Every­day Holi­ness: The Jew­ish Spir­i­tu­al Path of Mussar

  • Review
By – March 23, 2012

Mus­sar means ethics in mod­ern Hebrew, which means ethi­cism finds its bib­li­cal ori­gins in the word for rebuke or reproof, more gen­tly defined as cor­rec­tion. This can be mis­lead­ing, as the pur­pose of Mus­sar is to find spir­i­tu­al ele­va­tion through the prac­tice of Jew­ish ethics; ethics that have been taught for gen­er­a­tions in Torah and Tal­mud study and inter­pret­ed by the sages in clas­sic Jew­ish texts. 

The mod­ern con­cept of Mus­sar is root­ed in 19th cen­tu­ry Lithua­nia, when Jews found that the Enlight­en­ment pre­sent­ed seri­ous chal­lenges to the beliefs and prac­tices of tra­di­tion­al Judaism. Com­pet­ing schools of Mus­sar devel­oped but the Mus­sar move­ment is gen­er­al­ly rec­og­nized as found­ed by Rab­bi Yis­rael Salanter and his dis­ci­ple Rab­bi Sim­cha Zis­sel Ziv. 

What dif­fer­en­ti­ates Mus­sar from oth­er med­i­ta­tive tra­di­tions is that it asks the indi­vid­ual to work on the self, but for a high­er pur­pose of liv­ing in the world and par­tic­i­pat­ing in tikkun olam (repair­ing the world). Once one has trans­formed the inner life, one is pre­pared to assist in the trans­for­ma­tion of the out­er world. This is done by iden­ti­fy­ing eth­i­cal modes of behav­ior and infus­ing each with a sense of holi­ness that leads to a high­er spir­i­tu­al awareness. 

Alan Mori­nis writes beau­ti­ful­ly of his per­son­al jour­ney to Mus­sar after expe­ri­enc­ing sev­er­al set­backs in his life. He shows how Mus­sar gave him mean­ing and pur­pose to pur­sue a new path. He leads us through var­i­ous eth­i­cal traits such as humil­i­ty, patience, and com­pas­sion, and shows how one can find inner peace and tran­quil­i­ty by the prop­er prac­tice of these eth­i­cal behaviors.

This is a well writ­ten guide to a spir­i­tu­al prac­tice that indi­vid­u­als who are beset by the tra­vails of our mod­ern world would find mean­ing­ful and compelling.

Bar­bara Andrews holds a Mas­ters in Jew­ish Stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has been an adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion instruc­tor, and works in the cor­po­rate world as a pro­fes­sion­al adult educator.

Discussion Questions