Monday, May 13, 2013

Did the Mussar Movement fight Haskala by being a frum Haskala or by focusing on developing greater yiras shamayaim and character perfection?

 update May 13: I sent this post to Dr. Marc Shapiro who is one of the world's greatest expert on the Seridei Aish. His reponse totally knocked the air  out my question. He said that  I was reading too much into the words of the Seridei Aish. He said that what the Seridei Aish claimed that Rav Salanter meant by Hebrew Haskala that would be a defense against the maskilim was simply "moral perfection, nobility of soul, and lofty ideals"

I replied with: "You are right I read too much into this. He is defining his haskala as moral perfection, nobility of soul and lofty ideals. Don't know what that has to do with enlightenment. Why not call the kabbala or chasidus enlightenment. In fact why not just say that Yiddishkeit is enlightenment? How did the students who were leaving the yeshivas for the haskala view what he was offering them and why would they think it was a valid alternative form of enlightenment?  Apparently the maskilim of his day also understood him the way I did. Did he mislead them or did he simply nod his head at everything they said? In essence he seemed to be forming what we call a cult  in modern terms.
 I recently posted a discussion of the Seridei Aish regarding the nature of the Mussar Movement. I had been looking for the process that psychology and modern ideas entered the frum world. I thought I found it in the Seridei Aish's description of the Mussar Movement. 

The Seridei Aish clearly states that Rav Salanter in his battle against the Haskala - decided to co-opt the goals and means that were attractive to the frum population and that taking people out of yeshivas and religious observance. Instead of  locking the doors of the yeshiva tighter against the Haskala - he decded to make a frum haskala. That would mean a greater openness to the world and secular studies, a concern with improving the world and  being nice to others. However Rav Trebitz asserted that once the students were safely back in Yeshiva with the aid of a mashgiach and a mussar program - the movement change to an internal one of piety and the  secular studies, tikun olam was dropped and even the  sensitivity to others became secondary to piety and fear of heaven.

The only problem with this view of the Seridei Aish is I can't find anybody who agrees or even cites his views about the Mussar movement. For example Prof Etkes' major biography of Rav Salanter does not mention this view and in fact does not cite the Seridei Aish except for minor historical facts. I looked at several other books dealing with the Mussar Movement and they also do not mention either the Seridei Aish or the idea of a frum haskala. Below I cite the summary of the Encyclopedia Judaica which is similar to the view held by the other references I looked at. They works assert that the Musar movement was focused on increasing fear of G-d and perfection of character. It thus also would serve to inoculate people against interest in the Haskala and the outside world. It was not a frum Haskala or even primarily concerned with the Haskala! Now  the question is why did the Seridei Aish make such a claim? According to this mainstream view Rav Yisroel Salanter does in fact have a major legacy today.
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (Encyclopaedia Judaica Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 13. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. p64-66. COPYRIGHT 2007 Keter Publishing House Ltd. Itzhak Alfassi and David Derovan)... [...] The central issue that concerned him was the gap between an individual's professed beliefs and his actions. Searching for the causes of this phenomenon, Lipkin discovered that there was no direct relationship between a person's piety and his knowledge of Torah. Knowledge attained through the standard yeshivah curriculum did not necessarily produce moral behavior, but knowledge of divine retribution, knowing that no one escapes the consequences of his actions, does affect behavior. This insight, coupled with another one, formed the basis for Lipkin's musar campaign. The second insight relates to the difference between a person's appetites and desires and knowledge. Contrary to one's desires, which are innate in a person, knowledge is acquired. For this reason, attaining even the right knowledge is rarely enough to control one's appetites. To solve this problem, Lipkin developed behavioral mechanisms, i.e., the habitual repetition of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral stimuli, "to fortify the intellectual fear of God that the latter eventually achieves the level of distinct instinct capable of combating less worthy desires or even uprooting them totally" (Ross, Immanuel, 1983/84, 70). Later on in his career, Lipkin proposed a different solution based on improving character traits, thus changing one's personality. All of these teachings were Lipkin's means to achieve a particular end: an improvement in piety and religious observance. Lipkin dealt with a number of philosophical issues peripherally in his sermons and writings. These included the paradox of divine knowledge and free will, miracles vs. natural law, the relative ability or inability of the human intellect to grasp objective truth in general or Torah in particular, and emunat hakhamim (blind faith in rabbinic dicta). This aspect of his teachings was developed by his students into "yeshivah ideology" (ibid.). Thus, Lipkin's disciples abandoned his musar methods and began to emphasize his philosophical ideas. Ironically, their musar technique became the identification with a set of proper ideas and opinions.


  1. Are there any primary documents from the time of the early Mussar movement that could shed light on this?

    1. Prof Etkes indicates there is no clear record of what was taught. There are some drashos nad letters. But nothing that would constitute a record of a theory or program.

      Actually the only proof I see for the Seridei Aish's view is that fact that the Maskillim view Rav Yisroel Salanter as one of their own and wanted him to be the head of their rabbinical serminary.

      see also which questions the story of the cholera epidemic based on primary sources,d.Yms&cad=rja

  2. "That would mean a greater openness to the world and secular studies, a concern with improving the world and being nice to others."

    These are not haskalah ideas, but have roots in Torah -- Chazal and many rishonim were certainly open to the secular studies of their time (the source of much of their scientific and medical knowledge), with improving the world (gemilus chasadim, "if not now when," etc.) and being nice (greet all people with a cheerful countenance; love all creatures and bring them close to Torah; one is who loved by others is loved by Hashem -- Pirkei Avos). Character perfection is also something that has long been emphasized in Judaism, including by the Tzfas kabbalists such as R' Chaim Vital.

    It's normal for a movement to change over time. The concern with changing the world for the better, and other more activist elements of the mussar philosophy, fell by the wayside with time as people emphasized other elements. That's understandable, because it's easier (and less provocative) to sit and learn in a yeshivah and work on one's personal traits than to try to fight all of the injustices of society.

    So I'm not sure whether this is what's been claimed, but I don't think one can see the mussar movement as a kind of frum haskalah meant to attract people, with a kind of bait-and-switch that then switches to pretty much normal yeshivah education once they're in the frum fold. Revolutionary fervor naturally dampens and is transformed with time.

    Today there are certainly proponents of the Mussar approach, such as the Salant Foundation, though I'm not sure if anyone emphasizes the activist element. That would certainly be interesting to explore, given the problems with the top-down daas Torah philosophy, which some interpret as meaning that no leadership or social change can originate from anyone who is not already a gadol. If anyone sees a social problem they should work systematically to fix it, with guidance from Torah but not necessarily by just taking orders from great rabbis. "In a place where there is no man, be the man."

  3. It stands to reason that the Sridei Aish was projecting Hirschian Torah im Derech Eretz on Yisroel Salanter. Or alternatively was trying to legitimate TIDE with the cloak of Yisroel Salanter. Perhaps R. Weinberg had a mesorah that this was indeed the motive even if not stated. It may have been an E. European mesorah or one he picked up in Berlin.

  4. While it is true that openness etc can be found in certain major rabbinic figures - it certainly wasn't characteristic of the religious leadership of Orthodoxy in the beginning of the 19th century. There is no question that the Haskala was making major inroads and that there were people leaving yeshiva as well as yiddishkeit because of the assimilation associated with the Haskala. the point is that the Seridei Aish explicitly states that Rav Yisroel Salanter was interested in fighting the haskalaa with a frum haskala. That is the point that I am questioning and that is the point I found no supporting evidence or agreement in other sources on the Mussar movement

  5. However Rav Trebitz asserted that once the students were safely back in Yeshiva with the aid of a mashgiach and a mussar program - the movement change to an internal one of piety and the secular studies, tikun olam was dropped and even the sensitivity to others became secondary to piety and fear of heaven.

    I can not believe that mussar greats of impeccable character and absolute honesty would, basically, engage in a bait and switch.

  6. RYSalanter permitted the Alter of Kelm to go ahead with a yeshiva ketana (in the Israeli sense of the word) with limudei chol. But also asked the board to close it down when the Alter passed away, saying that he wouldn't trust anyone else to be able to manage its hazards.

    WADR, I think too much is being read into the Seridei Eish's choice of terms. He is just calling any Ism, any conscious refocusing on an ideal a "Haskalah", and not actually claiming Mussar was any closer to actual Haskalah than that. Look at his definition: "“Thus not a war against foreign 'enlightenment', but a war for Hebrew original Haskalah, which means moral perfection, nobility of soul, and lofty ideals." To counter the appeal of scientific academic study and questioning (and tailoring) of tradition, RYS reestabished the view of Judaism as a science of self-refinement in morality and of soul.

    1. How was this viewed by a yeshiva student who was interested in the outside world? How did it protect him from assimilation and the secular Haskalah? Finally if what he was doing was creating a science of self-refinement then why didn't the maskilim who wanted him to head the rabbnic seminary realize that? Why didn't the rabbonim who welcomed him to Kovno and then turned against realize what he was doing? the Seridei Aish said that he realized the need to fight against the Haskala in Kovno - what was he doing differently in Vilna?

  7. You can never separate the Orthodox world from what is going on outside that world. An obvious example is the recent sea change in issues regarding reporting abuse. Rabbis are in touch with the outside world, either directly, or from what they read or hear from their circle.
    The other point - if mussar was just a ploy or kiruv tactic, then how comes there were followers of R Salanter, such as R Yitzhak Blazer, who continued in this mussar concept, and was attacked by some for his approach?

    1. Please read my comment above. there seems to have been widespread misunderstanding of what Rav Yisroel Salanter wanted to accomplish - both from the maskilim and the rabbonim. why? Furthermore how did the adherent of Mussar view what the program was? I don't think it is helpful to say they were interested in self growth - because so were all yeshiva students?

    2. It's easy enough to know what RYS meant... He wrote them all letters, which make up the bulk of his Or Yisrael. (Even available in English!) Learn it, and see firsthand what he tried to impress on his followers.

      RYS believed that the goal of yahadus is bein adam lachaveiro, but that's only achievable when working within a framework of yir'as Hashem and when working on one's other middos. Middos are the tools by which we live, but they must be made subserviant to the seikhel, so that each are invoked appropriately.


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