Leonard Felson
Sep 11, 2018

Strategies for the Heartand Mind


Far from the hype of the kabbalah craze, American Jews across the religious spectrum and across the country are working at ethical and spiritual improvement through a religious discipline called ‘musar.’ And the interest, and dedication, are growing.



Sam Axelrad, A 65-YEAR-old Houston urologist, has just made one of those self-revelatory points about life, and his friends -- nine men and a woman -- nod in agreement as if they’ve all discovered a key secret to self-fulfillment. They’re sipping coffee or tea or cold drinks, munching on cheese and crackers, sweets and fruit. It could be any self-improvement circle or support group, except that these Texas Jews from various backgrounds -- ranging in age from their early 30s to their mid-60s -- are talking about a Jewish spiritual discipline, ethical philosophy and character-building method designed to heighten awareness of the world and one’s responsibilities. It’s called musar, and its goal is to make one act more like a mensch.

At its core, musar is a behavioral improvement practice aimed at elevating our character, or what musar calls soul traits [midot], by a variety of strategies and techniques that, as one musar master says, make "the heart feel what the intellect understands." The trend, as now taught, includes practices such as meditation, chanting, studying musar texts, and keeping a daily journal on traits that practitioners identify as obstacles in their lives.

Axelrad’s group has been meeting every other Sunday night for two hours since last fall. Each member also regularly checks in with a hevruta, or study partner, to discuss assigned readings and their progress or lack thereof on the traits they’re working on. Similar groups are forming across North America. Together, they represent a small but growing phenomenon: For the first time since the eve of the Holocaust, not only are more Orthodox Jews engaging in musar practices, but non-Orthodox Jews, most of whom had never heard of musar a few years ago, are beginning to adopt the traditional discipline as part of their own daily Jewish spiritual practice.

In May, a conference in Houston on how to practice musar in the 21st century drew leading musar teachers from Israel and New York. Their discussions attracted 130 people, about half of them women. For while the musar movement was born in the all-male yeshivot of 19th century Lithuania, the leaders of the movement and their heirs have agreed that musar is for men and women equally. And although it was originally an Orthodox movement, the participants in Houston comprised a picture of American Jewry today, with most coming from Conservative, Reform or secular backgrounds. A similar conference in Manhattan last year marked the first time a discussion of musar among Jews of all stripes had ever been held.

"The interest that’s out there is just tremendous," says Alan Morinis, whose book, "Climbing Jacob’s Ladder" (Broadway Books, 2002), has become "must" reading and a gateway for many of the new musar adherents. It’s difficult to quantify the scope of this emerging trend, but the number of newcomers is believed to be in the thousands, say musar teachers who run classes or teach via email or websites.

Before the Holocaust, musar flourished in the non-hasidic side of Eastern European Orthodoxy for nearly 100 years. The founder of the 19th century musar movement was Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant, Lithuania (better known as Rabbi Israel Salanter), who taught the importance of setting aside daily times for musar study and the axiom that ethical conduct based on Torah values is the essential goal of the Jewish people. Salanter based himself on earlier texts stressing moral improvement, including "Mesilat Yesharim" (The Path of the Just) by Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzatto, and "Hovot Halevavot" (The Duties of the Heart) by Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, dating back to the 11th century. But he innovated a method of character improvement called hitpa’alut, chanting holy phrases or ethical concepts with such emotional intensity that the intellectual message, Salanter taught, travels to the subconscious, creating a lasting impression that can change one’s behavior. Indeed, Salanter was an innovator who spoke about the role of the unconscious mind some three decades before Freud made it famous to the Western world.

What’s more, he turned what was primarily an enterprise among individuals studying the literature into a social movement in Lithuania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, beginning in 1842 when he founded the Musar Society in Vilna. The movement, predictably, broke into schools -- in some yeshivot, for example, students were told to develop humility by practices such as wearing one’s clothes inside out to invite ridicule. Even into the 20th century, the story was told of a rabbi, who while waiting for a bus, looked up from his book to see if it was coming. He immediately regretted this momentary glance, not just because it was a wasted second during which he could learn, but because his anticipation for the bus had taken control over him. Looking for the bus is illogical because it will not make the bus come any quicker. The glance was a sign of his emotions’ control over his mind.

The Holocaust killed most of that tradition’s leading teachers and students, and while it lived on in the yeshivah world -- at such Israeli institutions as the Mir, Hebron and Ponevitch yeshivahs, and at American ones like Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, New York, and Lakewood Yeshivah in New Jersey -- it remained far less known in the wider Jewish community than the competing spiritual approach of hasidism.

The musar revival in the United States began in the late 1990s, as websites with Jewish content began offering lessons. It accelerated with the publication in 2002 of Morinis’s book.

Several reasons explain the emergence of musar among non-Orthodox Jews. On one hand, as more Jews express dissatisfaction at what’s offered at typical synagogues or want more than just prayer, many continue to express a hunger for a spirituality that’s relevant to their daily lives, rabbis and lay leaders say. Moreover, many Jews who once were drawn to Eastern practices, for example, are beginning to yearn for a spiritual practice that is authentically Jewish, and some of them are finding it in musar, especially because -- as it is now being presented -- it doesn’t require knowledge of Hebrew or a strong background in religious texts.

That doesn’t make the new musar practice any less authentic, says Orthodox Rabbi Micha Berger, who established the AishDas Society (www.aishdas.org) as a resource for Orthodox Jews and speaks to both Orthodox and non-Orthodox audiences on Jewish thought, musar and the meaning of prayer.

Salanter "didn’t teach the same musar in Paris that he did in Lithuania, notes Berger, referring to the last 15 years of Salanter’s life, when he dealt with modern, assimilated western European Jews. He spoke of the ‘fear of punishment’ in addition to the fear or awe of heaven. And yet, a truly authentic current master of musar today, Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe [of Israel], says that for our generation musar must be taught with love; almost always the carrot, never the stick."

Adds Berger, "Musar always saw itself as a step beyond halakhic practice that would allow one to gain more meaning from that practice." Moreover, he says, "the non-Orthodox community isn’t adapting or trans-valuing ideas. They’re finding which authentic items they can use."

Ironically, what has also fueled renewed interest in this all but forgotten practice is the internet. A Google search will yield numerous websites and email lists that are intended to explain, inspire and support the practice of musar. In addition, in the last 10 years more books on the subject have been translated into English than ever before, including new translations of several musar classics. The result: Never before has it been so easy to access the discipline.

So what does musar look like in practice and how can it make a difference in anyone’s life? The short answer is that musar is a body of literature, an ethical philosophy, and a daily spiritual practice that, like psychotherapy, say its new practitioners, can lead to greater awareness of habits that tend to pose obstacles in our lives. Traditionally, the transformative practice was seen as a way to help Jews follow the mitzvot and halakhah, a practice obviously still relevant in the Orthodox world. And even within observant communities, says Berger, the number of people interested in musar has doubled or tripled in the last few years.

But what’s also changing is that even in the less observant world, the practices are being rediscovered as a process that adds depth to daily life in relation to the self, others, and, often, one’s sense of God’s presence. One common method in which musar is applied to everyday life is called heshbon hanefesh, or "accounting of the soul." It prescribes a 13-week daily practice, focusing on a different character trait (such as patience, humility, truth, gratitude, equanimity) each week. (The practice was first articulated in 1812 by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Levin of Ukraine, in a book simply called "Heshbon Hanefesh.")

The method calls for practitioners to begin by creating a list of 13 traits of behavior they want to change in themselves. They then collect phrases that capture the ideal expression of each trait. Levin’s suggested phrase for decisiveness, for example, is: "All of your acts should be preceded by deliberation; when you have reached a decision, act without delay." Musarniks then focus on their one trait a week by doing two things a day: every morning for a week, they read their phrase, reminding themselves of their goal; every night at bedtime, they jot down in a journal their observations on the trait that they had during the course of the day. At the end of the week, they turn their attention to the next trait. Over time, musar masters say, adherents begin to notice trends in their behavior, and that awareness can mark the first step in their inner transformation. Conveniently, 13 divides into the 52 weeks of a year an even four times, meaning the cycle can be repeated four times annually, each time with the possibility of greater awareness and the potential to make real personal transformation.

Such practices are being adopted by new practitioners along with meditation, chanting, the reading of musar texts, and meeting in groups or with partners to discuss their efforts.

But does musar work? As with dieting, it depends how religiously you maintain the discipline. Yet even those new to the practice say they’ve noticed real change in their lives. Marian Bell, a 51-year-old nutritional consultant and member of the Houston musar group, says she tried to study kabbalah, a version of which has become popular with the Hollywood set. But she found there was nothing she could take home and use in a practical everyday way for personal growth. "Musar gave me practical and strong emotional ways of looking at myself and growing," says Bell, who is active in a Reconstructionist havurah.

Indeed, when the week came to work on the midah, or trait, of "truth," Bell says she realized "how many lies I was telling myself about my business, how I do things and how I speak." She changed ways she operates her business and even how she converses with others, all "in a new way that speaks a different truth for myself."

Lisa Forma, a married 50-year-old mother of three teenage daughters living in the Sierra Nevada foothills outside Sacramento, California, recalls "one of those pivotal moments" in her relationship with one of her closest friends. Forma had planned to keep a difficult truth from her, a decision Forma knew would forever paint the relationship since the two women had always been open and honest. As she anguished over her predicament, a musar email lesson about truth arrived, and Forma knew that if musar was to mean anything in her life, she had to be honest with her friend, as painful as it might be. "We worked though it and saved the relationship," recalls Forma. "It was as close to life-changing as I can imagine."

Or consider the progress of Kalinka Moudrova-Rothman, a 44-year-old lawyer who attends a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn. "The impact has been incredible," she says. "I feel more in control of my life and less as a person to whom things are happening." A perfectionist by nature, Moudrova-Rothman says she was surprised to discover that she resented the musar practice of accountability. "I hate to admit I ever did anything wrong," she says. Yet when she worked on the trait of forgiveness, which required admitting her fallibility, she felt great relief. And when she studied the concept of the yetzer hara, or evil inclination, she was able to see what messages, often in the form of rationalizations, the yetzer hara uses to manipulate her and prevent her from doing what she knows would be in her best interest.

All three women probably would never have begun a musar practice had they not read Morinis’s book or enrolled in his online six-month courses on musar, which he began offering shortly after "Climbing Jacob’s Ladder" was published. Morinis, 54, grew up a secular Jew in a Canadian family defined more by gefilte fish and Milton Berle than anything religious, though he had taken an interest in Eastern religion as a student. He had never heard of musar until a string of events that began in 1997 when his documentary filmmaking business crashed. "It could have been another business failure, not so unusual in this fast-paced and risky world, but this fiasco nearly shattered me," Morinis writes in the book. "Day after day, I was consumed by blackness. I spent hours immobilized on the couch, compulsively going over the details of my own actions. I had painted false pictures, made promises I should have known I couldn’t keep, given people unrealistic projections, betrayed trust. Day after day, I cried with remorse." By chance, a friend handed him a book on the history of Jewish spirituality; when he read something about this practice called musar, it struck a chord deep within him.

A Rhodes scholar who had earned a PhD at Oxford for his work on pilgrimage in the Hindu tradition, Morinis poured himself into reading all he could about musar practices. When books weren’t enough, he searched for a teacher, and found one in Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, head of Yeshiva Derech Ayson of Far Rockaway, Long Island, New York, 3,000 miles from his home in Vancouver. The search was a journey of discovery that Morinis chronicled in his book. (Since then, Morinis’s Jewish practice has continued to evolve to more Jewish learning, which in turn has led to greater awareness of halakhah and mitzvot, and a desire to take on more.)

Amazed at what he saw as a treasure of wisdom and practices essentially unheard of outside the Orthodox world, Morinis created a website (www.morinis.ca), which serves as a kind of one-stop center for all things related to musar. He provides links to purchase classic musar books or to learn about other courses and resources. He offers audiotapes of recent musar talks; and details information about his six-month distance-learning course, reading discussion groups, and a new three-month program that synagogues and Jewish community centers can use.

In September, Morinis is offering a new course through Siegel College in Cleveland using interactive video stream technology. In addition, Morinis monitors a musar discussion list at yahoogroups.com and was responsible for organizing the conferences in New York last year and the one in Houston last spring.

Although most of his students are non-Orthodox, Orthodox rabbis have recognized his talent for making the discipline accessible to 21st-century Jews. This summer, in a pilot program funded by the Afikim Foundation, an incubator for creative Jewish educational initiatives, Morinis is teaching Orthodox rabbis from across the United States how they can teach musar in their communities. He also crisscrosses North America, lecturing and running workshops with a schedule that has him booked through next spring.

Morinis is not the only one spreading the word. Zvi Miller, a 50-year-old Orthodox rabbi formerly of New Jersey, emails brief musar lessons, called e-musar, almost daily, from his study in his Ramat Beit Shemesh apartment in Israel (miler23@netvision.net.il). Earlier this year, completing an effort that took six years, Miller finished the first-ever English translation of the writings of Rabbi Salanter. One scholar, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg of Denver, Colorado, a disciple of musar masters and author of three books on the history and spirituality of the movement, calls the book, "Ohr Yisrael" (Targum/Feldheim, 2004), "a monumental piece of work" for English readers who want access to primary musar sources but who don’t read Hebrew fluently.

The book and Miller’s emails are part of a general effort to promote musar by the Salant Foundation, named after Rabbi Salanter. Six other musar books produced by the Salant Foundation, including one for children, are in the works, as well as a pilot program designed for U.S. synagogues.

"Musar is medicine for the soul," says Miller, who rises at 5 in the morning and walks down the street to pray at an Orthodox synagogue, after which for at least an hour, he studies musar and does hitpa’alut.

Miller’s translation isn’t alone on the English bookshelf. Among others are "The Duties of the Heart" by ibn Paquda, originally written in Arabic in 11th-century Spain, and "The Path of the Just" by Luzatto, written in 18th-century Italy (both published by Jason Aronson, 1996).

Those translations come with commentaries by Orthodox rabbi Yaakov Feldman, who lives in Spring Valley, about an hour’s drive north of New York City. Feldman was a child of the 60s ("deep into Zen and Taoism," he says) when someone introduced him to a translation of a musar classic "Orhot Tzaddikim" (The Ways of the Righteous), published anonymously nearly 500 years ago. He found it "delightful," and it started him on a path back to Judaism. Soon, he found himself studying at a yeshivah, mastering Hebrew and Aramaic. When he was able to read another musar classic in its original Hebrew, he was confounded because the English translation didn’t begin to convey the book’s beauty and meaning. "They were old translations from the 30s or 40s in high church Protestant English," Feldman recalls. Since then, he’s devoted his life to providing modern translations and commentaries so the books speak to readers with modern sensibilities.

Beyond writing nearly every morning and counseling afternoons, Feldman teaches an online musar course called Spiritual Excellence with 4,400 subscribers, but he suspects even more read it since it’s posted on www.torah.org, which gets about 50,000 hits a month.

Outside the Orthodox world, an increasing number of other frameworks besides those offered by Morinis are flourishing. Rabbi Ira Stone, a Conservative spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia, and a student of musar for most of his 30-plus year career, created a Musar Institute last year that includes three hours a week of Torah study, musar text learning with emotional intensity, and interpersonal group work. (His own book on musar, "The Yoke of Your Neighbor," is due out this fall.) The course met with such success that he’s offering two classes next fall, on top of a similar course on New York’s Upper West Side, which he teaches under the auspices of Hadar, a minyan near the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he has taught musar as well.

Across the continent in San Francisco, Rabbi Helen Cohn of Congregation Emanu-El, the largest Reform synagogue in Northern California, introduced a program that focused on 13 midot, after so many of her congregants clamored for a daily Jewish spiritual practice beyond prayer and rituals. To keep track of congregants’ experiences and which midah they were focusing on each week, one member, Jonathan Marx, whose company builds websites, offered to create one for the group. Today more than 160 people are practicing musar, using the site, www.ashrei.com, as their meeting place, with some online participants logging in from Russia, Nepal, New Zealand and Brazil. (The site was nominated this year for a Webby Award, honoring the world’s best websites, from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.)

Because musar, done right, demands honest self-scrutiny and self-examination, the emerging interest in musar "is never going to be a fad," says Goldberg, the musar scholar and author.

Morinis agrees: "It involves something many people don’t like to do, which is take a good hard look at yourself. That’s why musar is so counter-culture. Our society is a society of distractions and diversions. Musar is the exact opposite. It is not about diversion, but being very introspective."

Still, as the gathering in Houston and the one in New York illustrate, those rediscovering musar in the early 21st century -- observant and less observant -- are exuding a kind of enthusiasm seldom seen in Jewish circles. Parallel to the well-known concept of tikkun olam, healing the world, musar calls on individuals to practice tikkun hamiddot, or healing the soul.

As for the future, Morinis is planning a third gathering for next year in San Francisco on May 8. As he and others walk in the footsteps of Rabbi Salanter, innovating for a new generation, plans are in the works to explore how the disparate musar programs might link up to form a more unified musar movement for the 21st century, or whether such an idea is even desirable. "The challenges we face in our generation," says Morinis, "are bigger and more powerful in some ways than those faced by any previous generation."

© 2019 Leonard Felson / Designed by Sarah Belzer & Co.

  • Leonard Felson / Facebook
  • Leonard Felson / Linkedin
  • Black Twitter Icon

(860) 231-9369


Leonard Felson