Becoming a Mensch

Alan Morinis,  Climbing Jacob’s Ladder: One Man’s Journey  to Rediscover a Jewish Spiritual Tradition
Trumpeter, 2002

Alan Morinis  offers an engaging account of how  he came to  re-order his life according to the Jewish practice of Mussar. Like Jim Forest who received a new vision of a spiritual and ethical life from his time with Thich Nhat Hanh, Morinis benefitted enormously from his relationship with Rabbi Yechiel Perr.  

Mussar gave Morinis  a method to gradually effect what Sri Eknath Easwaran identified as the “transformation of consciousness, character, and conduct.”  The goal is to  cultivate various soul-traits through daily practice and self-examination.  One can commit to making weekly concentrated effort  on thirteen different traits, which,  repeated three times,  can make up an entire year of spiritual training.

Proust affirms in Against Sainte-Beuve, “Every day I set less store on intellect.” Morinis points out that “Mussar calls on  those of our natural faculties that have the power to reach over and behind the conscious mind to probe and affect the unconscious.  That’s why Mussar elects methods like emotional recitation, self-rebuke, melody, meditation,  contemplation, and imaginative imagery as its favored tools to do the work of deep transformation.”  Because of being on the Mussar path, he emphasizes that “I went  from looking at myself as if I had a soul to actually experiencing my life as a soul.”

Mussar reminds me of the Japanese word kaizen, or “continuous improvement.”   In any day there are many modest micro-moments  when holiness can be activated.  Morinis: “Whenever I succeed in liberating myself from the grip of wrongdoing or habit even by a tiny increment, by that same degree I increase my ability to exercise choice.  And that makes me better able to side-step the potholes and avoid the swinging branches that used to trip me up.”

Rabbi Salanter, the founder of Mussar, observed, “The Maharal of Prague created a golem [a fantastical supernatural creature of Jewish folklore] and this was a great wonder. But how much more wonderful is it to transform a corporeal human being into a mensch.”

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