A congregant came to our first Mussar class, participated actively and later emailed me that, while interested in so much that Judaism has to offer, Mussar seemed like much ado about nothing: as long as no one is harmed, what do emotions matter?
On one hand, I totally get this response, and on another, I felt flummoxed. Mussar, the ancient Jewish spiritual practice of self reflection geared toward becoming the best person we can be, is at the heart of Judaism.
Maimonides (1135-1204 CE) wrote, in The Guide for the Perplexed (III:27)
The general object of the Law [Torah] is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity… The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time. The latter object is required first; it is also treated [in the Law] most carefully and most minutely, because the well-being of the soul can only be obtained after that of the body has been secured.
This one paragraph is worth hours of discussion and dissection, but I believe it all boils down to the idea that Torah is there to help us perfect our souls and protect our bodies. Protecting our bodies requires us to “remove all violence”: recognizing that we can’t all have everything we want when we want it, but that we have to agree to compromise (stopping at red lights and stop signs, wearing seat belts, not taking other people’s possessions, being fair in business, not using guns and knives to settle disputes) to be in society together. And we must contribute to the common welfare (pay our taxes, support our schools, hospital, benevolent societies… both Jewish and American ideals (see Preamble to the Constitution)).
And we need “good morals as must produce a good social state.” This morning the Reno paper reported that a large number of police and National Guard were patrolling the area of the Caughlin Ranch fire, to prevent looting in the affected areas. This is a the perfect example of Maimonides’ point: good morals would tell us that looting where people have been evacuated from their homes is not kosher. But because we are not perfect, our government (funded by our tax dollars) must provide both the security and fire protection.
Because, according to Maimonides, without protecting the body, our souls don’t stand a chance at perfection. Maimonides and Maslow (of the Hierarchy of Needs) would have been in complete agreement on this point, Maimonides writing in the 12th Century, Maslow in the 20th.
But what of the perfection of the soul? What is that, except learning to control our behavior, and even our emotions, so that we can be the best people we can be? As someone who worries when her loved ones are late (are they dead on the freeway?), I can relate to the people waiting for Moses to come down the mountain: when they thought he was late, they panicked and forced Aaron to build them the molten, golden calf, the idol to their fears and anxieties. The Torah is telling us – that’s normal, predictable behavior (and fear), but we need to transcend it if we are going to build a just, moral society.
How we overcome our fears, how we recognize our triggers and deal with them: that’s a major component of the spiritual message of Judaism. Freud led us into a world in which we think it is all psychology and therapies have advanced to include cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. These therapies are remarkably close to Mussar: looking at our behaviors and their triggers and figuring out how to make needed changes. But Mussar has the added advantage of being based in thousands of years of tradition and text, wisdom of our ancestors, and deep insights that were psychological before psychology became a field, and are based on a desire to be connected with the Divine, however each of us perceives that.
The other motivation for this blog comes from the events over the past few weeks about the uncovering of the cover-up at Penn State. New York Times Columnist David Brooks wrote a column. “Let’s All Feel Superior” (11/14/11) in which he noted that we all believe we would have acted better than the people at Penn State, but the likelihood is we would walk away as they did. Study after study shows that we think we act better than we do, because we are afraid, or lack confidence, or can’t believe what we’re seeing, or don’t want to and shut down. He continues,
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.
That’s another definition of Jewish practice – making us aware of our weaknesses and teaching us how to exercise discipline over them. It’s not just a matter of reading the texts, studying the history, praying. All those help, but unless we can apply these to our lives, the messy ones we live every day, we risk repeating the sins of yesterday, or the sins of others.
I recounted a tale at services last night about Elijah the Prophet’s walking stick, given to an old man faced with challenges and opportunities for heroism and menschlekeit. Each time he encountered the opportunity, his first inclination was to flee, because he was “too old.” As he was about to walk away from 1) helping a blind woman cross the street, 2) celebrating with bride and groom and 3) rescuing people being attacked by hooligans wielding knives, the walking stick took over and forced him to step up and do the right thing. It is a beautiful story that is so appropriate for our time: how do we implant Elijah’s walking stick into our souls so that we can’t help but step up, whether it is helping someone across a busy street, or celebrating by dancing with feeling, or putting ourselves in harm’s way?
I have watched the effects of Mussar on people who “do the work” – they become more humble, more attentive to others, less involved with getting their material or even emotional needs met before those around them. They are slower to react harshly or out of their fears… They are learning to live with their “yetzer hara” – their creative, selfish, “evil” inclinations. They are embracing the spiritual messages that Judaism has to offer.
I invite you to join us as we study together.