The Musar Movement

A move to introduce more study of piety into the Lithuanian Yeshivah curriculum.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The Musar Movement was founded by Israel Salanter in nineteenth-century Lithuania with the aim of promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct among traditionally minded Jews. There can be little doubt that the impetus for the movement was given by the inroads the Haskalah had made among Russian Jews as well as the success of the Hasidic movement which taught that the traditional study of the Talmud and Codes, while highly significant, did not in itself suffice to promote a sound religious outlook on life. 

At first the movement sought to influence small circles of businessmen but it soon became a much more elitist movement, attracting, especially, the students in the Lithuanian Yeshivot.

The word musar means 'reproof' or 'instruction', as in the verse: 'Hear, my son, the instruction [musar] of thy father' (Proverbs 1:8).

Salanter's Innovations

old book and handsThere developed in the Middle Ages and later, side by side with works on Talmud, Halakhah, Kabbalah, and philosophy, a Musar literature with the specific aim of encouraging religious awareness and character-formation. Classics of this genre are: Bahya Ibn Pakudah's Duties of the Heart, Cordovero's Palm Tree of Deborah, and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto's Path of the Upright.

What was novel in Israel Salanter's approach, and that of his disciples, was the contention that the mere study of the Musar works was inadequate. In order for the ideas found in these works to penetrate the heart it was essential to reflect deeply on their implication.

The new Musar movement encouraged the reading of a few texts over and over again, attended by a melancholy tune. Anticipating Freud, to some extent, Salanter and his followers believed that the subconscious mind has to be moved by severe introspection, as a result of which ethical and religious conduct become second nature.

Salanter pointed out that observant Jews who would never dream of offending against the dietary laws could still be unscrupulous in their dealings with others. This can only be, he maintained, because generations of Jews had become so accustomed to observance of the dietary laws that it was literally unthinkable for them to conduct themselves otherwise, whereas there had been no such habit-forming training in the ethical sphere.

Overcoming Opposition

At first the new movement met with determined opposition. The Maskilim, the followers of Haskalah, believed, rightly or wrongly, that while character-improvement was undoubtedly important and wholesome, the stress placed by the Musarists on severe introspection, as well as their insistence on total commitment to the traditional way, tended to produce narrow and bigoted personalities.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.