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.

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18 Responses

  1. DF says:

    Instead of casting about for something new, why not preserve what we already have? Begin by acknowledging (sub silentio is fine) that the yeshivah and kollel world we’ve created is something new, and is NOT, in fact, merely a re-creation of how things were in Europe. The get back to basics by backing away from the constant drumbeat of “learning” and “daas torah”, and getting back to more fundamental refrains such as decency, self-sufficiency and hard work. Once the pendulum has been reset, we can then try to find the balance between Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim. No, this will not cure all the ills of a modern computerized society, nor am I convinced that such ills can be fixed. [Indeed, if even electricity is viewed as the enemy, then I am sure it can’t.] But it would be a start, and a necessary one.

  2. Shades of Gray says:

    “Among the basic skills he lists are: resilience, coping with failure…assuming responsibility”

    In “Marital Preparation Begins at Age Two”(Klal Perspective, Summer, 2012), Dina Schoonmaker writes that these same skills start even earlier:

    “…in some respects, we can begin preparing our children for marriage as early as their toddler years… Ideally, parents should focus their child-rearing efforts on enabling their children to develop the midos, skills and perspectives they will need to build their own homes. This includes encouraging independence, teaching problem-solving skills and emotional self-regulation and resilience and modeling a successful marriage. In time, such efforts will eventually lead to the ultimate nachas of children’s happy marriages.”

    Re. Mussar and marriage preparation, the Panim el Panim high school program is described in a Yated article on Shalom Task Force’s website:

    “Rav Salomon’s haskama letter for the program had this to say: “A new program for Tikun HaMiddos called Panim el Panim has been started. The purpose of the project has been to focus on Chinuch HaMussar in helping a high school bochur in his quest to become an Adam HaShaleim. Panim el Panim has developed a Torah-Based curriculum for mesivta bochurim using Chazel as well as practical eitzos of Gedolei Ba’alei Mussar to help improve the quality of their relationships with members of their mishpachas, their chaverim, and ultimately, their marriages… This program has tremendous toeles, and is an important step toward building successful mishpachas for Klal Yisroel that will, Im Yirtzah Hashem, accompany the ushering in of the yimei haMoshiach”

  3. YS says:

    The attempt to portray the Internet Age as having a negative impact on intellectuality and thoughtful introspection is one-sided at best. Is it really necessary to point out the extent to which the ability to hash out ideas on the various on-line forums, while not always done in accordance with Ivy League debate society standards, constantly exposes people to different points of view and causes them to think through idea which, in the past, would have gone unchallenged?

  4. Y. Ben-David says:

    Here in Israel perhaps you could find a successful prototype. The Religious Zionist educational system has succeeded in turning out young men (along with young women who share the values) who are deeply, DEEPLY committed to studying Torah intensively, and at the same time serving in good units of the IDF where they often have to endanger their lives, as we have seen in the recent war. These values require very intensive introspection, reflection on deep spiritual values and strong bonding to Jews of all types, colors and flavors, because an army and a society made up of different types of Jews with different values forces the religious Jew to be secure and knowledgable in his beliefs and yet willing to understand how others, who have not yet come to appreciate the importance of the Torah view them and to get them to cooperate and coordinate on important national challenges.

  5. brooklyn refugee sheygitz says:

    The yeshiva world also has to acknowledge that what led to the mass abandonment of religioun which created the millions of secular and non-religious Jews who existed in europe before WWI and WWII was not that all the women of nice fine Jewish homes somehow all magically drank bad water in a posined well which damaged their wombs creating an entire generation of apikorsim, mumarim, and oysvurfs. No – there were reasons for why this happened. And if the Yeshiva world doesn’t get a grip as to why – then it can – and probably will – happen again.

  6. EF says:

    A central thesis of an article I recently published at “Mosaic” is that Yeshivat Har Etzion (“the Gush”) was envisioned by its Roshei Yeshiva, and especially R. Aharon Lichtenstein, as a Mussar yeshiva for the current age.

  7. micha says:

    But RDF, mussar isn’t a new creation. A movement within the current Orthodox world to following its refrains would be.

    Although some of us have been working on that particular goal for years. The problem isn’t where the pendulum should be, it’s changing the momentum of the community so that we start getting there. And that pretty much definitionally requires mussar, if not the capital-M Mussar, the ideology of the movement Rav Yisrael started, at least the lower-case-m mussar, the aspect of Torah Mishlei speaks of.

    Articles like this one are of use as consciousness raising, but until we actually start providing programming that focuses on ehrlachkeit, on self-awareness and consciously working to become the person Hashem made me to be, and until we actually start attending that programming, nothing will change.

    I said something very generic, “programming”. Does this mean programming for adults, perhaps by shuls? Is this an educational issue? And if the solution begins with how we educate our children, we need to look at the various middos programs most schools have in the younger grades and how “mussar seder” is enacted in those yeshivos that have one, and ask why they haven’t prevented our needing to have this conversation to begin with.

    I wrote a related post on Torah Musings last January, titled Tools and Goals”. An overview: sections 1 and 2 establish hashkafically, from gemaros, rishonim and acharonim, the idea that observance of black-letter halakhah, the things the Shulchan Arukh can spell out, is not the entirety of following the Torah. Section 3 deals with how the issue raised would produce symptoms just like the ones our communities show today, given the other elements in each of those communities. Finally, to get back to what do we do about it: section 4 has some suggestions, and section 5 deals with theory that I think would be useful in formulating new ideas.

    Some teasers from the last two sections of my post:

    “We will most naturally think of a solution in educational terms. But we are speaking of correcting basic attitudes and values. We repeatedly produce middos curricula for our schools but without a culture of refinement already in place, the knowledge will continue to have minimal impact on the students’ responses and decisions. … So while school does have a role, camp and youth groups can do more, and peers, home and role models are indispensable. But providing an atmosphere from the parents’ generation downward presents us with a logical dilemma… If we cannot provide our children with examples of Jews who use the Torah in a conscious pursuit of holiness (whichever description of it best fits their inclinations, interests and abilities), we can at least provide them with adults who are taking conscious efforts to do so. So as I see it, the way out of this hole is going to involve both school and synagogue programming in parallel.”

    “Every other Sunday evening a half-dozen friends and I get together on a video chat and learn some Alei Shur, by Rav Shelomo Wolbe. The sections in question are divided into middos (both interpersonal and those that comprise our relationship with the Creator), and each middah into sections. A section is around a page, and at the end Rav Wolbe suggests an exercise. A small exercise, incrementing beyond the last one, slowly stretching our capability. The central feature is the exercise, not the learning. We discuss how we did at the opening of the next session, and perhaps if the problems outweigh the advance, we’ll decide to simply discuss the issues and not move forward.

    “Between meetings, chavrusah-partners check in with each other daily (or more) to see how it’s going. On the skipped Sunday, give or take a day, they review the material together. This way, you don’t lose momentum between meetings.”

    The usual assumption about such “programming” is to think of learning. Shiurim on mussar. But I think Mussar inherently needs something more hands-on. Better than the eVaad I describe in that last quote would be if we could establish a norm for shuls to provide actual ve’adim. They needn’t be large to work, and expecting a large turnout at this point in the pendulum swing may be unrealistic. The point is more to establish the cultural background, so that those who aren’t actively participating are still living in a community where more than lip service is paid to the idea of walking before HQBH and being whole (c.f. Bereishis 17:1).

  8. micha says:

    Related to this conversation, Rabbi Michoel Green recently (Aug 17th) blogged on Ne’er LeElef’s NLE Resources a post titled “FREE New eBook & Important Charts: How All Mitzvos Help Improve Our Middos & Come Close to Hashem“.

  9. Micah Segelman says:

    An issue with working on ‘self-knowledge, decision-making, setting goals, establishing priorities, and intrapersonal skills…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” is that there are many useful resources from non-Torah sources which address these issues. Introducing these resources would be controversial and leaving them out would be forfeiting important tools. Moshe Maimon (current issue of Hakira) makes the point that proponents of the mussar movement were actually willing to avail themselves of these types of resources – today’s Haredi world may be much less willing.

  10. DF says:

    R’ Micha, I acknowledge that Mussar isn’t a new creation [though only a 100 years ago or so, it was.] I’ve nothing against it. My point is that producing new mussar curriculums will not change anything, if the surrounding yeshivah and kollel culture remain intact. There is altogether WAY too much of a focus today placed upon “learning.” Whether it was necessary, post WWII, to have gone down this road, we can debate. But today there is no room for debate.

    Jonathan Rosenblum speaks of keeping people connected. When our rabbis use the pulpits we give them to speak of almost nothing but learning – by which, it is understood, they mean Gemara – that is not going to appeal to the broader community. As I said, we as a society must return to our roots by focusing on what got us here. And by “us” I mean JEWS, not simply the tiny percentage of us that are yeshivah educated orthodox Jews. [All of that will come as a by-product of upbringing and environment.] The beauty, the grandeur, the justice, the compassion. Classical religion. If that sounds a little like Samson Raphael Hirsch, it’s because his would be an excellent model for us to emulate, less or more. This is the foundation we’re built upon, but the floor has become so crowded with other items, we’ve forgotten just what it is we were founded upon. Little things. But big things.

  11. micha says:

    R’ Micah Segelman: The difference between self-help is trying to become the person you wish you were. Mussar is studying the Torah with an eye to figuring out who Hashem made you to be, and trying to become that person. Yes, the second step, the “trying to become” could very well use many of the same tools. But mussar isn’t self-help. Neither is studying Torah without a conscious effort to use it to become someone else.

    Also, Mussar as associated with R’ Yisrael Salanter reprioritizes menchlachkeit, being a good person on an interpersonal level. They saw the person Hashem wants us to be more about giving to other people than other formulations of Yahadus might emphasize.

  12. ben dov says:

    If there is a need for a “new” musar movement it must be because the old movement is in some ways no longer applicable. Why is this so? I suspect the old movement, and to some extent the sefarim that inspired it, took certain personal skills for granted and were addressing levels beyond that. Today we need a handle on the basics.

    A new movement need not be exactly like the books of Twerski, Pliskin and Adahan. However it needs to have some features in common: a positive focus, a return to basics, a realistic view of people’s fragile egos, etc.

  13. Cvmay says:

    I do not believe that Rav Amitei who envisioned, established and built Yeshivat HaGush would agree with your statement.

  14. SA says:

    If I may amplify DF’s statement, when rabbis use the pulpits we give them to call other Jews “Amalek,” that isn’t going to appeal to the broader community, either. It makes everyone wonder who represents the ideal toward which mussar aims to help us strive.

  15. Bob Miller says:

    Micha wrote above, “…But mussar isn’t self-help. Neither is studying Torah without a conscious effort to use it to become someone else….”

    It should be a conscious, methodical effort to rise to the level of our true self, not someone else’s true self.

  16. Moshe Shoshan says:

    FOr the record, contrary to the charedi narrative, the crucial change in reliigous life in europe was not the much maligned ‘haskala” many of whose advocates were completely Orthodox Talmidei chahcamim, nor even the Reform movement, but the Emancipation which created the possibility of the assimilation for the first time.
    This is but one aspect of the charedi narrative that needs to change inorder for the charedi world to sucessfully navigate post-modernity.

  17. micha says:

    So, given that in principle you agree with the notion of reviving the Mussar Movement, perhaps to reflect the changes in the challenges we face compares to those in Kelm, Slabodka or Novhardok. Aside from writing or commenting on this article, what are you doing about it?

    If you want mussar in your community, rather than sit here and talk about the need, go to your local rav and ask for it! If you want a va’ad in your shul, a group that not only learns a mussar text, but work together in applying it in our lives, practice in some small measure what it says, your shul is the logical provider. If you want some kind of middos program that is on a level beyond teaching second graders that modesty is good, anger is bad, and all people should be happy with their lot, and can speak to children in middle and high school, go to PTA meetings armed with the names of programs that offer what you’re looking for! Nothing will change as long as the conversation stays in print and on line, and remains being about how we need more of something that never gets fleshed out in all its pragmatic detail.

    In terms of ve’adim, we at the AishDas society have some experience running them ourselves and launching a shul va’ad (that now continues as the shul’s program), and I would be thrilled to make myself available to any rav looking at starting one who needs suggestions about how to get started.

    -micha [email protected]

  18. Bob Miller says:


    Have you come across any local US shul rabbonim starting mussar activities on their own? They might be able to share with us what works or doesn’t.

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