A History of Mussar, part II

The Ramchal and the Gra
The Ramchal lived in the early 18th century, primarily in Italy, but he moved to Akko shortly before his passing. He was primarily a qabbalist, although he also wrote Derekh Hashem, a philosophical work that does not overtly rely on his qabbalah. In Derekh Hashem the Ramchal describes the purpose of our time in this world is to prepare ourselves to properly receive the joy of His Presence in the next. And this structure shows in his mussar work, Mesilas Yesharim.Mesilas Yesharim is patterned after a beraisa by Rav Pinchas ben Ya’ir. Each middah listed in the beraisa becomes multiple chapters on its definition (including subcategories) and acquisition. It starts with zehirus (watchfulness) and zerizus (alacrity) and progresses upward to holiness. Like Rabbeinu Bachya, the Ramchal gives us a philosophically based path to G-d.The Vilna Gaon also lived in the 18th century, but in Lithuania. His position was quite firmly that of mussar as a path to self-perfection. Yes, the perfect person had a healthy relationship to Hashem, but that was part of wholeness, not the primary goal. This was in contrast to the nascent Chassidic movement, which was teaching people that one should relate to Hashem and let the self-perfection come as a consequence of that.
The Vilna Gaon’s students collected his thoughts and published them. In particular interest to the history of mussar are the commentary/ies on Mishlei and Even Sheleimah. Interestingly, the title of the first chapter is an echo of the approach of Chassidei Ashkenaz, “The Root of Avodah: Breaking the Middos”. And yet, we see as we read on, that the primary tool for breaking the negative middos is given as building the opposing middah. In fact, despite the great contrast on the subject of philosophy and qabbalah (the Gra himself voices discomfort with the Rambam’s Aristotilianism), his position is closest to that of the Rambam.

From the Gaon to Rav Yisrael Salanter

Rav Chaim Vilozhiner, a student of the Vilna Gaon, was the founder of the yeshiva movement. He started the first modern Yeshiva in Vilozhiner, and his work “Nefesh haChaim”, particularly sec. IV, provides the movement’s philosophical underpinnings.

In the yeshiva movement, his words about Torah leading to self-perfection were taken more mystically. By knowing the Divine Truth, one naturally is brought closer to Divine Perfection.

And yet, his work could be — and was — taken a second way. Rav Zundel of Salant took his teacher’s words quite differently, and in a manner consonant with the Vilna Gaon’s, R’ Chaim’s rebbe’s approach. Torah study is that which brings one closer to perfection. If one is learning Torah and not growing as a person, then the Torah being studied isn’t really Torah.

Rav Zundel understood life’s mission in terms of three duties: those between man and the Omnipresent, those between man and fellow man, and those between man and his soul. Man’s duty is self-perfection, but it’s not a narcissistic pursuit. Following the Vilna Gaon’s approach (and R’ Saadia Gaon and the Rambam before him), the goal of mussar is to improve oneself. But the definition of a better self is one who is better at relating to G-d and other people.

Rav Zundel didn’t set out to become a teacher. He was content simply living his own life, as a common man striving for holiness. However, one youth named Yisrael Lipkin, a gemara student of R’ Zvi Hirsch Broide, followed him around, trying to learn from his example. One time, Rav Zundel was in the woods contemplating where he stood in life when R’ Yisrael’s motions interrupted him. R’ Zundel called to him, “Yisrael, lern mussar zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim!” (Yisrael, learn mussar so that you can be one who feels the awe of heaven!”) Rav Yisrael later wrote that that moment changed his life.

The Birth of the Mussar Movement

Rav Yisrael Salanter took a very different lifestyle than Rav Zundel. He saw a Judaism that was struggling to survive the Haskahalah on one side, and one that lost contact with the basic notion of menchlachkeit on the other. He saw the needs of society too acute to allow him a quiet life of personal sanctity.

It is impossible to know which or how many of the stories about Rav Yisrael are true. However, one can learn from the kinds of stories what values his students saw were important, what he taught them to value. Rav Yisrael’s mussar taught a balance between ritual mitzvos and interpersonal ones. Yes, one must be meticulous in matzah, but stringencies beyond the minimal needs of the law can not be placed ahead of concern for the widows who made their money baking it. Balance of our relationships with G-d, men, and ourselves.

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s first major innovation is recognizing the role of the unconscious. (In that, he anticipated psychotherapy by decades.) We know right and wrong far more exactly than we actually choose to do what’s right. There is a huge gap between mind and heart. The role of mussar is to internalize truths that are minds may already know. This internalization requires emotional involvement and constant repetition; it’s a slow but steady process.

This active process was a second innovation of Rav Yisrael’s . He taught the need to actively work on self-improvement, and developed tools for doing so. He defined mussar in terms of knowing where you are, knowing where you ought to be, and tools for bridging that gap.

Rav Yisrael didn’t write any books. However, R’ Itzeler Blazer (“Petersburger”) collected many of his letters into a seifer titled Or Yisrael. In particular, R’ Yisrael’s famous Igeres haMussar (Hebrew and English; newer English translation by Rabbi Zvi Miller) became its 10th chapter.

Rav Yisrael also was a driving force behind the republishing of Cheshbon haNefesh, by R’ Mendel. R’ Leffin was himself a maskil, and the methodology in the book appears to be the invention of Benjamin Franklin, found in his autiobigraphy. Rav Yisrael was fully willing to employ any methodology, regardless of its source. As the Rambam wrote, “Accept the truth from whomever says it.”

One also sees this in the contrast between Mesilas Yesharim and the middos Rav Yisrael had them include in this edition of Cheshbon haNefesh. Following his lineage from the Vilna Gaon, Rav Yisrael’s list of middos are ones of honesty, cleanliness, silence, patience — a greater focus on perfection as a person than on a path upward to G-d.

Part of this was the realization of the need for a mussar community. At the heart of that community would be the beis hamussar, a place dedicated to mussar and introspection, separate from the shul and beis medrash. Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t set out to start a movement, but to revitalize the general misnagdic community through people more actively pursuing its basic notion of seeking wholeness.

Rav Yisrael started in Vilna and Kovno in Lithuania. He also went to Prussia and Paris to try teaching Jewish communities that had already drifted further from Judaism. He felt it would be easier to reach Jews for whom the Haskalah already ran its course than trying to “capture horses as they are charging downhill.” But he didn’t see the success establishing institutions that he did in Lithuania.

The First Generation Students

Of Rav Yisrael’s many students, 3 really set themselves apart in their further impact in the Mussar Movement.

Rav Itzeleh Petersburger was rav in St. Petersberg until he returned by R’ Yisrael’s invitation to run the kollel. As already noted, he was the one who collected Rav Yisrael’s writings into Or Yisrael. He and Rav Naftali Amsterdam brought mussar’s influence beyond the limits of the movement.

In the meantime there were also other institutions that — while not mussar in giving as central of a rule for behavior or attitude changing practices, drew heavily from its inspiration. In the Mir and Telhz mussar ideals were aspired to through a less proactice, cognitive approach. Rather than a mussar shmuess, in Telzh they had shiurei da’as (thought classes).

Rav Simcha Zisl Ziv established the first truly successful musar yeshiva in Kelm, where he was known simply as Der Alter. The Alter of Kelm’s approach could be briefly sketched as being about uncluttering the mind and engaging in objective self analysis. Kelm stressed the need for a lifetime of steady work, rather than focusing on quick or flashy results.

Novorodok and Slabodka

Of the Alter of Kelm’s students, two went on to found their own schools of throught within mussar.

Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, the Alter of Novorodok, taught a focus on bitachon, a need for G-d in your life, closeness to G-d. But he did not understand this in the Ramchal’s terms; it was not a concept of mussar that defined the ideal man in terms of that closeness. Rather, he taught of the need to “storm the castle”. The only way to fight passion with passion, the only way to replace inappropriate passion is to fill one’s life with passion for the A-lmighty.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel founded Slabodka on the notion of gadlus ha’adam, the greatness of man. Slabodka students were easily recognizable by their meticulous attention to dress; a student should carry an air of nobility. In the Alter of Slabodka’s approach, the student is motivated to improve by being shown his full potential. Anavah, modesty, comes from knowing one’s distance from that potential, knowing how much more he can accomplish. Therefore, rather than immobilizing people with a belief that they’re incompetent, it motivates and inspires. Whereas Novorodok fought passion with passion, Slabodka fought passion with intellect and self-respect.


Which brings us to today. Or, more precisely, to last Pesach, the 17th of Nissan, when R’ Shelomo Wolbe, one of the last remaining students of Slabodka, passed away. Rav Wolbe, “The Mashgiach”, ran a beis mussar in Yerushalaim, but was better known for the numerous yeshivos in which he gave shmuessen.

Rav Wolbe focused on the positive. His book on parenting is titled “Planting and Building in Childrearing”. The key is to build the child’s positive middos, rather than focus on pruning the inappropriate ones. Work on building patience rather than attacking anger. Track our successes in each middah, not our failures.

Where does that leave us? The goals of mussar stay on the same one or two themes: be it the school of Rabbeinu Bachya, Rabbeinu Yonah and the Ramchal or that of Rav Saadia Gaon, the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon. However, the tools changed to meet the needs of the generation. I described Rav Wolbe’s approach because it might sound most correct to us, but his is the voice of our period.

Mussar is the awareness of where we are, of where we ought to be, and the means to cross that gap. We today need far more of all three. We lack the quiet and time to look into ourselves. And while Jewish learning (in the observant community) is at an all time high, our awareness of the greater picture, of the picture that should emerge from all those individual laws, is not. And we have a culture in which people who engage in hispa’alus or accepts upon themselves qabbalos, or any of the other mussar practices are looked upon as odd. We might have the das, the attempt to comply to ritual. But we desperately need the aish, the passion we can get from mussar. We can’t simply drop the torch now.

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  1. Daniel says:

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article A History of Mussar, part II, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

  2. /The/ source, for someone who can follow the Hebrew, is R’ Dov Katz’s “Tenu’as haMussar”. The name of this post is somewhat misleading, as it’s a history of the ideas of Mussar, and thus more about the philosophy than the history itself.


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