Congregation M’kor Hayim: Tucson’s new Mussar hotspot

Rabbi Pamela Wax

Mussar is making a comeback, at least here in Tucson. Traditionally an Orthodox approach to daily life that developed in 19th century Eastern Europe, the introspective spiritual practice adds another layer of participation to Judaism. “There are many ways that Judaism brings fulfillment to our lives through Torah, mitzvot (commandments), tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tefillah (prayer),” says Rabbi Helen Cohn of Congregation M’kor Hayim, which holds two twice-monthly Mussar groups. “Judaism is very grounded, yet some Jews still crave an inward personal practice. Mussar adds to the fulfillment of being Jewish.”

By studying certain character traits, or middot, such as patience, gratitude, humility and compassion, Mussar practitioners can enhance their relationships, bringing these positive qualities into the world, says Nan Rubin, a social worker in private practice, and along with Cohn, one of the M’kor Hayim Mussar group leaders.

Observing a designated characteristic every month — patience, for example — “I’m going to notice each day where my patience is and where it’s not,” says Rubin, who asks herself, “How does that feel, on a personal and ethical level?” Consciously creating pauses in conversations allows her “to notice what the trigger is” in the way she responds to people. “It’s a much more kindhearted way to be,” she says. “And if you believe in God, you’re emulating God.”

M’kor Hayim will host a scholar-in-residence Mussar weekend Jan. 13 to 15 with Rabbi Pamela Wax, staff rabbi and spiritual care coordinator at Westchester Jewish Community Services in White Plains, N.Y. Wax has previously served as a congregational rabbi, a hospital chaplain, and as the assistant director of the department of adult Jewish growth at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Wax runs ongoing Mussar groups in New York, reading Jewish texts and being in touch with study partners throughout the month. Mussar students often discover “Torah gems, messages from a Torah portion,” to help work with a “soul trait,” such as gratitude. Students may study “biblical or Talmudic characters who enhance gratitude or think of a powerful personal memory to sit with [reflecting] on what gratitude means to them.”

Currently, after about three years of the Mussar groups at M’kor Hayim, more than half the congregants are involved in Mussar study, notes Cohn. Non-congregants are welcome to attend the upcoming weekend events, especially Wax’s Jan. 15 introduction to Mussar. Wax will give a historical perspective on the practice, explaining why it’s important today.

“Mussar-type texts by our sages go back 1,000 years,” says Cohn, who participated in a two-year, post-rabbinical program with Wax at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality 12 years ago, which also included Alan Morinis, founding director of the Mussar Institute in British Columbia. Morinis, the author of “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” and “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar,” has been credited with making Mussar more accessible to Jews of all denominations.

From the 1960s onward there’s been a trend among Jews to explore Buddhism or the individual psychology it addressed, says Cohn. Contemporary Jews have been asking “where’s the juice in Judaism?” “Mitzvot are somewhat external” and may be done, she says, “because our parents did them.”

Mussar has been an integral part of her life since meeting Morinis, says Cohn. One of its key tools is having a chevruta, or study partner to talk with on a weekly basis, which Cohn and Wax have done since they met. “The [Mussar] practice works best when you can discuss it out loud,” says Cohn.

For Rubin, it all started when she read “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” after it was published in 2002. “I started practicing on my own,” before speaking with Cohn and joining M’kor Hayim, she told the AJP. “Initially, Mussar was something I was intrigued by. Now it’s something I live by, to help with relationships and the world,” she says. “It’s opened my mind. It’s opened my heart even more.”

To further explain Mussar, Wax tells a story about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar movement in 19th century Lithuania. When a student lamented that there were only so many hours in the day and asked Salanter whether he should study Torah or Mussar, says Wax, Salanter replied that by studying Mussar “time will expand,” allowing the student more time for both.

For Wax, the center of her practice is “when I talk to Helen [Cohn] as my touchstone. I get the opportunity to reflect and focus,” she says. “I find Mussar very compelling to help become a better person. Repairing the world starts with ourselves.”

All Mussar scholar-in-residence weekend events are free. There will be a Friday Shabbat service at 7 p.m., Shabbat service and Mussar Torah study on Saturday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., and an “Introduction to Mussar” on Sunday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. All events will take place in the Beit Midrash at Tucson Hebrew Academy, 3888 E. River Road. For more information about the upcoming weekend, call 904-1881. For more information about Rabbi Pamela Wax, visit wjcs.com.