Most Jews today have never heard about Mussar. I went to Hebrew school for 12 years and never heard even once that there was a profound Jewish way of improving one's character habits, or that this method was developed over several hundreds of years with specific guidelines on how to become more mindful and balanced (even when you're faced with complicated, stressful moments or difficult, self-absorbed people).
What about you? Did you grow up in a family or a congregation where they explored with you the many fascinating Jewish teachings and tools on how to have integrity, strength, and compassion even in very difficult situations? Did you learn how to examine and improve the character traits (such as anger, impatience, moodswings, pride, judgmentalness, being a pushover, or being too rigid) that were causing trouble for you or the people you interact with in public or in private? Did you know there were brilliant writings and useful steps on how to make sure you were walking the walk and not just talking the talk?
Here in a quick summary is some information about the Mussar (character refinement) practices of Judaism and where you can find out more on how to study Mussar in an enjoyable and life-affirming way:
THE MYSTICAL ASPECT--WHY IT'S SOMEWHAT LIKE A WEDDING
On one level, Mussar or character improvement is extremely practical. It's about how to stay centered, compassionate, and effective, even when life or an irritating person is testing you.
At the same time on a mystical or spiritual level, Mussar study is like a holy wedding or a joining together of two beloved partners. One partner is you the human being who has a pure soul and a few complicated personality traits (that could definitely still use a little improvement no matter what chronological age we are). The other partner at this moment of joining together is the Eternal One, the creative Source of the universe, and this beloved One needs us to examine and repair what's broken between us or blocking the flow of light, so we can keep repairing the fragile world which is still somewhat unfinished.
According to one of the early Mussar teachers, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, we human beings become sh'lemut (whole or complete) when we examine and transform our individual self by connecting more deeply with the expansive and unlimited Self that we call HaShem. Like most holy weddings, this search for a deeper connection, unification, or beloved partnership is an exciting and somewhat risky process that includes something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue, such as:
Some of the brilliant writings and guidance that we study in a Mussar class or discussion group are thousands or hundreds of years old. They come from the Torah, the Mishneh, the Talmud, the Medieval sages, and the many modern teachers of how to live each day with integrity, goodness, and perspective. What the Mussar scholars and teachers have done is to arrange these sayings, debates, and teachings in a way that it speaks to the personality traits and character struggles that you and I face in our lives today. When you study in a Mussar class how to be more patient, more effective, and less reactive with your awkward brother-in-law, or your less-than-sensitive neighbor, or an ex-spouse, or a noodgy person in the market, you discover that there are gems of wisdom and useful guidelines from ancient sages that can be applied to your everyday dilemmas here and now.
For example, at Ahavat Torah Congregation in the Mussar class and discussion group that has been meeting each Saturday morning from 9-10 a.m. in the Fireside Room of 343 Church Lane in Brentwood prior to Shabbat services, there have been some fascinating conversations about how to deal with real-life situations in which someone in your family or a long-time friend says or does something which gets on your nerves.
Each week Rabbi Miriam Hamrell (or Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus when Rabbi Miriam is out of town) leads the discussion group in exploring many relevant ancient and modern gems of wisdom on how to deal with here-and-now challenges and dilemmas. The Mussar class each week is not only an enjoyable way to learn more about many centuries of practical Jewish wisdom, but also a focused way of exploring what habits and tendencies we each want to keep improving in ourselves.
Every participant in the discussion class (whether this person has been attending often, not so often, or is there for the first time) is treated with respect and each person's insights into these ethical and interpersonal dilemmas are taken seriously. Over the past four years of Ahavat Torah's Mussar class, there tends to be great diversity of opinion and background in each of the conversations, yet an atmosphere of mutual respect and caring has been consistent in these weekly discussions.
(Please note there is no Mussar class on Saturday morning, January 1st and Shabbat services will begin at 10:30 a.m. on January 1st only).
The new development is that starting during one of the upcoming Saturday mornings in January from 9-10 a.m. (before Shabbat services), the Mussar class and discussion group of Ahavat Torah Congregation will begin a new phase of bringing a very modern 21st century perspective to the ancient teachings. Members, non-members, and guests are all welcome and there is no payment or prerequisite necessary for showing up at a Mussar discussion group.
Starting as soon as the discussion group completes its current exploration of the varieties of "tikkun olam" (based on the writings of Rabbi Elliott Dorff of American Jewish University), the weekly Mussar class will be using a relatively new book entitled EVERYDAY HOLINESS: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, which was written by Alan Morinis and published in 2007. Please feel free to show up at the next Mussar class on January 8, 2011 and be part of the conversation about the deeper meanings of "tikkun olam," which will soon transition into the topic of "Everyday Holiness and the Path of Mussar."
Every few months for the past four years, the Mussar class has looked at a different book to spark each week's discussions of how to live with integrity and wholeness during challenging moments. Based on the recommendation of Rabbi Miriam Hamrell, Rabbinic Intern Susan Nanus, and several of the participants in the Mussar class, it was decided in December to start reading and discussing Alan Morinis' teachings on how to refine one's character in the 21st century using Mussar wisdom.
In his books and his workshops, Alan Morinis draws from thousands of years of Jewish writings and teachings to come up with 21st century options for dealing with tough situations and stubborn character traits within ourselves. In a sense, he borrows from the best rabbis, teachers, and study groups in Jewish history to bring a very accessible and useful set of steps to our modern lives and daily challenges.
As described in his earlier book "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" (published in 2002), Morinis was raised in Toronto in a family that was culturally and politically Jewish but not very religious or spiritual. During college and as a Rhodes scholar in England, Morinis studied anthropology, Hinduism, and human pilgrimmages, which he then taught at a university in Vancouver while raising two daughters with his wife who is a medical doctor. Then he became involved in a charitable foundation and eventually became an award-winning documentary film producer. But despite numerous successes and cinematic awards, Morinis hit a low point when his film corporation went through a financial tailspin that resulted in bitter disputes between various executives and investors.
According to Morinis, being raised in an ethical Jewish home and knowing what it means to be a mensch didn't quite prepare him for the extremely stressful pressures of coping with a company on the brink of ruin and the tensions it placed on his personal life and friendships. So he began to look deeper into various Jewish teachings on how to live with integrity and wholeness even when life becomes quite chaotic.
In "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" he describes how, "One evening I came to a chapter on the Mussar movement and I wanted to know more about it. As I continued my reading, a new (and very old) world opened up before me. I learned that Mussar is a path of spiritual practice that had developed within the Orthodox Jewish tradition over the last thousand years. It tells us that at our core we are all holy, and it shows us ways to change those qualities within us that obstruct the light of our holiness from shining through. It assures us that we are not condemned to live forever with every aspect of the personality we happen to have right now, but that we can make the changes that will set free the radiance of our inner light. And it provides a tool-bag of personal, introspective, and transformative practices that will lead us, step by step, along the path of purification and change."
For the next several years, Morinis realized he needed a rabbinic guide and a deeply honest discussion group in order to truly learn and practice Mussar. So he began to travel for days at a time to study with a revered teacher in New York, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr. While Morinis' first book "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" describes his many years of learning, wrestling with, and living the Mussar teachings, his second book "Everyday Holiness" spells out the steps involved in "making the changes that will set free the radiance of our inner light." Currently a widely-requested speaker and teacher worldwide, Morinis has become a bridge-builder between the modern perspective of those raised in liberal or secular Jewish homes and the many centuries of Jewish teachings and debates on how to practice Mussar character refinement.
Now here comes the important first step if you want to be a part of this holy wedding between your soul and the Soul of the universe. Whether you decide to become a consistent participant in the weekly Mussar discussion group, or an occasional participant, or a once-in-a-blue-moon participant, you will benefit enormously by purchasing as soon as possible a copy of "Everyday Holiness" and bringing it with you to the class. This blue and gold book containing Jewish wisdom and practical steps for wholeness is available at a significant discount on Amazon.com and you can arrange a quick link giving a share of the cost of the book to the fundraising of Ahavat Torah Congregation.
You will find at Amazon.com that there are used hardcover copies for $8-$16 or new copies of the paperback edition for $13-$18. Since it usually takes Amazon 4-6 days to send a book to you, or it might take a week or two if you order the book through your local bookstore, make sure to order your own copy of "Everyday Holiness" as soon as possible so that you'll be ready when the Mussar class begins its conversations of these inspiring teachings.
Morinis' book has chapters on how to improve the way you find balance in many character challenges, including: humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, order, equanimity, honor, simplicity, enthusiasm, silence, generosity, truth, moderation, lovingkindness, responsibility, trust, faith, and yirah (fear/awe). There are also clear directions on how to set up a daily, weekly, or yearly accounting of how you are doing on the soul traits that you want to improve while there's still time.
Please don't feel you are locked into a permanent obligation if you come to the Mussar class at Ahavat Torah Congregation when and if you are able. No one judges anyone in this class (especially since one of the character traits we explore is judgmentalness). You will be welcomed each time you show up and if for any reason you don't have a copy of the blue and gold book in your hand you will most likely find someone offering to share his or her copy.
But you might find (as many other Ahavat Torah members, non-members, and guests have found) that there is something exquisitely transforming about arriving at 9 a.m. on a Shabbat morning and starting the day with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell leading us in an opening meditation where we let go of what's outside the room and we then connect with the joy of being able to study the words of our tradition together for the pursuit of peace and wholeness.
May you be blessed with a healthy and wonderful new year, guided by the wisdom that is available to us if we find the right teachers and study partners to help us keep learning and growing in every decade of life.
---For more information about Ahavat Torah Congregation and directions to 343 Church Lane in Brentwood, please visit http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or call 310 362-1111 and ask to be put on the free list for receiving the weekly newsletter of classes, events, and celebrations.