Why is it so hard to be good? That kind of question intrigued the Eastern European rabbis who founded Musar (or Mussar), a 19th-century Jewish ethical, educational, and cultural movement, as a response to the social changes inspired by the Enlightenment.
The Hebrew word “musar,” in the book of Proverbs, means “instruction,” “discipline,” or “conduct,” and was used by the movement to describe efforts encouraging ethical and spiritual discipline.
Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter is recognized as the founder of the movement, bringing what was traditionally a solitary practice to the arena of the yeshiva. Of the power of group study, Salanter wrote, “The busy man does evil wherever he turns. His business doing badly, his mind and strength become confounded and subject to the fetters of care and confusion. Therefore appoint a time on the Holy Sabbath to gather together at a fixed hour… the notables of the city, whom many will follow, for the study of morals. Speak quietly and deliberately without joking or irony, estimate the good traits of man and his faults, how he should be castigated to turn away from the latter and strengthen the former. Do not decide matters at a single glance, divide the good work among you – not taking up much time, not putting on too heavy a burden. Little by little, much will be gathered… In the quiet of reflection, in reasonable deliberation, each will strengthen his fellow and cure the foolishness of his heart and eliminate his lazy habits.”
The Musar Movement thrived in Eastern Europe until World War II, when the third generation of rabbi-leaders were all but wiped out by the Nazis. Some students of the movement resettled in Israel, where they established yeshivot based on Musar principles.
The U.S. didn’t see a revival of the movement until this century, when both Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities established organizations and institutions that teach the practice. Among the new endeavors is the Philadelphia Mussar Institute founded by Rabbi Ira Stone in 2007.
Stone will present a weekend of Musar discussions and teachings at Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, Sept. 16-18.
A Queens native, Stone came of age in the mid-’60s. “After an infatuation with Judaism as a young boy, I left it until coming to the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel while working as a drug outreach worker for Jewish Family Services of Long Island,” he says. “At the same time, I had been involved in anti-war politics and the Civil Rights movement.” Stone’s exposure to Heschel’s work eventually led him to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he became interested in the Mussar Movement during his first semester. “It was an outlet for my interest in social ethics,” he says. “I wrote a paper suggesting the possibility of a contemporary Mussar practice and my professor challenged me to articulate a theology for such a movement, given the generally fundamentalist nature of traditional Mussar. I spent the next 25 years trying to answer that question, a journey that led me to Emmanuel Levinas.”
Stone went on to serve congregations in Seattle and Philadelphia, and has been spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia since 1988. He taught Mussar as a purely academic subject for several years until 2000, when he decided to try to create a Mussar program. He established the Philadelphia Mussar Institute, as well as the Mussar Leadership Program.
Stone is a visiting lecturer in Jewish philosophy at JTS, and has taught and lectured widely on Talmud and the world of Emmanuel Levinas. He teaches Mussar to rabbinical students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
He is author of “Seeking the Path of Life: Theological Meditations on the Nature of God, Life, Love and Death” (Jewish Lights, 1993), “Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud” (JPS, 1998), and “Sketches for a Book of Psalms” (Xlibris, 2000), and “A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar” (Aviv Press, 2007), as well as numerous articles in journals of Jewish thought.
On Friday, Sept. 16, Stone will open the weekend-long discussion with the question, “Why is it so hard to be good?” After Saturday-morning services, the conversation will address “Why is it so easy to be bad?” On Shabbat afternoon, Stone will lead a retreat, “Let’s do Mussar,” and will end the weekend on Sunday afternoon with a discussion, “Does the Conservative Movement have a soul?” The presentation will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Rabbi Daniel Satlow of Congregation Beth El in Fairfield, Rabbi Daniel Victor of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport, Rabbi Colin Brodie of Congregation B’nai Torah in Trumbull, and Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn of The Conservative Synagogue in Westport.
For more about the scholar-in-residence weekend contact (203) 374-5544 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.congbethel.net