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Mussar and Freemasonry

This article comes from Jeremy Gross, who you may know better as the 47th Problem Euclid and author of the Masonic blog Corn, Wine, and Oil. His blog is very insightful and it is recommended that you visit his site for more thought provoking articles on Freemasonry.

compasssquare2I have been writing a lot about Jewish Mysticism, but for this article, I’d like to share another Jewish tradition that is somewhat more mundane, and yet possibly more profound. There is an ethical tradition in Judaism called Mussar . While the Modern Mussar movement is less than two centuries old, it taps into a tradition that goes back for nearly a millennium. It is part of Mitnagdim (the opponents of the Hasids) Yeshiva study, especially in the Litvisher (or Lithuanian Jewish) tradition. That’s ironic, because I am much more influenced by Hasidic Mysticism, and I’m a Galitzianer (Gallician Jew), and the Litvishers and Galitzianers traditionally butt heads with each other (kind of like a Jewish version of the Hatfields and the MacCoys). But a good set of techniques is precious, so I will take wisdom where I find it.

Modern Mussar practice was initiated by Rav Yisroel Salanter , who studied with Reb Zundel Salant , of Salantai, Lithuania. There is a story that Rav Yisroel was a dilligent student, but a failure in business. After losing his umpteenth job, he went to Reb Zundel in despair. Reb Zundel suggested that he become a rabbi. Rav Yisroel thought about it long and hard, and went back to his teacher. “I don’t know that I can be a rabbi. People will come to me for advice, and life and death may hang on my decisions. People will take on a career and avoid others based on what I tell them. People will marry based on my suggestions. What if I am wrong? I couldn’t bear to have people led astray because of my error. The very idea of it terrifies me.” Reb Zundel replied, “And you’d rather that a rabbi be a man who didn’t worry about his mistakes and their consequences?”

There are many stories about Rav Yisroel’s moral righteousness. During a cholera epidemic, he turned his students away from the Beth Midrash (house of learning) to attend to the sick, even though the disease was deadly and highly contagious. On that Yom Kippur, everyone is supposed to fast, but he encouraged the sick to eat, because he felt that the preservation of life was more important. When the pious sick refused, he publicly ate a piece of cake at the bimah, after Shacharit services, and begged those who felt weak to join him. For this, he was nearly fired as the head of his school, but his mastery of Torah during his exit interview was enough for him to keep his job.

He believed in Mussar, and believed that Mussar was for everyone, men, women, the Orthodox, even those who were lax in their observance. He worried that someone could study Torah and Talmud, the great works of Mysticism, secular knowledge and business, and still not study himself and his own behavior. He felt that without ethical self-examination, other achievements were hollow.

A disclaimer: I have read two books on Mussar, and studied some of two Mussar classics, and I’m about to start a personal Mussar practice. I haven’t started yet. I have all the spiritual authority of someone who has read a few books on Freemasonry, but has never taken any degrees, writing about Freemasonry. I’m hoping that the mistaken things I say next will come out being more truthful than silence, but I’m not guaranteeing anything.

What is Mussar? Mussar is not designed for the tzaddik, the holy man who is incapable of sin. Neither is it designed for the damned soul who is entirely governed by sin. It is designed for those who strive to do good, who sometimes end up doing evil, but are contrite when their evil deeds are pointed out to them. This is similar to Freemasonry, which cannot make evil men good, but can make good men better.

We are endowed with free will, and yet we fall into patterns that are hard to break. When we analyze where we have free will, we find our choices limited to certain things, while other things in our lives we are currently powerless to change. Anyone who has tried to break an addictive trait knows what I am talking about.

Mussar suggests that we have certain pivot points, called points of bechirah, where we could follow the inclination towards the good (called the yetzer hatov), or the inclination towards the evil (called the yetzer hara). A bechirah-point is a circumstance in our lives where each inclination has about a 50% chance of controlling the outcome. We have many of these points in our lives, with different issues. In Mussar practice, one observes one’s own behavior and actions, and keeps track of where the bechirah-points are on any given day, and if any new bechirah-points have emerged. The work is to use directed consciousness to tip the balance in favor of the yetzer hatov. What makes it hard is that the yetzer hara is really vocal, really loud and really persuasive. The yetzer hatov is pretty quiet. So one trains to listen to the voice of the yetzer hara and then deny it a victory. The metaphor given is one of a battlefield for your soul, with individual actions as soldiers, where some land is occupied by the yetzer hatov, and other land is occupied by the yetzer hara. The places where they share control is no-man’s land, and where they each control about 50% is the front line. One approaches the field of his soul like a general, planning battles, opening salients, and pushing the forces of the yetzer hara back. The yetzer hara is where excuses not to go to lodge this month come from, what urges you to eat a second piece of cake, what impels you to put a cigarette to your lips and persuades you to light it. The yetzer hara is always talking, which is why meditation is a practice designed to silence the inner monologue. The yetzer hatov is very hard to hear, most of the time. It takes silence for it to find a voice.

Mussar says that each of us has a spiritual curriculum, individually tailored to us personally. The two comparison examples given in the literature are, on the one hand, the master thief, raised by thieves, surrounded by thieves, who makes a living off of thievery. While stealing is against the Ten Commandments, the master thief does not struggle with the ethics of stealing on a day-to-day basis. But if the master thief were to be caught, he might have to kill the person who caught him. Or run away. The master thief is not a murderer. Yet. Killing someone now would be submitting to the yetzer hara. Running away without harming the other person would be listening to the yetzer hatov. The second example is that of the pious rabbi who obeys all of the commandments in the Torah. When it comes time for him to give the charity commanded of him by his religion, does he give away his money joyfully, or does he have a pang of regret? The pang of regret before a generous act is the voice of the yetzer hara. The thrill of joy before a generous act is the feeling of the yetzer hatov.

The Mussar practitioner makes a list of thirteen traits of the soul, called middot, that he would like to cultivate, and devotes a week to working on each one. The classical thirteen middot are equanimity, patience, order, decisiveness, cleanliness, humility, righteousness, frugality, diligence, silence, calmness, truth, and separation (isolating oneself when one is unable to behave appropriately). Other middot include fear of God, modesty, trust in God, and generosity. One is free to choose any thirteen virtues that he feels is relevant to himself. At the end of 13 weeks, it begins again. After four cycles, he makes a new list. He keeps a daily journal of what bechirah-points were challenged, and what the outcome was each time.

Also, the great classics of Mussar are consulted, often with a study-partner or chevrutah. The two chaverim take turns reading a paragraph each, and then debate their meaning. This dialectical process has many benefits. It encourages each partner to keep up with his partner, it gives each student a perspective other than his own, and each partner watches over the other to ensure that neither is overwhelmed or loses interest.These classics include Orchot Tzaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous), Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just), by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, Tomer Devorah (The Palm Tree of Devorah), by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Chovot ha-Levavot (The Duties of the Heart), by Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda , and Cheshbon ha-Nefesh (An Account of the Soul), by Rabbi Menahem Mendel Leffin (inspired by Grand Master MW Benjamin Franklin’s idea of the Thirteen Virtues). Because Freemasonry has influenced this practice, there is no reason why this practice cannot in turn influence Freemasonry.

Indeed, this whole practice of Mussar seems strongly congruent with Freemasonry. We are instructed to subdue our passions and improve ourselves in Freemasonry. We are given working tools for this purpose, and given some instruction as to their use. But how many masons do you know say to themselves, “I feel like I’m stuck. There is the rubbish of the Temple from past labors in the quarries I no longer need to harbor, gumming up the works. I need to apply the Common Gavel to them, shaping my Ashlar from Rough to Perfect. I also feel like the hinge on my Compasses is a bit sticky– it might need Oil.”? It seems to me that a version of Mussar tailored to masonic usage might give us techniques for using our working tools more effectively.

I’ve studied some of Mesilat Yesharim and Tomer Devorah, and although they are beautiful texts, I don’t believe these are very accessible to someone outside of Jewish scholarship. I studied them with a rabbinical student who was able to translate the Hebrew (we used bilingual translations), locate each scriptural or Talmudic reference, and explain some of the subtleties. Both authors were passionate mystics, and wrote mostly about Jewish mysticism and esoterica, and their works reflect their mystical intents. I think the introduction to Mesilat Yesharim is brilliant. But none of the above books would be entirely appropriate for the average Freemason to study. While I think the partner study of Mussar classics is a necessary component of the technique of Mussar, I’m not well-versed enough in masonic scholarship to provide appropriate substitutes specifically tailored for a Freemason looking to do ethical contemplation. One might start with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, but I’m sure that better examples exist. At the very least, finding a Brother, expressing the intent to do Mussar together, checking in with each other on a periodic basis to gauge progress, and possibly reading a suitable book of ethics together would be a good start.

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One Comment

  1. What makes it hard is that the yetzer hara is really vocal, really loud and really persuasive. The yetzer hatov is pretty quiet.

    So, that explains why I always hear the potato chips or ice cream calling me as I walk past the kitchen at night; they’re much louder than the celery or watermelon.

    Thanks, JG, for giving me another perspective on sticking to my diet.

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