Monday, August 1, 2011

waitaminute... Mussar WORKS?!

I just had an interesting conversation with one of my cousins. We met at a pool party today, and were making friendly chatter; we're not very alike - he's more yeshivish, and while he's a nice enough guy, I don't find him to be very open minded about anything. We were catching up on each other's lives, and he asked me what I'm up to. I tell him that I'm trying to get semicha and that I'm almost finished with college, after which I'm trying to get into a doctorate program in Psychology.

Once Psychology comes up, he starts asking me all sorts of questions about what I'm planning to do with my degree once I'm done. I inform him that God willing I am going to work within the Jewish community. He snorts in derision. "Come on, how many frum people go to psychologists?" he asks me.

I reply that while there are a lot more people than he probably thinks, there's still more who can benefit from having someone to talk to, and how Judaism places emphasis on having someone to confide in. He waves me off: "Yeah, but you're probably learning all sorts of kefirah and apikorsus (heresy and blasphemy) anyway." I patiently try to explain to him that while I do encounter blatant instances of concepts and beliefs that are incompatible with Judaism, I ten to let those things slide, because they are not important. For all intents and purposes, I assure him, I am trying to learn the techniques that can be utilized in therapy and in determining how to respond and identify certain emotional issues. But the core understanding of what makes a human being tick, I hope to get from Torah sources.

He looks at me, confused. What do I mean?

I try to explain that my insights into human nature is not coming from the secular sources, but rather from classic and contemporary Jewish sources.

"Which sources?" he wants to know.

Alei Shur, Chovot HaLevavot, the writings of the RamBaN, etc. I list off a few more works to make sure he understands.


Yes, Mussar, chassidus, Chumash. All of the above.

He shakes his head: "But mussar doesn't work!" he protests.

I look him in the eye and gently tell him "I can tell by your response that you've never learned mussar properly. If you had, you wouldn't be so shocked."

"But mussar is hard!" he insists.

Of course it's hard - in the sense that it takes a tremendous amount of intellectual honesty, bravery, and effort to implement and maintain the strategies toward refinement that the tzaddikim have prescribed. And therapy is also hard and time consuming, and involves similar ideas. A synthesis of the two isn't so far fetched, after all.

The conversation came to an end at that point; I think I left him in a daze...


Neil Harris said...

Interesting. Sadly, your cousin's view is probably how the majority of bnai yeshiva view mussar. Everything, as you implied, requires effort. Good for you that you held your ground (and aslo optimized your blog for mobile viewing.

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Shmuel said...

Neil - unfortunately, the study of Mussar is marginalized, usually relegated to a half-hearted 15-20 minute session just before Ma'ariv - a time that is also used to prepare for Ma'ariv, make phone calls, etc.

Even those who learn mussar are most likely barely soaking it in; that small amount of time doesn't really lend itself to the material...

micha said...

Between what passes for Mussar in most Yeshivos today (15 min in hilkhos LH which are often just extra breakfast time) and the idioma "giving Mussar", most people don't think of what they did in Slabodka when you say the word "Mussar".

More important IMHO than "learning mussar" is doing mussar. This is why I have a fascination with ve'adim rather than chaburos or shiurim. ("Va'ad", as I'm using the term, is a chaburah with some daily pe'ulah to actually develop the middah for homework.)

More useful than a 15 min mussar seder would be if yeshivos gave each talmid a pretty notebook and taught them what a cheshbon hanefesh is.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised by your cousin's reaction and lack of awareness of the benefits of modern psychology. Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Tiferes Yerushalaim, and Rabbi Chaim Kohn, dayan in the Washington Heights community, independently advised me in no uncertain terms to consult with a psychologist in a matter they didn't want to touch and referred me to one. Rabbanim recognize the value of psychology if used by qualified people.