The Practice of Musar

Geoffrey Claussen, “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.  The text is also available in Spanish: “La pr├íctica del Musar,” translated by Rodrigo Varscher, was published in Maj'shavot (Pensamientos) 54 (2015), pp. 1–30, and is available online here.