Monday, March 19, 2012

Judaism: Spiritual or Practical?

Of course, Judaism is both Spiritual and Practical; we are taught to develop our personal spiritual character, and also to carry out practical mitzvot. But which is more important?

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b) describes a hierarchy of traits for development, suggesting that a person can grow from basic observance of Torah and concern for avoiding sin to purification and holiness to Divine inspiration. After presenting the list, the Talmud mentions a debate between two authorities; Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair says the highest trait is chassidut, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says the highest trait is humility.

As it used in mishnah and gemara, chassidut usually refers to exceeding one's practical mitzvah obligations. Humility, on the other hand, is an internal, spiritual trait. Which leads me to wonder: Is this really a debate about whether it is better to work on one's spirituality or to work on one's deeds?

It's a good question. Of course, one could and should point out that spiritual character affects one's deeds, and one's deeds (per Sefer haChinuch) influence one's spiritual character. And, yes, humility leads to knowing how much one needs to learn in other areas. But that is not my point at the moment.

I want to know: Given the chance to learn mussar or Shulchan Aruch, which should one choose?

Or, perhaps better: Given the chance to learn mussar or work in a soup kitchen, which should one choose?


  1. Is it necessarily the same answer for everyone? Does it depend on innate character and attainment of these traits so far?

  2. I would have to agree with Daniel Saunders. The value of a mitzvah is situational. Perhaps that's the meaning of "be as cautious with a light mitzvah as with a strict one, because you don't know the value of mitvos." (R Yehudah haNasi, Avos 2:1) For some person, given the struggle that it took to do what is usually a small mitzvah, or the grown it created, that mitzvah may well be more valuable than what is usually an important mitzvah.

    Even if we concede that Judaism is more practical than spiritual, perhaps always acting and never studying will be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. You can't just produce, produce, produce, without doing anything to make tomorrow's productivity possible.

    And even if we said Judaism is more spiritual than practical, arguably the meaning of "naaseh venishmah" is that one doesn't really interanlize what all the study is talking about without action. We will do, and "listen" to what we do.

  3. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (in Michtav MiEliyahu) says (roughly) that we love those to whom we are kind more than we love those who are kind to us. That is, the act of being kind to someone, taking care of them, tending to their needs, makes us love them. So too with the act of performing mitzvot. The action leads to the desired internal state. So that line of reasoning would favor the soup kitchen over the lecture.

  4. Halachah is king. One has an primary obligation to be thouroughly familiar with halachah. It trumps mussar. And hopefully in this day and age people have a moral compass in the absence of mussar study.

    As for mussar vs. a food bank, maaseh trumps limud. But more than that, mussar is selfish and focuses primarily inwardly on personal improvement. It is a focus on self. A food banks helps others. I would hope a food banks wins hands down.

  5. Melech,

    I don't know what you think Mussar is, but what you describe isn't what I learned.

    Mussar is a perspective on Yahadus which sees the entire enterprise as a means to refine the self into someone capable of emulating and cleaving to G-d. Central to that refinement process is halakhah -- as it is central in any authentic view of Torah. Central to the goal halakhah and the rest of Torah bring us to, to be able to emulate G-d, is a focus on the other. After all, He didn't create the world to have His own needs addressed -- He has no needs.

    To quote R' Shimon Shkop (tr. mine): BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

    Mussar is a way to keep one's observance of halakhah real, by providing a view of the forest when dealing with the trees.

    1. Micha, Yes, I realize we have a different conception of mussar.
      But yes, I realize halachah is necessary for mussar, although I wonder what Alan Morinis would opine on that.. The question is if mussar is necessary for halachah.

      But I stand by the claim that mussar is primarily introspective and dedicated to self improvement even in the absence of community even though its lessons are transferable to communal interactions. And I would argue that halachah requires a community and is a way of walking not just with God, but is part and parcel of communal life.

      Yes, mussar is helpful in introspecting how to emulate God. Mussar offers practical exercises. But at the very best it is a tool. An arrow in a quiver.

  6. Of course, there's the famous story in which Rav Yisrael Salanter was asked what one with only 15 minutes a day to learn should spend his time studying. Rav Yisrael replied that he should learn mussar, which will show him that he can make more time to learn other things.

    One could easily argue that those 15 minutes, if devoted to mussar would also help us find more time for chessed.

  7. Alan's a friend of mine; I was on the board of his charity and did research work on one of his books. He knows that mussar can't be fully embraced without halakhah. And in fact, among people who learned Mussar through the Mussar Institute, observance inevitably increases. That said, I don't think TMI is really what this discussion is about.

    The notion of Mussar being self-centered is belied by the many stories about R' Yisrael Salanter choosing stringencies in interpersonal mitzvos even if it means relying on a leniency in mitzvos between man and G-d. Like washing with a minimum of water, rather than using up water that would have to be replaced by his host's maid carrying it back from the well. Or missing Qol Nidrei because a girl left babysitting her sibling was overwhelmed, and the baby was crying.

    Not by the stories themselves, which for all I know may be apocryphal. That these are the stories they retold says something about how Mussarists thought of their heroes.

  8. Daniel, Micha-
    I would naturally agree with you that the answer varies by the person - but the gemara seems to provide a direct prescription for all. That troubles me.

    But is the goal of spiritual development only love of others?

    I assume you admit that there are times when my obligation to myself trumps my obligation to others?

    Yes, that was what I meant in my reference to learning mussar teaching one how much he needs to learn in other areas.

  9. spirituality as it is generally understood seems to a part of kabalah. In Torah itself there is a brit covenant relationship between Hashem and Israel. This is a contract and is bilateral. Now I agree that it seems that as a result of keeping this contact that there is attachment with God involved but if you think about it you will see this cant be the case. attachment in itself is a mitzvah. The persuh on the first four chapters of mishna torah of the Rambam says that one does the mitzvot to get to the higher fear of God. The obligation of God if we keep our side of the bargain is protection and blessing of the nation. In this we don't see any mention of natural law at all. The whole natural law paradigm of Saadia Geon and the Rambam seems to be a later understanding of Torah.

  10. Adam,

    One of the things that attracted me to Mussar (until then I looked at the forest in Hirschian terms) was that it doesn't require any discussion of Qabbalah (neither pro nor con). The Torah is a way to polish one's "'image' of the Divine", and what being polished means is given in very exoteric terms. When our host discusses learning mussar vs soup kitchens, qabbalah doesn't come up.

    I also think the rephrase at the bottom of the post can be made in purely halachic terms, which is unsurprising given that I believe that mussar is a way of viewing halakhah, not a distinct topic.

    I really think the question boils down to asking how to balance doing today's mitzvos with developing the ability to do more mitzvos tomorrow. And halakhah does have many rules about when one may or must leave Torah learning to do another mitzvah, one one should refrain from starting one's learning in order to do another mitzvah, etc...

  11. I+am+not+convinced+that+most+musar+contains+any+great+insights+about+midot+or+correcting+character+or+the+meaning+of+life+or+any+ultimate+truth.+%28From+this+critique+I+exclude+books+from+the+Rambam+or+the+geonic+school+and+a*few+others.%29+I+just+don%27t+see+musar+as+having+much+to+say+about+anything.+Nor+did+I+ever+see+people+that+read+Musar+as+beinf+particularly+more+moral+than+the+average+Joe.--in+fact+the+rel`tionship+between+morality+and+Musar+might+even+be+inverse.%0D%0@

  12. I am not convinced that most musar contains any great insights about midot or correcting character or the meaning of life or any ultimate truth. (From this critique I exclude books from the Rambam or the geonic school and a few others.) I just don't see musar as having much to say. Nor did I ever see people that read Musar as being particularly more moral than the average Joe.--in fact the relationship between morality and Musar might even be inverse.

  13. It might be argued that this discussion is choosing the wrong alternatives. Helping in in a soup kitchen, or any other activity of chessed to a fellow human, is BOTH a mitzvah in and of itself, and also must sensitize a person to the needs and problems of others. But the more difficult question is about whether 'ritual' halakhah helps form character and values (I hope it does!), or whether it becomes an end in itself, obscuring the 'spirit of the law'. This is a debate that goes back to the time of the Nevi'im, through Christianity, to the twentieth century (Buber and others). Unfortunately, we live in a halachah-obsessed community, and current evidence that meticulous observance of halachah improves values and characteris not always easy to see. Vehamavin yavin. (Whether, of all literature available, Mussar is the first or only station of recourse is also highly debatable. More close reading of Tanach would be good.)

  14. Paul-
    Thanks for commenting. I agree that chesed helps sensitize us to others' needs, as can ritual halachah. However, the specific trait under discussion in the gemara is humility, and while I believe this can grow through chesed, I'm not sure chesed is the best way to inculcate it.

  15. Whoops! realized that I didn't read the original post properly. Apologies.

  16. I have been trying to figure out something nice to say about Musar. If you would take out all the Musar books from the Anti Rambam movement, I would say Musar is a great thing. But as long as there books that are part of the official Musar cannon that are from the Anti-Rambam movement I will have a hard time saying anything nice about Musar in general. (It is not that I think the authors were bad people. They all might have been great scholars with important things to say about Gemara. But my question is what world view caused them to oppose the Rambam?and is that world view still contained in their so called musar books? If so why should I read them? and further there is evidence that what every was in these books that caused their authors to oppose the rambam seems to affect people today in the same way. The relationship between learning Musar and ethics seems to me to be inverse.)

  17. Mussar with a capital "M" emerges in the stretch from the Gra to R' Chaim Volozhiner to R' Zundl Salanter to R' Yisrael Salanter. The anti-Rambam movement was long settled.

    If you're referring to their sources, they come from both sides of the Maimonidian Controversy. Including the Rambam's own Shemonah Peraqim and Hilkhos Dei'os. You are injecting something totally orthogonal to the topic of Mussar.

    You earlier wrote, "I am not convinced that most musar contains any great insights about midot or correcting character or the meaning of life or any ultimate truth. (From this critique I exclude books from the Rambam or the geonic school and a few others.)"

    So you appear to be aware of this.

    As for whether mussar contains insights about correcting character... Note my definition of Mussar revolves around how one views the project of Torah. Not the merits of any specific idea or technique.

  18. The proper relative emphasis on the spiritual vs. the practical depends on the person and the situation, as many things do. Think about your life; haven't there been some times that overwhelmingly demanded concentration on one or the other?

  19. Bob-
    Agreed - but the gemara purports to present an absolute!

  20. OK Fine then if what we are calling Musar is from the Gra until R Salanter then I am very happy with that particular movement. and i liked the disciples of R salanter also. But after that it became frum.

  21. Mussar became "frum"? See R' Shelomo Wolbe's take on "frumkeit" from Alei Shur vol II pp 152-155. (In case it doesn't come through in an email alert, that's a link.)

    1. In general, Orthodoxy in Lithuania was a lot less "frum" than are the contemporary attempts to reconstruct it.

  22. Thank you for pointing out that ali shur.
    i had heard about that book and i remember people in my dorm room reading it. But at the time I was more interested in the core books of Musar (and I admit I was interested in kabalah and Rebbi Nachman also). I still have this tendency to want to go to original sources instead of getting things second hand.

    At any rate now that i see what the ali shur wrote i am impressed. However I do have a question on his thesis that frumkeit has its root in instinct.
    (However I want to make it clear that I appreciate the clarity he brings to this subject.)

    My problem with this is instinctive behaviors are non-volitional.

    [e.g. migratory behavior of birds and salmon. Many
    species of birds fly south in the fall and north again in the
    spring, how some species, such as the Canada Goose and the Arctic Tern, fly tremendous distances with incredible accuracy year after year, and how the Atlantic and Pacific
    Salmon return to precisely the stream in which they were spawned after five or more years of wide ranging travel in the ocean. Further, we see that these animals could not have
    developed such capability in the same way that humans did,
    i.e. cognitively through the use of some rational method.
    They simply haven't the mental wherewithal to do so. It's
    clear that these capabilities operate via some mechanism that
    is distinctly different from the way that such capabilities
    are achieved by people. Not all animals show instincts; this
    is not an invertebrate phenomenon. The final point is that these
    instinctive behaviors are non-volitional. The Arctic Tern can no more stop off in Cancun for the season than the sun can rise in the west. Instincts are not tendencies; they are
    imperatives. Notice that in this development we are discussing a neurological, even a mental phenomenon that is a means to
    survival, just as rationality is Man's means of survival.
    Instinct is mandatory, reason is volitional. Instinct is unconscious, reason is conscious. Instinct is fixed, reason
    is adaptable. Instinct is followed uniformly by all members of the species, reason is not.
    The Arctic Tern has and lives by instinct. Man has and lives by reason. Instinct encodes the self-interest of the Arctic Tern, and cannot be overridden. Reason is a means to
    discover the self-interest of Man, is not encoded but must be discovered, and can be overridden (and is overridden more
    often than not, sad to say).)