The way of Mussar: Study more, be a better person

Jews aren’t known for being quiet. But at a recent evening discussion at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, a small group of people shared their successes in keeping their thoughts to themselves.

Michael Peterson and Kathleen Friedlander in Sha’ar Zahav Mussar study group. photo/gabrielle lurie

“When I’m about to speak, [I ask], Is it true, is it necessary, is it the time?” said Lauren Goldman, 69. “There have been many times when I’ve actually stopped. And that’s a gift.”

The eight people around the table were gathered for a class in Mussar, a Jewish spiritual practice that is becoming increasingly popular. The evening’s lesson was about shtikah and shmirat halashon — silence and mindful speech.

Mussar practitioners engage in a structured program of self-examination, based on Jewish teachings, that is meant to improve their characters.

Basically, Mussar is about becoming a mensch.

Traditionally part of more observant Jewish practice, Mussar has sprung up over the last decade at synagogues and community organizations all over the Bay Area.

Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and Congregations Beth Israel Judea and B’nai Emunah in San Francisco have held Mussar education programs. Kol Emeth in Palo Alto and Beth Am in Los Altos Hills have Mussar groups. In May, Hillel at Stanford is co-hosting an afternoon study session open to the public.

Rabbi Camille Shira Angel (center) leads Mussar study at Sha’ar Zahav on March 16. photo/gabrielle lurie

More in-depth investigation is happening as well. Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael is midway through a yearlong Mussar program that matches up participants for weekly check-ins about their practice. And Sha’ar Zahav, the JCC of San Francisco, Chochmat HaLev (Berkeley) and Kehillah Jewish High School (Palo Alto) are participating in a three-year Mussar project sponsored by the New York–based Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

There are so many local Mussar programs, in fact, that a group of enthusiasts launched to catalog them all.

“There is this resurgence and push for personal meaning in people’s lives,” said Rabbi Michael Lezak, who leads the program at Rodef Sholom. “This kind of personal reflective practice with the idea of self-improvement really resonates widely.”

Mussar practitioners study the 48 character qualities, or middot, enumerated in the Pirkei Avot, a book from 200 C.E. that contains ethical and moral advice. Focusing on them one by one, practitioners examine how to improve those qualities in their own character.

Classic Mussar texts about paths to spiritual growth have been published for centuries (the effusive-sounding “Duties of the Heart” dates to the 11th century). In the 19th century, Mussar coalesced into a movement among Orthodox Jews in Lithuania; it continues to be practiced in yeshivas today.

Judi Kirshbaum (left) and Natalie Lenn are Mussar study partners at Rodef Sholom. photo/drew himmelstein

Now Mussar has been embraced by liberal Jewish communities, as well. With many people seeking pathways for spiritual growth through meditation or yoga, Mussar is an attractive complementary practice that is also strongly rooted in Jewish tradition. For those who grew up outside of the Orthodox community unaware that Judaism offered such a practice for spiritual growth, finding Mussar can be a revelation.

“It was a hidden gem that’s been discovered,” said Rabbi Joey Felsen, Orthodox founder and executive director of the Jewish Study Network, which has Mussar classes among its offerings. “What’s nice is that parts of the non-Orthodox world are starting to embrace the idea.”

Greg Marcus, who helped launch, said his disco-very of Mussar reminded him of the film “The Matrix,” where Keanu Reeves swallows a pill and finds out a terrible truth about the world around him.

“I feel like when I discovered Mussar, I had the converse experience; I discovered Judaism is really a wonderful thing,” said Marcus, 48, a member of Beth Am who is helping to organize the Mussar event at Stanford. “I feel like our people are missing the heart of what it really means to be Jewish. We can be good people and spare ourselves a lot of unnecessary pain.”

Natalie Lenn and Judi Kirshbaum are longtime friends, members of Rodef Sholom and, now, Mussar study partners.

Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, speaks at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley on Jan. 25. photo/kim mark

As participants in the Marin synagogue’s yearlong tikkun atzmi (“repairing myself”) program, they’re using “Every Day, Holy Day” by Alan Morinis, scholar and founder of the Mussar Institute, as a kind of textbook. It prescribes a weekly program of focusing on one middah, or character quality, and includes assignments for real-world exercises.

For example, during the week focused on gratitude, an exercise might be saying thank you for even the slightest thing. Each day begins with a spoken affirmation related to the middah and ends with reflective journaling.

Lenn and Kirshbaum meet every week to talk about their progress, and they’ve become accountability partners in each other’s spiritual journeys.

“It’s very personal,” said Kirshbaum, 67, recalling one exercise about judging others, in which she was encouraged to imagine an explanation for someone’s negative behavior rather than simply condemning the person for it. “I didn’t like realizing that I was as judgmental as I am,” she said.

“There’s almost a confessional element of admitting one’s struggles to another person,” explained Estelle Frankel, a psychotherapist who teaches Mussar at Chochmat HaLev. “When you say something out loud, it makes it real.”

Ernest and Kathleen Friedlander at Sha’ar Zahav Mussar study photos/gabrielle lurie

Frankel practices positive psychology, which focuses on positive emotions and behaviors rather than dysfunctional ones. Humans are often good at identifying how they want to change but not at implementing the change — that’s why so many resolve on Jan. 1 to lose weight, but gyms are empty by February. Mussar, its devotees say, is an antidote to that all-too-human weakness: It gives people a practical road map to making ethical and behavioral changes in their lives.

“Everyone knows Jewish law is really clear about giving charity. What if you’re a miser?” Morinis queried during a trip to the Bay Area in January. “You know what the Torah says, you know what Jewish law says, [but] how do you help a stingy person develop their generosity?”

Mussar provides the structure to answer such questions, Morinis said, allowing the soul’s inner holiness to shine through and bringing people closer to Torah.

As a leading voice in the Mussar movement, Morinis has helped promote it to a wider audience. He was on something of a whistle-stop tour of the Bay Area recently, speaking at local congregations with Mussar programs.

He came to the practice later in life; after a successful career in television production, Morinis experienced a major professional failure that sent him reeling. Though he wasn’t an observant Jew, he began searching in Jewish tradition for spiritual guidance.

Lauren Goldman and Ray McLauchlan

“I said two things to myself: You don’t know how to live, and you don’t have guidelines to live,” said Morinis, who resides in Vancouver and is now Orthodox. “I was looking for a personal guidance system for living based on Jewish principles.”

Morinis began to read, somewhat randomly, about Jewish practice, and settled into a tome about the history of Jewish spirituality. It was there that he learned about the Mussar movement; he began studying the texts and eventually connected with an Orthodox rabbi who became his teacher. Morinis has now written four books on the subject.

In Orthodox yeshivas, there are often daily sessions devoted to studying Mussar, according to Rabbi Joel Landau of Adath Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco.

“Many yeshivas have set times when people, instead of engaging in talmudic or biblical study, will engage in character trait study,” Landau said. “The goal is for introspection and reflection.”

However, there doesn’t appear to be a burgeoning Mussar movement in the local Orthodox world. Adath Israel doesn’t offer Mussar classes, nor does Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. No Orthodox congregations are participating in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s three-year tikkun middot program, according to its director, Rabbi Marc Margolius. (The program was funded by a three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation.)

Many of the newly minted programs in the Bay Area combine Mussar with Eastern spiritual practices, such as meditation and yoga. At Rodef Sholom, for example, the yearlong Mussar program includes a monthly meditative yoga class.

Rabbi Camille Shira Angel, who leads the program at Sha’ar Zahav, believes one reason Jews in the Bay Area may be so receptive is because they are already open to alternative spiritual practices.

Mark Lipschutz (left) and Andrew Ramer

Morinis said while meditation can be a tool for Mussar practice, he’s cautious about overdoing the spiritual fusion.

“When you’re meditating in the Mussar world to cultivate awareness, it’s specifically related to working on your middot, your inner traits,” Morinis said. “That’s nothing to do with Buddhist meditation.”

But Margolius sees a direct correlation between the practice of mindfulness that’s at the heart of traditional meditation and the awareness practice of Mussar.

“What’s important for us is there’s a fundamental connection between the internal and the external,” Margolius said. “Mindfulness doesn’t mean retreating from the world; it means bringing greater awareness to how we behave and what we do in the world. It’s not either you go on retreat and cultivate your internal life, or you change the world. They really go hand in hand.”

Practitioners  say Mussar has a profound effect on lives and relationships by asking people to think “about who they really are and about how they might want to change,” said Lezak of Rodef Sholom.

That’s been the case for Mussar partners Lenn and Kirshbaum. “We’ve been really honest with each other, and we’ve had really deep conversations,” said Lenn. “It’s made our friendship deeper.” Kirshbaum has used Mussar tools to repair her relationship with another friend: “If you try to love somebody more, you will. It just happens. And they respond in a loving way.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.