, in itself, is too narrow to contain the entire life of the Jew.

Rav Yisrael Salanter designed mussar to bring these two distant paths closer together,12 in order to create a broad, new approach, to bridge the gaps in both a Jew’s heart and activities, to elevate the Jewish people and enrich them with that lofty fortune, which even now, in our semi-conscious state, it is still waiting to manifest in the Jewish world.


1 Phoenix, AZ, May 2017. Footnotes added by Jeremy Rovinsky.

2 Interestingly, also at this time lived Reb Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk. Perhaps we can suggest that the Brisk worldview represented a third path, a complete rejection of anything outside of Talmud Torah. Reb Yitzchak Blazer of Petersburg, a leading disciple of Rav Yisrael Salanter, came to Volozhin to persuade the leaders of the yeshiva to introduce the study of mussar into the curriculum. Reb Chaim famously replied that the study of mussar was only for the “spiritually sick” – “We in Volozhin, thank G-d, are healthy in spirit and body, are whole in our Torah; there is no need here [for mussar].” See Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, p. 74-76. (If anyone can explain to me the reasoning behind Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik purporting to adhere to the Brisker mesorah while dedicating significant time to study political science in Warsaw and philosophy/epistemology in Berlin, I would be very grateful).

3 I believe the point the author is trying to bring out here is that it is not enough even to be engaged in full time study of Gemara; even a person who dedicates every waking moment to Torah study would be lacking in his personal development without a mussar seder.

4 Rav Yosef Zundel also maintained a chevrusa with Rav Akiva Eiger. Despite his enormous breath and depth of Torah knowledge, Rav Zundel refused to ever benefit financially from his Torah learning. He was actively involved in many community endeavors. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zundel_Salant and http://www.rabbimeirbaalhaneis.com/Rabbi%20Yosef%20Zundel%20Salant.asp

5 Rav Kaplan quotes this saying and provides a reference to Seneca’s writings 8:11. He was clearly versed enough in non-Jewish history and philosophy to have thought of an analogy to this source in order to better express his perceptions of the state of Chassidus in his day. How many Gedolim do we know of today who possess proficiency in the history of Western philosophy? Of those, how many would publicize this?

6 “Hear and take to heart this useful and wholesome motto: ‘Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.’ Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus; he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed. Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy also is he who can so revere a man as to calm and regulate himself by calling him to mind! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence. Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler. Farewell.” http://www.stoics.com/seneca_epistles_book_1.html#‘XI1

7 Rema writes (OC 1:1): “I have set the Lord before me constantly” (Psalms 16:8); this is a major principle in the Torah and amongst the virtues of the righteous who walk before God. For a person’s way of sitting, his movements and his dealings while he is alone in his house are not like his way of sitting, his movements and his dealings when he is before a great king; nor are his speech and free expression as much as he wants when he is with his household members and his relatives like his speech when in a royal audience. All the more so when one takes to heart that the Great King, the Holy One, Blessed Is He, Whose glory fills the earth, is standing over him and watching his actions, as it is stated: “’Will a man hide in concealment and I will not see him?’ – the word of God” (Jeremiah 23:24), he immediately acquires fear and submission in dread of God, May He Be Blessed, and is ashamed of Him constantly (Guide for the Perplexed III 52). And one should not be ashamed because of people who mock him in his service of God, and should also go modestly. And when he lies on his bed he should know before Whom he lies, and as soon as he wakes up from sleep he should rise eagerly to the service of his Creator, May He Be Blessed and Exalted (Tur). https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Translation:Shulchan_Aruch/Orach_Chaim/1

8 This story is also recorded in The Mussar Movement, Volume 1, part 2, pp. 179-181. https://web.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/salanter/8_9_06_rebbe_3.pdf

9 This story also appears in The Mussar Movement, Volume 1, part 2, pp. 178-179. Interestingly, there, Rav Yisrael’s answer is recorded as follows: “Here, however, he was acting under coercion, and the Torah exempts one who acts under compulsion.” It goes on to explain: “R. Israel was incapable of affording such a luxury. Were he to have spent the money on the wig, he told the Rebbe, he would not have had the money to pay the hotel bill and would have had to accept favors from the community.” https://web.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/salanter/8_8_06_rebbe_2.pdf

10 As it is quoted in The Mussar Movement: “to live in regal courts, to receive the honor proffered to kings, to travel in expensive carriages, and to utilize the services of gabbayim and shamashim, and to remain, notwithstanding, humble and modest.” https://web.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/salanter/8_9_06_rebbe_3.pdf

11 See Daas Torah on Parshas Toldos, where he writes how the Ramchal constantly stressed that one who thinks deeply will see that there are no small things in the world, and only because we are small people do we perceive things as small or insignificant. See also the Sefas Emes on Parshas Korach, where he writes that a person who elevates himself in levels of religious commitment increasingly recognizes the importance of every “small” thing. These two sources were brought to my attention by Rav Noach Orlowek, shlita, at a Machon Shlomo alumni Shabbaton in Passaic NJ in July 2010.

12 Jacob Mark knew Rav Yisrael Salanter personally and wrote: “In a sense, it may be said, Israel Salanter tried to synthesize the best of both Talmudic Judaism and Hasidism, by combining learning and mitzvot with self-knowledge and saintliness.” – “Truth and Legend About Israel Salanter” https://web.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/salanter/8_27_06_truth_legend_1.pdf

The full essay is available beginning on page 171 in The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, by Lucy S. Dawidowicz.