HomeApril 2014Releasing the Light

Releasing the Light

“If life is like balancing on a surfboard,” writes Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, “what is it that throws us off balance and causes us to fall off?” The answer lies within each of us, and the beauty of Mussar is that it teaches us to develop practices to help go within and discover what we need.
In the final third of the 20th century, the tremendous growth in self-help publishing…in self-improvement culture really took off.  Books and gurus offered more-or-less prepackaged solutions to instruct people seeking their own individual betterment. By 2013, these pursuits had become an eleven billion dollar industry.  But the Jewish community did not really need to go there; Mussar, a thousand-year-old mechanism for personal and spiritual growth, had always been part of our heritage.
There is no comprehensive ideal in the Bible that parallels the modern concept of ethics. We are just instructed to be a holy people.  But what does that mean?  The first rabbinic listing of Jewish virtues is found in Pirke Avot 6.6 where we are taught that the Torah is acquired through forty-eight virtues. The most notable virtues on the list are gratitude, humility, patience, trust, compassion, honor, generosity and truth. These middot (or character traits) are at the core of Mussar.
From its origins in the 10th century, Mussar was a practice of the solitary seeker. During the medieval period the Hebrew term “Mussar” gradually acquired the connotation of moral principles and virtues that tend to improve the relationship between one person and another. However, in the 19th century the Mussar movement arose among the non-Hasidic Orthodox Lithuanian Jews as a response to the social changes brought about by the Enlightenment and the corresponding Haskalah movement among many European Jews. In this period of history, anti-Semitism, the assimilation of many Jews into Christianity and the poverty and poor living conditions of many Jews in the Pale of Settlement caused severe tension and disappointment. Many of the institutions of Lithuanian Jewry were beginning to break up. Religious Jews feared that their way of life was slipping away from them, observance of traditional Jewish law and custom was on the decline and even those who remained loyal to the tradition were losing their emotional connection to its inner meaning and ethical core.
The movement’s founding is attributed to Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter (1810–1883), although the roots of the movements drew on ideas previously expressed in classical Mussar literature.
Until recently, Mussar existed only in the Orthodox community, which explains why members of other denominations have not been exposed to its teachings and practices. However, at the start of the 21st century, a significant revival of interest in the Mussar movement has occurred in North America in various sectors of the Jewish world – surprisingly among non-Orthodox Jews.
The Mussar Institute, founded by Alan Morinis, seeks to spread the practice of Mussar in a non-Orthodox framework. His book, Everyday Holiness (2007), has been among the popular books which have sparked contemporary interest in the “emerging and growing phenomenon” that is Mussar.
Every year the Institute holds a retreat in late fall in the Chicago area.  However this year, the Institute is conducting a different kind of retreat. “While the yearly kallah (gathering) of those practicing Mussar is basically meant to bring people together in community, this retreat is focusing on Mussar practice,” said Jeff Agron, director of administration.
“Reaching for Holiness, A Mussar Practice Retreat” will be held on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University near Los Angeles, California, from May 4 to 7, 2014.
Morinis explains Mussar this way: “All human qualities exist on a spectrum. Some of us behave by facing problems, others by running away. One person sweats the small stuff; another is easygoing. The gamut runs from kindness to selfishness, greediness to generosity, alacrity to laziness and so on. When too extreme, a character trait, or middah, tends to cause pain and creates problems. He points out that essentially we are all born with our own unique “curriculum,” and it is up to us to “work it.”  Mussar exercises are designed to restore our character traits to the proper balance, enabling us to live more whole, peaceful lives.
The goal of Mussar practice is to “release the light of holiness that lives within the soul.” The roots of all of our thoughts and actions can be traced to the depths of the soul, beyond the reach of the light of consciousness, and so the methods Mussar provides include meditations, guided contemplations, exercises and chants that are all intended to penetrate down to the darkness of the subconscious, to bring about change right at the root of our nature.
The May retreat cycles back to tradition in offering a rural setting for individual soul searching and will emphasize deeper transformative Mussar techniques. Participants who will bring their own personal curriculum, will determine which practices they want to focus on like: journaling or chanting and meditation. Work will occur in small groups, providing greater personalization and attention.  Registration has been limited, so the group will be intimate and there will ample opportunity for one-on-one guidance. There will also be more time for individual meditation and self-reflection, along with group practices.
As the practice of Mussar grows within the non-Orthodox community, more and more congregations are including it within their educational programming. Two seminaries, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, have already made it part of their curriculum. This retreat is a wonderful opportunity for all those who have begun the practice of Mussar to expand their abilities and gain greater insight into this 1000-year old tradition.
The cost, which includes room, all kosher meals and retreat program, is $695 for a double and $795 for a single room. Registration is suggested as soon as possible as space is limited.  For more information and to register, visit mussarinstitute.org/emails/practice_retreat.html; jeff@mussarinstitute.org; phone: (305) 610-7260.

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