Why does mussar have such bad street cred?

I don’t get.  I know, this isn’t the best way to start of a blog post, but really, I don’t get it.
I am not a rabbi, academic scholar, historian, or an author of a book on the Mussar movement.  I am simply just writing down how I see things.  Others, who are much more learned than I or more intellectual might have a totally different spin on this.

Over the years and even as recent as last week, I’ve shmoozed with people about learning mussar and why I feel it has “worked” for me.  Those who have had a yeshiva high school background tend to have a very negative view of mussar or, as someone recently told me, feel that it’s meant to be studied on an individual basis and not as part of a group.  When I then ask these people about their opinion of mussar, it’s almost exclusively regulated to them being made to feel guilty, not good enough, or like they are “nothing”.  When suggesting to start a mussar va’ad (group dedicated to working on middos on a regular basis), the interest is slim to none.

This is the part that I don’t get.  Let’s take a look at a very short list of talmidim of the Slobodka school of mussar (Yeshiva Knesses Yisrael) and the yeshivos in America they were associated with (in no particular order):

  • Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner- RY, Chaim Berlin
  • Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky- RY, Torah V’Daas
  • Rabbi Aharon Kotler- RY,Beth Medrash Govoha (Lakewood)
  • Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz- RY, Chofetz Chaim
  • Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman- RY, Ner Israel
  • Rabbi Nissan Yablonsky -RY, Hebrew Theological Seminary (Skokie)
  • Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Lessin- Mashgiach, REITS (Yeshiva University)

Of course there are plenty more, but these represent the roots of some of the more “major” yeshivos in America.  These Rabbis were all products of Slobodka, where the concept of Gadlus haAdam, the greatness of man, was the modus operandi of the yeshiva.  Yet, time after time, mussar gets a bad rap.  Tochacha (rebuke) is mussar, but Mussar is not just rebuke, sort of like a square is a rhombus, but a rhombus isn’t… a square.

It could be argued that for some reason in America the “Novardok” derech didn’t really translate over in the United States.  If the thrust of Slobodka was to build one up and show them their own inner greatness, then how did Mussar become so negative?  I really don’t know.  I have an idea, but it’s based on me being an outsider.  I was zoche to spend a number of years learning in a yeshiva environment, post-high school, but I didn’t “go through the system”.  Teenagers,  by nature, rebel against authority.  Even the frummest of the frum rebels in some way.  It might be by taking upon chumros or by speeding or extending a shemoneh esray, but there’s some type of rebellion against the status quo going on.

I think most adults who when through the “system” probably got their mussar exposure at the wrong time.  Had they been taught and exposed during elementary school to the concept that there’s a desire to grow towards greatness and perfecting middos, then the “average” adult might have a different view towards mussar (and if you you don’t read this blog regularly, by “mussar” I mean any learning that makes you a better Jew).

If I were to approach you after shul and say, “You need to improve A,B and C”, you’d probably walk away thinking, “Who is Neil Harris to tell me what I need to improve upon?”
However, if you were to see a flyer in you shul that stated, “How can you not afford to spend 15 minutes working on making yourself a better person?”, then you might give it a thought. 

It’s not just the approach, it’s the timing.  There’s no quick solution.  No magic pill that will give you and your children what’s termed “good middos”.  It’s simply a willingness to accept a shift in effort.  I could easily spend two hours “beating” the levels on Star Wars Lego for Wii, but to sit for two hours and work on patience takes, well patience.

Working on who we are just doesn’t seem like it’s on the radar for the general observant public these days.

25 thoughts on “Why does mussar have such bad street cred?

  1. Mordechai Y. Scher

    I think you nailed it. Timing, and style/method. And mussar may not be for everybody. There are different ways to rise within the framework of Torah. The *idea* of mussar is inherent to Torah, in my opinion; but the practice isn’t for everyone.

  2. Neil Harris

    R Scher, thanks for the comment. I also don’t think it’s for everyone, but that growth, that I hope you and I agree is “inherent”, seems to be so hidden within observant Judaism these days.

    The practice isn’t even practice, it’s a delivery, and a strong and scolding one.

  3. micha

    I think much of it is the word. To most FFBs, the word “mussar” brings up childhood memories of “getting mussar” — being scolded for doing something wrong — from a parent or rebbe.

    What may be a bigger issue, but first hit me while typing the previous paragraph and thinking about RMYS’s comment, is Litvisher culture. Chassidus is also not for everyone, but it has the advantage of having the culture of chassidim. Mussar is the tradition of a culture that values intellect. And there isn’t the fun of playing with lomdus or resolving a shverer Rambam.

    R’ JB Soloveitchik, BTW, seems to imply that the yeshiva world only came to terms with Mussar once Slabodka’s popularity eclipsed the other subtypes of Mussar. To quote (Halakhic Man, the discussion of Mussar is across pp. 74-76):

    The emotion of fear, the sense of lowliness, the melancholy so typical of homo religious, self-negation, constant self-appraisal, the consciousness of sin, self-lacerating torments, etc, etc constituted the primary features of the movement’s spiritual profile in its early years. . . . The halakhic men of Brisk and Volozhin sensed that this whole mood posed a profound contradiction to the Halakha and would undermine its very foundations. Halakhic man fears nothing. For he swims in the sea of the Talmud, that life-giving sea to all the living. If a person has sinned, then the Halakhah of repentance will come to his aid. One must not waste time on spiritual self-appraisal, on probing introspections, and on the picking away at the ‘sense’ of sin. Such a psychic analysis brings man neither to fear nor to love of God nor, most fundamental of all, to the knowledge and cognition of the Torah.

    In all truth and fairness it should be emphasized that when the Musar movement reached a state of maturity in the Yeshiva Knesset Israel under the directorship of R Nathan Zvi Finkel and in the Mir Yeshiva under the spiritual guidance of R Yeruham Lebovitz, it assumed an entirely different form and aproached the world perspective of the great halachic men. The fear, the terror, the melancholy evaporated, and their place was taken by a powerful sense of the holiness and joy of life. The act of cognition in accordance with the Halakhah, new original halachic insights, spiritual creation all replaced that exaggerated sensitivity and impressionability and that despairing perspective that had at first taken hold of the world of the Musar movement.


  4. Mordechai Y. Scher

    I think Rav Berger’s comment is right on the mark.

    It is interesting that in this particular section Rav Soloveitchik (without saying so explicitly) is presenting a notion of t’shuvah (for which I think mussar is the path or culture to realization) similar to some of what Rav Kook presents in Orot Hateshuvah. The difference is that Rav Kook doesn’t actually do away with the inevitable appearance at some early point of fear or anxiety, etc. But he does point us towards a more mature t’shuvah which finds its expression in light and joy and awe. In the end, he preserves a certain tension, but where joy nonetheless dominates. Ivdu et hashem b’simha, gilu b’raada. The simha and the gil still predominate.

    If someone is looking for Rav Soloveitchik’s discussion of mussar missing from the ‘Litvish’ yeshivot in the hebrew editioin, it’s around page 67.

  5. Shmuel

    Anything that demands intellectual honesty and the ability to look at oneself and acknowledge his shortcomings is going to be a bitter pill to swallow for the common man. It doesn’t have that “allure” that can draw people to it to make it into a mass movement the way Chassidus or other paths have. It is a “lonely path”, unfortunately.

    This is even more true when considering the probability that even many who do devote time to mussar don’t necessarily learn it properly, or with the right intent, or the proper amount of time. If your mussar seder consists of fifteen rushed minutes between chazarat haShiur and Ma’ariv (some of which have been consumed by getting ready for tefillah, etc.) it’s only natural that it will be ultimately neglected.

    In my experience, it’s those who make their “bein haSedarim” limmud an exercise in Mussar and really dwell on it, and talk it over with their contemporaries and teachers that truly incorporate it into their derech.

  6. Ezzie

    Chofetz Chaim is certainly built on the idea of mussar; other yeshivos vary. I’m not sure why either, though I think people translate mussar as more Nevardek than Slobodka. People definitely view it more as a guilt trip then a working on yourself.

  7. micha

    The story told at Chofetz Chaim is that decades ago, two talmidim traveled the Eastern Seaboard of the US with a question. They went around to the various rashei yeshiva who were Slabodka alumni to ask them why they founded mainstream rather than mussar yeshivos.

    Rav Yitzchak Hutner’s answer is interesting. Rather than Mussar, he founded Chaim Berlin on a Maharal-derived approach. Very philosophical and inspiring, but not the life-shaping experience of Mussar. Rav Hutner explained, that he didn’t feel the American yeshiva
    student didn’t have what it took to do mussar and follow through with it. That American culture runs too strongly against a path that involves delayed gratification.

    That said, within my va’ad, more than one wife commented on the changes in the va’ad member within months of our getting started. Admittedly, that’s not the instant high of a kumzitz or a Carlebach minyan, but who said life had to be an either-or?


  8. Neil Harris

    All of you make great points.
    I posted this once upon a time:
    The sefer REB SHLOMO tells over the following interesting observation by Rav Freifeld regarding Slabodka’s success in America:

    Reb Shlomo once remarked to a talmid that the Novardok style of mussar had never really caught on in America because “to be a gornisht, a nothing, one has to first be a zich, a something, and in America no one believes in his own self-worth.” (page 139)

    Now, oddly the seeds of Novardok gave birth to Alan Morinis’ own journey in mussar and observance. His Mussar Institue has brought traditional Mussar teachings to an audience that far from being products of the yeshiva system. So now we have R, C, and other Jews soaking up mussar teachings that those in our own camp shy away from.
    Plus there’s the post from R Shafran that showed up today on Cross-Currents imploring a return to middos (I have not read the comments yet).

  9. micha

    But Novhardok wasn’t really about “ich bin gornisht”. If the American military can tear people down to “maggots” in order to build them up again stronger, why couldn’t the same process work for religion?


  10. Neil Harris

    No, it was about bitachon and yirah.
    However, there was an element of, for lack of a better term “bitul” of the self and the importance of gachmi’us.

  11. Bob Miller

    The main thing is that a 100% warm and fuzzy approach won’t engender the necessary yir’ah.

    Mussar as a concept has gone through many changes over the centuries, so the word now means different things to different people. Jews have also gone through many changes, so we’re often not so well-equipped now to take strong criticism (by others or ourselves).

    Rabbi Yakov Horowitz (Monsey educator, Project YES…) once told me that he was impressed by Breslov’s synthesis of Chassidus and Mussar. Note that Rebbe Nachman ZY”A strongly recommended the traditional mussar sefer Reishis Chochma and intensive self-evaluation through hisbodedus.

  12. Joseph

    I don’t think it’s simply a matter of timing, but the way musar is presented. I remember as a student in a summer high school kollel, that the rebbe would make the students feel puny by constantly upbraiding them. Keep in mind that most of the talmidim at the camp were some of the most serious (the camp had a rigorous application and interview process) and nicest, who chose to spend their summer at a kollel rather than doing other things. Yet there was no positive word about the students’ mesirat nefesh in this musar shiur, and none of the “gadlut ha-adam” typical of other schools.

  13. Neil Harris

    Joseph, you and Bob are stating both sides of the coin. Yes, we are not able to receive mussar like we were two generations ago, but also most Rabbis have not accepted this. That is the reason sefer Alei Shur is good, because R Wolbe wrote it for our generation.
    This is also why learning bits and pieces of Chassidus has become more popular. Those looking to grow will find nourishment wherever they can.

  14. micha

    I want to reiterate my first comment, because I think it speaks to Joseph’s recollection. He wrote: I remember as a student in a summer high school kollel, that the rebbe would make the students feel puny by constantly upbraiding them.

    To reiterate the distinction I made: I think much of it is the word. To most FFBs, the word “mussar” brings up childhood memories of “getting mussar” — being scolded for doing something wrong — from a parent or rebbe.

    Mussar in the sense used by the Mussar Movement, isn’t about upbraiding students, “giving them mussar”. It’s about seeing Judaism in terms of perfecting one’s soul, to become an ever-higher-fidelity “Image” of G-d.

    The Alter of Slabodka, R’ Nosson Zvi Finkel, would not upbraid students. Rather he would show them how much more than their current behavior they were capable of. Not push them through embarassment or guilt out of doing wrong, but to pull them to doing better.

  15. Bob Miller


    Do you think there’s an frequent underlying problem now of teachers not relating to students, and of only lip service being given to “al pi darko”?
    Such a teacher might be more apt to level harsh criticism without regard for the results.

  16. micha


    I have to say the vast majority of my children’s teachers do connect.

    Teachers are people too. Not every failing is ideological. The class gets out of control, patience is lost, or you get caught up in the parenting “script” you learned by experiencing it from your parents, and you do something less than optimal. Or they may know in theory al pi darko, but lack the skill to figure out how to do it for each child.

    But I speak to my children and their teachers, and (at least in limmudei qodesh) more often than not there is some emotional bond.


  17. Neil Harris

    While my years of parenting experience are less than Micha’s, I would agree.  Teachers try to connect and our school is very into the idea of “success breeds success” in the classroom.  My own son has been zoche to have his rebbeim be talmidim, respectively, of: R Gifter, R Simcha Wasserman, and currently a product of both ITRY and Chofetz Chaim.  Encouragement is key, but classroom management is difficult for everyone (I know, b/c, I’ve supervised his class for three years in a row during a Chanuka luncheon).
    If the seeds of “building-up” are not planted and nurtured in elementary school, then I guess high school could be difficult.  So, what we’re left with, aside from revamping and re-educating how chinuch is accomplished, is to somehow show the importance of authentic Torah middos and the obligation to work on perfecting ourselves.

  18. S.

    To echo Micha, “mussar” first and foremost connotes having your chops busted by an authority figure.

    Secondly, as far as I can tell, mussar is dead in most yeshivos. Maybe its changed today, but it certainly was dead when I was in yeshiva. (And maybe it was different in, say, Chofetz Chaim.)

    Since basically all American yeshivos had some connection with Slabodka and other mussar centers, it couldn’t officially be dead, so instead you’d get a token 15 minute seder which was somehow supposed to change you (although no one ever gave any guidance in this). This is post HS. In HS there was maybe a little more formal mussar, maybe a rebbe trying to teach a little Mesilas Yesharim, but since as likely as not the rebbe didn’t care for mussar himself, that came across. You could always tell if the rebbe would much rather be learning a Tosafos at the moment. So where was the inspiration in that? There was no mussar culture, and even though no one admitted it, it was clear that the slight allegiance to mussar was only out of tradition (not mesorah – tradition).

  19. Neil Harris

    S,I’m curious what the line (maybe the Main Line) b/t a mussar “culture” and tradition?

    RYS’s methods/innovations (hispalulus,the beis hamussar) later use of kabballos in Kelm, implimentation of vaadim in Slobodka and Novardok all were passed down. It seems there was a culture, tradition, and mesorah. Most hardcore Chofetz Chaim guys will say things like “the minhag of our yeshiva/RY is…”

  20. Garnel Ironheart

    In the quest to become “frummer” one can change one’s external actions or one can change oneself internally.
    In today’s superficial world, the former is easier than the latter. Instead of justifying why we take the easy way out, we malign the harder way so as to make it seem like it’s not realistic, thereby making us exempt from having to try it.

  21. micha

    Well, if I marketed it as “The AishDas Society: Kedushah the Hard Way”, I think we wouldn’t have as many members…

    If I could give a classic mashal…

    Many years earlier in Shanghai. Reb Leib was engaged by the Amshinover Rebbe to teach one of his children…. the Rebbe discussed with Reb Leib the concept that in spiritual growth there are two approaches : one can take Derech HaNamuch and Derech haGevoah. The first approach is to work from the bottom up, painstakingly one step at a time. The second allows a person to jump many levels a t a time.

    After Shabbos, Reb Leib related this to the Mashgiach who, soon after, asked his young talmid to accompany him to the Sassoon Building. The Sassoon building was a beautiful edifice, a skyscraper that was built on one of the most prime pieces of real estate in downtown Shanghai. But the building was sinking into the ground! It seems that many years earlier this plot of land had been the garbage dump and someone has purchased it, covered it and as Shanghai grew in size, sold it a prime property. Mr. Sassoon bought the tract and -unsuspecting- built one of the most beautiful buildings in the city on it. The Mashgiach’s point was well understood: outwardly, one’s spiritual accomplishments can appear great and exalted, but if he doesn’t clean out the garbage – if a solid foundation is not developed one step at the time – then eventually it will collapse.

    – Reb Chatzkel: Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, Guardian of Torah and Mussar, Artscroll, p. 338

    I heard this mashal from the author of Avakesh blog. As he notes when he retells the story there:

    This sensibility is what separates Chassidus and Mussar. I must say that in all fairness, there are strands of thought in both movements that gave credence to the other approach. R. Levenshtein was from Kelm and Kelm held most strongly of the absolute necessity of of detail work on middos; in Slobodka, on the other hand, the concept of Gadlus HaOdom allows some degree of “Kefitsas haMadreigos”. Certainly Novarodok made overcoming all boundaries in one leap into the centerpiece of its program. Later, the Mussar of R. Dessler drew a great deal from Kabbolah and Chassidus.

    Among the chassidim, there was always, at least lip service paid to the study of mussar works, especially among the branches that stem from Noam Elimelech.

    For us, living in the worlds of falsehood, the danger of unbridled immersion in chassidus is self deception and unintended hypocrisy. Chassidus shows the way forward, but it should be coupled with an unceasing effort in mussar, especially in as much as it relates to self-examination and the striving for truth.


  22. micha

    (… continued from yesterday. Sorry for the delay, computer problems. Thank G-d and the authors of the Session Manager plug-in for Firefox, this window came back populated.)

    I think this is why Michtav MeiEliyahu was so popular, and more recently, R’ Itamar Schwartz’s (Bilvavi) works. As R’ Dessler put it (tr. RYGB):

    In our times: The qualities of “Emet” that personified the Ba’alei Mussar [Mussar Masters] are already extinct. We no longer find individuals whose hearts are full with profound truth, with a strong and true sense of Cheshbon HaNefesh [complete and rigorous reckoning of one’s spiritual status and progress]. We have reached the era of Ikvasa d’Mashicha [the final generations before the coming of Moshaich], generations that Chazal described as superficial. If we find an individual who does learn Mussar, we find that he is primarily interested in the intellect of Mussar, the profound philosophy and psychology that are linked to Mussar. Even if he learns Mussar b’hispa’alus [with the emotional impact of nigun – melody – and shinun – repetition – that R.Yisroel prescribed], rarely does this activity lead to Cheshbon HaNefesh.

    Contemporary Chassidus lacks the component that was once at its core: Avodas Hashem with dveykus. All that remains is the external form of Chassidus, something that appears like hislahavus. There is nigun, but the soul of nigun is no longer. Hitlahavus in davening is almost a thing of the past.

    For today’s era, there remain only one alternative: To take up everything and anything that can be of aid to Yahadus; the wisdom of both Mussar and Chassidus together. Perhaps together they can inspire us to great understandings and illuminations. Perhaps together they might open within us reverence and appreciation of our holy Torah. Perhaps the arousal of Mussar can bring us to a little Chassidic hislahavus. And perhaps the hislahavus will somewhat fortify one for a Cheshbon HaNefesh. Perhaps through all these means together we may merit to ascend in spirituality and strengthen our position as Bnei Torah [adherents of a Torah centered lifestyle] with an intensified Judaism. May G-d assist us to attain all this!

    And last, a citation I can’t just cut-n-paste, the essay “Shtei Derekhaim” by R’ Avraham Elya ben R’ Avram Elya Kaplan (), from his BeIqvos haYir’ah.


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