*** Here’s the Mussar Practice.***
- Yelena ‘Helen’ Belilovsky
- Marina Gertsberg
- Vladamir Savinkin
In 2004 Rabbi Janet Marder at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos sent shockwaves through the Jewish world by blessing the non-Jewish spouses who were members of the congregation on Yom Kippur. The message was clear: Cherish your non-Jewish partner.
Rabbi Marder said, “What we want to thank you for today is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner.” You can read the entire blessing here.
The blessing took place a few years before my family joined that congregation, and people were still talking about it. At the time, my wife was not Jewish and we picked Beth Am because the website was covered with welcoming messages, and our makeup is diverse – interfaith, same sex, intercultural marriages abound. We felt comfortable and welcomed. But it didn’t mean that there weren’t issues, issues that I was insensitive to.
I now understand how much I took my wife’s decision to embrace raising a Jewish family for granted. When I went back and read the blessing today, the following passage really struck me. “You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to those Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that difficult language.”
As I have written before, I am uncomfortable when people use Hebrew phrases that I don’t know. How much more difficult it must be for people who did not grow up Jewish. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really put it together, I did not put myself in her shoes.
Rabbi Marder’s blessing from 13 years ago also reminds me how Mussar can help strengthen relationships, by helping us recognize and cherish the differences in the other. To be clear, I think it is particularly important to cherish the differences, because despite those differences, our partner chooses to be with us.
Mussar, particularly American Mussar, offers an opportunity offers intermarried couples an opportunity to share Jewish values in everyday life without needing to know Hebrew or traditional ritual practice. Being a good person is the essence of being Jewish, and Mussar offers a roadmap to bring our everyday actions into alignment with our aspirational values. Here are three soul traits that can help us cherish our non-Jewish partner.
Honor Rabbi Marder was demonstrating the Soul Trait of Honor, in that she was going out of her way to Honor the Divine spark in others, when they are different from us. We can practice Honor by asking our partner how they are doing, and if they are uncomfortable or struggling with any part of the Rosh Hashanah experience. Work to make them feel more comfortable.
Gratitude – I did not sufficiently appreciate my wife for agreeing to raise a Jewish family. Take my advice, say thank you, and go out of your way to show your Gratitude by being sensitive and inclusive. The person you are with wants to be included, and understandably may be struggling. As Rabbi Marder said, “We know that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have made a painful sacrifice, giving up the joy of sharing your own spiritual beliefs and passing your own religious traditions down to your kids. I hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, will be some compensation, and will bring you joy.”
Order – Don’t just assume that your non-Jewish partner has to do all the child care or food preparation. When the kids were little, I often left it to my wife to take them out so I didn’t have to miss any of the service. Offer them an opportunity to participate in services and take your turn bringing the kids outside if they start to act up. And do some planning, to find an activity that the whole family can do together. For example, after services, plan to get together with a large group of friends.
Moses said, “I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26). This is a choice we all have every day. The reality is that you have someone in your life who care about you, but is really different. It might be an intermarriage, but there are other ways to be different. You might both be Jewish, but one of you is apathetic or unenthusiastic. Or you may share the same religion, but one of you is a vegan, or god forbid, a Trump supporter.
You can choose to ignore the differences, and allow them to be a source of conflict or pain. Or, you can choose to make them a blessing, and go out of your way to connect despite your differences.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are given an opportunity to really look at those relationships, to make amends for our mistakes, and decide to do better in the future.
Want to start your own Mussar journey? Click here to take the free Soul Trait Profile Quiz now
Image Credit: Rosh Hashanah by Lilach Daniel via Flickr CC
Mishkan Hanefesh is the Union of Reform Judaism’s official prayer book for the High Holidays. Or rather, I should say books, as there are separate volumes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I must admit it feels a bit strange to write a book review for a prayer book. And if this were merely a prayer book, my feelings would be justified. But these two volumes represent a compendium of Jewish thought that make them worth reading any time of the year.
Mishkan Hanefesh offers multiple ways to experience the holidays. There are the prayers, as well as several different types of explanations. They prayers and translations are on white pages, usually on the right page. The matching left page has a grey background, and contains poetry, or thematically matched Jewish text. You’ll find the wisdom of Jewish sages from the last thousand years, from Maimonides to Abraham Joshua Heschel to Rabbi Abraham Twerski.
Scattered throughout the book are blue pages, which offer commentary from both modern and classic rabbinic sources.For example, the blue page before the Torah reading on Yom Kippur morning has commentary from orthodox Rabbi David Hartman (1931-2013), who started the Hartman Institute, and Rabbi Josh Zweiback (b 1969) who is currently the senior Rabbi at Stephen Wise in LA. Wisdom from Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement is also captured within these books.
Mishkan Hanefesh is not only a throughly modern book, it is also a Mussar book. I love that it translates the Yetzer Ha’ra as “hostile impulse.” In The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions, I translate Yetzer Ha’ra as the evil inclination. Hostile impulse is so much better, because evil brings to mind truly diabolical characters like Isis or Voldemort. Hostile impulse better captures the idea that it is our survival instincts, like anger and sexuality, which map to our reptilian brain. The afternoon service on Yom Kippur is explicitly a Mussar service. It explains the importance of Tikkun Middot as follows :”repairing and strengthening the personal qualities and traits that enable us to fulfill our urge to be good.” As part of the Amidah prayer, there are sections on Lovingkindness, Strength, Holiness, Forgiveness, Love of Zion, Gratitude, and Peace in the Home. The blue pages for these soul traits are worth reading at any time of the year. In addition, there are reflection questions posed throughout the services to offer us an opportunity to look within, and truly personalize the experience.
Mishkan Hanefesh also has an amazing layout. The drama of the Sh’ma prayer or blowing of the shofar are captured by two page spreads with giant letters. There are pages of full page art that evoke awe and reflection throughout. And each section is easy to navigate, with a web-page like side navigation menu, that helps you follow the progression of the prayers and reflections.
Before I go, I must admit, I am biased – one of the editors of Mishkan Hanefesh is Rabbi Janet Marder, the senior Rabbi at my synagogue, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos. She is brilliant, and has been a major influence on my Jewish growth. I can see her heart and wisdom throughout the book. If your synagogue is adopting Mishkan Hanefesh, it is well worth the investment to get your own set. And if it doesn’t, but you are looking for a compendium of Jewish wisdom on personal transformation, then Mishkan Hanefesh is a must have.
Looking for something else? Check out our page of Mussar books.
Last week at Rosh Hashanah services, I met someone who was freaking out about missing work. “I have so much to do. I can’t believe I am here.” I gave her some lame advice, and later kicked myself for not just being sympathetic, and supportive. I freak out about work in my own way. I just think about it all the time. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve internalized that no matter what, I don’t work on the High Holidays. It has become part of the routine for me to disrupt my life, to just stop and look within. The trick is to find a way to let the High Holidays disrupt your life for Good.
The High Holidays are designed to disrupt your life. I live in Silicon Valley. Disruption is the goal. If you aren’t familiar with the lingo, Uber disrupted the taxi industry, and Apple disrupted the music industry. Here the taxi industry was just sailing along, and suddenly they are clobbered by this online monster that lets regular people drive other people whenever they want in their own cars. The status quo doesn’t like it, but we don’t makes leaps forward without disrupting what is. Disruption is all about non-incremental change.
The High Holidays can be merely a disruption of our routine, an inconvenience that gets in the way of rushing around. Or the High Holidays can Disrupt your life. You can take advantage of this opportunity to look within, and try to find out what causes you to miss the mark. In Judaism, sin means to miss the mark. When we do wrong, if we frame it as missing the mark, we have an opportunity to get it right next time. Do we just sail along, and make the same mistakes year after year? Or, do we disrupt ourselves and move forward?
Rabbi Alan Lew talks about the path to disruption in chapter 7 of his book This is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared. He wrote, “Spiritual deadness is a habit. Something in us want to be dead- wants to escape our reality-and we’ve expressed this desire in a hundred little patterns and habits.” I so relate to this idea. As I’ve shared before, I spent many years as a zombie, nearly working myself to death.
As a solution, Lew points to the teaching of the medieval Mussar Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, who advocates that we change our eating or clothing for a week, to shake things up and bring change. Of course, we don’t need to invent a time to disrupt our eating habits. We have Yom Kippur. Spending a day without food or water will change your perspective. You’ll see something different.
The question is, what will you do the day after Yom Kippur? Is that a time to just go back to the same old habits, or will you take action to make a change? As someone who is on the American Mussar website, I know you have an interest in changing.
I know change is hard, especially with all that life throws at us. The beauty of Mussar is that we focus on the small and ordinary. We make small changes in everyday living. We practice Mussar all year for this moment – now let the High Holidays disrupt your life.
If you want to look within and find those things that cause you to miss the mark every year, take the Soul Trait Profile Quiz. Have you taken the Soul Trait Quiz? Why not take it again?