Canadian finds lost Jewish faith in Mussar tradition

Ever heard of Mussar?

Maybe not. Mussar actually represents a venerated, contemplative movement in Judaism dating back to the 10th century C.E.

In an attempt to shed more light on the subject, scholar-author Alan Morinis has launched an effort to revive the Mussar tradition, which was nearly wiped out by the Holocaust.

Morinis' recently released book, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: One Man's Journey to Rediscover a Jewish Spiritual Tradition," recounts the Canadian-born author's long sojourn of self-discovery.

At a recent book-signing held at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center, Morinis addressed an audience of several dozen, illuminating the history of Mussar and his own embrace of its practices.

A product of a secular Zionist household in Toronto, Morinis grew up largely detached from his Jewish religious heritage. "For my bar mitzvah, I learned the Hebrew alphabet up to the letter yud," he noted with a laugh.

He believes his blasé attitude was typical. "The spiritual diaspora" of Jews is as pronounced as the geographical one, Morinis said. "We so often seem to love everyone else's traditions, while feeling ambivalence about our own."

That was certainly true for the author early in his career.

He became a Rhodes scholar, earning masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology from Oxford University (his doctoral dissertation examined the subject of Hindu pilgrimage) before embarking on a deep exploration of eastern religion and philosophy. He studied yoga in India, lived in ashrams and practiced Zen Buddhism.

After the unexpected collapse of a film production company he founded, largely due to his own failings, he said, Morinis began an agonizing appraisal of his spiritual life. That led to a reawakening of a long-dormant Jewish identity. "Something came alive in me," he recalled.

Yet something about mainstream religious Judaism still rubbed him the wrong way. "Judaism is a highly collectivized religion," Morinis said. "Everyone does everything or refrains from doing something all at the same time. That didn't work for me."

Stumbling upon translations of a few forgotten texts, Morinis had a "Eureka!" moment when he discovered Mussar. "The Mussar approach is geared towards the particular inner configuration of the individual," he said.

The term "Mussar" derives from the Hebrew word for "reproach" or "reproof" ("ethics" in modern Hebrew) and grew out of the talmudic inquiry into holiness. "The Torah says, 'You shall be Holy,'" noted Morinis. "But the sages wanted to know how to do that. They saw a gap between the life we live and our potential for holiness."

Like members of a 10th-century 12-step program, the first Mussarim learned to honor within themselves every aspect of human nature, even those some might deem personality flaws.

"They spoke of the midot, the Hebrew word for 'measures,' meaning 'the 13 traits of the soul.' They felt no quality should be rooted out. Anger, desire, fear, all have their place," said Morinis.

By the 11th century, the Mussarim developed unusual practices to refresh the soul, among them mantra-like chanting, meditation and guided journal writing. By the 1800s, as many as three Mussar yeshivas thrived in the Jewish intellectual center of Lithuania. Esteemed rabbis including Yonah Gerondi, Moshe Cordavero and the Vilna Gaon all wrote classic texts on the subject.

After the Holocaust, the Mussar movement nearly disappeared. However, the texts and some adherents within the Orthodox community survived. Once connecting with Rabbi Yechiel Perr, a contemporary East Coast-based Mussar master, Morinis undertook a five-year mission to revive the tradition.

"The essence of Mussar is introspection," Morinis has written on his Web site — "Walking the Mussar path means raising awareness of what goes on in our own inner life."

Morinis enjoys collaborating with his fervently religious peers, who respect his commitment to Mussar. "They like that I am not FFB — frum from birth — and that I view things with fresh eyes," he said.

Mostly, Morinis is hoping to bring wayward Jews back to the beauties of their own faith. "I used to blame the tradition," he said. "Now I mine it for wisdom."

He's certainly made headway, beyond the Jewish community and the realm of the spiritual. A few months ago, Morinis conducted a one-day Mussar workshop for Canadian federal employees.

He also received an enthusiastic e-mail from someone who had recently read his book. "The guy said he started the practice of Mussar chanting…and soon lost 40 pounds!" remembers Morinis.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.