Monday, May 30, 2005

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul (Part 2)

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul: Why I Delight in Mussar

-- by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Part 2. My Interest in Mussar

I was recently asked to defend my interest in Mussar, a subject which many people think entails sober and dour studies of texts that relentlessly spell out exactly what’s wrong with us, and just how bad we really are. People who know about my humor and overall peaceableness wonder what connection I have with it. And others who know of my spiritual strivings and my flights of adoration and worship, wonder even more so [1].

Essentially it comes to this. A very long time ago I wanted nothing more than to understand my soul. To know what it was, what it was made of, where it was, how it functioned, and why it existed at all. I was fifteen when this became important. Actually, eight or so when it first came up, when I remember lying back in bed in the black of a series of hot nights, and breathing oh so shallowly, in rank realization and fear of mortality. But I was fifteen when it became a summer project, if you will. And you know how important summer projects are to a fifteen year old!

I would sit enraptured on a long, green and shady hill, reading about G-d, about the nature of the soul, about reincarnation, about the meaning of life, about what does and what doesn’t matter in life, etc., etc. And I was ever the sophisticated and wise soul myself, I thought. Of course, I learned otherwise, and in short order. But it was a sublime, ephemeral summer. Nonetheless, reality beckoned, and I was distracted by and absorbed in one thing or another through my teens and twenties. Yet the theme stayed with me like an obligation unfulfilled.

Now, understand. I wasn’t observant while that was all brewing. And I didn’t start to become so for years. But once I did, the theme of the soul-- better yet, the meaning of life-- came to the foreground once again, and with a sudden Jewish intensity.

I delved and learned, asked and pondered; was thrust from one conjectural maelstrom to another, assumed one truth after another. On and on. Until I came to feel most warm and cozy, most at-home, and most assured by a combination of my “Big Three”: Kabbalah, Chassidut and Mussar. And while I still am nourished by Chassidut and Kabbalah (and can even be said to be a heavy eater), I have settled into Mussar as a life’s work, please G-d.

The individual who asked me to write this explanation of my interest in Mussar also asked how I or anyone else in our age could ever come to enjoy Mussar, rather than be taken aback by it. And I said at the time that one had to pass through a certain existential “wall”, if you will, to do that. I therefore hope to explain that here as well, and to tie that all in with my opening statement about the need each one of us has to “mean something.”


[1] Mussar, technically, is the study and practise of character development, ethics and spiritual devotion. Its primary, classical texts include “The Path of the Just”, “The Duties of the Heart”, “The Book of the Upright”, and “The Gates of Repentance”, as well as many statements of the sages, most significantly “The Ethics of the Fathers”. Latter-day proponents and masters of Mussar, including the Gaon of Vilna, Rav Yisroel Salanter, and others composed original Mussar works as well, as have more contemporary pious souls, including the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, Rav Yeruchom of the Mir, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, etc.

(c) 2005 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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AT LONG LAST! Rabbi Feldman's translation of "The Gates of Repentance" has been reissued at *at a discount*! You can order it right now by logging onto (or by going to and searching for it). Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason Aronson Publishers). And his new work on Maimonides' "The Eight Chapters" will soon be available from Judaica Press.
His works are available in bookstores and in various locations on the Web.
Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes on entitled "Spiritual Excellence" and "Ramchal".