Over the last decade, a small, obscure movement has made inroads into non-Orthodox American Jewish culture. Musar began in Lithuania in the 19th century as a reaction to the extremely scholarly, text-focused Jewish culture that dominated. (The Hebrew word musar can be loosely translated as “morality.”) Led by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810–83), proponents argued that text study alone does not lead to greater moral character. Instead, adherents must engage in frequent and rigorous introspection and develop practices to address their character flaws. In certain important ways, the revival of musar today is, like the impulse behind its Lithuanian predecessor, countercultural, rejecting the prominent American feel-good ethos of self-esteem coddlers. But, argues Jewish Theological Seminary doctoral candidate Geoffrey Claussen, “there are ways in which the revival of the musar movement is encouraged by strong trends in Jewish culture and in the broader American culture.”
The practice of musar is no walk in the park. It calls for “introspective meditation and journaling, conversations about one’s moral situation that elicit critical feedback, chanting and visualization exercises that engage the emotions, a deep commitment to the ethical and ritual requirements of Jewish law, and engaging in acts of kindness beyond what the law requires.” The work is highly individualized. It aims to foster the virtues of “love, justice, compassion, generosity, reverence, faith, humility, equanimity, and patience.”
Salanter’s hopes for a mass movement were never realized in Lithuania. Traditionalists rejected his methods in favor of more intellectually driven moral education, and liberals were turned off by musar’s piety, favoring more Western approaches to morality. The would-be movement more or less died out when a large portion of its followers were killed in the Holocaust. Some of those who survived emigrated to America, but few continued to teach the practice. One prominent American rabbi is said to have thought that Americans were not equipped to handle the enormous work that musar requires.
Strangely, this movement is now flourishing in America, and particularly among non-Orthodox Jews. Though musar’s rigor and intensity certainly don’t appeal to everyone, some of its elements are a good fit for American Jews. Studies have shown that Americans prefer solitary meditation to group worship. Jews—often alienated by impersonal synagogue services, an ancient liturgy, and prayers in a foreign language—are no exception. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of musar is that it speaks a universal language, asking Jews to become more ethical people, not just “better Jews.”