A Respon­si­ble Life: The Spir­i­tu­al Path of Mussar

Ira F. Stone
  • Review
By – December 19, 2011

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. 

William Liss-Levin­son is vice pres­i­dent, chief strat­e­gy & oper­a­tions offi­cer of Cas­tle Con­nol­ly Med­ical Ltd., a con­sumer health research, infor­ma­tion, and pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny. He holds a Ph.D. in edu­ca­tion and is a mem­ber of the board of direc­tors of the Jew­ish Book Council.

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