Meditation Practices of Musar

Being raised in a conservative Jewish home, I often tell people, “I am Jewish on my parents’ side!” I am a BuJew (see below)! Although our home was very observant, I didn’t absorb much, compared to my brother, David, who is now an orthodox Rabbi or my brother, Joe, who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. Both of my grandfathers were learned in the torah and the used to be consulted by Rabbis in St. Louis.

I became a Buddhist! Growing up, I never heard the word Musar mentioned and I had no idea that there were meditation practices of Musar. According to the posting on State of Formation, Musar “asks us to do deep personal and spiritual work, so that we might refine our character and our way of being in the world.”

This is very similar to practices in Buddhism which involve cultivating generosity, ethical conduct, patience, discipline, concentration and wisdom. These are known as paramitas, and I’ll have more to say about them in other posts.

Meditation Practices of Musar

Gaon-Vilna Rebe

Picture of a Rabbi

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.

The meditation practices of Musar were revitalized by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter, mentioned above. He lived between 1810-1883.

My brother told me a remarkable story about Rabbi Salanter. It is said that although when people would ritually wash their hands before a meal, they would use a lot of water. One one occasion, Rabbi Salanter used only the minimum amount required. When asked why he did this, he answered, “When I wash my hands, I think about the ritual. I also think about the person who has to fetch the water from the spring during the cold of winter when there is snow on the ground.”

The musar protagonists make sure they are doing things for the right reasons and not to gain wealth, fame, or social position. This strikes me as appropriate action, another Buddhist principal of importance. They strive for ethical perfection and avoid self loathing.

They do things for altruistic purposes. For example, the found of of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England was a trained in a musar institution.

David also told me that the relevance today of the musar movement is that all major Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish yeshivas (schools of learning) are descendents of musar institutions in Europe. An example of this is Yeshiva University in New York City. There are major Ashkenazi musar institutions in Israel, as well.

He said that group therapy and the 12 step programs are also derived from the meditation practices of musars. For example, their first question is, “How did you justify your existence today?”

This information came as a total shock to me! I had never heard the term before. Not in Hebrew school. Not in Sunday school. Not until today. David said that the reason for this is that the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism consider musar to be a competitor! They think that introducing young people to musar ideas would cause them to want to become orthodox! Heaven forbid!

I wonder if it is coincidence that Lisbeth in the The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson had the last name, Salander. What do you think?

The Millennium Trilogy

The Millennium Trilogy

There are a lot of Jews who now consider themselves Buddhists (BuJews) such as myself. Have any of you out there heard of the musar movement? What do you think of musar? I’d like to hear from you and anyone else as well!

Post a comment below and share this post with your fellow BuJews!

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Comments

  1. This is good.

    Throughout, you use _musar_ to mean “a practioner of musar” or “somebody trained in a _musar_ institution.” As a result, you idenitfy groups of people as “_musar_s.” Neither usage is correct.

    You wrote: “They do things for altruistic purposes. For example, the founddf of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in England was a musar,” where you probably mean “the founder” and “was trained in a _musar_ institution.”

    You wrote: “It is said that in his time, when people would ritually wash their hands before a meal, they would use a lot of water. However, Rabbi Salanter would use only the minimum amount required. When asked why he did this, he would say something like, “When I wash my hands, I think about the ritual. I also think about the person who has to fetch the water from the spring and how this can be a rather difficult task in cold of winter when there is snow on the ground.” This should be rewritten to something like:

    It is said that although when people would ritually wash their hands before a meal, they would use a lot of water. One one occasion, Rabbi Salanter used only the minimum amount required. When asked why he did this, he answered, “When I wash my hands, I think about the ritual. I also think about the person who has to fetch the water from the spring during the cold of winter when there is snow on the ground.”

    You wrote: “David also told me that the relevance today of the musar movement is that all major Ashkenazi Jewish yeshivas (schools of learning) are descendents of musars. ” I would change the last word to ?musar institutions in Europe,” and I would add that the major Ashkenazi yeshivas in Israel are as well.

    Towards the end you wrote: “David said that the reason for this is that the Conservative and Reformed branches of Judaism consider musar to be a competitor!” I would say “Conservative and Reform.”

    I heard this story this Passover: a woman living in Florida has a daughter who gets physically ill when people say bad things about the Jewish people or about individual Jews. This is surprising because the family is not at all observant. The mother was explaining this syndrome to a rabbi when she asked if the rabbi had heard of her father, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan is one of the great musar figures of the last century, and was the author of several books on the subject of against gossip, talebearing, and harmful speech as the focus of his life’s work, besides a major commentary on that portion of Jewish law that governs a Jew’s behavior in daily life and on the holy days.) Evidently, the musar passion of the grandfather transmitted to the granddaughter through the genes.

    Aren’t a significant percentage of American Buddhists BuJews?

  2. Thanks Jerome. I enjoyed reading this. It’s certainly along the lines of what I study in Kabbalah. I’d like to learn more about it.

    I’ve always admired your level of discipline, and always respected your seeking spirit.

    Love you,
    Symie

    • Symie:

      Thanks for your comment.

      Hope you are doing well.

      When are you coming up here?

      Love,

      Jerome

  3. I don’t think that the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism consider musar to be a competitor anymore. Read this: http://www.jidaily.com/GdxR

    • jerome says:

      Eric:

      Thanks for your feedback! I see now that musar is no longer a threat to Conservative and Reform Judaism.

      This is actually wonderful news to me because of my views on inclusiveness.

      Thanks,

      Jerome

  4. There is obviously the common thread here of “awareness”. Many shy from awareness, because it may lead to guilt. It’s probably better to recognize a constant state of growth and change, the room for improvement, and broach the awareness. Like any other trait, goals can be set – character can be worked on. (And as I type this, I am of course, reminding myself.)

    My daughters and I once did a 30 day challenge, made popular by this site: http://www.acomplaintfreeworld.org/
    The challenge started as no complaining for 30 days – but OUR group challenge, along with some friends, was no negative speech of any kind for 30 days. You wear a simple bracelet or rubberband on your wrist, and if you find yourself speaking negatively, you simply switch the wrist the band is on. It’s not about guilt or punishment, but awareness. I wish schools would do this!

    Hopefully, with time, your negative speech decreases. And then, hopefully, with time, your negative thoughts can decrease as well. Leaving room for more growth, connection, awareness.

    Love from Florida, Uncle Jerome! Om shanti