What is Mussar?

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s 125th yahrzeit begins tonight (25 Shevat), and while searching for grist for that mill for an appropriate entry, some Avodah discussion sparked some thoughts.

Foundation Stories

There are two foundation stories about the birth of the Mussar Movement (which should not be confused with mussar as a whole).

The first is where a young Yisrael Lipkin used to follow R’ Zundel Salanter around. Rav Zundel wanted to live privately, secretly, so Rav Yisrael had to sneak around to watch the actions of this ba’al mussar. One time, he followed Rav Zundel into the woods, where Rav Zundel engaged in passionate hispa’alus (pouring out his soul “with lips aflame”). (No, this really isn’t a Breslov story…) Suddenly, Rav Zundel turned around, made eye contact, and instructed, “ישראל, לערן מוסרת, אז דו זאלסט וערען א ירא שמים — Learn mussar so that you will be one who lives in awe of [the One in] Heaven!” In Nesivos Or it writes that Rav Yisrael Salanter called the moment a “thunderbolt” that changed his life.

The second was a time on Yom Kippur when Rav Yisrael didn’t have a machzor with him. At one point he got lost, and needed to peer over the other person’s shoulder. He got shoved in response to his efforts. How dare you shterr my kavanah (harm my concentration)! At that point Rav Yisrael realized that he couldn’t keep Mussar to himself, and had to share it with the world.

Hold onto those, I’ll get back to them.

So to ask again: What is mussar?

I’m going to answer that with a set of three triads.

First Triad

There are three ways to see the relationship between tiqun hamiddos (repairing the dimensions of one’s personality traits) and halakhah. They are far from mutually exclusive.

1- The Rambam’s Hilkhos Dei’os describes the obligations specific to personality. They are obligations among other halakhah‘s other obligations.

2- Without tiqun hamiddos, one is incapable of making the right decisions at the actual time one is faced with a choice. It is the means by which one is capable of following halakhah to an ever greater extent. Mussar is a central component to Judaism, but logically inferior to halakhah.

While the first notion is universal, for even the gemara asserts (for example) “whomever loses their temper it is as though they worshiped idols”, this one is only nearly universal. It is not consistent with some forms of Chassidus. Chassidus is inherently experiential in nature. Breslov argues that trying to over-analyze or work at it would actually get in the way of the experience.

3- The entire purpose of halakhah is to achieve sheleimus ha’adam (completeness of the person), to finish Hashem’s creation — “let us make man in our image”. The use of plural can be taken to include both Hashem and the person himself. Perfection of the “image” of G-d which by definition must be self made — as He is. Thus, all of halakhah is an exercise in tiqun hamiddos. Halakhah is logically a consequence of Mussar.

And it is fair to assert that the two to coexist symbioticly, seeing mussar is the only way to fully follow halakhah and seeing halakhah as the critical means of achieving mussar‘s goal. Two sides of one integral whole.

This notion is far from universal — it’s the sheleimus (personal wholeness) fork in the road of Jewish philosophy. Chassidus took the other route, deveiqus (cleaving to G-d). Others have argued non-personal perfection as a goal — perfection of society, or of the Jewish community. And Brisk would argue against the entire concept of defining goals; halakhah must be understood on its own terms.

Second triad

A rebbe-chaveir of mine, R’ Dr Ephraim Becker, describes mussar (in the third sense of the previous triad) as a three part thing:
– There is the real, knowing where one stands
– There is the ideal, knowing where the Creator wants us to be
– There is the process of getting from the real to the ideal

There is an interesting contrast in book titles. When R’ Yaakov Hillel wrote a book on Jewish philosophy, he called it “Ascending Jacob’s Ladder”. When Dr Alan Morinis documented his path back to classical Judaism by studying Mussar under R’ Yechiel Perr he titled his book “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”. (Rabbi Perr is the rosh yeshiva of Derech Ayson, Far Rockaway NY, and scion of Novhardok three different ways.) Ascending, with no mention of work, vs climbing.

To go to primary sources, note that Rav Zundel Salanter told the future Rav Yisrael Salanter “zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim” — not to gain awareness of the significance of the One in heaven, but to become the kind of person who has such awareness. As I wrote above, Chassidus tries for deveiqus. The Mussar Movement asserted that one must try to become kind of person capable of deveiqus. There could be no other reason why deveiqus isn’t achieved. Hashem would leave no break between Him and us. The break is between us and ourselves.

It is this notion of process, of climbing — literally “shteigin” — that is of value within nearly all derakhim, all paths, all approaches to the Torah. And thus lower case “m”, not specifically the Mussar Movement. The different derakhim define the ideal by stressing different aspects of it. Which will in turn suggests different paths, thus the name “derakhim“. But using tools to become the kind of person who can follow that path, to consciously pursue that derekh’s perspective on the end-goal, makes sense according to any derekh.

Third Triad

Note that the story with Rav Zundel portrays mussar as the route to becoming a yarei Shamayim. The one about the man who wouldn’t share his machzor for a moment focuses on his being so enraptured in Yom Kippur’s theme of teshuvah he neglects a central part of that — his relationship to the person standing next to him. It tells of the need to refocus the masses who were increasingly looking to rite, to defend our self-definition as Reform tried to tear it away. Following along the tefillah on Yom Kippur to the exclusion of more fundamental mitzvos. And that second theme is central to how R’ Yisrael is portrayed; most of the stories told about him are about being stringent in interpersonal mitzvos over common stringencies in mitzvos between man and the Omnipresent.

Mussar is also very centrally a third theme — tiqun hamiddos. (Thus completing our last triad.) Whether it’s Mesilas Yesharim’s working up the ladder of middos up to divine inspiration or Cheshbon haNefesh’s list of middos that have more interpersonal implications. And this is true even in the “Hilkhos Dei’os” sense of Mussar, never mind the approaches in the first triad that make tiqun hamiddos even more central.

We can view the goals of the Mussar Movement as creating a “holistic Jew”, one who works on his relationship with the Creator, with other people, and with himself. And compared to where the other man in shul and his ilk stood, that means a greater stress on interpersonal and intrapersonal (bein adam lenafsho, between man and his soul, as the Gra put it) mizvos than one sees in other paths to serving the A-lmighty. And if that’s true of 19th cent Lithuania, it’s even more true of today’s society, with its providing grist for “chumrah of the month club” jokes.

That would explain why Rav Yisrael is so associated with stories stressing the interpersonal. Had the Judaism of his day been more centered on that, the stories retold about him would be about prayer, etc… E.g. the Mussar Movement promoted tefillah behispa’alus; a minyan no less passionate (and possibly no quieter) than anything found among Karliner chassidim.

Mussar Today
Using the real-ideal-path concept:

Rav Kook taught a philosophy. He therefore defines an ideal, but no way to become the kind of person who can live up to it. For that matter, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch doesn’t either. Rav Hirsch is closer to the Mussar Movement in ideal — both aim at a refined Jew. Different focuses on refinement, but it’s no coincidence both Slabodka and Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz produced well groomed, secularly informed, doers. But Rav Hirsch didn’t discuss the means to get there.

Mussar in the loose sense is encapsulated in the notion of finding and following a path from the real me to the ideal me. It requires belief that tiqun hamiddos is a prerequisite for being able to follow halakhah. (In shorthand: Embracing the first triad, real-ideal-path, and at least the second but also possibly all three positions about the role of mussar in a halachic life.)

This kind of Mussar can therefore be applied within most derakhim. One can live by Rav Hirsch’s definition of the ideal or the Tanya’s and still seek to transform oneself into the kind of person who better lives that ideal.

And it is in that sense that AishDas strives to promote mussar.

Mussar in the sense of the Mussar Movement requires embracing all three triads in full: adopting the notion that sheleimus ha’adam is the entire tachlis of the Torah, perfecting our tzelem E-lokim. And being whole can only be possible with full attention to all three relationships. Thus Rav Yisrael was lead to balancing all three of Shim’on haTzadiq’s pillars (Avos 1:2) equally: Torah’s perfection of the self, Avodas Hashem, and Gemillus Chassadim toward others.

Notice what I’m excluding. I don’t see the darkness and harshness of the early Mussar Movement, with a focus on the evils of the yeitzer hara, keeping in mind the day of one’s death, the dark candle-lit room, etc… as defining for the Mussar Movement. Rather, mussar inherently is very subject to knowing where you are. And therefore, the same era that created the stereotype fire-n-brimstone preacher called for a very “dark” mussar. It’s as unfair to judge it from where we stand as it is to judge the role of tokhachah in contemporary Sepharadic maggidim.

And thus, the Mussar Movement had to “repackage” itself repeatedly as people changed. Slabodka’s Gadlus haAdam is no less part of the Mussar Movement even if it dovetails well with contemporary Human Potential talk. (The Alter’s Yahrzeit is just four days away, on the 29th of Shevat.) And Rav Shelomo Wolbe (who is somewhat less of the movement, since it was really a casualty of Hitler) wrote in the 1970s about the need to focus on “planting and building” (to quote the title of his seifer on parenting) rather than pruning. Carrots, not sticks, are what work for today’s Jew.

What killed Mussar? Mussar never survived the end of East European Jewry’s golden era. But why not, whereas Chassidus is rebuilding itself?

Two yeshiva students noticed that of all the Slabodka graduates who built post-War yeshivos, only R’ Dovid Leibowitz (founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim) strived to build a mussar yeshiva. Not R’ Aharon Kotler, R’ Yaakov Kamenecki, Rav Hutner, Rav Kahaneman, etc, etc, etc… They actually went around the US asking these rashei yeshiva why. Rav Hutner’s answer is telling. He felt that the American student couldn’t handle the long work that real change requires. Rav Hutner therefore chose the more modest goal (in his opinion) of inspiring them with the Maharal’s thought.

It is easy to be inspired by ideals. The trick is staring at the details, the step-by-step work, and still following through. And so today’s generation of Israeli Orthodox “seekers” find a home in some “chulent” Rav Kook’s and the Tanya’s philosophy and Breslover experiences and Carlebach minyanim. They do not search for a program, a plan for getting from here to there. In the US, Carlebachian Neo-Chassidus is popular because it provides inspiring experiences without that demand of the day-to-day attention to detail and following a spiritual discipline that defies America’s love of the “quick fix”. Rav Hutner, in the founding years of the American Orthodox community of today, thought all we can do is inspire people toward the ideal and hope for the best without conscious work or a plan to get there.

Given the increasing lack of a holistic, three pillar, approach to Yahadus, demonstrating a real need for mussar, and the greater strength of the community and its educational system today providing opportunity, I believe we have a sizable population ready to work for something better. To set out and build idealists — of all the various ways we have formulated the Torah’s ideals.


So, to summarize. The Mussar Movement asserted three essential points, the full acceptance of each of the above triads:

  1. You need to consciously follow a process to reach qedushah (holiness).
  2. That process is the purpose of the Torah. Life is about the completion of the “image” of G-d within.
  3. The whole person is one who perfects his relationships with Hashem, other people, and his own soul. And thus, one can’t overlook interpersonal and intrapersonal mitzvos in the pursuit of qedushah.

The lessons of mussar have value to us today, even for those who choose to view the Torah using a different framework. But one must be willing to work for qedushah if they are to fully use their potential to obtain it.

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No Responses

  1. Stephen Baker says:

    This was a wonderful and thought provoking essay.

  2. micha says:

    I don’t think your second paragraph is true. If anything, many contemporary rabbis have often shown a tendency to fight vehemently against actions that are only desecrations of the Torah according to their own derekh, and not by the worldview of the one acting. Sowing division when it is hard to see how the benefit outweighs the cost.

    I also fail to see what this has to do with the question in the post, “What is Mussar?”


  3. micha says:

    You’re shifting your claim. You made a statement that the rabbinate is no good, and are now noting that there are some rabbis who are no good. Of course there are — you can never have a group of that many people without having some really rotten apples.

    I don’t know what problem you have with either of the two rabbis I mentioned, but R’ Yaakov Hillel shares your need to warn people against faux mequbalim.

    None of the people named even try to sell berakhos, or expect students to kiss their hand, so I think you’re just leveraging an unrelated post to just launch your own campaign.


  1. February 22, 2010 – ח׳ באדר תש״ע

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