Mussar today

Guest post by R’ Alan Morinis

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe published his great work of Mussar, “Alei Shur,” in the 1990s. This great scion of the Mussar yeshivas of Lithuania passed away in 2005. These two facts serve to underline how recently we had a Mussar master living among us. And because he lived so recently, he was aware of the modern world and of us who inhabit it.

Another factor that contributed to Rabbi Wolbe’s sensitivity to contemporary life is revealed in the fact that the name his parents gave him at his birth was August Wilhelm Wolbe. He was raised in a non-observant Jewish home in Berlin, and he had a secular education at the University of Berlin (1930-1933). As his religious and spiritual life developed, he eventually found his way to the Mir yeshiva in Poland, where he became a student of the Mussar mashgiach [supervisor] there, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz.

When I study “Alei Shur” and I read Rabbi Wolbe’s teachings, I hear a voice that understands people today, people like you and me. I want to share one teaching that I think makes this point very clearly, and that highlights how modern Mussar differs from the millennium of the tradition that came before.

Rabbi Wolbe wrote one chapter in “Alei Shur” titled, “Difference between the Generations” and he identifies right in the first sentence that he is concerned with differences as they affect the learning and practice of Mussar. “Until the Holocaust, European Jewry were people more exacting in knowledge and more self-assessing in regard to problems of living.” He acknowledges that the material conditions of life were much worse in those times, but they were an incomparably spiritual generation, he says. We enjoy an improved economic and social situation, but we are much lower in our level of spiritual elevation and greatness in Torah.

Rabbi Wolbe accounts for the difference: we have no personal experience of what true greatness looks or feels like. “When today we speak of the elevated status [romemut] of a human being, it is very hard for students to understand the meaning of the words; the role-models of true elevation are few, and most of those who study Torah have not met close-up the remaining few great ones among us.”

So we live in a materially wealthy but spiritually impoverished age in which role models of spiritual greatness are not readily available to us. Rav Wolbe also says: we are not as tough as previous generations. We can’t take criticism. When a person of this generation becomes aware of personal imperfections and failings, Rav Wolbe says, that softness translates into a tendency to get depressed and even to despair. Later in the book he elaborates to say that this is a pitfall of Mussar practice in general—as you learn Mussar and come to see how far from the ideal you may be in certain ways, your mind sees only the deficiency. What it can’t see is the effect your study and practice is having on the sub-conscious. So the picture the mind sees is unbalanced in favor of the deficiency, which can lead to unwarranted despair.

The previous generation was tougher and could bear the bad news that they were not perfect, without being crushed by this discovery. We live in a world in which a flimsy pretence of getting it right is preferred to the deep and obvious truth that life is a journey of growing and we all have some growing to do.

Here Rabbi Wolbe makes a programmatic point, which I find very helpful, even essential. Before anyone starts talking about where he or she has room to grow in his or her inner life, or to use even more direct language, where he or she detects shortcomings, that person needs to spend a good, long period internalizing the notion of romemut—the inherently spiritually elevated status of every human being, including himself or herself. “The beginning of the way of anyone who learns Mussar today needs to be: learn the elevatedness of a human. He must climb the ladder that leads to awareness of greatness.”

This teaching is specifically aimed at us who are living in this generation. Rabbi Wolbe wants us to understand that we have no solid basis for learning Mussar and working on ourselves if we have not internalized the profound truth of the incomparable greatness of the human being, and that that picture applies to each of us. Only once that knowledge and awareness has become a permanently installed backdrop to all we do, think, and feel are we then prepared to do our inner work. That background knowledge assures that when we become aware that we could be more generous, or that we are not as kind as we fancied ourselves to be, or that we have a tendency to be lazy, we are not going to be devastated. Recognition of our imperfections figures against a general awareness that we are equipped with so many resources, we are so infused with virtues, and we have so many capabilities. That gives us the conviction that we have the foundation from which to deal with our spiritual curriculum, as it becomes revealed to us.

Rav Wolbe is steering us away from any tendency to slip toward distress or despair when we discover our imperfections. The chapter following the one in which he gives the teaching on romemut is called “Without sadness!” Starting Mussar learning by developing a firm appreciation for the lofty nature of a human being, including ourselves, deflects from any possibility of sadness or despair, he writes. In fact, it leads us in the opposite direction: it leads to joy.

It may seem incomprehensible, maybe even perverse, to imagine someone feeling joy when he or she comes face to face with the reality of his or her own arrogance, or stinginess, or worry. But I have known that feeling. The revelation of my own shortcomings is not a symptom of failure, but rather of victory. Those deficiencies were there in me all along, regardless of whether or not I was aware of them. Now I have become aware, and that is a far preferable situation to being unaware. I feel joy because that element of my reality is no longer unconscious. Only once I am aware of the real nature of who I am can I bring into play all the remarkable and elevated qualities that we human beings possess (me among them), to put them to work as aids to guiding my growth. That is a real cause for joy, because knowing where I have fallen short gives me the knowledge I need to take a journey of growth. And now I can.

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