Mussar in Historical Context

Mussar is a discipline in three senses of the word. It defines a discrete area of study, like the discipline of physics. It describes a practice, as in, “It takes discipline to practice piano every day.” It also describes the act of correcting behavior, as in “you must discipline the child.” All three of these definitions are conveyed by the word mussar.

Mussar became the name for the Jewish literature of character development. In the mid-19th century, the term came to be used as the name of a movement, based on the impact of Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant, Lithuania (“Salanter”). Rabbi Israel was an inspirational figure who felt that the traditional Jewish community had failed by emphasizing the mastery of Talmud, rather than perfection of character.

Salanter recognized that character development depended on more than just study. He understood that there are forces of which we are unconscious that cause us to either act or not act. Only by our becoming aware of these forces and addressing them directly is change possible. For Salanter, textual study needed to be accompanied by a non-intellectual practice aimed at breaking through the confines of the conscious mind. Salanter and his students practiced forms of meditation on middot, character attributes, accounting of the soul, va’ad, and Mussar outreach.

CCM’s program derives directly from Salanter’s work and that of his students, following in the footsteps, in particular, of Rabbi Simcha Zissl, who founded the Kelm yeshiva and focused Mussar on the attribute of helping our neighbor to bear his or her burden.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth, by Immanuel Etkes (Jewish Publication Society, 1993)
Israel Salanter: Text, Structure, Idea, by Hillel Goldberg (Ktav Publishing House, 1992).

Spiritual life is superior to physical life. But the physical life of another is an obligation of my spiritual life.

Rabbi Israel Salanter

Founder of the Mussar Movement