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.  

3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah & Mussar

New Skills for Jewish Educators through Distance Learning

3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah & Mussar is a new distance-learning certification program for Jewish educators, tutors, counselors & youth leaders. This two-year program is designed to advance the skills of Jewish educators, camp counselors, and youth leaders yearning to effectively engage students and transmit the meaning, relevance and joy of Jewish learning and living. Training will focus on the skills of Jewish storytelling and spiritual development (hashpa’ah), coupled with depth studies in the texts, practices and methods of mussar (ethical development) and mitzvah. Core faculty are Peninnah Schram, Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Arthur Strimling (and colleagues). Contact: [email protected]

Details after the jump.
Sessions will be weekly, via experiential video-conference-call learning, monthly one-to-one supervision calls, and an annual retreat. 52 mitzvot will be coupled with middot (character attributes that can be cultivated) and matched with a significant repertoire of stories drawn from midrash and folktales, as well as contemporary Jewish literature.

This is a great way to deepen learning, make new friends with colleagues and delight in the methods of experiential education that will be provided by our team of master teachers.

Option: In addition to providing Maggid Certification, those who wish Maggid Educator Ordination through the lineage of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi will remain a third year in supervised practice and study with Rabbi Goldie Milgram and other ReclaimingJudaism.org clergy members.

The first 3 Mmm training cohort will commence with an opening retreat late in the summer of 2013. For information as it becomes available e-mail: [email protected]

  • Peninnah Schram, storyteller, teacher, author and recording artist, is Professor of Speech and Drama at Stern College of Yeshiva University. She is author of twelve books of Jewish folktales, including The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, and recorded a CD, The Minstrel and the Storyteller with singer/guitarist Gerard Edery. Mitzvah Stories (Reclaiming Judaism Press) was published in her honor. Peninnah is a recipient of the prestigious Covenant Award for Outstanding Jewish Educator (1995) awarded by The Covenant Foundation. She has been awarded the National Storytelling Network’s 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award “For sustained and exemplary contributions to storytelling in America.”
  • Arthur Strimling is Maggid HaMakom at Congregation Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Performer, writer, director, and author, he has appeared at venues including Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors, 92nd Street Y, Symphony Space, and across the US, Europe, and Latin America; and has been featured on NPR and the PBS series “In The Prime.” He is the Founding Artistic Director of Roots&Branches Intergenerational Theater and author of Roots & Branches: Creating Intergenerational Theater. He has been in residence at MacDowell, Yaddo, and the Jewish Museum.  
  • Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founded and directs the 501(c)(3) non-profit Reclaiming Judaism. A Covenant Award Finalist for excellence as a Jewish educator, she is best known for her inspiring programs and innovative resources that prepare Jewish educators, clergy and families to guide students towards more meaningfully living and loving their Judaism. A widely published author, internationally acclaimed storyteller and workshop leader, who has served as a religious school teacher & principal, BJE director, Federation executive & faculty member of several seminaries as well as a seminary dean, NBC innovator/anchor/producer and presently as Judaism Editor for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Reclaiming Judaism offers innovative resources & programs for meaningful Jewish living world-wide. The newest book from ReclaimingJudaism.org, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning is presently being featured on the Moment Magazine Blog here: http://momentmagazine.wordpres…

To receive an application or inquire about 3 Mmm: Maggid, Mitzvah & Mussar a distance-learning certification program for Jewish educators, tutors, counselors & youth leaders e-mail Rabbi Milgram at [email protected]