Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement

The Mussar movement, the formal study and program of ethical improvement, was developed in the mid-nineteenth century by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883, his family name was Lipkin but he is known as Salanter in honor of the many years he studied in Salant, Lithuania).

Throughout his years of study, Rabbi Salanter felt that there was far too much cold intellectualism in the Jewish community and too little emphasis on ethics and self-improvement. While some Mussar texts already existed, such as the writings of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, Rabbi Salanter developed the study and practice of ethics into a true school of thought. The focus of the Mussar movement was the communal study of these existing texts, incorporated with constant self-examination of one's actions.

After serving as the head of the Vilna Yeshiva, Rabbi Lipkin moved to Kovno in the 1840s in order to open his own yeshiva. At the same time he also ran a special center dedicated to the study of ethical works and a kollel (an advanced study institute) for married men. After leaving Kovno in 1856, Rabbi Salanter took positions in several towns of Germany and France.

The most renowned work of Rabbi Salanter is Iggeret ha-Mussar (The Ethical Letter), which was first published in 1858.

While the Mussar movement was successful within the world of the scholars, it was not generally a popular movement. (After all, how popular could it be to sit for an hour each day and criticize yourself?!) Following Rabbi Salanter's death on 25 Shevat in 1883, his disciples worked diligently to integrate Mussar into mainstream traditional education. Eventually it became part of the curriculum in most Lithuanian schools, where students would not only study Mussar, but would regularly hear Mussar Shmoozin (Mussar talks) from the school's mashgiach ruchani (moral supervisor).

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