Monday, April 9, 2012

The Practice of Musar

Claussen, Geoffrey. “The Practice of Musar.” Conservative Judaism 63, no. 2 (2012): 3-26.

Full text here. In this article, I make some suggestions about how the legacy of the nineteenth-century Musar movement might best guide contemporary Jewish practice.  I consider, in particular, the Musar movement's vision of how a broad range of practices can spur moral development, and how this model might apply to contemporary Conservative Judaism. Here's an excerpt from the introduction to the article:

The Musar movement’s chief innovation was that it demanded not only the inner qualities and external behavior commonly understood to be required by the Torah, but also other practices that can help to cultivate moral behavior and virtue. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the movement’s founder, recognized that changing our ingrained habits to make us better people is extremely difficult, and his response to this recognition was not only on the level of theory but also on the level of behavior. Salanter suggested that Musar was not only a literature to be learned, but a practical path to be followed. Engaging in Musar, he suggested, is a matter of engaging in “extensive stratagems” that can “make a strong impression on the heart and give strength and power to one’s external limbs.” Engaging in Musar means using tactics that can bring discipline (“musar”) to our hearts, transforming our characters and so transforming our behavior. Engaging in Musar is engaging in practices that can help us to become better people.

What sorts of tactics can change our hearts in this manner? What are the practices of Musar? Salanter and his disciples suggested that there are a great many forms of behavior that can help us to become better people. Some of these practices of Musar are practices that are widely seen as obligatory for all Jews—studying Torah, engaging in the specific ritual and ethical behaviors that Jewish law demands, and acting with kindness toward other people. Formal halakhic obligations such as these are a key part of Musar practice but, Salanter argued, changing one’s nature for the better requires additional “stratagems” that are not found in standard codes of Jewish law.

Salanter suggested that each individual must find whatever practices can help him or her to overcome the particular character traits with which he or she struggles. He and his disciples also pointed to certain specific practices that they saw as generally effective, which included: repeating words of Torah with a melody and so seeking to bring them into one’s heart; visualizing both the way that things are and the way that things could be; looking at oneself and putting one’s moral struggles down in writing; engaging in serious conversation with others about how to live one’s life; as well as engaging in deeds of lovingkindness and so instilling habits of love within one’s heart.

When I say that Conservative movement practice should be guided by such a model of Musar practice, I do not mean that we must engage in the precise practices endorsed by Israel Salanter and his students. I mean that the Musar movement teaches us to think broadly about the behaviors that God might require of us. We should adopt the model of practice that the Musar movement provides: we should see ourselves as obligated not only to engage in practices that can be codified, but in whatever “Musar” practices can help us to emulate God’s goodness—to become better, wiser, more loving people. It is a halakhic obligation for all people to walk in God’s ways (“v’halakhta”) as best we can, and we can learn from the Musar movement that each of us has a derivative halakhic obligation to engage in the practices that help us in achieving that goal....

The complete article explores practices of text study, music, visualization, introspection and journaling, conversation, prayer, interpersonal commandments, commandments pertaining to the human-divine relationship, as well as the countless other sorts of behavior that can help human beings to "walk in God's ways."

Click here for the full text, © Rabbinical Assembly 2012, shared online with permission of the Rabbinical Assembly.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Jewish Virtue Ethics and Compassion for Animals: A Model from the Musar Movement

Claussen, Geoffrey. “Jewish Virtue Ethics and Compassion for Animals: A Model from the Musar Movement.” CrossCurrents 61, no. 2 (2011): 208-216.

The article is available here via Wiley Online Library.  It focuses on images of animals and animality in the writings of Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv.  Among the texts that I discuss are the following:
1. Ḥokhmah u-Musar 1:31
The [fundamental] quality of God is that [God] loves all creatures; were it not so, they could not exist in the world.  And we find that loving God’s creatures is closeness to the Blessed One…. Our sages, in their holy way, have taught us (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a): how can a person draw close to the Blessed One?  By cleaving to [God’s] attributes. And there is no attribute of the Blessed Lord that is more clear than love for [God’s] creatures.  “You open up your hand and satisfy the desire of all that lives” (Psalms 145:16)—we see that every single creature receives pleasure and satisfaction for its desire, and this is simply God’s love for [God’s] creatures.  And consequently we find that the prohibition on causing suffering to animals comes from the Torah.

2. Ḥokhmah u-Musar 1:8
Our forefathers—our father Jacob, peace be upon him, and David, and also our teacher Moses the shepherd, peace be upon him—concerned themselves with livestock as shepherds for this reason: they wanted to habituate themselves even to share the burdens of animals—all the more so to share the burdens of people of their generation.  
And this is what we have in the Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 2:2), explaining that “Moses was a shepherd” (Exodus 3:1):
The sages said: “God tests that righteous person with small matters.  [He tested] David with sheep and found him to be a good shepherd, as he [first] brought forth the smaller sheep to graze so that they would be able to graze on the tender grass, and afterwards he brought out the older sheep so that they would graze on the regular grass, and finally he brought out the [strong] young sheep who would eat the tougher grass.  The Holy Blessed One said: “one who knows how to shepherd a flock, treating each sheep according to its strength, should come and shepherd my people.”…

And even Moses—God only tested him by means of the flock.  Our sages have said that when Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was shepherding the flock of Jethro, a lamb escaped.  He ran after it until the lamb reached a pool of water where it stopped to drink.  When Moses arrived there, he said: “I had not known that you had run away because of thirst.  You must be tired.”  He placed it on his shoulder and walked back.  God said: “You have shown mercy in guiding your flock in this way.  By your life—you should shepherd my flock, Israel.”

My brothers, gentlemen: contemplate the wonders contained in this midrash, to learn such lofty teachings from one midrashic text.  See the simple things that people scorn, and how they are considered foolish in people’s eyes.  But after they focused on this, training themselves in the character trait of “sharing the burden,” these two great figures merited the kingship.

3. Ḥokhmah u-Musar 1:14
We can understand [the quality of “sharing the burden”] when we see a wagon driver steering a full wagon, when his horse does not want to go forward, and he beats it and beats it.  If the wagon driver were himself to try to pull the burden with all his might, like a horse, then he would not be so cruel to the horse.  But because he is not pulling along with the horse, he does not have a mental image which demands compassion for the horse, which is continually pulling with all its might.  And this is what [our sages] hinted at: if you want to feel the pain of your fellow, stand next to him and pull his burden along with him, and then you will feel your fellow’s pain.
UPDATE: Full text of the article available here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

God and Suffering in Heschel’s Torah Min Ha-Shamayim

Claussen, Geoffrey. “God and Suffering in Heschel’s Torah Min Ha-Shamayim.” Conservative Judaism 61, no. 4 (2010): 17-42.

Drawing on Abraham Joshua Heschel's Torah Min Ha-Shamayim (translated into English as Heavenly Torah), this article considers four classical perspectives on God's relationship to seemingly-unjustified human suffering:

(the school of
Rabbi Akiva)
Transcendentalists (the school of
Rabbi Yishmael)

(God is responsible for suffering)
God causes suffering to benefit human beings and to show intimate involvement with themGod causes suffering in accordance with the often-inscrutable laws of justice


(God is not responsible for suffering)

God deeply identifies with those who suffer but cannot prevent their suffering

God has compassion for those who suffer but cannot prevent their suffering

   Out of these four views, Heschel paid the least attention to the view that suffering reveals a transcendent God whose hand does not intervene in history. This lack of attention is not so surprising, given that, when it came to challenging the doctrine of divine omnipotence, Heschel was personally committed to the non-interventionist model associated with the immanentism of Rabbi Akiva.
   But the non-interventionist views that can be linked with Rabbi Yishmael's transcendentalism are also worthy of significant attention....
From the conclusion:
Heschel should be admired for recovering, in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, the often-neglected non-interventionist theology of Rabbi Akiva's school. But, out of his attachment to Rabbi Akiva's vision of God's identification with suffering human beings, he neglected the non-interventionist theology of Rabbi Yishmael's school. As a result, readers of the chapters focusing on suffering in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim may be left with the impression that, for the Rabbis, God's compassion must be expressed through God's identification with human beings; and readers may be left with the impression that divine transcendence must be associated with interventions in history which transcend human understanding. To correct such misimpressions, I have sought to highlight the alternative model of divine transcendence which Heschel hints at in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim but ignores in those key chapters: a model which sees God as compassionate without blurring the lines between the human and the divine; a model which recognizes God as transcendent not because of God's inscrutability and God's direct power but because of God's transcendent goodness—which does not control but which commands from beyond. As a theologian collecting neglected but valuable traditions in rabbinic thought, and especially as a theologian seeking to help modern readers to make sense of God's role in history, Heschel should have given more attention to this alternative vision of a transcendent, non-interventionist, compassionate God.
The article is available on Project Muse here (and as a PDF here).

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simḥah Zissel Ziv on Love and Empathy

Claussen, Geoffrey. “Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simḥah Zissel Ziv on Love and Empathy.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 30, no. 2 (2010): 151-169.

ABSTRACT: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv of Kelme, Lithuania was one of the early leaders of the Musar Movement, a pietistic religious movement in 19th century Europe that attempted to place concerns with moral character at the center of Jewish life. This article introduces Simhah Zissel’s virtue-centered approach to the Torah’s central commandment that one “love one’s fellow as oneself.” For Simhah Zissel, love is a disposition of the soul, with emotional and intellectual aspects, culminating in action; love demands a sense of partnership with others and a sense of care which should extend to all of God’s creatures. Love demands a sense of partnership with others and a sense of care that should extend to all of God's creatures; love requires that we not privilege ourselves over other people; and the highest level of love is “sharing the burden of one’s fellow,” compassionate love characterized by empathy and responsiveness, which can only be cultivated through great effort.

UPDATE: Full text available here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The American Jewish Revival of Musar

Claussen, Geoffrey. “The American Jewish Revival of Musar.” The Hedgehog Review 12, no. 2 (2010): 63-72:
Awoman writes in her journal every night, focusing on her struggles with anger. Two friends sit down over coffee and discuss their recent efforts to perform at least three acts of generosity every day. A man posts on an online forum about how easily he is distracted by needless concerns but how daily Jewish prayer has helped him to focus his mind. A group studies Jewish teachings on greed, and they commit themselves to taking concrete steps to limit their consumption. Another group pores over a medieval Hebrew text about pride, and they conclude their weekly study session by chanting some of its words out loud to a haunting Jewish melody.
These American Jews display a good deal of moral seriousness, a tendency towards introspection, and a concern with the virtues to a degree that is somewhat uncommon in mainstream American Jewish culture. In describing their behavior, they might refer to the Jewish tradition of “Musar” (“moral discipline”) and explain that they are carrying on the legacy of a nineteenth-century, Lithuania-based movement known as the “Musar movement.” Most American Jews have not heard of the Musar movement, and many, upon learning about it, would write it off as requiring too much self-criticism, too much moralizing, and too much work. And yet interest in Musar has been steadily growing in contemporary America, in part as a counter-cultural phenomenon....
Full article here.  PDF here.

UPDATE: The Wilson Quarterly discusses the article here (available with paid access only).