Ancient teachings that can impart serenity

Posted: March 10, 2002

Alan Morinis was despondent. It was 1997, and his business had failed.

"I was consumed by blackness. I spent hours immobilized on the couch. . . . I had made promises I should have known I couldn't keep. . . . What sent me into a downward spiral was my own shock at just how far I had strayed from what I had always believed to be my own true values. . . . I was ashamed. . . . How could I have been so stupid?"

He was married, had two children, and lived in Vancouver. And at 47, he knew he was lost.

Then, in a world overrun with self-help palliatives, Morinis discovered Mussar.

It is a little-known medieval self-improvement regimen, a spiritual set of teachings rooted in Judaism focusing on self-awareness, growth and action.

Five years later, still married and still in Vancouver, Morinis teaches and consults about Mussar and has written a book about his spiritual journey, Climbing Jacob's Ladder (Broadway Books, $23.95). Morinis will be in Philadelphia on Thursday to give a Mussar talk at Germantown Jewish Centre.

The Germantown synagogue's leader, Rabbi Leonard Gordon, said his father studied in the Mussar tradition in Europe: "It had an incredible influence on him. . . . He felt that he had learned a discipline of self-control."

Yet Mussar is "all but unknown" to most Jews today, said Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who was educated at a Mussar yeshiva in Brooklyn and later taught it at Yeshiva and Brandeis Universities. One reason the teachings are not well known is that so many of its teachers died in the Holocaust.

Mussar adherents tend to have an "inner gyroscope, an inner serenity," Rabbi Greenberg said. "Personally, it's had a tremendous impact on me. It changes your thinking . . . to ethics, self-development and relationships."

A prolific author and head of the Jewish Life Network in New York, he had just read an article by a prominent rabbi saying that it was time to "revive Mussar."

"He may be right," Rabbi Greenberg said. "It may be an idea whose time has come."

Morinis, a Rhodes scholar and former documentary filmmaker, is in agreement.

"I had exposure to Judaism as a kid, and it was in a one-size-fits-all Reform temple. It was responsive reading, completely homogenized, with no sense of individual spiritual path," he said. As he got older, he knew that "everyone needed to practice in their own way. That's part of what drove me away."

Reaching out for wisdom after the collapse of his filmmaking company, he read a book on Jewish thought and was intrigued by a chapter on Mussar and Israel Salanter, a 19th-century rabbi who founded it as a movement. Among the things it said was:

"As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquillity in the service of God, it is clear that he is remote from true service."

What kind of Jewish teaching was this?

What it was, Morinis learned, was 1,000 years or so of Orthodox Jewish teaching and writing that were pulled together by Rabbi Salanter.

And it had two qualities that appealed to Morinis:

First, it not only specified the ideals to strive for but provided the "toolbag of personal, introspective and transformative practices" to get there.

Second, it was not a discipline to be practiced only in a synagogue or on a mountaintop but was to be used in the real world - at home, in the mall, at work.

Morinis went on a search for someone to teach him Mussar, which translates as "ethics." He found Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, who heads a Mussar yeshiva in Far Rockaway, N.Y., and spent parts of the next three years with him.

Much of that time was spent asking questions: If I have only an hour a day to study, do I study Torah or Mussar?

Answer: For an hour, study Mussar and you'll realize that you have more than an hour.

Morinis found that he could learn the discipline of Mussar without necessarily taking on the teachings and culture of the Orthodox world.

Enhancing the trait of humility is central in Mussar. "Without humility," Morinis writes, "we might be too proud to acknowledge our other weaknesses. . . ."

One way to increase humility, he writes, is a frequent slow, methodical contemplation of the human life cycle. It works, he explains, because "the order . . . cannot be credited to human intervention and engenders appreciation for the wisdom of the divine."

In an interview, Morinis said he is not comfortable with all of Mussar. He struggles with the concept of "adoration of the divine" and believes that Mussar can "tend to slip into too much self-criticism."

"When people ask me what kind of Jew I am, I tell them that I'm an under-constructionist. I am developing, I remain open to questions. The point is to be on the journey, not to finish the journey."

He believes that anyone, Jewish or not, can benefit from Mussar as long as it's understood that it requires a serious commitment of time and energy. Rabbi Perr once told him:

"People want to change overnight and have a good night's sleep, too."

Contact Murray Dubin at 215-854-2797 or

A Mussar Exercise

Alan Morinis explains a Mussar self-scrutiny technique known as heshbon ha-nefesh, Hebrew for "the accounting of the soul." It requires a person to identify 13 "soul traits" he wants to improve. The person keeps a daily log of actions and thoughts that recur, and gleans his 13 from that.

Morinis tracked such things as: "When did I speak harshly or kindly?" "When did I think a greedy or jealous thought?" "When was I lazy or energetic?" From these insights, he drew a list that included equanimity, surrender, concentration, dignity and nine other traits.

The purpose of such exercises, said his teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, "is to show us that we don't need to be afraid of life. We can lean into it. When life throws us a test, we can lean into it. Just lean into it."

If You Go

Alan Morinis, author of Climbing Jacob's Ladder, will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Germantown Jewish Centre, 400 W. Ellet St. The event is free and open to the public. For information, call 215-844-1507.

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