Resolutions and revolutions: Mussar and the new year


With the secular new year of 2015 upon us and the new Facebook year in review feature gathering steam, it’s only natural to think of our goals and dreams for the upcoming year. Wishes for a new year quickly turn to resolutions, themselves quickly turning to regrets. What does Judaism have to add to the sometimes useful, often temporary annual craze that is the New Year’s resolution?

One answer to the question involves a trip back in time when a then-radical Jewish movement was gaining steam. In early 19th-century Eastern Europe, particularly in Lithuania, Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter (1810–1883) engaged Jews in a new set of priorities and practices that launched a bona fide revolution of Judaism. Adherence to Jewish law was on the decline and observance of the customs was shrinking as a perfect storm of historical factors left traditional Ashkenazi Judaism in peril. Taken together, the secularization of the enlightenment, anti-Semitism, widespread poverty and the new possibility of assimilation, among other factors, caused vast numbers to question the efficacy of traditional Jewish practices and associated institutions.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty and anxiety, Rabbi Salanter thought to revive Judaism by subtly but strongly shifting focus from the ritual to the ethical. Humility, yashrus (being upright), modesty and ethical business practices were the goals; dishonesty, fraud, self-deception and laziness loomed large as impediments. With a mix of inspiration and realism, he reiterated the messages of the prophets by teaching that it was just as important to earn “Kosher” money as it was to eat Kosher food.  Ritual practices were significant and obligatory, but received relatively too much attention and focus. Instead, a focus on self-improvement and ethical living in daily life would represent both – a corrective to the Judaism of his day and a pragmatic attractive alternative to the secularity of the enlightenment. 

Rabbi Salanter and his followers didn’t stop there, moving well beyond a formulation of priorities and goals. They developed realistic methods and practices designed to help make real and fixed the changes they sought. The Mussar vaad became an important innovation. Groups of students would meet to study ethical works together, particularly on the Sabbath. Then little known works of sages past were reprinted at Salanter’s request and popularized. The 11th-century work “Chovot Halevavot” (Duties of the Heart), and the 18th-century works “Messilat Yesharim” (the Path of the Just) and “Heshbon Ha-nefesh” (Accounting of the Soul) became staples of the movement. As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto notes in the introduction to his “Messilat Yesharim,” the importance of the works was not in studying them and knowing their content, but in integrating the ethical messages into the reader’s life. These groups would study and repeat the works together, challenging one another and sharing their struggles to integrate the demanding ethical precepts. 

Some of the other techniques used and developed by the Mussar movement included journaling, chanting, meditation and other contemplative exercises. Regardless of technique, the common denominator was that attention to progress had to occur with fixed regularity. Meetings and sessions were scheduled to prevent rote and routine from reigning victorious. One of the most common recommendations among Mussar movement leaders was the notion of heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul best thought of as a personal performance review. A little time was to be set aside each day to chart progress, challenges and ensure that lives were being lived intentionally.

These days, mindfulness and contemplation are as much a craze as New Year’s resolutions. Humbly, I’d submit that fixed daily times to check in with ourselves and the other practices of the Mussar movement are timeless Jewish techniques necessary now more than ever.

With so many draws on our attention and time, it seems increasingly hard make steady progress toward our long-term goals. Spending a small scheduled amount of time each day (perhaps with a journal, with a loved one or friend, or in silence) taking stock is just what the doctor ordered. As John Locke said, “[e]ducation begins the gentleman, but reading, good company and reflection must finish him.”

RABBI BARRY DOLINGER is rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence.