Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rabbi Micha Berger: Why Yeshiva World preferred Mussar Movement to Chassidus

I asked Rabbi Micha Berger: Would you be interested in writing a guest post ... including an explanation why Lita was not receptive to Chassidus but was somewhat accepting of Mussar?  It is also interesting to note that while the Gra was strongly against Chassidim - apparently was not so regarding haskala. In fact the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe accused the Gra of facilitating the spread of Mendelson's commentary. In addition he was viewed as the spiritual father of the Mussar movement which seemed to be as revolutionary in its own way as Chassidus.

Rabbi Micha Berger responded:

I don't think it's a mystery. Mussar is founded on the writings of the Vilna Gaon. E.g. the title of Even Sheleimah ch. 1 tells us that the essence of Torah is the breaking of [bad] middos. In the next generation, Nefesh haChaim is an ambiguous work depending on how you understand the relationship between the first three she'arim, and the fourth. One way produces the yeshiva movement. Read the other way, and you see how R' Chaim Volozhiner had R' Zundel Salant as a student.

R' Zundel is the one who noticed a young Yisrael Lipkin trying to stay out of sight as he watched his behavior and meditations in the woods. He set R' Yisrael on the path that would become mussar when he shouted to the youth, "ישראל, לערן מוסר, אז דו זאלסט וערען א ירא שמים — Learn mussar so that you will be one who lives in awe of [the One in] Heaven!” (I don't know Yiddish well enough to know if I remembered the conjugations correctly.) In Nesivos Or, R' Itzele Petersburger writes that Rav Yisrael Salanter called the moment a “thunderbolt” that changed his life.

So, hashkafically, what divided Mussar from the Yeshiva velt isn't goal, but means. The yeshiva velt believes that learning is metaheir, like a miqvah. (Mashal taken from NhC sha'ar 4) Personal refinement doesn't require a conscious work on middos, because "barasi yeitzer hara, ubarasi Torah tavlin -- I [Hashem says,] created [yeitzer hara], and I created the Torah to spice it." Mussar believes that it does require a conscious commitment to work on one's middos; to view avodas Hashem as a conscious process of growth.

The gap is thus FAR smaller than that between Litta and chassidus. At worst, Mussar was seen as a waste of time better spent on learning. Not a misdirection in purpose.

But it did hit opposition. The last volume of R' Dov Katz's history of Mussar (Tenu'as haMussar) is titled Pulmus haMussar. Modern editions, following the general trend to revise history, omit it. The only copy I have I had Lulu print from (Available here.) The primary issue was taking time from learning. This issue led to Kamenetz breaking away from Slbodka as a yeshiva for those who wanted a more normal curriculum. And the matter also led to fights within Telzh.

But there were those who objected because they saw any change as being Haskalishe. And their arguments were simply about chiddush -- how could mussar be of value if generations of ancestors didn't need it? (An issue the Alter of Novhardok raises in the title lecture of Madreigas haAdam is to explain what he believes changed in RYS's day to require the innovation.)

I don't think everything quieted down until the Alter of Slabodka sent talmidim out to keep other yeshivos afloat.


  1. The Tzetel Katan of the Rebbe, Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk, also makes breaking one's middos a priority:

    (found at )

    "16. A person was only created in order to break his nature. Therefore he should spur himself to correct his midos*. Specifically
    when he is 18. As I have explained, one who is born with the nature to be stubborn, should break this nature for 40 days one after another. He should specifically do the opposite from what he had in mind to do. The same is if one is lazy. He should train himself for 40 days to do everything swiftly. Whether he is going to sleep, or rising in the morning from his bed. He should quickly dress himself, wash his hands, purify his body and speedily go to the Beis HaKnesses after he has finishedlearning in a sefer.

    Similarly someone who is shy, from a shyness that is bad. He should train himself 40 days to pray with a loud voice, with all his strength, and with all his limbs in order to fulfil the verse, 'All my bones say...' And he should say the blessing over the Torah with a loud voice. [All this] he should do until from Heaven they will help him and remove this evil shyness that is in him.

    The same is with the one who does not clearly say his words. He should train himself for 40 days to listen carefully to the words he says. [This is the case] whether speaking common things or words of prayer or when he is learning Torah. The reason for this is that one
    is ruled over by those things he is used to do.

    The same is with the person who does not learn diligently. He should train himself for 40 days to learn more then he is used to learning. Every time before he learns he should look at this Tzetel Katon. From this time on he will be helped from heaven and he will add to his service and break his bad midos until he attains perfection."

    1. True, they both are perspectives of the same Torah, so Mussar and Chassidus /will/ overlap. But in the Lithuanian legacy, Derekh Hashem is the path He walks. "Vehalakhta bidrakhav -- you shall go in His Ways". In contrast, Chassidus described tzimtzum as a human perception, and focuses on derekh Hashem as the path TO Him.

      For a nafqa mina lemaaseh... Suppose your mind is cloudy, and you are forced to choose between spending time getting your head in the right place, or davening before sof zeman tefillah. A chassid would choose kavanah, as that is the greater priority on the path TO G-d. A mussarist would choose praying on time, as developing one's zerizus is an important part of emulating Him.

      Had I known I was writing a guest post, I would have thrown in a teaser to earlier writings of mine on that discuss it at length:

      Mesukim miDevash for Lekh Lekha, on "his-haleikh lefanai veheyei samim". Is it "walk before Me so that you will be whole", or "walk before Me, which is your being whole"?

      And My blog's title essay -- is an aspaqlaria, a metaphor used by the gemara for prophecy and for wisdom, a mirror or a lens?

    2. Not so simple, as certain chassidic groups and individuals are far more punctual about davening, or concerned about structured middos improvement, than others

  2. Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, that's a picture of R' Avram Elyah Kaplan (1890-1924 [!]), not me.

  3. Does the Gra's involvement in Mussar suddenly make it "Jewish"?
    BTW, Rambam wrote on Mussar in Deot, 100 years ago.

    From here I wish to make an assertion, that might go against standard Orthodox thought - but it is not heretical.

    I am listening to a shiur of R Milevsky z'l, where he states that the Red heiffer is totally irrational, and cannot be understood with the sechel. This is standard machshavah.

    However, I say there is nothing irrational or exceptional about Red Heiffer. It is a mitzvah like all others, and it has many explanations and symbolisms.

    1. Eddie I don't understand your question - Mussar exists in Tanach. Moshe Rabbeinu was one of the baalei mussar. Why is the Gra needed to make it Jewish?!

    2. Based on the previous discussion of R Salanter vs. Chassidut.
      There, it was argued that R Lipkin's mussar was inspired by foreign psychology, vs the somehow "kosher" chassidus (which often resulted in idolising a rebbe)

    3. I was asked why Lithuania tolerated one and not the other. I didn't address the question of whether one or both were more "kosher" -- a question I consider an anathema.

      And I answered that Mussar is simply a variant of other hashkafos that were common in Lithuania. The fact that it's an interpretation of the thought of the Gra and R' Chaim Volozhiner makes it more Lithuanian. It will share much in common with other interpretations. But that's not "more kosher" than a hashkafah that splits off earlier on and thus shares less in common.

      What Mussar and Chassidus have in common is the belief that it's not enough to acknowledge that Torah and mitzvos are tools for a process of becoming holier. One must actively walk that path.

      And yes, in the case of Mussar, that meant dabbling in other means of character refinement. But realize that by the time Freud was born, never mind constructing theories, R Yisrael had already established the Mussar movement and left his students and Lithuania to do kiruv in the modern sense of the word in Memel (then in Prussia, where Reform had taken hold).

      IOW, he wasn't "inspired by foreign psychology". His analysis of the role of unconscious and preconscious in decisionmaking prefigured "foreign pyschology" -- he came first, not psychology.

      R' Yisrael did publish R' Menachem Mendel Satanover (Leffin)'s reworking of an idea from Ben Franklin's diary. (See my comparison of Franklyn's "virtues" with Cheshbon haNefesh's sample middos with the list the Torah Temimah attributes to RYS here.) That's one methodology he found useful, not an inspiration.

      The theoretical side that motivates using that kind of tool is an orienation toward working on middos. In terms of inspiration, the origin is Hilkhos Dei'os, Orkhos Chaim shel haRash, Orkhos Tzadiqim, Mesilas Yasharim -- it's the dominant theme in pre-movement literature on the topic. We can't overvalue his raising funds for the publication of a Judaized version of one methodology.

    4. I am sorry Micha, I was not criticising your post.
      I was referring to this one:

      Here, DT states his understanding that Mussar was essentially a Haskalah derivative. So we can look at the Gra, or the Rambam or Mishlei, and point out that Musar has a very strong tradition and was not a Haskala by-product.



    Rav Amnon Sugarman regarding the Mussar Movement

  5. @Micha,

    My understanding was that (despite the photo here) you had learned in Yeshiva University, and that you identify with "modern Orthodoxy".

    So why would you think you are sufficiently experienced to discuss Chareidi type yeshivas such as Telz that certainly do not identify with YU / "modern Orthodoxy" at all?

    "The gap is thus FAR smaller than that between Litta and chassidus.":
    After speaking with some contemporary Telz rabbanim, my impression is that they generally feel more accepting of the stam Chassidic derech (excepting Lubavitch) than they do with the YU/modern Orthodox derech. What's your take on this?

    1. emes le yaakov were consciously trying to be obnoxious - or are you oblivious to how hateful and full of contempt it comes across? There was absolutely no reason to write the first two paragraphs. Why do you think that this comment in anyway is constructive?

  6. I do not identify with mod-O. In fact, there is not a movement around today I would feel comfortable identifying with.

    Sociologically, my neighborhood has little mod-O presence. Actually, around 1/3 of the rabbis are from YU, but it's a sea of black hats, black suits, and white shirts even in their neck of the woods. My own LOR is a Lakewood product (and my father's chavrusah). In terms of my attire, I don't dress yeshivish or mod-O outside the workplace; I dress East European (long jacket, etc...)

    But even in my YU days, I was in R' Dovid Lifshitz'a shiur. The Suvalker Rav didn't know Lithuania? I had a rebbe who learned in Grodno under a former Telzher Rosh Yeshiva, so my connection to that world is more direct than you're simply writing off with the words "YU".

    For that matter, going further back, my elementary school hired rabbeim from Williamsburg, and the taitch for "Bereishis" was given as "In unfang".

    So kindly refrain from reducing people to stereotypes, and then attacking their ability to comment based on your own assumptions.

    You also seem to think that today's "chareidi type yeshivos" more authentically reproduce Telz or Volozhin than does RIETS. That's a fantasy. Not that Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan does either. (BTW, under the Alter, Kelm had a yeshiva qetana with limudei chol WITHOUT gov't coersion!) And while Volozhin, Kelm and Slabodka didn't have classes in limudei chol beyond what the Czar forced into Volozhin, it was expected of the talmidim in their spare time. See R' EE Dessler's recollection of his father giving him Uncle Tom's Cabin to read. But I'm not going to pretend they were YU -- just that they aren't today's Lakewood, either.

    True Lithanian Judaism is gone, r"l. If it weren't I would probably have a spiritual home.

    Bikhlal the line between chassidus and Litvishkeit largely fell since we left Eastern Europe. In R' Aharon Kotler's day only the rabbeim wore black, only the rabbeim were allowed to have beards, and talmidim were encouraged to argue back during a shiur -- even R' Aharon's. Today's yeshivish student is expected to wear a uniform (as per chassidus) and view his Rosh Yeshiva as a chassid does his rebbe. The masses don't even know enough hashkafah to know the machloqes between the Besh"t and the Gra about tzimtzum -- transcendence vs immanence, or about sheleimus vs deveiqus.

    Yes, the typical O Jew today spends so little time thinking about the fundamentals he doesn't realize he holds conflicting beliefs about whether G-d is in Shamayim or everywhere, and about man's mission in life. Not the conflict -- it's resolvable. But not to even know there is a problem to resolve? So of course he ends up judging based on lifestyle. Chassidim, particularly after the uniforming and daas Torah, have a more similar lifestyle to the yeshivish than MO does. So, they think it's more similar in philosophy as well.

  7. Oh, and the photo is of a Slabodka product and the man both R Aharon Kotler and R Yaakov Kamencki are quoted (in their respective ArtScroll hagiographies) as describing as an ilui and the Alter's favorite. R Yaaqov said that had RAEK lived more than 34 years, we would all be learning his derekh, not R' Chaim's. But sadly he didn't live long enough to pass it on to talmidim.

    However, the picture was taken at a time when RAEK headed Hildesheimer's Seminary in Berlin. Firmly MO territory to the left of R' Hirsch -- we're talking neoOrthodoxy without Austritt!

  8. @DaasTorah,

    So asking about the yeshiva background of someone who writes a main posting on your blog is considered hateful by you? That's an interesting definition of hateful.

    1. ELY you were not asking about his yeshiva background. You questioned his competence to deal with the issue because of his YU background!

  9. @Micha,

    Your latest comments did a good job of clarifying your position. Thanks.

    1. If I may, I'd like to know a little about ELY's background, or hashkafa, since he is vehemently opposed to MO, YU to the same degree as Stanley, but at the same time is vigorously Zionist, pro Medina etc.
      (Not that it invalidates, but just curious)

    2. @Eddie,

      I learned in some "black hat" type yeshivos, but I did not learn in YU.

      "vehemently opposed to MO, YU" - I never said this. I do not oppose anyone simply because they are MO or from YU backgrounds. I would probably agree with them on many points.

      I vehemently oppose ORA and its viciously feminist, anti-male, anti-family derech. Or do you hold that ORA & MO/YU are synonymous?

      We had this same discussion recently. I thought you had agreed with my position.

      I do oppose certain ideologies and attitudes that seem to be prevalent among some MO / YU:

      - Darwin's original theory, or its more recent versions, are in fact proven scientific facts.
      - Feminism should be fully integrated into Judaism.
      - Opposing the "gay" rights movement is homophobia and a violation of Torah.
      - Orthodox Jews should support the liberal Democrat agenda.
      - Women in Jewish divorce processes can only be victims, and can never be guilty of evil actions.
      - the Rambam's "rationalism" is compatible with the ideologies of modern Enlightenment rationalists.

    3. @ELY,
      I don't hold by the list of statements, but evolution and the age of the Universe, or the presence of life for more than 6000 years is a scientific issue that is problematic nevertheless.
      As for Rambam's rationalism, my problem is that it is not compatible with Hassidism either. In any case, Rambam is not the only Jewish philosopher, and his thought was developed even more radically by Ralbag for example.

    4. Wow, this is topic drift! From Mussar to backstabbing.

      Anyway... The Ralbag didn't develop the Rambam's thought. And the Rambam didn't necessarily develop R' Saadia Gaon's. All embraced Aristotelian neo-Platonism, but they don't refer to each other. But the Ralbag disagrees with the Rambam no less often than he does with the Kuzari.

      The Leshem manages to write Qabbalah and yet site the Rambam frequently. My exposure to him via Hashkafah Circle and since is what made me realize that the Rambam isn't the uber-rationalist he is made out to be. In fact, that the whole mystic vs rationaist dichotomy isn't a useful way of looking at the history of Jewish Thought. Each of those terms refer to multiple ideas, ideas which were not more likely to be found together in rabbinic sources.

  10. Emes L'yaakov, I am from the more "yeshivish" world, yet I am disgusted by your intolerance (in your first post) and dishonesty (in your second). I suspect that you don't even have basis for your hatred of YU, other than your upbringing. It also seems that you feel competent to adamantly disagree with Rabbi Soloveitchik and others of high stature. I would also like to point out that the Rabbonim you refer to may be well versed in Halacha, but not in Hashkofa. And since Chassidus has long been seeping through the cracks of Lithuanian Jewry - to the point that I heard from Reb Yaakov Hillel who heard from an old man who heard from the Brisker Rav prior to the war, that now we just have to take whatever we can (regarding Chassidish and Lithuanian Jewry) - it is possible that these Rabbonim are simply more open to Chassidus because they are further away from the conflict and are simply following cultural norms.

  11. @Micha "the Rambam isn't the uber-rationalist he is made out to be": I think we're both seeing the situation in a similar way here.

    @Mr. So and So,

    You seem to have a reading comprehension problem. I never made any statements about hatred of YU, or adamantly disagreeing with Rabbi Soloveitchik.

    Somehow I get the feeling you're one of the fascinating liberal Democrat Yeshivish types. However, I admit my last post was not completely fair to the YU / MO people, so I'll revise it:

    "I do oppose certain ideologies and attitudes (listed below) that seem to be prevalent among some black hat yeshivish types and some MO / YU types:

    - Darwin's original theory, or its more recent versions, are in fact proven scientific facts.
    - Feminism should be fully integrated into Judaism.
    - Opposing the "gay" rights movement is homophobia and a violation of Torah.
    - Orthodox Jews should support the liberal Democrat agenda.
    - Women in Jewish divorce processes can only be victims, and can never be guilty of evil actions.
    - the Rambam's "rationalism" is compatible with the ideologies of modern Enlightenment rationalists."


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