Intro To Mussar: Jewish Mindfulness

Rabbi (Rav) Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) was a renowned Litvak, Talmudist and founder of the Mussar movement, mentored by Rabbi Zundel. They both lived very modest, humble, minimalist lives. Rav Salanter was appointed the head of a yeshiva in Vilna, where he acquired his own following.

In 1848, the Czarist regime built a Rabbinical School and offered Rabbi Salanter a Professorship in Talmudic studies. Fearful of the Czarist agenda, he declined the offer and moved to Kovno, where he founded a Mussar yeshiva and continued to live very humbly by choice, unconcerned with material status. It’s said that he did not own books and his religious garments were threadbare. His teachings and means to convey them were his riches.

There’s no greater disease than the loss of hope. There’s no greater illness than discouragement. Scriptural study is not the end to itself, it must be accompanied by ethical study and conduct. Promote yourself, but do not demote another.

Rav Yisrael Salanter

By 1939 Mussar was well-established in Eastern European yeshivot until the teachers and practitioners were murdered in the Holocaust.

Today, Mussar is experiencing a resurgence in all branches of Judaism.

Mussar means moral conduct, instruction, correction or discipline.

Mussar practice advocates a three step approach to cultivation:

1) Start your day by audibly stating your Mussar intention.

2) Actively practice a Mussar middah (character trait) of the day.

3) Keep a journal of your progress, thoughts and feelings.

Mussar focuses on achieving a balance between mindfulness towards others and self-mindfulness. It’s imperative to identify that which diminishes your Divine light, while not diminishing the Divine light of others.

There are 48 Middot in Mussar literature. Rav Salanter emphasized 13 Middot — Humility, Gratitude, Patience, Honor, Generosity, Kindness, Strength, Tranquility, Trust, Enthusiasm, Order (everything has a place), Awareness and Truth.

The following are eight of eighteen middot explored in “Everyday Holiness” by Alan Morinis.

The meanings attached to the Mussar Middot (character traits) below are imbued with my own understandings and contemplations.

Hitlamdut: Self-Reflexive Torah Learning

A Mitlamed is a person who practices Hitlamdut. Hitlamdut is not recitation or memorization of scripture, it’s internalized learning with a beginner’s approach akin to the Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin (beginner’s mind), even when one is at an advanced level. A Hebrew word for GD and Torah is Mayim Chayim (Living Waters). We are to flow like living waters, not get stuck in the muck of own heads.

Anavah: Humility / Modesty

A person with humility doesn’t always need to grab the limelight and take up more space than needed to self-actualize. A modest person has a healthy degree of self-value, while holding space to shine a light on the gifts (wisdom and knowledge) of others.

Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a piece of paper. On one it should be written, “The world was created for me” and on the other “I am but dust and ashes.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunim
Savlanut: Patience / Forbearance / Tolerance

This word translates to “carry a load; to endure; to suffer.” A related and interconnected Hebrew word is sivlot, meaning ‘burdens.” In Shemot/Exodus 6:6 God says “I will free you from the burdens (sivlot) of mitzrayim.” Mitzrayim means a narrow, constricted space.

A Hasidic commentary interprets Shemot 6:6 as “I will free you from the tolerance of mitzrayim.” This implores us to understand the harm done when we are taught to tolerate mistreatment, marginalization and ‘smallness’ (constriction). Patience is a virtue, but misguided tolerance can be detrimental to our wellbeing.

Chesed: Loving-Kindness

Chesed is a supreme mitzvah in Judaism. The Talmud teaches that GD created Repentance before creating the physical universe (Nedarim 39b). Loving-kindness cannot exist without repentance and atonement to people you have wounded with or without intent. Sometimes kindness is a simple act, other times it requires courage, accountability and creativity.

Kavod: Honor / Dignity

We can see how honor and dignity are interconnected in the term kavod habriyot (human dignity). Kavod habriyot is an interactive mitzvah of utmost importance. In what ways can you honor others as well as yourself? In what way is human dignity lacking in your relationships or community dynamic? Relationships cannot be healthy without human dignity as the foundation.

Shtika and Shmirat HaLashon: Contemplative Silence and Mindful Speech

Contemplative silence (Shtika) and guarding the tongue (Shmirat HaLashon) is not about repression. It’s about knowing there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. It’s important in every interaction to know when it’s your time to speak and when it’s your time to listen. When speaking to another or others, it’s equally important to be mindful of your words and tone. Silence can be mindful or it can be detrimental. Plato and other great philosophers, equated silence with acquiescence and accordance. The silence of family and friends can cause irreparable harm.

“Not to speak, is to speak. Not to act, is an act.”

Deitrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident 
Bitachon: Trust / Confidence / Security

Bitachon represents qualities that are foundational to mental health and healthy relationships. We must feel safe with a person for a relationship to be trustworthy and non-toxic. We must feel safe in our religious and interpersonal environments to thrive and feel good about our contributions to the world.

Emunah: Faith / Trustworthiness

Emunah is typically translated as “Faith,” yet it also means “Trustworthiness.” A lack of trustworthiness can cause a crisis of faith. Have you ever lost trust in a friend, close family member, clergy-person or religious community? Faith and Trustworthiness are interdependent experiences.

©️ 2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

I often use GD as my version of G-d, a traditional spelling in Judaism that is used outside of prayer.

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25 thoughts on “Intro To Mussar: Jewish Mindfulness

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  2. Ah, now that is my gift from Spirit. To be in a place where I can ‘hear’ another’s heart. Not what they say or do but that inner truth they struggle with. But also know when to speak or be silent. It only took 63 years to find that place, apparently I had to fall down many times so that I could see and understand of what I spoke 😀❤️🙏🏽

    • I hear you, Mark! It can take a while to get to that place of understanding. 😅 It truly is a gift from Spirit to know when to speak and when to be silent. I became attuned to the “inner truth” of others through my own experiences with being unheard. I’m sensitive to ambient noise as well. Noisy spaces are chaotic for me, overwhelming the senses. I love serene, low-key spaces that promote a relaxed state of mind. Many thanks for being here and sharing the wisdom of your lived experiences. 🙏❤️

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  4. I find it interesting when you state that Mussar has experienced a resurgence in all branches of Judaism. It must appeal to diverse groups as I would think there would be some division and creative tension between the different branches. Always good to hear some activity that brings people together instead of divides. I particularly like, “Promote yourself but do not demote another”. That is indeed an aphorism for today’s political climate. Interesting post. You have added to my spiritual knowledge.

    • Really good point about Mussar being a unifying factor! The world is very polarizing. There is divisiveness and delegitimization between Jews from different branches of Judaism as there is between Christians from different denominations of Christianity. I’ve even heard adult newcomers to Conservative Judaism make derogatory remarks about Reform Judaism. Very disheartening. Thanks much for being here and bringing your awarenesses to the table. Your insights are always greatly valued and appreciated!

  5. I love this d’rash. Derech Eretz is imperative in order to be an observant Jew. Kindness is the most important thing in Judaism. Most people think that rituals are the most important things.(e.g. Kashrut) Thanks for pointing out this fact. The reference to primary sources that demonstrate this point are nothing short of genius. Compassion, kindness, and empathy are very special attributes that need to be learned about,(Mussar), put into action, cultivated and practiced in life. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. It is profoundly complicated, as you so brilliantly shared, and it is the most important way of life! Thank you, for your brilliant d’rash and reference.

    • Abundant thanks! Unfortunately, rituals (like reading from the Torah in Hebrew, learning liturgical prayers and form of practice) are often given precedence in synagogues over the true essence of Judaism and Jewish living, which is made manifest by our ethical laws and interactive principles. Even our tradition of Torah and Talmud study can be devoid of the ethical heart of Judaism, depending on how it is conveyed. We have internal imbalances and internal misunderstandings about our purpose as Jews within the Jewish community. It’s not about recitation and memorization. It’s about our way of being in our microcosmic world. 🖖

  6. Love this metaphor: “Spirituality is like a bird: If you hold it too closely, it chokes, and if you hold it too loosely, it escapes”. I enjoyed hearing about this rabbi. Thank you.

  7. This is a joy to read. There is such wisdom and relevance here. I appreciate what I see as an emphasis on balance–valuing self, valuing others, for instance–and I also appreciate what I hope I’m understanding is an organic quality to something that has a heritage of generations, not to mention what is ancient.

    “It’s imperative that we see ourselves in the Torah (bible) as co-writers of an evolving story.” What is set down is vital, but apparently there’s room for more. Even if this is promoting our participation alone, it is an engaging way to do it. The Massur practices bring to mind others such as the lectio divina and centering prayer. I appreciate promoting prayer, study, and action that comes through all these, I believe.

    So many scholars and teachers murdered in the Holocaust. Not to mention all the other skills–and more importantly all the people–who were lost. I don’t want to understand race-hatred. I only hope I can help to end it.

  8. I used to do daily mussar practice, but somehow I dropped it along the way, probably when my depression got bad and I was working nearly full time and living by myself and trying to run my home and I just felt to overwhelmed to keep it up. Part of me would like to restart it, but I just feel too overwhelmed with stuff at the moment.

    • (((Hug))) I struggle with depression too. It’s so isolating. Sending lots of caring thoughts your way. 🌷

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