January 18, 2019

The Message of Mussar

"Day after day I was consumed by blackness … I spent hours immobilized on the couch … Day after day I cried with remorse."

So writes Alan Morinis of the personal meltdown he suffered after the highly successful film company he had built went bust.

Morinis, 52, of Vancouver, produced films that were both critically acclaimed and financially profitable, winning awards in Canada and at film festivals in the United States. However, after his investments into risky projects failed, Morinis lost emotional self-assurance and found himself floundering in a sea of shame and self-doubt.

It was Mussar, the age-old Jewish philosophy of self-perfection, that pulled Morinis out of the funk that he was in. A friend had lent him a book on Jewish spirituality, and the chapter on the Mussar movement particularly resonated with Morinis, prompting a quest to learn more about the philosophy. Morinis transcribed his journey of discovery in his recently published book, "Climbing Jacob’s Ladder."

"Mussar proved so valuable to me that I felt almost an obligation to share it with others," he told The Journal. "I thought, this could be of great service to people in their times of need and crisis."

Mussar, which literally means "ethics" in Hebrew, is a religious philosophy of self-improvement, particularly for developing one’s character traits. Rabbi Israel Salanter, who began the Mussar movement in 1842 in Vilna, preached a discipline that focused on awareness, constant introspection and examination of personal shortcomings in an effort to improve and refine the self. Traditional Mussar practices include emotional, repeated recitations of moralistic passages from the Torah and rabbinic literature, so that their message might infiltrate the brain and the heart.

"The starting point of Mussar is that the life we lead is really the life of a soul," Morinis said. "If we can appreciate this, then what Mussar offers is a guidance and a description of a life way that is very satisfying to the soul, and really fulfills the soul’s nature."

"Climbing Jacob’s Ladder" is part memoir, part self-help and part Torah anecdotes. Morinis interweaves the story of his personal journey with keen insights into the yeshiva world and the Mussar philosophy itself. His clinical explanations of the transformation that can occur through Mussar is placed adjacent to the descriptions of Morinis’ own transformation from hardheaded businessman to spiritual philomath. Every chapter ends with a section Morinis calls "Opening the Gate," in which he explains a lesson from the Mussar tradition to help people improve their daily lives.

Morinis credits Mussar with vastly improving his relationship with his family. "The most important way it has changed me is in the relationships with the people who are closest to me," Morinis said. "I don’t have any doubt or hesitation to say that my relationships with those people have become wiser, calmer and less troubled than they were before. One of the outcomes of Mussar practice is that you develop more free will, you can choose to move your life in the direction that you would want to, rather than be governed by habits, or whatever usually drives us. I find that I can exercise that in the relationships that matter the most to me, less conflict, less negativity and much more space for love with the people that I care the most about."

Morinis hopes that his book will popularize Mussar philosophies.

"I am not the kind of person that is very interested in creating mass movements," he said, "but I would love to see that people know that Mussar exists.

"I hope that some Jews who have not found a satisfying spiritual path within Judaism will find in Mussar something they have not found before."

Alan Morinis will speak on Friday night, March 22 at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway; Saturday morning, March 23 at Mishkon Tephilo, 206 Main St., Venice, and that night at 7 p.m. at the Metivta Center for Contemplative Judaism, 2001 S. Barrington Ave., Suite 106, Los Angeles. Visit www.morinis.ca for details.