Tradition Today: Whatever happened to musar?

The "new Jew" that Zionism wanted to create must incorporate values that were important through the ages.

Holocaust illustrative 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Holocaust illustrative 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A quick glance at newspaper headlines is enough to cause one to question the premise that Jews are a special people. Indeed it appears that we are like everyone else, only more so. Religious and nonreligious, in Israel and abroad, we seem to have lost our moral compass. Rabbis are laundering money and trafficking in body parts. Haredim indulge in violent protests, injuring people and property. A gunman shoots and kills young people at a center for gays. A rabbinical student runs down a parking lot attendant in a dispute about a parking fee. Gangs kill each other and kill innocent people as well. Government officials - religious and nonreligious - are accused, indicted and often convicted of misuse of office, of bribery, of sexual offenses. Murder, child abuse, abuse of the elderly, all of these have become commonplace. The litany is endless. What does all this prove? I think it only indicates that we are indeed human, that we are a people like every other people. Jews indeed are like everyone else. Maybe that is what the prophet Amos had in mind when he said, "To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians - declares the Lord... Behold the Lord God has His eye upon the sinful kingdom" (9:7-8). There is nothing inherently special about us unless we adopt a code of ethical living. As a matter of fact ethical behavior is at the very heart of what Judaism teaches and of our identity as Jews. Everyone knows that the prophets, Amos, Jeremiah and so many others, constantly emphasized morality and made the point that ritual observance without morality was not only hypocritical but rendered the ritual hateful to God. "Seek good and not evil, that you may live... Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate..." (Amos 5:14-15). But one does not have to go to the prophets to learn this lesson. The Psalms as well are bursting with ethical teaching. For example Psalm 24, which we recite on Sundays, describes what one has to do to be worthy of entering the gates of the Temple: "One who is clean of hands and pure of heart..." The Torah itself stresses ethics and morality from the very beginning. Note God's reasoning concerning the choosing of Abraham: "For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right..." (Genesis 18:19). The definition of "the way of the Lord" is simple - "doing what is just and right." The laws of the Torah are filled with ethical demands: proper treatment of the stranger, kindness toward the widow and orphan, charity toward the poor, helping one's enemy and so much else, demands that the sages taught were the very essence of the Torah. Thus Akiva said that the verse "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) was the basis of the entire Torah (Sifra Kedoshim 4), and Hillel taught that the Aramaic rendering of that verse, "Do not unto others what you would not want done unto you" was the basic teaching of the Torah, "the rest is commentary" (Shabbat 31b). My teacher, Louis Finkelstein, used to say that all of Judaism, all study, all observance of the mitzvot was intended to produce a person who would live according to that one verse. Musar, living an ethical life, is the very essence of being a Jew. In the 19th century, when he feared that Jewish ethical living was no longer being taken seriously, Rabbi Israel Salanter developed the Musar Movement , devoted to the promotion of the study and practice of ethics as a fundamental part of Jewish life. A part of this system was the use of a "musar room" where people could quietly deliberate ethical problems. This was intended to make businesspeople aware of the need to decide what was right and what was wrong in their dealings. Perhaps we need something of that sort today to provide moral guidance to people in all walks of life, businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, scientists, politicians, teachers, clerks, builders, plumbers and electricians. Whether one is a religious Jew or a cultural Jew, Judaism without ethical concern is an oxymoron. Judaism is not simply a matter of kashrut and holiday customs but is built around a strong core of ethical values which have an impact on everything that one does in life. The reduction of religion in Israel to a part of political gamesmanship has served to emphasize all the wrong aspects of Judaism and to cast religious leaders in the role of self-serving organization men. The ethical demands of the Torah are seldom heard from their lips or from the lips of any public figures. A renewed emphasis on morals should begin at an early age and should be integrated into our educational systems, religious and general. The religious systems should see to it that Jewish ethical literature is studied and made as important as Talmud. As a matter of fact the Talmud itself is rife with ethical and moral material and dilemmas, as is the midrash. By proper picking and choosing, study of Talmud could be devoted to matters of moral import rather than to those that are merely legalistic. General schools should also make Jewish ethics - musar - a part of their curriculum. The development of such a curriculum for various ages is an urgent need if we want our society to turn away from its current trend toward unbridled materialism, self-centeredness, disdain of the other and violence, both verbal and physical. Of course it is too much to expect that the educational system will be able to do the work by itself. It begins with each of us. As we enter this season of self-searching, we should realize that the "new Jew" that Zionism wanted to create must incorporate the values that were important to Jews through the ages: concern for justice, mercy, honesty, willingness to give to and for others, modesty, restraint and the ability to judge between right and wrong. It is time to give musar its due. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.