Mussar in a World of Climate Change
The following is a Sermon/paper, written for a Mussar course at Hebrew Union College, Oct. 2018.
For a long time, the global community ignored the issue of climate change. We got distracted by the tug of progress, or were unable to see the impact that human beings were having on our environment. We went along for a long time, with a few campaigns to conserve water and do a better job of recycling, but, on the whole, not doing nearly enough to take care of the beautiful, precious earth we inherited. Now, we are forced to deal with the consequences of a dire situation that demands immediate attention and dramatic change.
Well, the Jewish community is experiencing its own version of climate change. All of a sudden, many congregations are waking up to the reality that the old models for engagement are no longer working. Families are no longer participating in communal worship simply because their parents before them had. People are no longer content to sit through services in a language with which they are unfamiliar. The very notion of what it means to be a member of an “in group” is fundamentally changing, both within and outside of Judaism. And the Jewish community is entirely too slow to react.
The reality is that people still need many of the things that Jewish congregations used to provide. While attendance at services has gone down, yoga studios are bursting with individuals looking for spiritual connection and partners to share in it. While more and more religious school classrooms are becoming vacant, the self-help section at Barnes and Noble (or maybe more appropriately, Amazon) are bursting with writings on how to bring meaning and fulfillment to one’s life. Teens are found in any number of a thousand after school activities and clubs, but they are too often not our youth groups. The very fabric of Jewish life is being eroded, and Jewish institutions stand at a pivotal moment as they decide what, if anything, they are planning on doing about it.
Amidst all of this doom and gloom, I’m glad to report that there are two places for hope. The first is that we have been here before. Jewish history is littered with linchpin moments of dramatic change. When the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, the rabbis had to create a new way to engage with God; thus they created spoken prayer. As Europe changed the way they engaged with thought and discourse in the 18th century, the movement of Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, came along, bringing with it some of the greatest minds in the history of our people. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust came the homeland of the Jewish nation. For centuries and centuries, the world around the Jewish people has changed, grown, and developed, and we have found new and innovative ways to change right along with it.
The second piece of hope is that Judaism has a set of tools that allow us to re-engage spiritually and intellectually and bring people back into the fold of the community. Mussar is a section of Judaism that explores ethics and values for centering ourselves in Jewish commitment. At its core, Mussar is a way to bring intention and mindfulness back into the discourse of what it means to be a member of our communities, and offers us a way to offer something deeply valuable and salient in the lives of those who we are asking to engage in the living of Judaism.
When we seek spiritual connection through Yoga practices, what are we really asking for? We are asking for a sense of connection between our minds and our bodies, a way to fill the mundane with intention and calm. Rabbi Rami Shapiro famously asked: why must we turn to yoga when Mussar practices offer us experiences in meditation, body movement, and spiritual growth. If a congregation offers yoga, it is, at best, doing a facsimile of something that people can most likely get better elsewhere, or, at worst, appropriating another culture’s language and modality for these needs. To offer moments of Mussar based meditation and stretching give Jews the opportunity to feel Judaism intimately in their own lives while doing it in ways that are authentically and impactfully JEWISH.
American culture today is moving so fast that many are struggling to keep up. At a time when things feel so frazzled, so tumultuous, Mussar offers a mindfulness and attention to one’s self that feels not only impactful but desperately necessary. We learn from the tradition of Mussar lessons like finding the best in one’s situation, no matter how troubled, and a new frame for looking at our inclinations toward good and evil. In each case, Mussar is a language through which our Judaism helps to speak to the reality of our daily lives, and insists on being accessible, tangible, and real.
Mussar describes a set of attributes for God, descriptions of a perfect model for a fully engaged life of holiness and pursuit of divinity. In looking upon each of these traits, we see that we are created in the image of God, B’tzelem Elohim, and that while we see each of these traits in God, we are also capable of seeing them in our own lives, in the way that we engage with the world. We describe God as merciful, because we hope that we can embody mercy in our own daily interactions. We describe God as gracious, so that we may find ways to bring grace into the world. We describe God as slow to anger, not because we are never allowed to be angry ourselves, but so that we have a place to turn, a better path to pursue.
For at the heart of all of the Mussar values, the goal is for us to create a more perfect version of ourselves. At some point in the life of every person, we ask ourselves the most basic yet profound questions about our existence: What is the point of life? What do I contribute to the world? How do I make a difference? When we ask ourselves these questions, Mussar offers us a way to find answers, a way to ground those answers in something greater than ourselves. It is the language our Judaism uses to give us a tradition and a basis for how we are to make purpose for ourselves in our lives, even when the world of the mundane and the ordinary has no problem filling our lives with minutiae and dogma.
In a world that has demonstrated that it can change faster that the Jewish people can react, institutions and organizations are going to be forced to find ways to remain relevant and salient in the lives of real human beings who are members of the community of Israel. We have no hope of doing “secular” better than the secular world does. That simply isn’t our mandate. Instead, we are tasked with finding a modality that will allow us to ground our tradition in ways that are impactful, meaningful, and real. Mussar is the beginning of that path, the way to begin to engage with answering life’s biggest questions and providing meaning and purpose to the general public. And, of course, before we are able to offer these things to anyone else, those same institutions and organizations have the opportunity to imply their own tools of Mussar, their own introspection and intention setting, to reflect upon where we have been as a Jewish people, how we got to where we are now, and where we hope to go in the next 2,000 years of Jewish history. Or at least the next 20.