American Jews are reviving an emphasis on moral discipline and the cultivation of virtues that was prominent in the 19th century, writes Geoffrey Claussen in the Hedgehog Review (summer).
What was called the “Musar (moral discipline) movement” among Orthodox Jews in 19th century Lithuania is being revamped and expanded beyond its Orthodox base to include Jews who keep journals, commit to good deeds and daily prayer, and pledge to limit their consumption. The original movement began as a response to the stress on Jewish scholarship and the neglecting of practical virtues and morality in Jewish culture.
Although Musar never became a mass movement among the Jews, its influence persisted and it eventually found a home among Conservative and Reform Jews in recent years, Claussen writes. Particularly prominent as leaders in the contemporary movement are Rabbi Ira Stone, who runs Musar Leadership, which guides leaders and groups in these teachings, and Alan Morinis, a former film producer and anthropologist of religion, who runs the Vancouver-based Musar Institute.
A book such as Morinis’s Everyday Holiness seeks to make the disciplines of study, meditation, journaling, visualization and chanting accessible to a popular audience. These practices and teachings seem similar to the mysticism of the Jewish renewal movement, but Claussen notes that the Musar movement tends to stress reason and the deliberate development of moral character rather than esoteric experiences. In fact, the growth of this movement may even be a reaction to the mystical and emotion-based tendencies of the Jewish renewal and neo-Hasidism.
The socially activist cast of American Judaism, as well as the general American stress on personal autonomy and happiness, may conflict with the rigorous task of developing personal moral virtues as found in Musar. But Musar’s strong point is that it allows the many disaffiliated American Jews to engage in traditional practices outside of traditional communal structures and to tailor them to their own needs.
(Hedgehog Review, P.O. Box 400816, Charlottesville, VA 22301)