Though my reading is broader than the category of antiracism / anti-oppression, for this blog, I usually forgo writing about the fiction (often young adult or sci-fi/fantasy), productivity, and Jewish-spirituality texts I read. I decided to make an exception for Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis, not because I expect you to take on Mussar (Jewish ethics), but because there were some key learnings about the importance and adoption of regular practices in this book. Mussar, ultimately, is a practice, and I found some really helpful insights in thinking about my liberatory practice--my justice habit--from this guide to a different sort of spiritual practice. (Have a listen to episodes 52, 53, and 54 of my and April Baskin’s podcast, Jews Talk Racial Justice for additional mentions of this book.)
Before diving in to some of the insights I drew from this text, a quick primer on Mussar: “The word mussar itself means ‘correction’ or ‘instruction’ and also serves as the simple modern Hebrew word for ‘ethics.’ But Mussar is most accurately described as a way of life.” (p 8) The practice of Mussar is based on an understanding of the human heart/mind (psyche) as being made up of a set of different characteristics: patience and judgement, loving-kindness and boundaries, enthusiasm and trust, humility and responsibility. We all have all of these character traits (also called soul-traits) or middot (middah in the singular), but we have them in different measures. When the middot are in balance, we are able to fulfill our highest potential. Mussar, then, is a ‘way of life’ that invites practitioners to pay close attention to their inner qualities and to cultivate balance when things are out of whack.
The rewards for this soul-trait balancing are nothing short of cosmological: “Sometimes they say that the purpose of Mussar practice is to help us move in the direction of sh’lemut (or sh’lemus), which translates literally as ‘wholeness.’ The great Mussar teacher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto discusses this notion … ‘The one stone on which the entire building rests is the concept that God wants each person to complete [themself] body and soul….’ He is telling us that we are created incomplete so that we can complete the work of our own creation.”
The actual work of cultivating the balance is the work of Mussar. Significantly, there is an assumption that the work is not to try to do something less but to do its complement, its opposite, more. For instance, if I feel I am out of balance because I too easily get angry and yell at my family, Mussar would not suggest I work on being less angry, but rather I should practice being more patient. In the work of establishing a justice habit, this feels absolutely essential.
Near the beginning of the text, Morinis makes clear that the changes he believes are possible through Mussar will not come easily nor quickly. “Mussar isn’t about zooming to the top of the mountain in search of some sort of ‘instant enlightenment.’ It advises small steps, repeated regularly, since what changes quickly in one direction can just as easily change back again. Walking this way requires patience, as the Alter of Novarodok noted caustically. ‘The problem with people,’ he said, ‘is that they want to change overnight--and have a good night’s sleep that night, too.’” (p36)
This articulation of the importance of incremental progress for lasting change deeply resonated with this Bmore Incrementalist. But what came next was an important reminder for me: “As important as practice is to Mussar, it is only preparation. The real focus is Mussar work. What’s the difference? By practice I refer to the exercises and methods we do in retreat, in the quiet of private meditation, in our daily disciplines. Mussar work, in contrast, is what comes to us when we deal with the real-life situations for which our spiritual practice is preparation.” (p 37).
This reminder that my anti-oppressive practices (e.g. my reading and writing for this website or even the work of recording the podcast) are actually preparation for anti-oppressive action in my life. They are not an end in themselves. And, just as I started to feel self-judgment rise with this reminder, Morinis brought the perspective full-circle: “In Mussar, the route to changing a relationship (or changing the world, for that matter) is to do the spiritual practice needed to change yourself.” (p40) As with so many things, it’s both/and. Indeed, Morinis names the both/and earlier in the book when reminds us “learning of any kind is predominantly an intellectual activity, and the Mussar masters recognized from experience that the intellect is a valuable but incomplete tool for transformation.” (p29)
These useful insights around the scaffolding of a liberatory practice continue to manifest in some of the content itself. Compassion, rachamim in Hebrew, is one of the middot Mussar instructs us around. “Rachamim--compassion--does not come into being just by feeling empathy. The depth and richness of the emotional connection must be translated into action that expresses concretely how truly moved you are to take care of the other. It is the action you take that turns a relationship or a shared emotion into compassion.” (p 81) In other words, “compassion comes into being only by being put to use.” (p82) And so, again, Morinis through Mussar reminds me of the both/and of thought and action.
Even as the Truth resonates in me of the importance of awareness AND action, I am heartened and instructed by the guidance of how to get there. The daily practices, the aspiration to have greater awareness around our automatic responses--and the firm assertion that we can make different choices--feel so relevant and transferable. As Morinis frames it, Mussar is the work of refining and influencing the traits and patterns of our nefesh (the dimension of soul most closely aligned to what we in the west think of as ego) so that our neshamah (the dimension of soul that comes directly from the Divine) can more clearly shine through. It feels like a short and appropriate step to apply the same instructions and practices to refining and influencing the patterns we’ve inherited from an oppressive culture so that our most just selves can shine through.*
*I am not the first to see this clear parallel. Indeed, Rabbi David Jaffe teaches a robust curriculum that applies the practices of Mussar to social change. His book Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change was one of my first introductions to Mussar.