Wanted: A New Mussar Movement
We are a long way from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, in which life seemed to changed little from century to century, until the first winds of the haskalah started blowing. In traditional Jewish society, in which most people lived and died within a narrow geographical radius of their place of birth, it could be safely predicted that the overwhelming majority of Jews would remain traditionally observant, to the extent of their knowledge, and that their children would as well.
But those insular, self-contained communities are no more. Not only have the physical ghetto walls fallen but so have the spiritual ghetto walls that we sought to erect in their place. The World-Wide Web has made sure of that. The effort to erect secure barriers and impermeable walls seems increasingly futile. In place of a chinuch chosem, an education that seeks to shut out all outside influences, we need a chinuch mechusan, one which vaccinates our young against the temptations of an ever more intrusive world.
In traditional society prior to the Haskalah, Jews did what they had done since time immemorial, or so it seemed. No great personal resources were required to follow in the paths of one’s ancestors. What were the alternatives for the vast majority of Jews?
That is no longer the case. In a world in which all the barriers are falling, we – all of us, not just our children – require a deeper connection to Hashem and His Torah than ever before. Without a deeply rooted attachment to Torah and mitzvos, even the external mitzvah observance of our children and our children’s children cannot be taken for granted.
At the same time, it is more difficult than ever to produce Jews of depth. Everything in the world around us conspires to produce shallow people, who lack awareness of their Divine souls.
THE MOST PERNICIOUS IMPACT of modern technology is the constant connectivity. It deprives us of the ability to think reflectively. Michael Harris argues in The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We Lost in a World of Constant Connection that the most precious loss has been that of the once sacrosanct silences, during which we escape our daily concerns and open our minds to new discoveries and insights. The constant buzzing of handheld devices has drowned out the silences.
The ubiquitous connection is both a siman (indicator) of our shallowness, our inability to tolerate being alone with ourselves, and a siba, a cause of a further loss of depth. Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes in a poignant passage in Alei Shor (Vol. I, p. 178) that the best test of a person’s spiritual level is how he handles the moments in which he finds himself alone. If he can fill the moments of quiet with thoughts and deeper reflection, it is a sign that he possesses a sechel iyuni, a capacity for deep thought. Every bar da’a (thoughtful person), Rav Wolbe writes, seeks out moments of solitude in which he can draw closer to himself and his inner world.
And yet most people, he continues, flee from those moments of solitude, as one fleess from fire. For such silence brings them to face-to-face with a strange person whom they have found no occasion to know: themselves. When they are forced to look inside, there is nobody home. Facebook has taught them that they exist only insofar as someone else knows about their most trivial activities.
The result is an impoverished sense of self. We have taught the young, as the late novelist David Foster Wallace once remarked, “that a self is something you just have,” not something that must be developed. In a much discussed recent essay, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” William Dersiewicz, who spent ten years as a student at Columbia (BA through PhD) and another ten teaching at Yale, argues that the self-proclaimed best and brightest have never been taught to think about building a self.
He quotes one young man who describes a friend spens most of his time before Yale reading and writing, but now thumbs through the first and last chapters of books he hears about because there is larger social reward for being thought to be well read than for actually reading the books. He worries obsessively about whether he is “networking” enough or will be stigmatized by eating alone.
A FRIEND RECENTLY SHARED with me memories of his initial learning in Eretz Yisrael forty years ago. He was in Rav Moshe Shapiro’s shiur in Yeshivas Beis HaTalmud, and the latter frequently lamented the impact on mental depth arising from the harnessing of electricity. My friend was sure that Rav Moshe could not possibly be speaking about electricity and must be using it as a euphemism for the evils of television. But slowly it became uncontestable that Rav Moshe’s target was indeed the electric light bulb.
Prior to the invention of the incandescent bulb, he maintained, the division between day and night was clear: The day was a time for going out into the world and interacting with others; the night, illuminated only by candle light, was a time for being alone with one’s own thoughts, a time for developing the sechel iyuni. First and foremost, it was a time for learning in depth, but not just. It was also a time for contemplation and reflection.
If Rav Shapiro felt the loss of opportunities for contemplation forty years ago, how much more intensely is that loss felt today when the idea of being alone with one’s thoughts, not subject to constant outside intrusions, seems so impossibly quaint.
WHAT IS NEEDED TODAY, it seems to me, is a new mussar movement. In a little more than a hundred year period between the mid-18thcentury and the mid-19th century, Chassidus, the Mussar movement, and Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Im Derech Eretz flowered. Though very different from one another, all three movements were responses to external challenges and a sense of internal decline. On the external front, the ghetto walls fell in Western Europe and the ideas of the Enlightenment began to spread eastward.
On the internal front, there was the ongoing despair in the wake of the apostasy of the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi a century earlier and a widespread perception of the loss of inner vitality and conviction.
Today, as well, we face the challenges of a fast-moving, ever new world, in which it is increasingly difficult to maintain barriers to the outside. Yet as the challenges grow so has the difficulty of developing the inner resources to confront those challenges increased.
Ever more intense Gemara learning, as beneficial as it may be, will not by itself solve all the problems or develop those internal resources. The shocking number of first-year divorces in the very citadels of Torah establishes that. Those numbers attest to either a lack of sufficient self-knowledge on the part of many of our young people to choose a well-suited marriage partner or to a insufficiently developed middos or both. (Obviously, I’m speaking in general and not about any particular case, in which many other factors might be at play.)
I have written in the past about the curriculum once developed by Rabbi Doniel Frank for Monsey schools that focused on age-appropriate work on various aspects of personal development in such areas as self-knowledge, decision-making, setting goals, establishing priorities, and intrapersonal skills. In the latest issue of Klal Perspectives, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg, a highly successful principal in Los Angeles, outlines aspects of a “life skills” or middos curriculum for which our crowded academic schedules today leave too little room. Among the basic skills he lists are: resilience, coping with failure, embracing the benefits of delayed gratification, resisting the tendency to blame others, assuming responsibility, developing a vision for the future, time management, and conflict resolution.
All of these skills focus on developing the self, and are part of the larger task of clearing away for our children and ourselves those moments of silence in which we become aware of our souls and the One in whose image we were created.