The Musar Movement

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

The Musar Movement was founded by Israel Salanter in 19th-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

There 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.

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 yeshiva, in the United States, Israel, and other countries, has the dual function of training its students to become Talmudic and halachic 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.

The Musarists claim that the Hasidic way is a form of escapism, a perpetual direction of the gaze outwards in fear of what is to be found within. Perhaps the most cogent description of the difference between the two movements is that while both Hasidism and Musar teach that this world is nothing and the next world everything, Musar dwells on the first part of the affirmation, Hasidism on the second.

Eventually, Hasidism had an influence on Musar, and the Musar teachers often used Hasidic material in their discourses. Even the main difference between the two movements, the doctrine of the Zaddik, became blurred when the more famous Musar personalities were given the kind of veneration hitherto reserved for the Hasidic masters.

There is only one full-scale history of the Musar movement, that of Dov Katz, in Hebrew, in five volumes with an additional volume on the polemics surrounding the movement. The Musarists themselves wrote very little but in recent years a number of collections of Musar teachings have been published. The novels of the Yiddish writer Hayyim Grade contain heroes and anti-heroes taken from the Musar movement.

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

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