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Issues in Jewish Ethics: The Mussar Movement

The Mussar movement in Judaism is defined as the education of the individual toward strict ethical behavior in the spirit of halakhah.

Arising in the 19th century, in the Jewish culture of the mitnaggedim in Lithuania, Mussar in particular became a trend in yeshivot. Originally inspired by the teachings and example of the life of Joseph Sundel Benjamin Benish Salanter, it began as a movement for influencing members within the community. Circumstances, however, caused a radical change in its character at an early stage and turned it from the ideal of creating a pattern for leading and exemplary members of the community to forming the personality of the young students in the yeshivot.

Israel Lipkin Salanter had primarily intended to establish the movement for members of the community through their activities. About the middle of the 19th century, the mitnaggedic Jewish culture was facing a severe crisis as a result of its vulnerability to the corroding influence of Haskalah ideology. The growing poverty and congestion in the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement were causing severe tension and bitterness within Jewish society. The world of the leading circles of Lithuanian Jewry was breaking up. The pupil and co-worker of Israel Lipkin, Isaac Blaser, complained in the second half of the 19th century about the moral degeneration:

"The fear of God has terribly deteriorated … sins are proliferating whereas formerly Torah and the fear of God went together among Jews … now, because of our many sins, this unity has broken up; the bonds have gone and the connection joining them has been severed. In the end, without the fear of God, the knowledge of Torah will disappear too, God forbid"
(Introduction to Lipkin's Or Yisrael, 1900)

This expressed a typical complaint of the mitnaggedim of the period. Blaser was alarmed by the new phenomenon presented by the graduates of the yeshivah, who, though learned, were no longer devoted to the rigorous pattern of halakhah. Confronted by hasidism on the one hand, and on the other by the trends in German Jewry of Haskalah, Reform and Neo-Orthodoxy, mitnaggedic Jewry was faced with the problem of how to sustain a rigorous traditional Jewish life, based mainly on learning and intellectuality.

Israel Salanter at first intended to tackle the problem directly in the communities. In his first letter to the Vilna community in 1849, proposing the creation of a Mussar shtibl ("a room for moral deliberation") he wrote:

"The busy man does evil wherever he turns. His business doing badly, his mind and strength become confounded and subject to the fetters of care and confusion. Therefore appoint a time on the Holy Sabbath to gather together at a fixed hour … the notables of the city, whom many will follow, for the study of morals. Speak quietly and deliberately without joking or irony, estimate the good traits of man and his faults, how he should be castigated to turn away from the latter and strengthen the former. Do not decide matters at a single glance, divide the good work among you – not taking up much time, not putting on too heavy a burden. Little by little, much will be gathered … In the quiet of reflection, in reasonable deliberation, each will strengthen his fellow and cure the foolishness of his heart and eliminate his lazy habits."

Salanter's program, meant to meet the needs of busy traders, proposed their meeting for moral reflection and self-improvement on the day of rest. In his third letter to the Vilna community he proposed that women join in this concern with the study of morals. In his Iggeret ha-Mussar, Salanter particularly stressed the sin of financial fraud.

However, the movement failed to attract the settled members of the community; their "laziness of habit" was too deeply ingrained. Blaser, and not Salanter, had estimated correctly: the trouble lay not so much in the area of individual morality as in the dichotomy between Torah learning and the fear of God. It may be surmised that Israel Salanter's personality – which was both admired and criticized by Orthodox and Haskalah circles – was also one of the reasons for the failure of the movement among the upper circles of mitnaggedic society.

In the later years of Israel Salanter, through the energetic drive of his devoted pupils Isaac Blaser and Simah Zissel Broida , the supporters of the Mussar movement turned to the education of the young, and in particular to influencing the students of the yeshivot to form early in life the alertness of moral habit which had proved so difficult to instill at a later age. Blaser founded a kolel at Lubcz (Lyutcha). In 1872, Simah Zissel founded a Mussar shtibl at Kelme. He also founded a school for youngsters at Grobina, Courland, obtaining some financial support from Orthodox circles in Germany. As the Mussar movement began to penetrate the yeshivot, both through the indirect influence of its own institutions and through the direct introduction of Mussar study and methods (see below) into the yeshivot, sharp opposition arose from the traditional yeshivah leadership. Rabbis and leaders, such as Aryeh Leib Shapiro and Isaac Elhanan Spektor of Kovno, openly opposed the new educational system, but without success. Subsequently some of its opponents explicitly renounced their objection, while others ceased to speak openly against it. By the beginning of the 20th century, Mussar had become the prevailing trend in the Lithuanian yeshivot.

After its adoption by the yeshivot, and the earlier establishment of Mussar shtibl and educational institutions, the Mussar movement developed an individual institutional and educational pattern. The reading of ethical works, of isolated sayings from the Midrash and Talmud, and of verses from the Bible served as vehicles for creating a certain mood and for implanting certain feelings. The principal activity was to recite passages from these works, or a saying or verse, to a melody – taken from the repertoire of the maggidim – suitable for evoking a pensive atmosphere of isolation and mood of emotional receptivity toward God and His commandments, preferably in twilight or subdued lighting (from a certain aspect this resembles the "spiritual exercises" recommended by Ignatius of Loyola for the Jesuits). The reading of the intellectual matter in the text served to stimulate an emotional response, which was intended to help the student both in forming moral personality and in devotion to Talmud study.

Formally, the Mussar movement was based on the study of ethical literature, although its conception of this was highly eclectic, and its libraries included works by authors as diverse as Jonah Gerondi, Moses Cordovero, Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (who had been excommunicated in his time) and Naphtali Herz Wessely (one of the leaders of Enlightenment). However, several generations of study of this variegated literature by many brilliant young men did not produce for the movement, as far as is known, a single systematic commentary, either on the literature as a whole or on an individual work.

In the "minimalistic" Mussar yeshivot, students devoted at least half an hour daily to studying one of these texts in unison, intoning them in the same plaintive melody. Unity was demanded only in the melody used, each student being allowed to read the book of his own choice. In these yeshivot, the mashgi'aḥ ("supervisor") became a second spiritual mentor of the students, equal to the rosh yeshivah; in the case of some personalities, such as Jeroham Lebovitch at the Mir yeshivah , he was even superior. The mashgi'aḥ held a shmues ("talk") with all the yeshivah students at least weekly, on either a general moral topic – a kind of a special yeshivah sermon – or some specific incident that had occurred in yeshivah life. Devout Mussar students often combined into a va'ad, several youngsters gathering together for a period to chant some Mussar saying and achieve the proper Mussar mood. Larger groups would create a Mussar berzhe, in which they would act collectively and enter collectively through a more protracted way into the same mood. In these yeshivot, commonly called "Slobodka-style" yeshivot, the student's mind was molded through this activity, through his comradeship in emotivity with fellow students, and through the influence of the mashgi'aḥ. In this highly charged emotional life intellectual Talmud study became encapsulated by the atmosphere created by Mussar.

The crisis in the yeshivot brought about by secularizing influences, such as the Bund , general socialist revolutionary trends, Zionism, and Haskalah, was counteracted to a large extent by the influence of the Mussar movement. Israel Salanter's original aim was also largely achieved, though indirectly, as the "muserniks" who entered the life of the upper circles of the shtetl were now imbued with the new proud and rigoristic spirit engendered by Mussar and the collective sense of identity.

There also developed a second, "maximalist," trend of Mussar yeshivot, in the so-called "Nowardok style." Its proponent, Joseph Josel, the "old man of Nowardok" (Novogrudok), applied a deeper psychological approach. This not only included many hours devoted to the study of the Mussar texts, employing if possible a more plaintive melody, with less light, but the student would also be taught to discipline himself by a series of peules af … ("actions to …"). Such actions were calculated to subdue his natural instincts of vanity, economic calculation, or love of material goods. A student, for example, might be ordered to go to a drug store and ask for something inappropriate, such as nails, to mingle with well-dressed people in rags, or to enter a train without a coin in his purse. By the Nowardok method, a man not only trained himself to subdue his animal and social nature, but also to check if he did so in complete emotional depth. Ḥayyim Grade described it:

"When you ask the Nawardoker, 'How do you do?' the meaning is 'How is Jewishness with you? Have you advanced in spirituality?' … He who has studied Mussar will never enjoy his life further, Ḥayyim, you will remain a cripple your whole life. You write heresy… but is there any one of you really so strong that he does not desire public approval for himself? Which one of you is prepared to publish his book anonymously? … Our spiritual calm you have exchanged for passions which you will never attain, for doubts which, even after much self-torture, you will not be able to explain away. Your writing will not improve a single person, and it wimake you worse" (from his "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner," in: I. Howe and E. Greenberg (eds.), Treasury of Yiddish Stories (1954), 579–606).

Even after many years the Mussarnik remembered this naked prolonged cry, "O voices of ecstasy, O hoary voices, I follow you – I follow the echo of my Elul nights seven years ago" (idem, Mussernikes (1969), 9).

The Mussar movement is thus a civic trend which, deflected from its original aim, gradually developed an entire educational system, based on, and aiming toward, integration and subjection of the youthful emotions to a deeply instilled emotional defense system of a rigoristic Jewish life according to halakhah. It promoted unity through pride in this fraternity of feelings and intentions and thus served as a social bond among those who emerged from the Mussar hothouse in the yeshivot. The Slobodka and Nawardok approaches differed in their degree of extremism and the emphasis on spiritual exercise, but were based on the same principle. By 1970 the main yeshivot of the Lithuanian type were Mussar oriented, the majority of Slobodka style, and a small minority Nawardok style. Despite the system, or to some extent because of it, many left the Mussar yeshivot for more secular trends of education.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Ba'al Mashoves, in: He-Avar, 1 (1918), 107–16; E. Carlebach, Mussar; Geschichte einer Bewegung (1932; repr. from JJLG, 22 (1931/32), 293–393); D. Katz, Tenu'at ha-Mussar – Toledoteha, Ishehah ve-Shitoteha, 5 vols. (1948–633); H.H. Ben-Sasson, in: Divrei ha-Kinnus ha-Olami le-Madda'ei ha-Yahadut, 1 (1952), 446–9; Z.F. Ury, Mussar Movement (1970); J.J. Weinberg, in: L. Jung (ed.), Men of the Spirit (1964), 213–83.