Ira F. Stone, rabbi of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, has created a small, magnificent tome that reflects his lifelong fascination with the study of mussar, often [simplistically] translated as moral education. Steeped in a profound philosophical understanding of Judaism, and reflecting an interpretative foundation based on the writings of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Stone take us on a remarkable journey punctuated by pithy and complex insights into the world of mussar, with a particular focus on the philosophy of Reb Simcha Zissel Braude of Kelm, a key disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement. (Stone even includes in the appendix his own translation and analysis of Reb Simcha’s classic Mussar text, Hokhma U‑Mussar.) In the skilled and scholarly hands of Stone, mussar becomes a much deeper philosophy of understanding our role in the world, the responsibility we have to bear the burden of an other as we seek to ultimately become closer to the Other.
The book does have its practical examples of the self-exploration and introspection focused on modifying one’s behavior and perfecting one’s character that was paramount in Mussar as I was taught it forty years ago in a traditional yeshiva. But this book is not a “self-help guide to improving one’s character.” It is a profound philosophical treatise that addresses unique ways to understand creation, revelation, redemption, our inclination to do good and to do bad, fear and love of G‑d, the fluidity and continuum-like nature of Olam HaZeh (this world) and Olam HaBa (the world to come), eternity and Messianism.
You will struggle through this book; you will read and reread sentences, and you will have your mind expanded in extraordinary ways. And hopefully you will delight in the ways in which it helps you further understand that we were created with a divine purpose that requires us to ask not “What is the purpose of my being?” but to first ask “What is it that I must do in relationship to my fellow human being for whom I am responsible?” Stone is the modern midwife who has delivered a compelling message for us as individuals and as a Jewish community, regardless of our denominational affiliation, or philosophical/religious persuasion.