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A New Take on Old Ethics

In one of the more unsettling lines in modern Yiddish literature — a genre hardly lacking in disturbing sentiments — a young man who has left the yeshiva for a secular life is rebuked by his former classmate:

Don’t you remember what our rabbi taught? He who has studied in the Mussar yeshiva will never again be able to enjoy his life! You will remain an emotional cripple for the rest of your days.

The Mussar (literally, ethics) teachers, who boasted of their ability to “cripple” their own students, promoted a regimen of extreme self-criticism directed at ethical improvement that was practiced, to various degrees, at most of the Lithuanian yeshivas since the late 19th century. Mussar’s emotionally demanding teachings have rarely reached beyond the cloistered world of the ultra-Orthodox community. Not, at least, before the most unlikely of conferences — “How To Do Mussar,” held June 22 at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. The goal was to bring the awareness of Mussar to a more general and modern Jewish audience.

This seemed an incredibly implausible aim, considering that the spiritual practices that sell best in our narcissistic society are, after all, “healing services” with guitars and lots of happy hugging; the advertised promise of religion these days is almost always to help one feel better about oneself. Mussar, on the other hand, insists that piety can only begin when one feels worse about oneself, when one is in fact “emotionally crippled.”

The author of the disturbing anecdote was the great Yiddish writer Chaim Grade, whose “Mussarniks” and “The Yeshiva” richly described the intensely introspective and ascetic life of the so-called “Novardokers.” These were the students of prewar Lithuanian yeshivas, part of the larger Mussar movement, founded in the Belorussian town Novogrodek (Novardok in Yiddish), which once included more than 90 institutions. Grade was himself a Novardoker before he became a secular poet. His writings about this world combine nostalgia with satire directed against the destructive effects of the excesses he experienced while a student in the largest Novardoker yeshiva in Bialystok, Poland.

The Hebrew word “mussar” connotes chastisement and ethics. These two different meanings were fused in the Mussar yeshivas of Eastern Europe, where ethical improvement was sought through a regimen of merciless obliteration of the ego and rigorous self-criticism. Aside from the study of the classics of Jewish ethical literature, the Mussarniks strove to attain these difficult goals through a variety of ascetic disciplines, most prominently deliberate self-humiliation. The most famous of these practices was entering a pharmacy (which in those days sold only drugs) and loudly asking for a bag of nails to showcase one’s stupidity. Over time, the Novardokers became the most bizarre element within Polish and Lithuanian Orthodox society: The gaunt and ghoulish, terribly dressed, strangely behaved Novardokers constituted the darkest hue in the richly colored kaleidoscope of pre-Holocaust Eastern European yidishkayt.

Along with the rest of Lithuanian and Polish Jewry, the Mussar world was decimated by the Holocaust. Although the study of some Mussar writings continues, it has been relegated to the curricula of a handful of small Mussar yeshivas in New York and Jerusalem.

The demise of Mussar is not merely the result of the Holocaust. After all, most other trends of pre-war Judaism have been reconstituted in both America and Israel since World War II. But the demands of Mussar fly in the face of every postmodern social trend and psychological sensibility. It was therefore with no small degree of skepticism that I entered the JCC to check out the all-day Mussar confab. Hard to imagine that Mussar’s doctrines of self-denial and humility could be marketed just a few blocks from the culinary riches of Zabar’s and the corporeal vanities of Equinox.

What I witnessed, however, was something most unexpected and compelling. Addressing a diverse audience of decidedly modern Manhattan Jews, speaker after speaker — mostly Orthodox rabbis — gave insightful presentations on how the old teachings of the Mussar masters can apply to the lives of contemporary Jews — even those with no Jewish background. Unlike many conferences of this kind, no ego was on display at the podium; nor did there seem to be any self-aggrandizing agenda on the part of the organizers, beyond imparting the spiritual and psychological insights of Mussar to the crowd. And those insights are refreshingly modest and practical.

Mussar’s understanding of the ancient Jewish concept of tikkun is a case in point. Unlike the mystics, for whom tikkun olam connotes the mystical reparation of the entire cosmos, or the post-moderns, for whom tikkun mandates a politics of meaning, the Mussarniks speak not of tikkun olam (fixing the world) but very simply of tikkun ha-midot (fixing one’s personal traits). Several speakers, for example, addressed the distinctly modern, seemingly trivial, problem of “road rage” to illustrate how Mussar can help one channel the destructive power of human anger into positive, or at least less negative, behavior. As one speaker put it: “Just drive away; maybe given him a finger. There is no need to insult the other driver’s entire lineage.”

The conference was the brainchild of Alan Morinis, a Canadian Jewish “convert” to Mussar, whose recent book, “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” narrates his own discovery of Mussar and provides basic guidelines on how to engage this rich, though recondite, Jewish spiritual tradition. Morinis’s story takes the reader from far away (India, where he explored Hinduism and Buddhism) to Far Rockaway — where he met Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, the dean of a Mussar yeshiva who was to become his spiritual guide. Based on his experiences, particularly the degree to which Mussar has improved his life and brought him back to traditional Jewish observance, Morinis is convinced that Mussar has much to offer others with similar backgrounds. And so, with the financial assistance of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Morinis assembled an impressive group of rabbis from Israel and the United States, representing a variety of approaches to applying the wisdom of Mussar literature to the realities of the 21st century, for a truly unprecedented event.

Some speakers at the conference, such as Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer — an editor at ArtScroll — maintained the “hard-line,” namely that the central ideal of Mussar is the self-abnegating attainment of “the fear of heaven.” Others, like Morinis, were more flexible in their adaptation of classical Mussar values, seeing them as pathways to personal growth and holiness not inappropriate to contemporary spiritual sensibilities. Despite this variety of approaches, however, no one at this conference seemed interested in diluting the Mussar tradition or providing easy fixes to the religious issues it engages. Convinced that Mussar alone addresses the most basic personal problems, the speakers were purists, more committed to the teachings than to their merchandising.

But merchandising Mussar to a broad Jewish public is precisely the challenge facing its small circle of devotees. While Mussar teachings do address psychological and ethical problems and may have much to offer the average Jew, very skilled teachers will be required to adapt and recalibrate its harshness to the softer sensitivities of our age. To do so without corrupting the Mussar texts or diluting Mussar practices was the admirable goal of this conference’s organizers. It is a tall order, to be sure. But, if the energy and message at the JCC’s forum is a reliable indicator, with any luck — or as the Mussarniks would have it, with the help of heaven — one of Judaism’s best-kept secrets might soon be out of the bag. That would be a wonderful development in an age of easy holiness that circumvents the hard personal work and assiduous learning that the Mussar tradition asks of all Jews.

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