Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jewish and Gentle: Time for a Mussar Revival

The Jewish Week 02/02/2007

These are dangerous times. But despite the clear threats posed from the outside by Iranians, Arabs, Europeans and Borat's cowboys, we can't overlook the dangers staring directly at us in the mirror.

In Israel, life has become one prolonged sleepless night, a never-ending Yom Kippur, as soul-searching Israelis contemplate the implications of a nuclear Iran while simultaneously enduring revelations of corruption on almost every level of government. With the President accused of rape and the Prime Minister of financial and political improprieties, and with justice ministers, tax officials, chief rabbis and the outgoing IDF Chief of Staff also under investigation, the level of sleaze has been astonishing even by Israeli standards. The BBC has called it a "corruption epidemic."

Here in the America, despite a rise in anti-Semitism, our greatest dangers are internal. Granted, we've got our high profile sleazebags, like Jack Abramoff, but there is a far more pervasive corruption lurking beneath the surface of our communal life, a virus that has infected all of us: Jewish public life has become coarse and corrosive, abundant in recrimination and lacking in civility.

So many people leave the Jewish community precisely because they perceive it as being unwelcoming and unforgiving. Pettiness and rancor cuts across denominational and institutional lines, affecting synagogue and federation alike, Jews of all denominations. We are all guilty, some more by their actions, others by their indifference. It's happening everywhere.

The Talmudic sages understood how we could be our own worst enemies, ascribing great calamities not to foreign oppression but to internal strife. The second temple burned, in their eyes, because of causeless hatred among Jews. Unlike prior generations, today's Jews have the freedom to opt out of Jewish life entirely, and so many have. They and their family members, many of whom are not Jewish, are waiting for that signal of acceptance that too often does not come. They are there for the taking, if only we would welcome them in.

It might be the most difficult assignment the Jewish people have ever had: to model civility and love in a world where so many despise us. For the most part, we've pulled that off amazingly well over the centuries - until now.

Why is it that so many Jews say to me, "Rabbi, I feel like I am a good person, even though I'm not a good Jew." Since when must the two be mutually exclusive? Jewish ritual is vacuous if it does not lead to ethical ends. As the Ten Commandments make clear, Shabbat sensitizes us to the needs of all members of our household, even the servants and animals. Kashrut is pointless unless it points us toward a greater sensitivity to life. Judaism, which should instinctively linked to kindness, modesty and honesty, too often is associated with ritual correctness, ethnic tribalism and an unyielding ethic of holier-than-thou.

"Nice" needs to be the Next Big Thing for Jews, and, just in time, there appears to be an upsurge of interest in civil behavior. For centuries, "Mussar," as it is known, has been a steadying influence in Jewish life. Giants like Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Hafetz Hayyim have dotted the spectrum over the past couple of centuries, and currently the first rumblings of a full-scale Mussar revival are being felt, with the publication of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's "Code of Jewish Ethics," the popularity of Shmuley Boteach's cable program, "Shalom in the Home" and a bevy of ethicists peddling their home-spun advice on websites and in print.

The website at Rabbi Ira Stone's Philadelphia Mussar Institute (
contains instructive exercises promoting the development of middot (positive character traits) such as patience, humility, honesty, frugality and silence. While not every Jew may be up to keeping a daily ethical diary, all Jews need to see principled behavior as the core of Jewish life. This is not to take anything away from social action, but each synagogue now needs to establish a committee on social INTERaction.

Many churches have adopted what they call Behavioral Covenants, codes establishing norms for proper manners, whether at meetings, in the pews or on the street. I Googled various combinations of "Behavioral Covenant" and "Jewish," and while a number of matches came up, none led me to a synagogue, JCC or federation that has created an actual Behavioral Covenant. I'm sure some are out there - but they need to be everywhere. Organizations like Synagogue 3000 encourage communities to be warmer and more welcoming like the mega-churches. Advice that once came so naturally to Jews, even a sourpuss sage like Shammai (who said in Pirke Avot, "Greet everyone cheerfully"), now requires a think tank.

We shouldn't have to seek gentile prototypes to persuade communities to be Jewish and gentle. Our own models abound.

For every Saint Francis of Assisi, we've got the likes of Simeon ben Shetach, whose students presented him with a donkey that they had bought from a non Jewish merchant. When a valuable jewel fell from the donkey's neck, Simeon insisted on returning it to the merchant, despite the pleas of his students. The shocked merchant accepted the jewel and exclaimed, "Praised be the God of Simeon ben Shetach."

Wouldn't it be amazing if every organization came together to agree on a collective Behavioral Covenant for American Jewish Life? It might actually be doable, since the "middot" cross denominational boundaries. Imagine what the impact would be.

It would change everything.

When our communities project an ethos of love, generosity of spirit, humility and acceptance, the world will notice. For the Jews and Judaism to thrive in these turbulent times, we must set our clocks permanently to Yom Kippur and reinforce those principles that can help us live together in harmony. When, for each Jew, being a good Jew MEANS being a good person, the book of life will remain forever open.

No comments: