Contributed by board member Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath
In Judaism, Mussar is a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives. Mussar is a treasury of techniques and understandings that offers immensely valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.
The goal of Mussar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul. The roots of all of our thoughts and actions can be traced to the depths of the soul, beyond the reach of the light of consciousness, and so the methods Mussar provides include meditations, guided contemplations, exercises and chants that are all intended to penetrate down to the subconscious, to bring about change right at the root of our nature.
One core practice is a daily “accounting of the soul” – Heshbon HaNefesh – that is conducted by reflecting on specific character traits (middot, pl; middah, sing.) like order, patience, equanimity, and humility (among many others).
We focus on specific interactions with other people and evaluate our behavior in regard to them through the lens of the one character trait that is our focus for that week.
The question we ask ourselves in this meditative process is: “How did our success or failure to realize this character trait – this middah – affect the other person?” not “How did this make me feel.”
We then note possible interactions for the coming day and contemplate how best to interact with others vis-à-vis this character trait.
From its origins in the 10th century, Mussar was a practice of the solitary seeker, until in the 19th century it became the basis for a popular social/spiritual movement originating in Lithuania, inspired by the leadership of Rabbi Israel Salanter, who, in an interesting side-note too long to detail here, came in contact with similar practices in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.
First appearing in Deuteronomy 11:2 and occurring many times later in the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew word Mussar means “rebuke.” In the Mussar movement the term acquired the related meaning of “discipline” as in a discipline of rebuking oneself.
The text above came in most part from intertwined quotes from Rabbi Ira Stone and from Alan Morinis. If you’re interested in exploring Mussar with them in print, these two books provide a good orientation: Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis and A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by Ira Stone.