Musar Movement

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MUSAR MOVEMENT . The Musar movement for individual self-examination and ethical renewal spread among mid-nineteenth-century Lithuanian Jewry after its founding by Yisraʾel Salanter (18101883). So called from the Hebrew term musar ("ethics, instruction"), the Musar movement can be viewed as one of the first attempts in eastern Europe to organize traditionalist circles within Jewish society in modern forms, although its long-term legacy and influence remained limited to the Lithuanian yeshivot.

The Musar ideology was formed during the young Yisraʾel Salanter's fifteen-year sojourn in Salant during the 1820s and 1830s. There, in addition to achieving mastery of Talmud in the standard manner, Salanter came under the influence of the saintly reclusive figure Yosef Zundel of Salant. Zundel devoted his attention to the ethical aspects of Jewish law, which in his view had been neglected. He believed that in order to overcome the temptations of evil, special actions were necessary beyond a theoretical knowledge of one's legal obligations. To this end Zundel developed a system of regular self-analysis and study of ethical texts, and he introduced such innovations as the repetition of Talmudic statements on ethical issues as a way to induce the proper mood for soul-searching. Yisraʾel Salanter built upon the system of his master, but unlike Zundel he attempted to present the Musar doctrine to the community at large within an organizational framework.

In Vilna in the mid-1840s, Salanter made his first efforts to establish a mass Musar movement. Departing from the standard practice for heads of yeshivot, he presented a series of public talks addressed not only to scholars but also to artisans and most particularly to affluent educated businessmen. Salanter called for the inclusion of ethical works in the curriculum of Torah study that is incumbent upon every Jew. Such study, besides making the individual aware of the ethical responsibilities stipulated by Jewish law, would also help him recognize and struggle with his unconscious impulses and bring them under control. For this purpose, Salanter set up a musar-shibl (Yi., "house of moral instruction") where, through the combined practice of meditation and the somber repetition of moral texts, an appropriately ecstatic-fearful mood could be created for the encounter with elemental passions and drives. During this Vilna period, Salanter arranged for the reprinting of classic ethical texts and attracted the first of his key disciples.

By all indications, Salanter intended the Musar movement to answer the threat to traditional Jewry posed by the Haskalah, the movement for Jewish Enlightenment, one of whose major centers was in Vilna. Believing that existing institutions could not meet this danger, Salanter instead tried to bolster the religious loyalties of the individual Jew. His emphasis on ethical behavior indicates that Salanter shared many of the Haskalah's criticisms of the social and economic ills of Jewish society, but unlike proponents of Haskalah he did not prescribe a thorough educational and economic reform of Jewry as the proper solution for these problems. In Salanter's view, a revival of the standards for social and economic relations demanded by Jewish law would redress the imbalances in Jewish society.

In 1849, rather than accept a teaching position offered him in a government-sponsored rabbinical seminary in Vilna, Yisraʾel Salanter transferred his base of operations to Kovno (modern-day Kaunas). He succeeded in establishing musar-shiblekh there and in several other towns. Yet the immense personal prestige that Salanter enjoyed in his lifetime was not reflected in a corresponding success for his planned mass movement. By the 1850s musar-shiblekh existed in only five communities, with an estimated following in the hundreds. More lasting achievements of the Kovno period include the model of a Musar yeshivah, where self-examination and the study of ethical tracts formed regular parts of the curriculum, and where responsibility for the students' spiritual development was assigned to a mashgia ("supervisor"), who functioned alongside the normal teaching staff. Salanter's disciples from this period spread this model to most of the major Lithuanian yeshivot, among whose students the movement found its greatest success. Salanter's letters to his disciples, later collected and published, laid down the basic ideological direction of the Musar phenomenon.

Despite Salanter's unassailable personal moral and scholarly credentials, his innovations aroused no little criticism in rabbinical circles. Some claimed that the stress on ethics undermined the centrality of Torah study, while others worried that the elitist spirit of the Musar groups carried a potential for sectarianism. This polemic over the Musar movement continued into the twentieth century.

After 1857, when Yisraʾel Salanter moved to Germany, although he maintained his personal influence over his students, the practical work of spreading the movement's teachings was carried on by the disciples. Through their efforts Musar became the dominant mode in the Lithuanian yeshivot, despite occasional strong resistance on the part of more traditional yeshivah leaders. Among the major successors of Yisraʾel Salanter were Sima Zisl Broyda of Kelem (18241898), who in the schools under his supervision tried to develop a systematic educational method based on Musar principles; Yitsaq Blazer (18371907), former rabbi of Saint Petersburg and interpreter and publisher of Salanter's teachings, who served as head of the Kovno kollel (an advanced yeshivah providing stipends for married students); Eliʿezer Gordon (18401910), rabbi of Telz and head of its noted yeshivah; Note Hirsh (Natan Tsevi) Finkel (18491927), known as the Old Man of Slobodka, spiritual director of the central Musar yeshivah in Slobodka. Each of these figures put his personal stamp on the basic Musar doctrine and thus helped to evolve variations of its teachings on the nature of man, the nature of evil, and the ways to struggle with evil. All of the Musar yeshivot, however, featured daily Musar studies (often at twilight) and the role of the mashgia, whose responsibilities included regular talks to the student body as well as individual guidance. Most extreme among the Musar schools was that directed by Yosef Yosl Hurwitz, the Novaradok (Nowogródek) school, where students were required to pursue intense Musar study and to perform unusual (i. e., socially unacceptable) actions in public as a way of subduing the lower instincts.

The expansion of the Musar yeshivot continued in the period following World War I, but was cut off by the Nazi Holocaust. The Slobodka and Novaradok Musar approaches live on, however, in yeshivot set up in Israel and the United States.

See Also

Jewish Thought and Philosophy, article on Jewish Ethical Literature; Salanter, Yisraʾel; Yeshivah.


The best historical study of the early stages of the development of the Musar movement is in Hebrew, Immanuel Etkes's R. Yisraʾel Salanter ve-reʾshitah shel tenuʿat ha-Musar (Jerusalem, 1982). The only full-length study of the movement is the hagiographic and apologetic Tenuʿat ha-Musar, 5th ed., 5 vols. (Jerusalem, 1974) by Dov Katz. Volume 1 of Katz's work has been translated by Leonard Oschry as The Musar Movement: Its History, Leading Personalities and Doctrines (Tel Aviv, 1977). An interesting supplementary volume by Katz entitled Pulmus ha-Musar (Jerusalem, 1972) reviews the long-running public controversy over the Musar doctrine. For a short but somewhat superficial survey of the movement, see Abraham Menes's "Patterns of Jewish Scholarship in Eastern Europe," in volume 2 of The Jews, 4th ed., edited by Louis Finkelstein (New York, 1973), pp. 177227. On the inner life of the Lithuanian yeshivot, see Gedalyahu Alon's "The Lithuanian Yeshivah," in The Jewish Expression, edited by Judah Goldin (New Haven, 1976), pp. 452468, and Shaul Stampfer's The Lithuanian Yeshiva (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1995). On the Novaredok school, see David Fishman's "Musar and Modernity: The Case of Novaredok," Modern Judaism 8: 1 (1988), pp. 4164. For a vivid but jaundiced portrayal of the director of a Musar yeshivah, see Chaim Grade's novel, The Yeshiva, 2 vols. (New York, 1977). For personal portraits of some of the figures associated with the movement, see the idiosyncratic and controversial Making of a Godol: A Study of Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities (Jerusalem, 2002), by Noson Kamenetsky.

Gershon C. Bacon (1987 and 2005)