Posts tagged ‘Mussar’

January 2, 2013

Les Mis and mussar

Last week we saw the movie “Les Miserables,” and this week I’m reading Parashat Shemot, the first chapters of Exodus. They both shed light on the practice of order, which is one of the middot, or attributes, of mussar, Jewish ethical development (see

The liberation of the Hebrew slaves is going to disrupt the order of Egypt and Moses’ first actions in this drama bring disorder. He sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and strikes him dead on the spot, hiding his body in the sand. The next day he tries to make peace between two Hebrew slaves and gets rebuffed by one of them. Apparently the Egyptian status quo includes the sort of pecking order that is typical among those in bondage, and the dominant slave wants to maintain it. But of course as we read the whole story we realize that Moses isn’t the source of disorder, but of a better order than Egypt’s status quo, as he tries to bring justice into the picture.

This story reminds us that the pursuit of order can degenerate into a defense of the status quo. We can become too intent on maintaining order and miss God’s higher order, his justice, altogether. In “Les Miserables,” what has stuck with me the most over the years (and I first read the book in high school) is the story of the bishop’s candlesticks. The protagonist, Jean Valjean, has just been released from prison and the bishop takes him in on a cold night. Valjean gets up in the middle of the night, steals some of the bishop’s silver, and runs off. The police stop Valjean, recognize the silver, and drag him back to the bishop’s house. But the bishop says, “I gave him the silver; you can let him go.” Then he turns to Valjean and says, “My friend, you left so suddenly that I didn’t have time to give you the best part, my silver candlesticks.” He sends him off saying, “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.” The incident changes Valjean’s life, and sets up the rest of the story. What struck me when I saw the movie was the chutzpah of the bishop. He acted boldly to secure and define Valjean’s freedom. He trumped law and order with the higher order of mercy and forgiveness.

Order normally means maintaining a balanced, livable status quo. But when the status quo is unlivable—as when the Hebrews cried out to Hashem in their affliction—God’s order means taking a stand against the status quo. Like the bishop, Moses demonstrates that this stand takes chutzpah, when he challenges the status quo of Egyptian slavery, and soon after when he defends the daughters of Reuel against the bullying shepherds. For those who want to work on the practice of order, the point is clear. Sometimes pursuing God’s order will take the sort of chutzpah that the status quo never demands of us.

December 4, 2011

Honor your neighbor

The middah* of honor is an essential part of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which in turn is essential to the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and substance. If we don’t honor the people around us, can we really claim to honor the God who made them?

Honor looks beyond the outward circumstances and behavior of our fellow human beings to see the divine image in each one: “Every one a holy being.”  This understanding of human nature doesn’t seem to come to us easily. We’re ready to ignore, discredit, mock, and malign people around us, according to our own needs and prejudices.

November 14, 2011

Doing the Shema

Judaism doesn’t put the same kind of emphasis on creeds or statements of faith that Christianity does. A true-blue conservative Christian worries first about what you believe and whether it’s orthodox. Only after he settles that, does he get around to what kind of person you are. Jews tend to consider whether or not you’re a mensch—a decent, upright human being—before they worry about what you believe. (Unless of course you believe in Yeshua, in  which case a lot of Jews freak out even if you are a mensch, but that’s another story.)

On the other hand, some people think of the Shema as a sort of Jewish statement of faith: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. But is it really a statement of faith? Or is it just as much about behavior as about belief?

October 31, 2011

Positively concrete

These days I’m refocusing on the Shema as the first and greatest commandment (Mark 12:28ff) and as foundational to my work in mussar. A few weeks ago one particular of the Shema got in my face: “You shall bind these words as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8). Jewish tradition provides a literal way to fulfill this commandment through tefillin, small leather boxes containing the words of the Shema, attached to leather straps that can be bound to the arm and forehead.

I’ve prayed with tefillin in the past, but never regularly, so that’s my assignment now. When I told my wife, Jane (who is always supportive of my Jewish practices) about my new assignment, she said, “But aren’t those words meant figuratively?” It’s a good question, based on Scripture itself. Back in Exodus 13, when Moses gives the law of redemption of the first-born, he says, “It shall be as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes . . .” clearly a figure of speech here, as the same terminology is in Proverbs 3:3, 6:31, and 7:3. I remember reading somewhere that Rabbenu Tam, grandson of Rashi, who wrote the definitive tract on binding tefillin, also believed that the language was metaphorical, but applied it literally anyway. The language might be figurative, but if there’s a way to fulfill it literally, all the better!

That’s the particular genius of Jewish tradition—it doesn’t overdo the contrast between inner and outer, but seeks to express the inner through the outer. It lays out a spiritual pathway with concrete steps.

October 28, 2011

Ears to Hear

In my mussar work for the coming year, I’m going to focus on the Shema. (Mussar is a Jewish spiritual path that emphasizes ethical transformation. Check out

The first ethical or character trait that we’re working on is humility, so I’m thinking about how humility relates to the Shema, and I decide that Listen – the very first word – is the link. Listening takes humility because it’s not about me and it requires that I set aside my stuff and pay attention to someone else.

This is in the back of my mind as I’m finishing up The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs, a secular, mostly assimilated Jew, who sets out to “follow the Bible as literally as possible” for one year.

September 4, 2011

Silence, Shofars, and Elul

When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour (Rev. 8:1, CJB).

This week, our Mussar group is working on the virtue of silence (see, but silence is the last thing you’d expect in heaven. Heaven’s the scene of unending, and loud, worship and praise. Just a few verses before the one above, John, the seer of Revelation, saw “a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . and they shouted [or cried out with a loud voice] . . .” (Rev. 7:9–10, CJB). Before that, he had seen an even bigger and noisier crowd:

Then I looked, and I heard the sound of a vast number of angels—thousands and thousands, millions and millions! . . . And they shouted out, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!” And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea—yes, everything in them—saying, “To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb belong praise, honor, glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11–13, CJB).

Worship bursts forth in words and music and loud voices, and heaven is a noisy place—so what is this sudden silence about?