Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen has written an interesting piece on whether or not there’s real hope for an American Neo-Musar movement. The whole piece is here, and here’s a snippet:
…The pietistic Musar movement, led by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810–1883), argued that the intellectual study of texts was necessary but insufficient for the development of virtue. He contended that the intellect, with its limited strength, cannot easily uproot the bad moral habits that are planted deeply in human hearts. Salanter and his disciples suggested that character education requires supplementing conventional study with a range of practices that can help a person to identify moral struggles and bring discipline, “musar,” to wayward appetites and emotions. Along with intellectual study, the leaders of the Musar movement advocated introspective meditation and journaling, conversations about one’s moral situation that elicit critical feedback, chanting and visualization exercises that engage the emotions, a deep commitment to the ethical and ritual requirements of Jewish law, and engaging in acts of kindness beyond what the law requires. Moreover, they encouraged individuals to design personalized exercises, tailored to their own natures and targeting their own problematic character traits.
The Musar movement’s leaders sought to focus the Jewish people on the cultivation of virtues—qualities including love, justice, compassion, generosity, reverence, faith, humility, equanimity, and patience—and they argued that such virtues are not easily acquired. They saw moral development as requiring constant labor—ongoing introspection and continual efforts to improve one’s character traits. But, as Salanter observed, all people resist making these sorts of efforts. Businesspeople may devote great energy to selling their products, he noted, and scholars may devote great energy to making sense of scriptural passages, but few people devote much effort to the “work of Musar”—to the work of improving moral character.
A large percentage of those who were committed to the practice of Musar in the twentieth century were killed in the Holocaust. Some teachers emigrated to the State of Israel or to North America, but the legacy of the Musar movement survived there only in a small number of insular, “ultra-Orthodox” academies. In the U.S., moreover, very few of those teachers emphasized the disciplined practice of Musar in their teaching; one prominent rabbi is said to have concluded that American students could not handle the immense effort that Musar requires.
It is, then, something of a surprise that the Musar movement has experienced a real revival in America over the past decade. ….This model of spirituality is decidedly counter-cultural. Growing numbers of Americans want religion to help them feel good about themselves, rather than demand self-criticism. We prefer to encourage our innately good instincts, rather than discipline our emotions and desires. We increasingly aspire to do away with guilt and shame, rather than acknowledge a place for such feelings. We like our friends to accept whatever we do, rather than offer reproof. We have created a religious marketplace that offers quick fixes for spiritual problems, and we shy away from requirements of relentless, demanding inner work. The Jews of nineteenth-century Lithuania were unenthused about the demands of the Musar movement, and certainly the same could be said for the majority of contemporary American Jews. American Jews have, indeed, hardly rushed en masse to embrace the revival of Musar, and even those seeking spiritually or ethically focused forms of religion may prefer more culturally appealing visions of Judaism.
Authors like Morinis and Stone have appealed to Jews seeking greater “spirituality” in their lives, but other spiritual renewal movements have been more successful at appealing to such seekers. ….Neo-Hasidism, especially as developed by the contemporary “Jewish Renewal” movement, has commonalities with contemporary Musar—it also teaches meditative and contemplative techniques, seeks to cultivate the inner life, and sees the insufficiency of intellectually focused study. But, drawing on tendencies in traditional Hasidism, it offers a more joyous, optimistic picture of human nature, it promises personal fulfillment through emotional expressiveness and mystical experience, and it often encourages the antirationalism found in the Jewish esoteric tradition of Kabbalah. The tendency of the Musar tradition, by contrast, has been to acknowledge the limited strength of reason, but to seek to strengthen it, and, though drawing on some ethically focused Kabbalistic texts, it has tended to avoid antirational, esoteric traditions. While Neo-Hasidism encourages ethical sensitivity and good deeds, moreover, it is not nearly so ethically focused, and it does not join contemporary Musar in emphasizing the slow and careful work required for the development of moral character. The growing interest in Musar may be, in part, precisely in reaction to the more popular models of spirituality embodied in movements like Neo-Hasidism. For those willing to take up the discipline it demands, Musar offers a more ethically focused and rationally defensible model for encountering God.
Other models of ethically focused Jewish engagement, however, may also have more cultural appeal than Musar. A focus on doing good deeds without the religious “baggage” that the Musar movement brings, and without all the introspection that it requires, may be a more popular approach. Moreover, large numbers of American Jews continue to express their Jewish ethical commitments through social and political activism, describing themselves as engaged in a quest for tikkun olam, the repair of the world. Such work may well be encouraged by the practice of Musar, but the Musar movement’s demand for continual, critical introspection is not easily compatible with political activist culture. The Musar movement spoke of tikkun ha-middot, the repair of one’s character traits, and of tikkun ha-nefesh, the repair of the soul, far more than it spoke of the repair of the world. A well-known Musar story retold by Morinis concerns a rabbi who initially sought to “change the world” but found this impossible; he scaled back his ambitions to change the Jews of his country, but failed; he reduced his focus to his town, and then to his family, but here too he failed. Finally, he focused on changing himself, and it was only by successfully doing this that he was able to change the wider world. This approach may resonate for some, but it is not the language that American Judaism often emphasizes.
The rest of the piece is here–there’s lots more worth reading.