Friday, May 01, 2020

What Could be Wrong with Musar? A Meditation for the Self Quarantined

I want to speak to you tonight about a tale of two Slabodkas.

There was a Yeshiva in Slabodka, which split due to a controversy over the study of Musar, which focused on improving character, piety, and ethics.

The Musar controversy seems extremely strange. Why would a movement dedicated to spiritual growth engender a battle that lasted over 30 years?

And in its most shocking moments, in 1904 and 1905, during revolutionary years in Russia, an anti-mussar student pulled a gun on the Mashgiach in the Slabodke yeshiva, and another group of students took all the mussar books and threw them into the sewage filled latrines.

But this controversy began with a debate between great rabbis. When a leader of the Musar movement, Rabbi Isaac Blazer, went to visit the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1882, he was prevented from speaking by Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik.

The height of the controversy occurred in the years 1896 and 1897, when the Yeshiva of Slabodka split.

What was once one Yeshiva became two. The mussar one, led by the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, was called Knesset Yisrael, and the other, non-mussar one, was Knesset Beit Yitzchak.

Now to many of you Slabodka may be an unfamiliar name. It is a suburb of the city of Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania. But these Yeshivot are  the father of most modern Yeshivot.

Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore was started by a student of Slabodka, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman and named after Knesset Israel.

And other Yeshivas like Chofetz Chaim, Mir, Chevron are direct descendants of the Knesses Yisroel Yeshiva.

What caused this rift? As Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg notes, it seems strange to disagree about Musar, which is the spiritual equivalent of apple pie.

The Musar movement began with an intellectual giant, R. Yisroel Salanter.

To underline what a brilliant mind he had, Rav Weinberg recounts a story about one lecture. Like many Rabbis of the time, R.Yisrael would generally send ahead his sources for each lecture to have them posted on the bulletin board of that synagogue. Someone who opposed R. Yisrael decided to play a prank on him; and the prankster took down the sources R.Yisrael had sent, and put up a random list of other sources.

When R. Yisrael arrived at that synagogue, he stood for a few minutes looking at the new list. And then he began a lecture utilizing all the sources the prankster had written out. Such was the brilliance of Rav Yisrael's mind.

Yet what Rav Yisrael worried about most was a general failing of character.

One story R. Yisrael would tell, was about a Yom Kippur eve. A man was praying and saying the al chet prayer. Al Chet is a list of every possible sin, some quite remote, written to insure that everyone's confession on Yom Kippur is thorough. This man was saying Al Chet with incredible intensity, with tears coming down his eyes. Rabbi Yisrael approached the man, hoping to pray along with him in this moving prayer. But when Rav Yisrael came near, the man violently pushed him away!

As Rabbi Yisroel would put it, the man was crying about sins he never committed, and he was crying about this man, who had entered Yom Kippur and had no idea what it was all about.

But Rav Yisrael felt that Book study of Musar was not enough.

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg notes, many decades before Freud, Rav Yisrael Salanter understood the workings of the human unconscious.

And for this reason Rav Yisrael recognized that there needed to be both an immersive technique, that was deeply emotional. I'll just note in passing some of the methods the Musar movement used.

       A separate Musar house
        intense inspirational talks
       deep self criticism
        repetition of phrases
       making oneself emotional before studying musar
       and thinking about one's ultimate death.

But let’s return to the question: what could be wrong with this method of spiritual growth?

Actually, the  opposition to Musar had bubbled under the surface for nearly 40 years.

People were unwilling to oppose it openly because both Rabbi Salanter and the Chief Rabbi of Kovno, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector, supported and protected those who studied Musar.

But after they both passed away, the opposition came forward.

On 8 Iyar 5657 - 1897, a letter named למען  דעת   Lemaan Daat came out.

It was signed by 9 Rabbis, including the son of Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan, Rav Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz.

There are several arguments mentioned.

One is that the Musarites were seen as schismatic. Lithuanian Jewry was deeply opposed to Hasidism, and now they believed they were seeing a repeat of that movement.

And the Musar students acted weirdly. The opening of the Novardok Musar Yeshiva brought with it a strange way of doing Musar. Students would actually act strangely, to invite the insults of others; the point of this was to give the musar students a stoic detachment, and a willingness to do what is right no matter what other people say. But to outsiders, this was bizarre.

Even in an ordinary Musar Yeshiva, very often students would continually meditate on one phrase repeating it over and over out loud. This too seemed incredibly strange.

There was also the sense that those who studied Musar, even those who knew very little in terms of Torah, would look down on great scholars. And the feeling was that this secret arrogance was pure hypocrisy. The accusation is that they turned their outward piety into a way to act superior to others.

There is a well known joke from the opponents of Musar, in which a new student joins the Yeshiva, and everyone sits down in the Beit Midrash to study Musar on their own.

All of a sudden, the two most senior students break out in tears and say with all humility: ich bin a gornisht - I am a nobody!

The new student figures this is the way things are done, so he too calls out “ich bin a gornisht - I am a nobody”. Seeing this, an older student turns to his friend and says: “look who thinks he’s a gornisht - a nobody!

The suspicion was that Musar piety was hypocritical, and that the students would carefully check who was a bigger nobody than the next!

The other concern was that this would lessen the study of Torah. For Lithuanian Jewry, the theology of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin was paramount. He saw Torah study as the ultimate goal of religious life. In his commentary to Pirkei Avot, Rav Chaim of Volozhin says that the amount of musar you need a day is 5 minutes for 15 hours of Torah study.

And this  last accusation is quite possibly the center of the dispute.

In this week’s Torah reading, there is a verse that says “Kedoshim Tihiyu” you should be holy.  But how do you define being holy?

To the Rashbam, this simply means: keep all the commandments about to be listed in the next section, and you will be holy. This is very similar to the Volozhin view: Torah at the center. Keep the Torah and you will be holy.

But the Ramban sees holiness as going beyond what the Torah says. You must develop goodness and character. The Torah is merely a framework; One must develop their character beyond the basic responsibilities of the commandments.

And it is this message the Musar movement adopted, and it was revolutionary. They saw creating a complete human being as the ultimate goal.

For an educational purist, this was unacceptable. The entire goal of Judaism is the study and performance of Torah.

Studying Musar would not only take time out of the daily schedule, but it would also displace Torah as the most important goal.

Now it is easy for us to sit in our armchairs and take the side of those who studied Musar. Choosing character over scholarship would seem simple.

But We need to recognize that we actually pay lip service to character most of the time, and need to reflect on what choices we make in our own lives.

Would we be willing to sacrifice our children getting into an elite university so they could spend more of their time developing their character?

When I speak to high school students, I tell them that it is far more important to be a good person than get into a good university. But if we are honest, that is not an easy choice for any of us.

It was that type of choice that the Musar movement was demanding. You can't always have it all.

Rabbi Yisrael was saying he would rather have less scholarship and more character. And that was revolutionary.

Rabbi Yisroel's revolution upended the way people saw things.

He placed great emphasis on interpersonal commandments, both because he perceived that people were far more interested in ritual commandments and ignored the interpersonal ones; and because interpersonal commandments demanded a well-developed personal character.

He would instruct his students that the most important religious stringency in producing Matzah for Passover is to make sure that the widows employed in the Matzah bakery are treated with dignity, and never shouted at them during the baking process.

When the Cholera epidemic arrived in Vilna in 1848, the story that Rav Yisrael is best known four is making kiddush on Yom Kippur, to encourage everyone to follow his example and eat. But more dramatically, Rav Yisrael turned his Beit Midrash into a makeshift hospital to care for those who are sick, and told his students to leave Yeshiva and help others.

We live in a time where Rabbi Israel's legacy seems more relevant every day.

The importance of compassion and the importance of building character are critical in these days of stressful isolation. We are looking for ways to teach ourselves and our children to develop the virtues of dedication, optimism,and courage. We need to bring back Rav Yisrael!

No comments: