Does Musar Have An Inherently Hard Sell In America?

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.

10 thoughts on “Does Musar Have An Inherently Hard Sell In America?

  1. A non-Italian says:
    I eat spaghetti
    Italians eat spaghetti
    Therefore I am Italian
    a non-ultra-Orthodox says:
    I practice introspective meditation and journaling
    Musarism teaches introspective meditation and journaling
    Therefore I am practicing Musar
    Look up the problems with deductive and inductive reasoning.

  2. I used to read Meshilas Yesharim over and over again, but eventually I decided psychological self-flagellation wasn’t making me a nicer person or doing much of anything but making me feel more guilty for masturbating (although studying the Tanya took the cake as far as THAT went). Then again, maybe I was just approaching it all wrong.

  3. I was referring to the inherent inability of non-ultra-Ortho Jews to understand Musar.
    (If this fake Musar really takes off, don’t tell the Bergs.)

  4. From my very very cursory study of Musar, my complaint is that, at it’s core, it’s self-help psychology from 1.5-2 centuries ago. For what it was, it was probably slightly ahead of the curve, but many of the ideas are now out-dated or problematic based on our current understanding of brain science.
    There’s a great tradition of taking old ideas and building on them, but Musar tends to link some of it’s methods with claims to a true spiritual path. That makes it hard for me to stomach. If Musar was presented as methods that can help some people with personal improvement, I’d be ok, but as a true path that can benefit all who study it and follow it’s ideas, it falls flat.
    If people were trying to figure out how it’s conceptions fit into the modern world of psychology/brain science, and allow it to adapt I think it could do much good, but I just don’t see that currently happening. Note, that modernizing doesn’t mean watering down like certain “schools” of kabbalah, but it means engaging and diving into the realm of science and not just philosophy.
    Like I said at the top, my knowledge of modern Musar is shallow so correct me if I’m wrong.

  5. Dave, why do you think that only ultra-Orthodox Jews can understand musar?
    And why is it a mistake for a non-ultra-orthodox Jew to call her introspective meditation by the name of “musar”?

  6. Dan,
    I would say that Mussar differs from self-help in that the goal of self-help is to figure out how to empower yourself to be what you wish you were, and Mussar is about how to become who the Torah tells us Hashem wants us to be. Thus, using 21st cent CE self-help techniques to help become a holy person would be more authentically Mussar than a “self-help psychology from 1.5-2 centuries ago.
    And one can see this by comparing the works of R’ Yisrael Salanter and R’ Itzele Blazer, with those of Kelm, with those of Slabodka, with Alei Shur (R’ Wolbe, vol I published in 1968, vol II in 1998) – a historical progression. All are considered “authentic Mussar”, but there is a steady drift away from rebuke, fear of death, “the stick” in general, and an embracing of self-affirmation, human worth, and “the carrot”. Not that Mussar changed, the psyche of the times did. In the hard Lithuanian life, particularly as Jews lived it, the response to harshness was far different than ours would be.
    In other words, “neo-Mussar” couldn’t possibly be created through a change in methodology, only by “transvaluing” what holiness means compared to that of traditional (Misnagdic, the form of Orthodoxy that produced Mussar) Judaism.
    I do not think Mussar will catch on the way neo-Chassidus did. And yet I work with both the Mussar Institute in the general Jewish world, and founded the AishDas Society to spread mussar (with a lower case “m”, a broader concept than the teachings of the Mussar Movement) in the Orthodox community.
    I hope it helps those who are moved a more pragmatic,brass-tacks, approach to spirituality, and that there are secondary effects among the people they interact with. Mussar never took off as a movement in Lithuania either, but via its students, there was subtle but very definite impact in the general “Litvisher” orthodox community.

  7. My personal issue with Musar is that self-flagellation may help you feel like you are improving without actually improving what you do. What’s been important for me is careful observation of what actually works to change behavior. Alan Lew’s book on the High Holidays, “This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared” is a very good read on this; there are elements of musar but also other ideas on teshuvah that are extremely helpful.

  8. Thanks for linking this important article.
    I think that Rabbi Claussen’s view is very much in line with what’s going on with the current interest in the teaching of Musar.
    It’s obvious that “selling” Musar means that people have to be willing to really look at themselves, which is something most of us don’t enjoy doing.
    However, the that fact that Musar is now a buzzword among non-Orthodox Jews is, in and of itself, a proof of the interest.
    What’s amazing is that now these teaching (especially based on Alan Morinis’ books) are jumping from the page and becoming classes and study groups.
    The article quoted is very interesting when compared with the article posted in the Foward a few years back:
    I think that the current interest in Musar is just another exmaple of Generation C (Content), a generation that is wants personalized content. In this case, a personal connection towards personal growth.

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