Mussar: A Treasure from the Past

My story has been primarily about community.  From my first exposure decades ago to the Interfaith Couples Group (my on-ramp to becoming Jewish as well as a source of lifelong friends), I’ve always found meaning, wonderful people, and a sense of belonging within smaller groups at the temple.  Participation in the choir and the Music Committee has only deepened my sense of community at Temple Sinai over the years, and I have long felt grateful for this spiritual home.

Some time ago, I began craving something more: a deeper spiritual connection to my chosen faith.  I knew there was an enormous treasure trove of faith-based wisdom spanning more than 3000 years – and I’d only accessed a tiny fraction of it.  And I wanted to experience more connection to Judaism, not just to learn about it intellectually.

Then I heard that Rabbi Rosenwasser would be offering a Mussar class at the temple.

Mussar is a Jewish path of spiritual growth and character development that has its roots in the 10th century, and grew into a movement in the 19th century yeshivas of Lithuania.  The movement did not survive the Holocaust, and, since then, Mussar has only been studied and practiced by a few individuals or small groups — until recently.  This century has seen a resurgence of interest and practice.

I learned that Mussar aims to help us live up to the high standards that Jewish tradition sets for human behavior.  It aims, simply put, to help us become more holy – and thus more whole – not merely for our own sakes, but to fulfill our purpose in improving the world.  The building blocks of this approach are the middot – character traits identified by the Mussar rabbis.  The idea is to study and cultivate one middah (such as generosity, patience, gratitude, etc.) for a period of time, then move on to the next trait.

Small group setting plus mining centuries of Jewish wisdom to align personal growth with Judaism?  I was in.

Our va’ad (study group) met every two weeks.  In between, we did reading, journaling, and exercises to study and hone each trait, beginning last fall with the middah of humility.  I was delighted to find the Mussar perspective surprising; rather than a predictable admonition to be more humble, Mussar tells us that too much humility can be just as problematic as not enough.  With this and the other middot, our task is to assess whether we are out of balance – too much, too little – and to do study and practice to achieve better balance.  Many in our va’ad were struck by how pertinent and pervasive humility suddenly seemed to us — once we were looking for it, it cropped up everywhere.

And so it continued with the other middot.  I often found that what Mussar had to say about a trait was not what I expected, and I loved that.  Over the months, our class had lively discussions, shared our experiences, and supported each other in our common goal of grappling with the concepts and cultivating the traits.

At first, I’d had one hesitation: since the process involves self-examination, I was concerned that it might be easy to stray off the Jewish spiritual path into the realm of self-help or therapy group — this can be a fine line.  But Mussar’s roots in Jewish faith and texts were guardrails for our path.  We were there to do soul work — trying to be, in our messy, imperfect, human way, a bit closer to the divine image in which Torah tells us we were created.

Of course, this soul work is premised on faith in something larger than ourselves.  This “G_d talk” – especially in the classical texts, as opposed to recent, contemporized ones – was sometimes an uneasy fit for our group of people who, whatever our backgrounds, are comfortable with the relaxed faith expectations of our Reform temple.  For me, this was a gift of Mussar — being challenged to examine my own spiritual beliefs, to make more meaning of my religion.

So I got what I came for: a deepened spiritual connection to Judaism.  Plus…

I found another rich and wonderful small community!


-Stephanie Lebow