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Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar

Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar

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by Alan Morinis

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Mussar is an illuminating, approachable, and highly practical set of teachings for cultivating personal growth and spiritual realization in the midst of day-to-day life. Here is an accessible and inspiring introduction to this Jewish spiritual path, which until lately has been best known in the world of Orthodox Judaism. The core teaching of Mussar is that our deepest


Mussar is an illuminating, approachable, and highly practical set of teachings for cultivating personal growth and spiritual realization in the midst of day-to-day life. Here is an accessible and inspiring introduction to this Jewish spiritual path, which until lately has been best known in the world of Orthodox Judaism. The core teaching of Mussar is that our deepest essence is inherently pure and holy, but this inner radiance is obscured by extremes of emotion, desire, and bad habits. Our work in life is to uncover the brilliant light of the soul. The Mussar masters developed transformative teachings and practices—some of which are contemplative, some of which focus on how we relate to others in daily life—to help us to heal and refine ourselves.

To learn more about the author, visit his website: www.mussarinstitute.org

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Morinis, director and founder of the Mussar Institute, summarizes the practice of Mussar "in the phrase tikkun ha'middot ha'nafesh—improving or remedying the traits of the soul"—while emphasizing that it is notself-help. Rather, "it means working on yourself, but not for the sake of yourself... but... to bring the soul to wholeness and holiness." Each of us is born with an inner soul that is irrevocably pure, but the outer layers constantly engage in the age-old struggle between good and evil. By determining our soul curriculum, or "issues that repeatedly challenge [us]," we can strengthen our souls and therefore every aspect of our lives. Specifically, he addresses 18 soul traits: humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, order, equanimity, honor, simplicity, enthusiasm, silence, generosity, truth, moderation, loving-kindness, responsibility, trust, faith and yirah(a combination of fear and awe, without a true English counterpart). In most cases the explanations are clear and delightfully illustrated with colorful Talmudic tales, though occasionally some traits, like moderation and generosity, seem at odds with each other. Early on, Morinis explains that a Mussar book should be read "slowly, in little segments, so the material can be thoroughly absorbed and digested." So, too, should readers of any religion take their time with this engaging tome of wisdom, lore and suggested practice. (May)

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From the Publisher
"You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate this way of refining and elevating your inner life and outward actions. . . . Everyday Holiness is an exceptional resource, illuminating how true spiritual transformation can take place in our lives one day at a time."—Spirituality and Health

"Clear and delightfully illustrated. . . . Readers of any religion [should] take their time with this engaging tome of wisdom, lore, and suggested practice."—Publishers Weekly

"This is a well-written guide to a spiritual practice that individuals who are beset by the travails of our modern world would find meaningful and compelling. . . . Morinis writes beautifully of his personal journey to Mussar."—The Jewish Book World

"Reading this book was an education and an inspiration for me. It is wise, written with beautiful clarity, and useful at every step."—Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul

“In a chaotic world awash in violence and immorality, it is a major challenge to live a meaningful, spiritual life. Reading this book and implementing its teachings will help readers to progress toward life goals that can deliver true happiness.”—Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, MD, author of The Spiritual Self

“The Mussar tradition offers a path of wisdom and authentic holiness that has stood the test of time. Alan Morinis has made a significant contribution in helping reveal Mussar’s transformative power.”—Larry Dossey, MD, author of The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 2: What Is Mussar?

Perhaps you already have a good idea of what Mussar is. If you have not yet encountered it, Mussar refers to a spiritual perspective and also to a discipline of transformative practices. It also names a popular movement that developed primarily in Lithuania in the second half of the nineteenth century, under the leadership of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin
Salanter. The word mussar itself means "correction" or
"instruction" and also serves as the simple modern Hebrew word for
"ethics." But Mussar is most accurately described as a way of life. It shines light on the causes of suffering and shows us how to realize our highest spiritual potential, including an everyday experience infused with happiness, trust, and love.

The wellspring of modern Mussar can be traced back to tenth-century Babylonia, when the sage Sa'adia Ga'on published his Book of Beliefs and Opinions.
There is a chapter in that book entitled "How a Person Ought to Behave in the World," which set in motion an inquiry into human nature that has been going on in the Jewish world for over a full millennium now. In every succeeding generation right up to the present, insightful,
discerning, and compassionate rabbis have been adding their own reflections and prescriptions to the accumulating tradition. Each book they have written builds on the insights of those who came before, as they have tried out and expanded on earlier developments.

Until the nineteenth century, Mussar was solely an introspective practice undertaken by an individual seeker. In the mid-1800s, however, Rabbi
Yisrael Salanter perceived that Mussar could be an answer to the diverse social tensions that were tearing at the Jewish community and its members in Europe at that time. The oppression of the Czar, the magnetic attraction of the new social ideologies of communism and socialism, the passionate call of the Zionist movement, the secularizing thrust of the so-called Enlightenment, and the fact that the Chassidic movement had lost some of its earlier spiritual authenticity each contributed to the strain the Jewish community was feeling. Rabbi Salanter's response was to call on people to learn and practice Mussar as a means to strengthen the final and most important bulwark for the defense of spiritual life: the solitary human heart.

Salanter himself taught and inspired but did not institutionalize his efforts. That task fell to one of his primary disciples, Rabbi Simcha
Zissel Ziv, who founded a yeshiva in the Lithuanian town of Kelm that became the seat of the Kelm stream of Mussar. Two other disciples,
Rabbi Noson Tzvi Finkel of Slabodka and Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz of
Novarodok, also founded yeshivas and articulated their own versions of
Mussar teaching. All shared a profound commitment to guiding the individual in the cultivation of personal inner traits, as Mussar has always aimed to do. Where they differed is largely in emphasis and style.

Kelm Mussar is highly introspective, emphasizing the powers of mind. The motto of Rabbi Simcha Zissel, the Alter (Elder) of
Kelm, was "Take time, be exact, unclutter the mind."

Mussar has been more behavioral, asking its students to internalize and then conduct themselves with the deportment of people who really believe that we are made in the image of God. The Slabodka approach is summed up in its slogan, "the majesty of man."

Novarodok Mussar has been the more radical school, adopting a more aggressive methodology for inner change. The Alter of Novarodok taught that it was not enough to try to influence the soul; what is needed is to "storm the soul."

Nowadays, the differences between the three schools have become largely obsolete, as contemporary Mussar teachers draw on all three as well as other sources to inform their teaching.

The teachings of Mussar are as applicable to our lives today as they have been to generations gone by. While the circumstances of our current lives are surely very different from those of centuries past, the passage of time has not altered human nature. As a result, the Mussar teachers' insights into the makeup and dynamics of our inner life hold as true for our lives now as they did for people living in those earlier ages. We've changed in so many ways through centuries, yet at our deepest core, we've really not changed at all.

A Spiritual Legacy

Because human nature has not changed, Mussar's precious and time-tested legacy is available to help guide our own footsteps through life. To think that we have to invent how we live all on our own, or in completely novel ways because our ancestors did not know cars or dishwashers or computers, is a curse, because it means we have to relearn all the lessons in living that have already been learned. Why deprive ourselves of the cumulative experiences and conclusions drawn by dozens of generations who passed this way before? We must be grateful to our forebears who had the foresight and compassion to record their insights and guidance and pass these down to us.

In this retelling of the
Mussar tradition, I endeavor to stay true to the insights and ideas of the classic sources, but to express them in a way that is more congenial and accessible to a modern person. The practical guidance that the rabbis wrote in Arabic in eleventh-century Spain or in Hebrew in nineteenth-century Lithuania would otherwise be unavailable to the vast majority today, including most Jews, not only because of the obvious barriers of language but perhaps even more so because the gems they contain are often obscured behind cultural garbing that can feel very alien to a seeker. In offering a handbook of Mussar for people of this generation, I am not trying to innovate on the authentic tradition, but rather to rearticulate the perennial truths in a more contemporary form. History shows that this is exactly what the teachers of Mussar have always done, as its sages retold timeless lessons in language and in styles intended to meet up with the unique circumstances of their generation. In that way, too, I strive to stay true to tradition.

The spiritual heritage of Mussar was almost lost when so many of its practitioners and students were killed in the
Holocaust. Even before that catastrophe, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Mussar had already been put on a path that led away from the main currents of Jewish community life when its leaders decided to focus their efforts primarily on instilling values and good behavior in the teenagers who populated their yeshivas. But
Mussar did not die, and in the twentieth century produced recent masters like Rabbi Elyah Lopian, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, and Rabbi
Shlomo Wolbe, among others. Today, Mussar is undergoing a revival, its spiritual treasury being opened once again.

Though developed in the Jewish world, and with roots that are inseparable from the laws,
commandments, and traditions of the most traditional segment of the
Jewish community, Mussar's ancient vault contains universal spiritual wisdom. Because Mussar's purpose is to provide guidance on how to live,
and because it addresses the fundamental ways human beings are put together and function, its teachings have universal application. The fact is that you don't have to be Jewish to benefit from Mussar. Its acutely accurate and insightful teachings are applicable to all souls—men and women, young and old, Jew and non-Jew—without exception.

A Person's Purpose in the World

Before you can appreciate the chapters that follow, and especially before you will want to put them to work in your life, you need to know more about what Mussar is and how it can serve you.

The starting point for understanding Mussar is the verse in the Torah that tells us: "You shall be holy." The Torah here reveals in no uncertain terms what a human being's job description is. In essence, we are here on earth for no other purpose than to grow and blossom spiritually—to become holy.
Our potential and therefore our goal should be to become as spiritually refined and elevated as possible.

It is interesting that when the rabbis combed through the Torah to seek out the commandments that are the backbone for living a Jewish life, none of the major codifiers seized on "You shall be holy" as a commandment they told us we must follow. This omission is classically explained by saying that our spiritual pursuits are the overarching and all-encompassing goal of our lives, and so this injunction can't be brought down to the level of an ordinance on par with the other 613 commandments the rabbis identified in the Torah.

That seems true to me, and yet I want to offer another possibility as well. My thought here is based on an analysis of another piece of the Torah, the famous story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge. There, too, we read what sounds like an explicit commandment, as God tells them, "Of the Tree of Knowledge of
Good and Evil, do not eat." Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz, who founded and led the Novarodok school of Mussar in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, writes about this episode, saying that this directive was not a commandment to Adam and Eve. Rather, it was God's good advice to them.

The same can be said about the Torah's bidding, "You shall be holy." Not just an injunction, this too is advice that helps us understand and act on an impulse we all already feel within ourselves, which is the inner drive to improve and to make something better of our lives. How many hours every day go into fixing,
cleaning, upgrading, improving, reconfiguring, and maintaining the things and aspects of your life? You commit so much time, though, and effort because you are born with an impulse to improve. Since we live in a time and place that emphasizes the material, we commonly give rein to that impulse in material ways. We change the color of our hair,
straighten our teeth, replace the car, get a new roof, do the laundry,
upgrade the computer, and spend innumerable hours and dollars in answering the call to improve. It's against this picture of our lives that the Torah offers its advice, calling our attention to that inner urge we already feel and warning us not to mistake it for a drive for material improvement. The Torah's advice is to recognize that, at heart and in reality, the inner impulse to improve that you feel is a spiritual urge, an innate drive toward spiritual refinement that is squandered when it is spent on your clothes or your car. It is a sad mistake to put it to any use other than becoming the holy being you have the potential to be, the Torah advises.

The Torah's counsel is aimed directly to the soul. The word translated as holy
in the phrase "You shall be holy" is given in the Torah in the plural.
Becoming holy is thus the task of every individual, and the Torah's advice is meant to be taken to heart by each of us.

Meet the Author

Alan Morinis completed his doctorate at Oxford University, which he attended on a Rhodes Scholarship. A producer of award-winning television and film, he has been a student of the Mussar tradition since 1997, studying under Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr. Alan is the founder and director of the Mussar Institute, an organization that promotes the study of Mussar through study groups, courses, and public talks. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife and two daughters.

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Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The matter has no end and it is circumstantial.   The level of sensitivity required must precede thought.  Humility and free will reaches a new dimension.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am reading this book as part of a class with our rabbi. It is a good basis for discussion topics, but we have issues with many of the author's examples and some of his points of view. It really helps to go through the book with someone who is already learned in Mussar.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Best read in a guided setting or class led by someone educated in this process. Can be re-read and meditated upon forever.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago