The Musar Movement

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

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The traditionalist Rabbis opposed the movement on the grounds that the Torah is in itself balm for the troubled soul and there was no need for any supplementary methods of self-improvement. The Rabbis were also afraid that the emotional thrust of the movement might lead to a loss of the intellectualism that was the hallmark of Lithuanian Jewry.

This kind of critique was not without justification and the great Yeshivot only adopted the Musar regime after a fierce struggle. But eventually Musar did win out. Every one of the famous Lithuanian Yeshivot introduced Musar into its curriculum. Together with the Yeshivah principal, each Yeshivah appointed a Mashgiah('Overseer'), a spiritual guide and mentor who delivered regular Musar discourses as well as offering individual guidance to the students.

For at least half an hour each day, the students closed their copies of the Talmud to sit in a darkened room while they rehearsed the Musar texts. To this day, the Lithuanian type Yeshivah, in the USA, Israel, and other countries, has the dual function of training its students to become Talmudic and Halakhic scholars and teaching them to become personalities whose life is governed by yirat shamayim, 'fear of Heaven'.

Slabodka & Navaradok

As in Hasidism, there are various approaches in the Musar movement, in accordance with the particular emphasis of the individual teachers, all disciples of Salanter or disciples of his disciples. But the two main Musar schools are those of Slabodka, the Yeshivah headed by Nathan Zevi Finkel (the Old Man of Slabodka, as he is called) and Navaradok, headed by Joseph Horowitz (the Old Man of Navaradok). The majority of the contemporary Lithuanian-style Yeshivot follow largely the Slabodka way but a few follow the way of Navaradok.

The Slabodka school places the emphasis on the dignity and sublime value of human beings created in the image of God. The dedicated Torah scholar can attain to a rank higher than the angels.

Navaradok, on the other hand, stresses the need for the scholar to overcome his worldly desires and to have no ambition other than to be a true servant of God and a student of His Torah. As an exercise in spiritual independence, the Navaradoks used to carry out bizarre practices, demonstrating, for instance, their contempt for worldly opinion by exposing themselves to ridicule.

The difference between the two schools has been put in this way. In Slabodka they taught: man is so great, how can he sin? In Navaradok they taught: man is so small, how dare he sin?

Musar & Hasidism

The Musar movement has often been contrasted to its detriment with Hasidism, a much less austere and more joyous religious movement. While Hasidism frowns on too much introspection and encourages its adherents to think less of themselves and more of heavenly matters, Musar is very severe on its followers in urging them constantly to look inwards, always to be dissatisfied with the stage they have reached in learning and piety.

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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.