Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement by Immanuel Etkes

What is striking about the Gaon Rabbi Yisroel Salanter is his originality and determination to change the Litvish Yeshiva world.  According the Etkes, we learn of the rabbi's enlightened sources, his strong opposition to the enlightenment, his strong support of Hirsch's and Hildesheimer's methods in Germany but strong opposition to bringing "Neo-Orthodoxy" to Eastern Europe.  We learn of the rabbi's depression and his failure to make a real change during his lifetime and that his personal family life is shrouded in mystery although we learn that at least one son went off the religious path.  The success of Mussar does not come to fruition until it is incorporated into the Torah elite yeshivos instituted by the rabbi's students.  Ultimately, Mussar's harsh message of Yira, Fear of Heaven, is a hard sell seen in stark contrast to Hasidism where the stress is joy.

The rabbi's original intent was to bring character development and ethical changes to the working class of the Jewish world and not to the Torah elite.  Mussar fits into the milieu of Vilna Gaon that Torah learning will ultimately refine one's character.  Yira, fear of heaven however, becomes neglected as the motivating factor in preventing sin.  In order to properly restore fear of heaven in the Torah world, Rav Salanter visioned Mussar houses for the general population and not necessarily for the Yeshivos.  This innovation was vociferously attacked as usurping the traditional Beis Midrash.

I am reminded of the story told by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in his signature essay Halakhic Man, that at Volozhin, Rabbi Hayim Soloveitchik rejected mussar by saying such harsh medicine is only effective when one is very sick, however, taking harsh medicine when one is healthy shall surely make one sick!  For Rabbi Soloveitchik, the learning at Volozhin was healthy and did not need the  harsh medicine of Mussar to refine one's character.  (One should keep in mind that Mussar triumphed much later in the Yeshiva world because there is not one major Lithuania type Yeshiva that has not incorporated some Mussar in its curriculum.)

We are told that Rav Salanter's inspiration came from a Maskil, a Hebrew enlightened source that actually took from Benjamin Franklin's writings!  What is clear from Professor Etkes is that Rav Salanter was opposed to the Enlightenment yet retooled some of its ideas and reformulated them into an idiom that was acceptable to the Eastern European milieu in order to curtail the Enlightenment's influence on traditional Jewish society.  For Etkes, Rabbi Salanter's career as a Jewish leader was filled with irony.

Rav Salanter approved of the teachings of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and met with Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer.  He was impressed with Hirsch's best seller "The Nineteen Letters". He saw, however, that their modern 'scientific' approach could only work in Germany where traditional Jewish life was already ravaged and assailed by the Enlightenment.  He opined that one should not subject oneself to a University environment but be auto-didactic following  the approach of the Vilna Gaon, that a Torah education should include mathematics and natural sciences.

If one compares the Mussar system to the Hasidic approach, one is struck by the contrast.  Fear of Heaven prevents sin for the Mussarnik, however, for the Hasid fear becomes the impediment to performing Mitzvos!  Self abnegation becomes an important value for the Mussarnik whereas, joy and celebration becomes the cornerstone of Torah observance for the Hasid!


  1. Rav Shlomo,
    Prof Etkes' book is an interesting analysis, indeed. I just finished re-reading it this past Pesach.

    Certain seforim, like Nesivos Shalom tend to mix Hassidus with Mussar (of course Nesivos is heavier on the Hassidus.

    You might find this interesting, a biography of R Salanter written 16 years after he was niftar.

  2. Thanks for the link! Nesivos Shalom is a very Litvish Hasidus. (I believe Slonim is in that region.) Slonimer Hasidus is somewhat unique in that one can find the Torah of Rabbi Hayim Brisker. Nevertheless, Nesivos Shalom is indeed far more uplifting and inspiring than doling out the harsh medicine of Mussar. I believe the appeal and success of Mussar has been due to a change in direction from Yira to a a more ennobling of the spirit.