A Brief History of Mussar

By Rabbi Ira F. Stone

The most accurate translation of the word mussar into English is “discipline,” defined in all three ways we use the word in English. Mussar defines a discrete area of study, like the discipline of physics. It describes a practice, as in “it takes discipline to practice piano every day.” It also describes the act of correcting behavior, as in “you must discipline the child.” All three of these definitions are conveyed by the word mussar. The word appears in the Book of Proverbs where it appears to be a functional synonym for Torah:

Listen my son to the mussar of your father.
Do not forsake the Torah of your mother.

The term mussar comes to be used in Hebrew literature to name what we would call the literature of character development intended as a preliminary step to achieve holiness, which is the goal of the life of Torah. While it is often used as the Hebrew translation for the English word “ethics,” I would argue that kedushah or holiness is more appropriate for that translation, while mussar connotes a more instrumental idea, hence “discipline.” It should be noted that all of these words – mussar, torah and kedushah – are fluid in nature and can be understood as puzzle pieces that combine with one another to describe aspects of an always moving target.

Historically the word mussar can be said to describe two distinct but related phenomenons. First, a genre of literature; second, a specific historical movement or school.

As a genre of literature, Mussar has its roots both in the prophetic literature with its emphasis on character, ethics and holiness, as well as with some wisdom literature of the Bible, notably The Book of Proverbs, as we have seen. However, both of these “roots” differ from the literature in at least one very important way: as part of the Biblical corpus they are received as part of a larger whole in which their presence underlines the nature of that whole as consisting of both law and narrative. They communicate by their very nature a solution to one of the central questions implicit in a religion of law, that is: Is the goal to fulfill the law or is the goal to fulfill the law cognizant that in doing so one reaches a higher level of spiritual attainment – kedushah – that is the ultimate arbiter of whether the law has been properly fulfilled?

This dichotomy, often called halachah and aggadah, or law and narrative, is communicated structurally by the Bible and later by the Talmud. Mussar, perhaps best understood as latter-day aggadah, is born as a genre of literature in the early post-Talmudic period when Jewish thought, Jewish life, and Jewish literature became more and more associated with halachah. This became abundantly clear with the development of codes of Jewish law, along with Talmudic study that focused primarily on the legal portions in the Jewish curriculum. In fact, as each great code of Jewish law appeared and became ascendant, important Mussar texts, often also associated with various Jewish mystical movements, would appear.

The most striking and paradigmatic of these occurred in twelfth-century Egypt. There the first authoritative code of Jewish law was published by Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103) and was called Hilchot Harif. In 1080, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekuda published what is generally recognized as the first Mussar book, Hovot ha-livavot, translated as “Duties of the Heart.” Clearly, Bachya’s book urged Jews to remember that Judaism was not only concerned with the duties of the body, but with the duties of the heart. Not only about law, but also about the narrative that provides the goal of the law.

This dynamic of tension between halachah and aggadah has continued since that time and besides accounting for a prodigious amount of legal literature this tension also accounts for a prodigious trove of Mussar texts. These texts are dedicated to character development as the intention of the law. By the middle of the nineteenth century the size of both literatures was massive. While Jewish life could be said to reflect the punctilious observance of the law, it was not clear to all that such observance had succeeded in helping the ordinary Jew achieve the level of character development necessary for approaching kedushah.

By the seventeenth century in Eastern Europe the hegemony of halachic Judaism had been severely challenged by the rise of hasidism. Hasidism rebelled at the notion that the only path to holiness was halachic acumen and offered an ecstatic religious modality that was willing to sacrifice both the intellectual structure of halachah and its observance to achieve a direct communion with God. However, this path also risked bypassing the issue of character development in its ecstatic mysticism. Additionally, by the nineteenth century the strong winds of Western Enlightenment reached into the formally closed Jewish world. This movement, referred to as haskalah, was characterized in many cases by a critique of traditional Jewish practice for precisely not having succeeded in improving the ethical character of Jews.

The Mussar movement was born in response to both of these external stimuli. It was founded by Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant, Lithuania. Rabbi Israel traced his intellectual lineage to Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, and was recognized as one of the great Torah scholars of his time. In the mid-nineteenth century he concluded that the only way to meet the challenges of hasidism and the haskalah was to turn inward and critique the failure of the traditional Jewish community to attain perfection of character. In addition to sponsoring the republication of a number of classic Mussar texts, he started a new kind of yeshiva (Torah academy) in which the traditional Talmudic and halachic curriculum would be reduced to make room for the study of Mussar. Perhaps more importantly, he recognized that character development depended on more than just study. He understood that there are forces of which we are consciously unaware that cause us to either act or not act and that only by our becoming aware of these forces and addressing them directly is change possible. For Salanter, textual study needed to be accompanied by a non-intellectual practice aimed at breaking through the confines of the conscious mind. Salanter and his students practiced forms of middah meditation, accounting of the soul, va’ad, and Mussar outreach. The content of this workbook and our work at the Mussar Leadership Programs derives directly from Salanter’s work with his students.

For a variety of reasons, Salanter’s work in Lithuania lasted only a short time. Health concerns took him to Prussia where he discovered what he believed to be a more congenial environment for the development of his teaching. In Lithuania he was succeeded by his three primary students, each of whom founded Mussar yeshivot, spread Mussar philosophy and fashioned it according to his personal proclivities: Rabbi Nathan Zvi Finkel, who founded the yeshiva in Slobadka; Rabbi Joseph Yozel Hurwitz, who founded the yeshiva in Navaradock, and Rabbi Simcha Zissel Braude who founded the yeshiva in Kelm.

These great yeshivot were significantly impacted by the effects of World War I; by the inter-war period some of the original spirit of Mussar was being lost. In absorbing the original critique of the Mussar movement many yeshivot adopted the practice of teaching Mussar as part of their program without adopting the full psycho-spiritual Salanterian program. After the World War II, the destruction of the movement was almost complete and Mussar was often described as a practice of moralizing, or moral scolding. Mussar had become a caricature of itself.

In the past fifteen years, Mussar has been reclaimed as a vital Jewish spiritual practice. A variety of approaches have surfaced; each is a serious attempt to revive the original passion of Salanter’s movement. Interestingly, these new alternatives mirror, to some extent, the original alternatives created by Salanter’s students. Thus, the Mussar of The Mussar Institute, founded by Alan Morinis, follows the school of Novordak. The Center for Contemporary Mussar of Rabbi Ira F. Stone follow more closely the Mussar of the Kelm school. The latter approach also attempts to integrate the philosophical teaching of Emmanuel Levinas, a twentieth-century Jewish-French philosopher, originally from Lithuania, whose radical ethics provide a new approach to reading classical Jewish texts and articulating Jewish theology in a post-Holocaust environment.

Suggestions for further reading:

The following are the two main resources for delving into Mussar history and thought in greater detail:

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth, by Immanuel Etkes (Jewish Publication Society, 1993) and Israel Salanter: Text, Structure, Idea, by Hillel Goldberg (Ktav Publishing House, 1992).