It was the Alter of Novarodok who said: “The accepted wisdom is that worldly people have this world, while the people of Torah have the World-to-Come. He who learns Musar knows that the worldly do not have this world and that the Torah scholars should worry about whether they really do have the World-to-Come.”
That saying is more than just a most incisive observation about what is real and what is illusion in our world. It also provides an approach toward, and thus raises hope for the possibility of, rapprochement between Jews who have been religiously estranged from each other.
I had occasion to reflect on this recently after having had the precious opportunity to spend an entire day in the company of a group of about 15 fellow Jews who, taken together, represent an extremely wide spectrum of religious belief and practice (with yours truly firmly ensconced on the right edge thereof). Our purpose: to discuss ways to make many more Jews aware of the teachings and practices of the Musar tradition. This is the second year that this meeting has taken place, although we speak by phone several times a year as well, and we have all become friends. The precise setting and details of the get-together I describe are not overly important.
What is important is that the good vibes in the room were palpable to me and, I safely assume, to everyone else there. This was not a case of people having to get up and make contrived pledges of allegiance to the values of “mutual understanding” and “tolerance.” My fundamental respect for those sitting on either side of me, which I clearly sensed reflected back, was a felt reality; it didn’t require trumpeting. Although the Jewishly-related topics we discussed over the numerous hours we spent together were not controversial ones, I would like to think that the spirit of sheer goodwill that pervaded the room would have made possible the calm discussion of subjects that would indeed otherwise be considered a good deal touchier.
Scenes of this sort are vanishingly rare in contemporary Jewish America. Doubtless, part of the credit for making our little group unusual in this way is due to the fact that it was formed by one rather special individual among us for whom the rest of us feel great admiration and affection. Also, there’s no question that the fact that we were there to jointly plan for the furtherance of goals that we all share contributes greatly to the atmosphere I’ve described.
But I think there’s more to it than that.
I believe a crucial factor in the generosity of spirit we felt is the fact that we shared a commitment, surely in theory and hopefully in practice as well, to the refinement of our character through the teachings of Musar and a conviction that this is the work for which we find ourselves on this planet. When one strives for growth through Musar, it has, as the Alter observed, some funny effects, which vary with the person’s place on the religious spectrum.
That is to say: for Jews whose Jewish scholarly or religious achievements put them at risk for deadening complacency about their spiritual growth and smugness, or worse, towards others of lesser attainment, Musar can be a wonderfully sobering antidote to bring them back to earth by highlighting their own significant deficiencies.
Musar is about living in reality, the reality of one’s own woeful inadequacy in relations with both G-d and fellow man, and the possible reality that the person sitting next to you with the creased, red satin yarmulke perched on his (or her?!) head might find greater favor than yourself in G-d’s eyes for, among other things, having traversed a greater distance on his life’s spiritual path.
For other Jews, including some with that red satin number, however, it is not their presumed religious superiority that makes them satisfied about self and condescending toward others. They are, after all, only too aware of their relative lack of religious knowledge and observance.
They, instead, are susceptible to certain unfortunate stereotypes about observant Jews. Among these: that the latter are simpletons with a worldview that fails to acknowledge life’s abundant complexities; that they are not overly concerned with moral rectitude, preoccupied as they are with ritual minutae; and that they go about obssessed with and ever fearful of a host of mostly imagined evils (this a variation on the general liberal disgust over Bushian “evildoer” talk, more on which, and its implications for American Jewish political tendencies, in a future post).
But a dollop of exposure to the Musar path, which is grounded in, emerged from and was historically lived by adherents of Torah, goes far in dispeling, or at least tempering, receptivity to this sort of stereotyping. It is Musar, after all, that reveals the infinitely complex workings of the human personality and just how multilayered are the motivations for the things we think, say and do and just how conflicted and entangled our interactions with G-d, man and self become as a result. Indeed, when compared with the nuance that the Musar program brings to ethical living, the reductionism of that one-phrase encapsulization of Judaism known as tikkun olam (or however one says that in Hebrew) begins to appear a tad . . . simplistic.
More: The Musar life, as, first and foremost, a path to ethical excellence, diasbuses the notion that traditional Judaism and Jews don’t much care about ethics. Obviously, the mature individual understands that for humans in a complex (there’s that word again), all-too-human world, the chasm between ethical teaching and practice can be huge; indeed, that is precisely a central idea that Musar seeks to impart!
Lastly, one following Musar’s odyssey into the recessess of the human mind and heart can’t help but be impressed by the fact that yes, Virginia, there indeed is evil in the world, and — jeepers! — it lurks not just in Teheran and Pyongyang, but in my heart and yours.
The practical relevance of all this? Perhaps it’s time the Jewish community gave up on the tired eventifying, the contrived “Judaic symposia and workshops” designed to bring us all together in “a spirit of mutual understanding and acceptance” and “a recognition that what much more unites us than divides us.” Yada, yada.
How about Jews sitting down together, without setting preconditions that make us feel “comfortable,” without organizational types hovering about and without mindless homage to the high ideal of pluralism; rather, just to study a few lines of Musar together, with “lips aflame,” as Reb Yisroel taught us to do? Both sides of the Jewish spectrum would come away immeasurably enriched: the frummies, by Musar’s insistence on unsparing self-honesty, and the non-frummies, by exposure through the Musar lens to what Torah is, and Torah Jews are, or at least want to be, about.