Mussar: A Contemporary Path to a Spiritual Judaism

— by Miki Young

For many spiritual seekers, the complaint about Judaism is that it doesn’t seem like it has what it takes to be a springboard for a life of meaningful relevance. The lack of easily accessible contemporary theology seems to create a great divide between honoring the ancient and finding a way to appreciate the practice of Judaism as an integral part of everyday life. Other traditions and practices such as Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness seem to give both solace and a sense of growing personal empowerment that many Jewish practitioners seek in a harried time.

More after the jump.
Mussar, a daily spiritual practice based on an ethical concern for others does, in fact, tether that bridge between Jewish spirituality and religion.  Developed in 18th century Eastern Europe, Mussar which literally means “discipline” offers practitioners a way of looking at the world which transforms everyday actions into moments of holiness.

“I wanted to feel more spiritual about my life,” said Phyllis Jacobs, a student of Mussar Leadership, a program of Beth Zion Beth Israel in Philadelphia for the last four years. “But as a Jew I didn’t really know exactly what that meant. With Mussar, I’ve discovered a Jewish spiritual discipline with guideposts and reminders that help me to look at what’s important to me in the world, how I treat people. Mussar helps me to see something everyday that makes me feel like I am connected to something bigger than myself. In many ways, Mussar helps me to navigate my everyday life in a way that makes me more the person I really want to be.”

The pursuit of spirituality, defined as living a life that seems to offer a sense of something “bigger than oneself,” is a commonly expressed sentiment by those who attend the Mussar Leadership groups, held throughout the area and via videoconference in different parts of the country.  The tenuous connection often raised is how does practicing Judaism as an individual or even in a minyan really set the groundwork for that spiritual connection?

“Mussar is an incredible impactful practice for all of us who are living in an ethically, spiritually bankrupt society,” said Rabbi Ira Stone, who is considered one of the few contemporary Mussar theologians and authors in North America. The daily practice creates a very centered sense of mindfulness with regard to how we impact each other and the responsibility we must take for our own behavior and for each other. “Mussar is not the end but the beginning of a spiritual path,” he added. “It is a compelling reason for people to reengage in classical Jewish text and practice in a way that is often missing in the non-orthodox world.  And, I think through that engagement, we could actually save the world.”

The practice of Mussar is “catching on.” Synagogues of many different denominations have lectures, workshops and ongoing classes. At Mussar Leadership those classes are offered at synagogues and independent groups that are identified as Conservative, Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform and unaffiliated.  Currently there is also a group of Rabbis in LA who are studying Mussar for their personal and communal development as well as training to be facilitators of the practice.

Many group participants said that their connection to Judaism has deepened as a result of attending Mussar groups.  “As part of this group, my level of study and interest in Judaism has certainly increased,” said Carol Daniels, who is training to be a Mussar madrich or group leader.  “I now study Torah and have a daily reflection of gratitude that has allowed me to use my own religion as a guide in my life that wasn’t available to me before.”

In addition to the benefit of becoming much more mindful about the responsibility a person has to society as a whole and to the individuals around him or her, participants say that the experience has given them a much deeper connection of community.

For Martin Jacobs who participates in a Mussar Leadership group at Or Hadash in Ft. Washington, what has been most valuable is finding connections with others and opening himself up to share the experiences of day-to-day life in a very safe, supportive environment.  “The insights others are able to give me about how I choose to live and act give me a very different viewpoint than I have by myself,” he said. His fellow group member Marianne Adler agrees.  “The group is key,” she said. “When I miss it I don’t like it.  Being part of the group is essential because I get to listen to everybody else and everybody has different things to work on and everybody brings something different to the group.”

Mussar Leadership groups are held at Beth Zion Beth Israel in center city and around the area.  For more information, email [email protected] or call 215-735-5148.

Additionally, Reclaiming Judaism is offering distance-learning certification programs for Jewish Educators that incorporate training in Mussar title 3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah and Mussar.  

Rabbi Ira Stone Describes AIPAC Conference

— by Rabbi Ira Stone

I begin with a belated beracha: “Shehechiyanu v’kimanu lazman hazeh,” giving thanks to God that I lived long enough to attend an AIPAC Policy Conference.

When in the long history of the Jewish people has it been possible for 13,000 Jews to gather together in peace, for our own purposes and to exercise our natural right as citizens to present our concerns to the representatives of our government?  2,000 years of Jewish lives would call this a miracle.  It is the miracle of America and we should not take it for granted.

Before I share any other highlights from the conference, let me describe one in particular that could equally justify my saying the beracha.  The opportunity to be in the same hall with Shimon Perez was unforgettable.  To stand and applaud a man who stood next to David Ben-Gurion in the founding of the State of Israel, to re-live imaginatively the transformations that he has lived and from Polish refugee, to Kibbutznik, to soldier in the War of Independence, to political leader, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, architect of peace even when it fails, committed to strength for the purpose of achieving peace — I felt like I was given the opportunity to listen to George Washington, but a George Washington whose rabbi grandfather, at the train station when he left Poland for Palestine, whispered in his ear: “Be Jewish.”  He never saw his grandfather again.  His grandfather was locked in his shtetl’s synagogue with the rest of his congregation and the synagogue was burned to the ground.  President Perez made it clear that “being Jewish,” articulating through his love and devotion to Israel those values that define what is means to be Jewish, has been his life’s work and is our life’s work.  Whether via an Israeli national identity or an American national identity, “being Jewish” is the transcendent theme of a Jewish life.

More after the jump.

Susan Rice on Israel

I will return in a moment to other highlights that occurred in the astonishing plenary sessions with 13,000 Jews listening to other historic talks.  However, most of the conference is not spent in plenary sessions, but in the more substantive break-out sessions.  The session I want to highlight this morning was a briefing by the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.  We heard the details, and began to internalize the details of the day to day work that the Ambassador and her staff have to do — every single day — to combat the sheer multitude of anti-Israel rhetoric, resolutions and policy initiatives by a large segment of the UN membership and comprehended just how committed the United States is to daily standing by Israel.  But learning the depth of Ambassador Rice’s personal commitment to Israel was not only more moving, but more instructive.  She began her remarks by quoting in impeccable Hebrew, Hinei matov u’manayim shevet achim gam yachad — even pronouncing the chet appropriately.  She then described her first trip to Israel with her father when she was 14 years old.  This African American woman, though not Jewish, climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea and journeyed through Yad Vashem as a teenager, thus putting the lie to the knee-jerk Jewish assumption that we are always alone, that no one else “out there” gets it.  The basic assumption of AIPAC is precisely that there are many Americans that “get it” and with a little more effort by a lot more Jews that number could increase exponentially.  But the most incredible moment came when Ambassador Rice finished her talk.  As those gathered rose to applaud, 400 Rabbis of every denomination spontaneously began singing hinei mah tov u’manayim.  It was a spine-tingling, unforgettable moment.

Considerations about Iran

The primary function of AIPAC and the AIPAC Policy Conference is to work to make clear the shared values and shared vision of the United States and Israel and the strengthening of the alliance between the two countries on this basis and with a clear-eyed recognition of the fact that this alliance is the single most important factor in securing Israel’s survival.  Whatever critique one might ever have brought to these assertions in the past, their truth is obvious in this moment of history in the looming shadow of Iranian insanity.  Much of the focus of the conference was on Iran and the development of a joint U.S/Israeli strategy regarding Iran.  It was this theme that many of the plenary speakers spoke about including, of course, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu.  Certainly just having the opportunity to hear the President and the Prime Minister, despite the security line hassles, has to also be included in any list of highlights.

I believe that it is imperative that we realize how essential the support of the United States for Israel is in whatever is coming in the situation with Iran.  It is assuring this support that AIPAC is all about.  Certainly it is clear that at the moment both the President and the Congress do sincerely support Israel, but that support is likely going to be put to the test.  President Obama is rightly using every non-military option at his disposal to precipitate a change in the policies of the Iranian leadership.  This is the wise thing for a responsible leader to do.  I applaud him, but I’m afraid that the policy will not work.  After all, if Adolph Hitler was willing to sacrifice almost certain victory in Europe by wasting a huge amount of resources to persecute Jews, it should be clear that reason will not be a factor in the Iranian’s policy.  Moreover, Iran has so much to gain in the long run through the acquisition of nuclear weapons — complete hegemony over the Middle East, complete control of the distribution of oil in the world — that the short term suffering that they will need to absorb will be worth it.  

If and when the President’s attempt to use non-military measures to solve the crisis fails, the impact on America will be significant.  Maintaining the support of the President and more importantly Congress when the American public begins to experience the consequence of Iranian intransigence will require constant effort.  All of us will have to become not only lobbyists of Congress, but lobbyists of our neighbors, our co-workers, even our own friends and family.  Second, it is imperative that starting now we help to change the nature of the discourse surrounding these issues.  Israel is not threatening nor refraining from a pre-emptive military action.  Israel is restraining itself at no little risk from a defensive response to an aggressor.  Israel has no border with Iran.  Whatever issues there are between Israel and her neighbors have nothing to do with Iran except that Iran has continually supplied military supplies to those terrorist groups that are on Israel’s borders, Hezbollah and Hamas. It has continually supplied money and material to a world-wide network of terrorists who have carried out attacks against Israel, against Jews in other countries and against the United States.  Coupled with these real and recognized acts of war, Iran has consistently repeated its chief foreign policy goal: the annihilation of the Jewish State.  In the face of these undeniable acts of war, Israel has and continues to show unprecedented restraint.  When Israel determines that its survival will no longer allow such restraint it will act and when it does it will not be launching an attack but finally defending itself from attack.

When, God forbid, this happens, there will be consequences for all of us.  I hope you can tell from my remarks today that this was an almost unprecedented experience.  In the words of so many of the speakers at the conference: “God bless the Jewish people and the State of Israel and God bless the United States of America.”

Ira Stone received his education at Queens College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was ordained a Rabbi in 1979.

He has served congregations in Seattle, Washington and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he has been the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel since 1988. You can read some of his sermons on mussar.

Celebration of Mesillat Yesharim at Beth Zion-Beth Israel


John Oliver Mason

The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) celebrated the new edition of the classic Jewish text, Mesillat Yesharim, at a brunch and discussion held at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

Messillat Yesharim is a classic in Jewish Mussar (ethical) literature, written by the Kabbalist Moses Hayyim Luzzatto. It was translated into English by Doctor Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism. The new edition has an introduction and commentary by Rabbi Ira Stone, of Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

More after the jump.

Rabbi Barry Schwartz, CEO of  JPS, welcomed everyone attending, and commended BZBI for providing the brunch, and he also thanked the Kehillah of center City for co-sponsoring the event. “It’s is truly an event,” he said, “that cuts across denominational lines, and it’s wonderful to see representatives from many different synagogues and different streams of Judaism this morning.”  Schwartz spoke of the life of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto, “A great Italian rabbi whose life straddles the transition from Medieval Judaism to Modernity.”

Schwartz also spoke of his research into the rabbis in Amsterdam in the 17th century for an upcoming book on that era, adding, “One of the things I’ve learned is that these individuals, these rabbis were very well-schooled and educated, and applied a rational approach to understanding Judaism and understanding text, in the spirit of Maimonides. At the same time, some of these same individuals had very strong, mystical and kabalistic leanings. We’re used to dividing people into categories, rationalists and mystics; but what we’ve discovered from (studying) this period is that one individual, the same individual, could hold all these views together in different parts of their lives.” Kaplan, said Schwartz, was not comfortable in researching Luzzatto, because Luzzatto was not a pure rationalist, but also a mystic.

The re-publication of Mesillat Yesharim, said Schwartz, was made possible by a donation from the family of Miles Lerman, who “became a study partner with Rabbi Stone, in the subject that this book covers which is Mussar, the ethical impulse if Judaism.”

Susan Stanek, Director of the Kehillah, said, “It’s amazing to see so many people from so many synagogues (represented), and how wonderful it is to see our community coming together to support Rabbi Stone, BZBI, and the Jewish Publication Society.”  

David Lerman, President of the Jewish Publication Society and son of Miles Lerman, told the audience, “I’m privileged to be a member of this congregation, and I’m especially privileged to have the opportunity to study with Rabbi Stone…

During the High Holy Days,” added Lerman, “Rabbi Stone told us in the congregation that one of his commitments this year was to multiply the opportunities for the members of the congregation to encounter text. For people who weren’t raised studying at yeshivot, who didn’t have as natural an opportunity to encounter text, approaching text seems a little intimidating, and text seems difficult to access.”

The purpose of JPS, said Lerman, is “to create opportunities for exploring Jews to have a chance to understand and explore our roots and our traditions, in ways that enrich and expand our contemporary lives.”

Professor Mel Scult, pre-eminent authority on the life of Mordecai Kaplan and co-editor of an anthology of Kaplan’s writings, Dynamic Judaism: The Essential writings of Mordecai Kaplan,  said of the Mesillat Yesharim, “(It) has been popular for a very long time, and was central to the Jewish community in the 18th and 19th centuries. What Mordecai Kaplan did was, he brought it into his own time. Every translation is really a commentary,  really an interpretation, and he brought it into the world of the 1930’s. What Rabbi Stone has done is he has reconstructed it for our own time.”

Scult described the book as “a how-to book on Jewish religiosity, spirituality, and ethics. All of us want to move from where we are to a higher level, and Luzzatto, Kaplan, and Rabbi Stone help us do that.”

Rabbi Stone thanked the JPS staff and everyone who participated.