Mussar: The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions

Mussar: The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions

By Greg Marcus

Why is it so hard to be good?

It is a question the Jewish Sages asked themselves 1000 years ago. They realized that the Ten Commandments and other Jewish teachings clearly spell out how we should act. Yet many of us, both now and then, violate either the letter or the spirit of these commandments quite regularly. One of the answers to this question was Mussar.

Mussar is a practice that gives concrete instructions and guidelines to help you live a meaningful and ethical life. You’ve probably never heard of it – most of the Mussar teachers and practitioners were killed in the Holocaust. Yet today, Mussar is making a comeback in the broader Jewish community, as well as among wisdom seekers drawn to this non-ritualistic practice of personal transformation.

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The fact of the matter is that we all have issues, whatever our religion or level of spirituality. Mussar teaches how to find those things inside that cause us to get in the same situation over and over again. And, it provides guidance for how we can begin to make small changes in our lives to help bring healing to the Soul through greater balance. Rabbi Elya Lopian (1876-1970) defined Mussar as “making the heart feel what the mind understands.” I love this definition, because so often we know what we should be doing, but we just can’t seem to make ourselves do it.

Mussar can be translated from Hebrew to mean, “correction” or “instruction.” In modern Hebrew, Mussar means ethics. (For the record, Mussar is the only Hebrew word that I use. Mussar is a great gift to the world, and because Hebrew words are a barrier to some people, even when transliterated, I don’t use them.) When we practice Mussar, we are adjusting and correcting our Soul. But we don’t try to adjust the whole thing at once. Rather, we focus on specific parts of the Soul called Soul Traits.

Real World Spirituality

Compared to Mussar, Kabbalah is the more widely known branch of Jewish spirituality. Kabbalah is spiritual/mystical and focuses on the unseen forces in the universe. Mussar is spiritual/practical, and focuses more on our inner world, and how it impacts the choices we make day today. The great 20th Century Mussar master Rabbi Schlomo Wolbe defined spirituality as building your interior world, and Mussar is the process we use to build it. Our inner work seeks to change our very Souls, to become better at living in the real world. We are not expected to become great over night, and we only strive to become a little better than we were the day before.

One of my teachers Alan Morinis writes that we each have our own unique spiritual curriculum, meaning that we each have our own path in life, with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. We are presented with the same test over and over again until we pass it. For example, my trait of Humility is out of balance – I have a tendency to be arrogant. My arrogance hurt my relationships with others, especially my coworkers, for years. Each chance I had to say something arrogant was a test, and until I learned to make room for other people’s opinions and feelings, I was caught in this cycle of starting well on a job, and then gradually losing support from my colleagues. When I started bringing my Humility into balance, I started keeping my mouth shut, (“passing the test,”) and became easier to work with. As a result, I was spared a lot of unnecessary stress and conflict.

As this example also illustrates, Mussar teaches that actions count – in fact only actions count. We all have good intentions, but more often than not our intentions don’t translate into good actions. Mussar brings our actions and intentions into alignment with Jewish values. What are Jewish Values? Rabbi Hillel summarized it best: “That which is hateful to you, don’t do to another.” Hillel was articulating the Jewish version of the Golden Rule, which more commonly reads as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Whether or not you are Jewish, it is hard to argue with the Golden Rule as a universal ethical principle. Mussar turns real world situations into opportunities for spiritual growth, which in turn make the world a better place.

About the author:

Greg Marcus, Ph.D. is a practitioner, facilitator, and innovator of American Mussar, a 21st century spiritual practice for an authentic and meaningful life. He has a Ph.D. in biology, and worked for almost ten years as a marketer in Silicon Valley. He used to work 90 hours a week until a dramatic spiritual experience changed his life. Read about it and more in The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions: Finding Balance Through the Soul Traits of Mussar. You are heartily invited to join Greg on his spiritual journey on his website, and to follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Portions of this article are excerpted from The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions by Greg Marcus, PhD. © 2016 by Greg Marcus, PhD. Used by permission from Llewellyn Worldwide,

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