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The Jewish Spiritual Path to Character Development

We humans come factory-equipped with latent godly qualities and the capacity to actualize them through our words and actions. 

Jewish tradition posits that as beings created in God’s image, each of us is endowed with a soul that both reflects and embodies the divine. Within each soul a range of divine qualities lie dormant — qualities like compassion, honesty, generosity, and courage, among others. We humans come “factory-equipped” with these qualities, as well as the capacity to actualize them through our words and actions. 

Jewish tradition can be understood as a practical path to this kind of actualization, to the development of our character and the capacity to act more consistently in accordance with our highest selves. The stream of Jewish thinking that emphasizes this approach is known as Mussar

As a distinct genre, Mussar literature originated in the 11th century, though its roots go back to the collection of early rabbinic ethical maxims known as Pirkei Avot. In the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Salanter drew on these works to inspire a modern Mussar movement dedicated to the cultivation of personal virtues, known as middot (literally “measures”).

The practice of middot refers to the cultivation of these qualities through the deepening of our awareness of their presence within us and the elevation of the ethical aspects of Jewish life. More specifically, the practice can include these forms. 

  • Cheshbon hanefesh: Literally “accounting of the soul,” this practice aims to help us grow more familiar with our habits of heart and mind and how they promote or impede the practice of middot. Cheshbon hanefesh can involve the regular practice of meditation, personal prayer, sharing and reflection with a safe and trusted partner, and/or journaling about one’s experiences in applying a specific middah.  
  • Text study and prayer: Whether communal or personal, these practices can help us to grow consciousness of the middot within us. In text study, we can look for and emphasize aspects of Jewish sacred texts in which characters wrestle with and cultivate their middot, modeling a process of character development we can emulate in our own lives. In prayer, we can focus on passages in the liturgy which ascribe middot to God, remembering that we possess these very same sacred ethical qualities and can actualize them in our daily lives.
  • Focus phrases: Drawn from classic or contemporary texts (or self-composed), these phrases remind us of the presence of middot within ourselves. Regularly calling the focus phrase to mind, or whispering it to ourselves, can help us stay alert to opportunities to practice a middah in everyday life.  
  • Exercises: Known in the literature as kabbalot (“self-obligations”), this practice entails identifying a daily situation that presents an opportunity to apply a specific middah. If you’re working on the middah of patience, for instance, you might decide to pay special attention to your behavior waiting in line or while stuck in traffic. 
  • Partner or study group: Meeting regularly with others to study the middot and mutually reinforce each other’s practices enables us to explore the emotional vulnerability that can often impede our practice of middot.

Whichever form we choose to cultivate our middot, we may soon begin to notice the presence of strong inner obstacles impeding our progress. This is known as the yetzer hara, or the “evil inclination.” The yetzer hara may be experienced as an inner voice undermining our determination or as a powerful inclination to do something we know is unwise or unwholesome. The yetzer hara represents our baser instincts, the lesser angels of our nature.

In Mussar literature, the yetzer hara is often described in militaristic terms, as an enemy to be conquered. But in rabbinic thought, the yetzer hara is also understood as indispensable, and even a source of goodness in the world. “If not for the yetzer hara,” teaches one Midrash, “no one would build a house, take a spouse, or beget children.” 

The yetzer hara can represent the natural human drive to build and perpetuate our presence. But it can also be a self-protective instinct triggered either by fear (in which case it may be self-protecting) or desire (in which case it may be self-aggrandizing). These instincts represent the shadow or fallen aspect of the middot. 

When we are able to accept these impulses with compassion rather than judgment, as inevitable aspects of our imperfect humanity, they may dissolve enough to allow the sacred energy of the middot trapped within them to flow toward wholesome rather than self-centered ends. In this way, they become opportunities for deep ethical and spiritual growth. 

In this approach, the yetzer hara becomes not our enemy, but rather our most impactful instructor in character development. Character defects can transform into character strengths, our lesser angels converted into our better angels. The practice of middot paradoxically enables us to both accept our essentially flawed humanity and engage it as a springboard to realizing our latent godliness. We seek holiness not by playing God, but by striving simply to be as human as we can.

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