Israel Salanter

Founder of the Musar Movement stressed the ethical demands of the Torah.

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

Israel Salanter was a Lithuanian Talmudist and religious thinker (1810-83), founder of the Musar movement. Israel's family name was Lipkin, but he is known as Israel Salanter after the town of Salant in which he grew up and where he studied to become an outstanding Talmudic scholar (although he sought, wherever possible, to conceal his great learning).

A gifted teacher, he encouraged his disciples not to rely on him but to work things out for themselves. He once said that both the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim are in error: the Mitnaggedim in that they believe they have no need for a Rebbe, the Hasidim in that they believe they have a Rebbe.

He was admired by the Hasidim, who used to say that the Mitnaggedim had a Rebbe in Israel Salanter but failed to make the most of him.

A Life of Introspection

The picture that emerges from the accounts of Salanter's life is one of a severely introspective personality, torn between a realization of his unworthiness and the compelling need to teach others how to strive for self-improvement.

Rabbi E. E. Dessler, Salanter's great-grandson, reported that Salanter took literally the Talmudic injunction that a man has to get drunk on Purim. In his cups Salanter could be heard saying to himself: 'If you have a mind capable of turning its thoughts this way and that, consider how tremendous is your responsibility.'

In his youth, Salanter came under the influence of Reb Zundel of Salant, from whom he obtained his particular stance, according to which mere mechanical performance of the precepts was totally inadequate to promote the good life as required by the Torah. Anticipating to some extent Freud's ideas about the unconscious mind, Salanter believed that the only way to self-improvement was to penetrate the deeper recesses of the personality by which human beings are motivated.

Salanter stressed particularly the ethical demands of the Torah. A favorite saying of his was that one must not be frum ('pious') by standing on another's shoulders (i.e. by overriding the feelings of other people in the pursuit of godliness).

It is said that he once met a pious Jew during the penitential period. This man was so engrossed in sombre reflection that he failed to greet Salanter, whereupon Salanter protested: 'Because you are so pious does this give you the right to deny me my "Good morning"?'

The Musar Movement

Salanter occupied no official Rabbinic position but served as Rosh Yeshivah ('Head of a Yeshivah') in a number of places, including the town of Kovno where he established a Yeshivah in the spirit of Musar.

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