Mussar Is Dead

16 Jun

I read this awesome line made by someone online: “There’s no such thing as mussar seder in yeshiva. We have 15 minutes of silence in memory of R’ Yisrael Salanter.”

If you’ve been in Yeshiva, you know what this means. But in case you’re wondering/arguing, I’ll spell it out.

Mussar was originally designed as a response to Chassidus. It was a way to take certain ideas in Judaism, and use them to change your character. Everyone could be involved in this. You didn’t have to be the smartest guy, you just had to be honest. And do a lot of work. In many ways, it was Jewish psychotherapy, before the field was opened up by Sigmund Freud, et al.

Reading old works by R Yitzchok Isaac Sher and other leaders of the movement, you are struck by the modernity and practicality of the approach. They took this whole thing very seriously, and didn’t pull any punches. Motivation is a key concept, and ideas are spoken about without appeals to authority to back them up. The litmus test is the lab, the Yeshiva, where the “Baalei Mussar” would test these ideas our on themselves. The results are astounding when you read about them. The stories of the methods and results of the Novordik Yeshiva in particular sound almost super-human.

But that whole mindset died out when the yeshivos were destroyed in the Holocaust. Today, there’s a short joke of a seder where guys read about ideas in Mesilas Yesharim and Orchos Tzaddikim and maybe even admire them, but the entire program of changing your middos is gone. Nobody wants to admit that though, so the charade goes on and most guys use the time between mincha and second seder to schmooze or take a dump.

Now I don’t think Mussar is for everyone. I think that understanding your own motivations is always helpful. But a good pschoanalyst can help you with that. I am sad that it is gone though. I mean, it’s inspiring to me to even read about such devoted, spiritual people, and I’m sure that having such an institution around would be a real benefit to our society.

(If you’re interested in learning about a real mussar program, pick up the book, “Cheshbon Hanefesh”, translated and published in a very nice edition by Feldheim.)

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2 Responses to “Mussar Is Dead”

  1. martin zwick June 20, 2011 at 12:43 am #

    Mussar isn’t dead. It’s being revived outside orthodox circles. If the yeshiva world would join in this undertaking, it might become successful. For a rough draft of a ‘manifesto’ about the possibilities inherent in Mussar, see paper 4 at http://home.teleport.com/~zwick/ .

  2. itchemeyer June 20, 2011 at 1:30 am #

    That’s great to hear. Yasher Koach! You might want to get in touch with mussar oriented yeshivos to help you out. One that comes to mind is Yeshivas Chafetz Chaim. They have outreach programs, and claim a basis in the Slabodka Yeshiva derech of mussar.

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