Mussar is Judaism’s best-kept secret – not well-known within the Jewish community, much less outside of it. But as a non-Jew who is studying Mussar through the Center for Contemporary Mussar, I’m very grateful that I found it and can experience its life-transforming teaching.
My father was a fundamentalist Christian minister, as were eight of his brothers, and growing up I came to know the text of the Bible, including the Hebrew Bible, very well. However, the fundamentalist approach did not work for me, particularly after realizing that I am gay when I was a teenager. In college, I took a Judaic studies course and found it so compelling that I became a Judaic studies major with a minor in Hebrew. I especially loved learning the rabbinic commentaries on the Tanach, seeing the text through a very different lens that enabled me to lay aside the unhelpful approach I had been taught in childhood and reclaim the text as my own sacred inheritance. Martin Buber’s I-Thou also deeply affected my thinking. I took more Jewish studies courses in divinity school. I also found my way to more progressive Christian communities and serve as volunteer clergy in an egalitarian lgbt-inclusive church.
However, my interest in Judaism never went away, and a few years ago I began live-streaming synagogue services and then attending services in person a couple of years ago. While I still serve as clergy in my progressive church, I am also very involved in two synagogues, attending services and classes regularly, including a daf yomi shiur. Another synagogue whose High Holiday services I attended with a friend held an introductory seminar on Mussar that I attended, and I was intrigued and began taking courses, with Carol Daniels as my madrichah, for which I am grateful.
Mussar speaks to me because it places ethical conduct within a framework of relationship and because it gives the practitioner the tools to develop their soul through the middot. Rather than following a list of do’s and don’ts or even viewing others in a collective abstract, we are urged by Mussar to see each individual other as a person created in the image of God whose burden we are to bear – and, of course, to bear their burden, we must first understand what their burden is. The understanding of Yetzer haRa, traditionally understood as the “evil inclination” but understood in Mussar terms as “self-absorption,” as something that is sometimes necessary for self-protection but a problem when it is not needed, has transformed my thinking. Considering which of the middot to apply to a particular situation has been very helpful to me – and I look forward to deepening my understanding of them.
Just as traditional rabbinic commentary helped me reclaim the Tanach and find value and meaning in the text, so the Mussar lens of understanding Torah has added depth and relevance to my reading. Recently, in preparing the d’var Torah for class (one of my favorite things about studying Mussar!), I realized that the seal, cord, and staff of Judah which he gave to Tamar are a metaphor for our identity as those created in the image of God – a “Mussar driver’s license” – which we abandon when we treat others in a way that denies their creation in the image of God – and which we regain when we engage in Cheshbon haNefesh and Teshuvah.
I look forward to continuing in the program and deepening my understanding and practice of Mussar.
Tim Cravens lives in Philadelphia, where he works in planned giving for a social justice organization. He holds a BA in Judaic Studies with a minor in Hebrew from Emory University and an MDiv from Harvard University. He enjoys collecting liturgical books, having over 70 siddurim and machzorim in his collection, and learning about different varieties of religious practice. He is currently completing Tikkun III.