New Year's Resolutions and Mussar Class

As we approach the turning point of January 1st, 2010, many Jews are in the habit of making New Year's resolutions or vows to improve something that needs a bit of improvement.

This year it might be a resolution to spend more time with cherished friends, family members, and loved ones. Or a vow to follow through on your health and fitness goals. Or a quest to finish a creative project that got sidetracked several times. Or a promise to be less judgmental, or more patient and caring with certain challenging individuals who test you every so often. Or a profound wish to live up to your highest ideals.

Sometimes it's a vow or resolution that we made already at the Jewish High Holydays in September. Sometimes it's a new resolution for 2010 or a fine-tuning of an earlier vow.


But since vows easily get broken and human beings are said to be 90% likely to fail at their New Year's resolutions, is there anything you can do this year to not just talk the talk, but somehow to follow through and improve things in actuality? Is there some setting where individuals can clarify how to live up to your highest ideals and how to stay true to your deepest values more consistently?

One possibility is the Mussar class that Rabbi Miriam Hamrell leads each Saturday morning before services at Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood. Mussar is the not-widely-known Jewish tradition of individual character refinement and integrity-seeking that was outlined by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter in the 19th century and that has been reemerging in recent years in many liberal and progressive congregations worldwide. It seems the more frantic and overloaded our lives become in the 21st century, the more we can benefit from a discussion group that clarifies how to live each day closer to our deepest values of compassion and goodness.

Popularized in the past few years by several acclaimed books on Mussar (including Alan Morinis' "Everyday Holiness"), Mussar discussion groups are designed to help busy individuals apply the ethics and personal growth insights from the written Torah, the oral Torah, and a variety of great teachers to dilemmas we face in our daily lives and complicated interactions with loved ones and strangers.


At Ahavat Torah, Rabbi Miriam started this particular Mussar class in the Fall of 2006 as an "all-are-welcome," "work-on-yourself-and-don't-judge-others" study and discussion group that meets from 9:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m. each Saturday morning in the Fireside Room of the synagogue prior to Shabbat services.

Each week the size of the discussion group varies from 15 early risers to 30-40 lively souls on certain weeks. Some men and women show up consistently, while others come and go and return when they are able. Yet for each person there are several common threads, including:

--A chance to study in depth some highly-regarded Jewish texts on ethics and daily dilemmas that most of us face at home, at work, or in our friendships.

--A chance to learn from the struggles and insights of others who share their spiritual journeys, their questions, and their personal breakthroughs with honesty and humility.

--A chance to learn from Rabbi Miriam how she uses these profound Jewish teachings in her own daily life and holy struggles.

--A chance to ask questions and resolve the concerns you've always wrestled with about the connection between Jewish spiritual teachings and everyday integrity issues.


The Mussar discussion group at Ahavat Torah votes every few months on what text to study next. So far, the weekly discussions have been sparked by studying in depth the following books:

--The first year was a study of Mussar steps and insights as described by Daniel Feldman in his book "The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations."

--Then the class spent several months exploring in detail each of the insights and challenges offered in Chapter Three of Pirke Avot (the Sayings of Our Ancestors).

--Next the class began to read and discuss one of the key books that inspired Rabbi Salanter to develop the Mussar system. It was called "Mesillas Yesharim: Lights Along the Way" by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.

--Then the class did another brainstorming session and voted to read and discuss each of the insights and teachings in Chapter One of Pirke Avot, only this time to utilize every so often a version of Pirke Avot that includes the insights on each verse as described in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and other traditions.

--Pretty soon the Mussar class will be brainstorming again on what to study next for going deeper into the connection between Jewish ethics, character refinement, and daily life.


Please don't feel you have to be a super Jew or a longtime scholar to enter the class and put in your questions and insights. Each week there are visitors and new members who offer wonderful ideas and raise excellent concerns even if they have never before been part of a Jewish study group or a Mussar discussion group.

What matters is that every individual in the Saturday morning Mussar class shows up ready to learn from each person's unique and different life experiences. Each week you will be surprised at how a passage from a Jewish text or a comment from someone you barely know can help shed new light on a dilemma you've been facing in your private life or your spiritual journey. Quite often the Mussar class becomes a safe place not only to grow deeper in your Judaism but also in your quest to live up to your highest values.

The Mussar class with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell meets at 343 Church Lane in Brentwood from 9am until 10am, immediately prior to Shabbat services.
There are no pre-requisites, but mutual respect and confidentiality are mandatory.

For more information about Ahavat Torah or the several other classes and discussion groups that meet regularly, please visit