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Strategies for the Heart and Mind

Strategies for the Heart and Mind

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Published by Leonard Felson
The ancient spiritual discipline called Musar undergoes a revival among American Jews.
The ancient spiritual discipline called Musar undergoes a revival among American Jews.

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Published by: Leonard Felson on Nov 27, 2011
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JEWISHWORLD
LeonardFelson
Hartford,CT
S
AMAXELRAD,A65-YEAR-oldHoustonurologist,hasjustmadeoneofthoseself-revelato-rypointsaboutlife,andhis.friends-ninemenandawom-an-nodinagreementasifthey'vealldiscoveredakeysecrettoself-fulfillment.They'resippingcoffeeorteaorcolddrinks,munchingoncheeseandcrackers,sweetsandfruit.Itcouldbeanyself-im-provementcircleorsupportgroup,exceptthattheseTexasJewsfromvariousback-grounds-ranginginagefromtheirearly30stotheirmid-60s-aretalkingaboutaJewishspiritualdiscipline,ethicalphilos-ophyandcharacter-buildingmethodde-signedtoheightenawarenessoftheworldandone'sresponsibilities.It'scalled
musar,
anditsgoalistomakeoneactmorelikeamensch.Atitscore,
musar
isabehavioralim-provementpracticeaimedatelevatingourcharacter,orwhat
musar
callssoultraits
[midot],
byavarietyofstrategiesandtech-niquesthat,asone
musar
mastersays,make"theheartfeelwhattheintellectun-derstands."Thetrend,asnowtaught,in-cludespracticessuchasmeditation,chant-ing,studying
musar
texts,andkeepingadailyjournalontraitsthatpractitionersidentifyasob-staclesintheirlives.Axelrad'sgrouphasbeenmeetingeveryotherSundaynightfortwohourssincelastfall.Eachmemberalsoregularlychecksinwitha
hevruta,
orstudypartner,todiscussassignedreadingsandtheirprogressorlackthereofonthetraitsthey'reworkingon.SimilargroupsareformingacrossNorth.America.Together,theyrepresentasmallbutgrowingphenomenon:ForthefirsttimesincetheeveoftheHolocaust,notonlyaremoreOrthodoxJewsengagingin
musar
practices,butnon-OrthodoxJews,mostofwhomhadneverheardof
musar
afewyearsago,arebeginningtoadoptthetraditionaldisciplineaspartoftheirowndailyJewishspiritualpractice.InMay,aconferenceinHoustononhowtopractice
musar
inthe21stcenturydrewleading
musar
teachersfromIsraelandNewYork.Theirdiscussionsattracted130people,abouthalfofthemwomen.Forwhilethe
musar
movementwasbornintheall-maleyeshivotof19thcenturyLithua-nia,theleadersofthemovementandtheirheirshaveagreedthat
musar
isformenandwomenequally.Andalthoughitwasori~;-inallyanOrthodoxmovement,thepartic-ipantsinHoustoncomprisedapictureofAmericanJewrytoday,withmostcomingfromConservative,Reformorsecularbackgrounds.AsimilarconferenceinMan-hattanlastyearmarkedthefirsttimeadis-cussionof
musar
amongJewsofallstripeshadeverbeenheld."Theinterestthat'soutthereisjusttremendous,"saysAlanMorinis,whosebook,"ClimbingJacob'sLadder"(Broad-wayBooks,2002),hasbecome"must"readingandagatewayformanyofthenew
musar
adherents.It'sdifficulttoquantifythescopeofthisemergingtrend,butthenumberofnewcomersisbelievedtobeinthethousands,say
musar
teacherswhorunclassesorteachviaemailorwebsites.
B
EFORE
THEHOLOCAUST,
musar
flourishedinthenon-hasidicsideofEasternEuropeanOrthodoxyfornearly100years.Thefounderofthe19thcentury
musar
movementwasRabbiIsraelLipkinofSalant,Lithuania(betterknownasRabbiIsraelSalanter),whotaughttheimportanceofsettingasidedailytimesfor
musar
studyandtheaxiomthatethicalconductbasedonTorahvaluesistheessentialgoaloftheJewishpeople.Indeed,SalanterwasaninnovatorwhospokeabouttheroleoftheunconsciousmindsomethreedecadesbeforeFreudmadeitfamoustotheWesternworld.What'smore,heturnedwhatwaspri-marilyanenterpriseamongindividualsstudyingtheliteratureintoasocialmove-mentinLithuaniaandelsewhereinEasternEurope,beginningin1842whenhefound-edtheMusarSocietyinVilna.Themove-ment,predictably,brokeintoschools-insomeyeshivot,forexample,studentsweretoldtodevelophumilitybypracticessuchaswearingone'sclothesinsideouttoinviteridicule.Evenintothe20thcentury,
StrategiesfortheHeart
andMind
Farfromthehypeofthekabbalahcraze!AmericanJewsacrossthereligiousspectrumandacrossthecountryareworkingatethicalandspiritualimprovementthroughareligiousdisciplinecalled
'mussr;'
Andtheinterest!anddedication!aregrowing.
28
Salanterbasedhimselfonearliertextsstressingmoralimprovement,including"MesilatYesharim"(ThePathoftheJust)byRabbiMosheHaimLuzatto,and"Hov-otHalevavot"(TheDutiesoftheHeart)byRabbiBahyaibnPaquda,datingbacktothe11thcentury.Butheinnovatedamethodofcharacterimprovementcalled
hitpa'alut,
chantingholyphrasesorethicalconceptswithsuchemotionalintensitythatthein-tellectualmessage,Salantertaught,travelstothesubconscious,creatingalastingim-pressionthatcanchangeone'sbehavior.
THEJERUSALEMREPORT
SEPTEMBER20,2004
thestorywastoldofarabbi,whowhilewait-ingforabus,lookedupfromhisbooktoseeifitwascoming.Heimmediatelyre-grettedthismomentaryglance,notjustbecauseitwasawastedsecondduringwhichhecouldlearn,butbecausehisan-ticipationforthebushadtakencontroloverhim.Lookingforthebusisillogicalbe-causeitwillnotmakethebuscomeanyquicker.Theglancewasasignofhis
 
emotions'controloverhismind.TheHolocaustkilledmostofthattra-dition'sleadingteachersandstudents,andwhileitlivedonintheyeshivahworld-atsuchIsraeliinstitutionsastheMir,HebronandPonevitchyeshivahs,andatAmericanoneslikeYeshivasChofetzChaiminForest.~Hills,NewYork,and~LakewoodYeshivahinNewJersey-itre-mainedfarlessknowninthewiderJewishcommunitythanthecompetingspiritualap-proachofhasidism.The
musar
revivalintheUnitedStatesbe-ganinthelate1990s,aswebsiteswithJewishcontentbeganofferinglessons.
It
acceleratedwiththepublicationin2002ofMorinis'sbook.Severalreasonsex-plaintheemergenceof
musar
amongnon-Or-thodoxJews.Ononehand,asmoreJewsex-pressdissatisfactionatwhat'sofferedattypi-calsynagoguesorwantmorethanjustprayer,manycontinuetoex-pressahungerforaspiritualitythat'srele-vanttotheirdailylives,rabbisandlayleaderssay.Moreover,manyJewswhoonceweredrawntoEasternprac-tices,forexample,arebeginningtoyearnforaspiritualpracticethatisauthenticallyJewish,andsomeofthemarefindingitin
musar,
es-peciallybecause-asitisnowbeingpresent-ed-itdoesn'trequireknowledgeofHebreworastrongbackgroundinreligioustexts.Thatdoesn'tmakethenew
musar
practiceanylessauthentic,saysOrthodoxRabbiMichaBerger,whoestab-lishedtheAishDasSo-ciety(www.aish-das.org)asaresourceforOrthodoxJewsandspeakstobothOrtho-doxandnon-OrthodoxaudiencesonJewishthought,
musar
andthemeaningofprayer.Salanter"didn'tteachthesame
musar
inParisthathedidinLithuania,notesBerger,referringtothelast15yearsofSalanter'slife,whenhedealtwithmodem,assimilatedwesternEuropeanJews.He
THEJERUSALEMREPORT
SEPTEMBER20,2004
spokeofthe'fearofpunishment'inad-ditiontothefearoraweofheaven.Andyet,atrulyauthenticcurrentmasterof
musar
today,RabbiShlomoWolbe[ofIsrael],saysthatforourgeneration
musar
mustbetaughtwithlove;almostalwaysthecarrot,neverthestick."AddsBerger,
"Musar
alwayssawitselfasastepbeyondhalakhicpracticethatwouldallowonetogainmoremeaningfromthatpractice."Moreover,hesays,"thenon-Orthodoxcommunityisn'tadapt-ingortrans-valuingideas.They'refindingwhichauthenticitemstheycanuse."Ironically,whathasalsofueledrenewedinterestinthisallbutforgottenpracticeistheinternet.AGooglesearchwillyieldnu-merouswebsitesandemailliststhatareintendedtoexplain,inspireandsupportthepracticeof
musar.
Inaddition,inthelast10yearsmorebooksonthesubjecthavebeentranslatedintoEnglishthaneverbefore,in-cludingnewtranslationsofseveral
musar
classics.Theresult:Neverbeforehasitbeensoeasytoaccessthediscipline.
S
OWHATDOES
MUSAR
LOOKlikeinpracticeandhowcanitmakeadifferenceinanyone'slife?Theshortansweristhat
musar
isabodyofliterature,anethicalphilosophy,andadailyspiritualpracticethat,likepsychotherapy,sayitsnewpractitioners,canleadtogreaterawarenessofhabitsthattendtoposeob-staclesinourlives.Traditionally,thetrans-formativepracticewasseenasawaytohelpJewsfollowthe
mitzvot
and
halakhah,
apracticeobviouslystillrelevantintheOr-thodoxworld.Andevenwithinobservantcommunities,saysBerger,thenumberofpeopleinterestedin
musar
hasdoubledortripledinthelastfewyears.Butwhat'salsochangingisthateveninthelessobservantworld,thepracticesarebeingrediscoveredasaprocessthataddsdepthtodailylifeinrelationtotheself,others,and,often,one'ssenseofGod'spresence.Onecommonmethodinwhich
musar
isappliedtoeverydaylifeiscalled
heshbonhanefesh,
or"accountingofthesoul."
It
prescribesa13-weekdailyprac-tice,focusingonadifferentcharactertrait(suchaspatience,humility,truth,gratitude,equanimity)eachweek.(Thepracticewasfirstarticulatedin1812byRabbiMen-achemMendelLevinofUkraine,inabooksimplycalled
"HeshbonHanefesh.")
Themethodcallsforpractitionerstobe-ginbycreatingalistof13traitsofbehaviortheywanttochangeinthemselves.Theythencollectphrasesthatcapturetheidealexpressionofeachtrait.Levin'ssuggestedphrasefordecisiveness,forexample,is:"Allofyouractsshouldbeprecededby
29

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