Posted on April 27th, 2012 | Filed under Academic, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Learning, Theology
Tagged with contemplation, Jewish, Judaism, Kabbalah, mitzvot, Musar, Omer, Sefirat HaOmer, spiritual refinement, spirituality
On the Jewish calendar, we are currently in the period known as Sefira or Sefirat HaOmer—the Counting of the Omer, a forty-nine day period between Passover and Shavuot. Each evening, beginning on the second night of Passover, Jews count the Omer by first making a blessing and then counting that day, being sure to count the days as well as the weeks which have passed. For example, as I write, today is the 18th day of the Omer, which is two weeks and four days of the Omer.
The Omer is a Biblical measurement of barley which was offered in The Temple in Jerusalem on each of the forty-nine days leading up to Shavuot or Feast of Weeks on which a wheat offering was made. The Jewish calendar is a deeply agricultural one, and just as our holidays are filled with tremendous historical import, they are no less agriculturally significant as well.
Sefirat HaOmer is a paradoxical time—at once, it is a celebratory period, as we eagerly count up the days until Shavuot, on which we celebrate Matan Torah—the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and it is also a period of mourning. Traditionally, the mourning is on an account of a plague which killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Tradition teaches us that a lack of honor or kavod for one another was what caused this plague to befall the students. Many Jews adopt mourning customs for some or all of this period, including refraining from listening to instrumental music, shaving, attending celebratory functions and the like. Owing to the fact that the plague was brought about as a result of a lack of honor, this period has also become one of deep spiritual reflection, much in the same way that the forty days from the 1st of Elul until Yom Kippur are traditionally a time to do Cheshbon HaNefesh—an accounting of the soul.
While the Kabbalah ascribes a specific combination of the seven lower sefirot to each day of the Omer, and along with this is the emphasis to work on the quality embodied by that combination of sefirot, there is another, thousand-year-old Jewish practice known as Musar which asks us to do deep personal and spiritual work, so that we might refine our character and our way of being in the world.
For most of its thousand-year history, Musar was a solitary practice. It was transformed into a religious and ethical movement in the 19th century by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter and is experiencing a revival today amongst Jews of all backgrounds.
At its core, Musar, or the Musar movement as it is most often referred to is about allowing the light of holiness, which is found within each and every one of us to become manifest in all aspects of our daily life. The word Musar is derived from the Hebrew for discipline or instruction. Although it began and remained a deeply solitary and personal practice for much of the last thousand years, under Rabbi Salanter’s influence, people began to meet in groups, or va’ads with others engaged in the practice of Musar. A personal musar practice may involve anything from engaging in Jewish text study with a chavruta or study partner to going on a contemplative retreat, practicing meditation, chanting or journaling, all of which are intended as vehicles through which the practitioner is able to perfect their middot or character traits. The Musar movement teaches that we are, at our very core, a soul, and that the ultimate goal of a Musar practitioner is that through personal character and spiritual refinement, that holiness within our soul can shine more brightly in the world around us and in all of our relationships.
It may be surprising to some—and it was certainly surprising to me—to learn that amongst the Musar movement’s many influences were Benjamin Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues, which he developed at the mere age of twenty and practiced continuously throughout his life. Works of Musar literature including Maimonides’ Eight Chapters, The Path of the Just by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato and The Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Bachaya Ibn Pakuda were also tremendously influential.
Rabbi Salanter was also deeply influenced by the humility of his own teachers and saw the need for the incorporation of the study and practice of Musar into Eastern European Yeshivot. He began the Musar movement amongst the non-Hassidic yeshivot in Lithuania. Although widely received by many, his emphasis on Musar also caused some controversy, his detractors frequently arguing that there were more important subjects for students in Yeshivot to be focusing their time on. Rabbi Salanter and his students argued that the Musar movement was very profoundly needed and relevant at this particular period owing to the increasing rates of assimilation amongst Eastern European Jewry in the aftermath of the European Enlightenment and Haskalah or Jewish equivalent, along with the poverty in which many people lived. Most fundamentally, however, Rabbi Salanter argued that people were losing the emotional core of Jewish living and practice, an argument I find deeply resonant for our own time, when it is far too often the case that we focus so intently upon the ritual mitzvot and halakhot that we neglect the ethical mitzvot and fail to imbue our practice with the emotional richness and spirituality that was intended.
Although the Musar movement was for the most part centered around yeshivot founded by Salanter and his students, it was available to anyone. Rabbi Salanter even made the point of encouraging women to study and practice Musar, as it is something that one can do at any time.
The Musar movement today is experiencing a tremendous revival in all streams of Judaism. An increasing number of synagogues have Musar va’ads or study groups. Additionally, people are forming chavrutot, or study partners to study Musar literature and work on their spiritual growth. Typically, such a study partnership or group will pick one midah or character trait for each time they gather and focus their practice upon the refinement of that midah. Examples of midot are patience, humalit and compassion and there are several popular lists of the midot. People might choose several verses from the Tanach to meditate upon—these verses generally pertain directly to the midah in question, or they might keep a journal. Additionally, Musar va’ads and chavrutot will study classical works of Musar, applying the text to their own lives and practice. There are many self-study courses available as well as popular books and web sites for further learning and growth. Although the Musar movement is deeply rooted in Judaism, its teachings and practices are accessible to anyone of any faith background.
An earlier version of this article first appeared here as "Musar, a Jewish Contemplative Practice".
Lauren graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in May of 2011 with a Master of Arts in Judaic Studies and holds a BA in religion from Dickinson College. Lauren's interests include the intersection between religion and disability and religion and gender studies.