What is Mussar?
Believe it or not, there is a solid argument that the Jews invented self-help over 1000 years ago. At the time, the Rabbinic scholars were trying to understand why it is so hard to be good. The Ten Commandments and other Jewish teachings clearly spell out how we should act. Yet many of us, both now and then, violate either the letter or the spirit of these commandments quite regularly. One of the answers to this question was Mussar.
Mussar is a practice that gives concrete instructions and guidelines to help you live a meaningful and ethical life. The first Mussar book was Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, which was written in eleventh century Spain. Rabbi ibn Paquda clarified a central tenet of Mussar: Following the spirit of the commandments is just as important as following the letter of the Law. For example, he scorns a scholar who focuses on pointless intellectual exercises instead of working to become a better person, and he praises a scholar who worked for 25 years refining his conduct.
In the ensuing centuries, the Mussar literature grew as scholars contemplated how various character traits like humility, patience, anger and jealousy contribute to a good life. Mussar became a widespread movement in Eastern Europe starting in the early 19th century under the leadership of Rabbi Yisroel Salenter. Rabbi Salenter transformed Mussar from a solitary practice to something practiced in community. Throughout it’s history, Mussar masters used real world examples, and describing situations that are often as relevant today as they were hundreds and thousands of years ago. In short, the struggles of our soul have not changed.
The fact of the matter is that we all have issues, whatever our religion or level of spirituality. Mussar teaches how to find those things inside that cause us to get in the same situation over and over again. And, it provides guidance for how we can begin to make small changes in our lives to help bring healing to the Soul through greater balance. Rabbi Elya Lopian (1876-1970) defined Mussar as “making the heart feel what the mind understands.” I love this definition, because so often we know what we should be doing, but we just can’t seem to make ourselves do it.
Mussar can be translated from Hebrew to mean, “correction” or “instruction.” In modern Hebrew, Mussar means ethics. When we practice Mussar, we are adjusting and correcting our Soul. But we don’t try to adjust the whole thing at once. Rather, we focus on specific parts of the Soul called Soul Traits.
Real World Spirituality
Compared to Mussar, Kabbalah is the more widely known branch of Jewish spirituality. Kabbalah is spiritual/mystical and focuses on the unseen forces in the universe. Mussar is spiritual/practical, and focuses more on our inner world, and how it impacts the choices we make day today. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a lot about either traditional or modern Kabbalah. I do know that there is significant overlap in the traditional Mussar and Kabbalistic literature. If you are currently a seeker who has explored Kabbalah, Mussar will complement and enrich your understanding. If you find Kabbalah a bit too “out there,” you will be able to relate to the Mussar because it is a very grounded practice.
The great 20th Century Mussar master Rabbi Schlomo Wolbe defined spirituality as building your interior world, and Mussar is the process we use to build it. In Judaism, we don’t wake up, decide to be spiritual, and then book a retreat to a mountain top for contemplation. Jewish spirituality is doing the inner work, to change our very Souls to become better at living in the real world. We are not expected to become great over night, and we only strive to become a little better than we were the day before.
One of my teachers Alan Morinis writes that we each have our own unique spiritual curriculum, meaning that we each have our own path in life, with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. We are presented with the same test over and over again until we pass it. For example, my trait of Humility is out of balance – I have a tendency to be arrogant. My arrogance hurt my relationships with others, especially my coworkers, for years. Each chance I had to say something arrogant was a test, and until I learned to make room for other people’s opinions and feelings, I was caught in this cycle of starting well on a job, and then gradually losing support from my colleagues. When I started bringing my Humility into balance, I started keeping my mouth shut, (“passing the test,”) and became easier to work with. As a result, I was spared a lot of unnecessary stress and conflict.
As this example also illustrates, Mussar teaches that actions count – in fact only actions count. We all have good intentions, but more often than not our intentions don’t translate into good actions. Mussar brings our actions and intentions into alignment with Jewish values. What are Jewish Values? Rabbi Hillel summarized it best: “That which is hateful to you, don’t do to another. The rest [of the Torah] is just detail.” Mussar offers key insights to help us understand why we sometimes do the right thing, and sometimes not. Hillel was articulating the Jewish version of the Golden Rule, more commonly knows as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Whether or not you are Jewish, it is hard to argue with the Golden Rule as a universal ethical principle. Mussar turns real world situations into opportunities for spiritual growth, which in turn make the world a better place.
From The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions by Greg Marcus, PhD. © 2016 by Greg Marcus, PhD. Used by permission from Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd.www.Llewellyn.com.
 Rabbi Bachya ibn Pacuda, Duties of the Heart, Hebrew trans. Rabbi Yehuda ibn Tibbon Feldheim, English trans. Daniel Haberman (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1996) 1:23.
 Ibid 1:25.
 Morinis, With Heart in Mind, 6.
 Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar (Boston: Trumpeter, 2007), 8.
 Alan Morinis, With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings to Transform Your Life (Boston: Trumpeter, 2014), 13.
 Morinis, Everyday Holiness, 3.
 Talmud Shabbat 31a.