Alan Morinis was not looking to become a spiritual leader when he discovered Judaism’s Mussar tradition at the age of 47. “I’m a little chagrined to admit it,” he says of stumbling over the millennia-old tradition almost 20 years ago, “but I was really searching for something in my own journey.” At that time, Morinis explains, he was facing a crossroads in his life. The film production company he owned and operated was collapsing and, though he says he was surviving well enough on a day-to-day basis — what he calls “making up how to live on the fly”— he was lacking the basic tools that he needed to thrive as a spiritual entity.
“The search that I was on at that moment,” he explains, “was for personal guidance; I wanted help to figure out how to live my own life as an individual, but most of my exposure in the Jewish world had been to things that were very much oriented toward the community and the collective.” According to Morinis, the Mussar tradition, which gained prominence primarily amongst Orthodox Jews in Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe in the 19th century, provided the individual context that he needed to begin living a more directed spiritual existence.
“It’s great to have collective strength; it’s great to have communal strength and communal institutions, to do things together and to operate in solidarity,” says Morinis. “But the fact remains that we all have individual lives with individual challenges and individual potential. We live our lives very much as individuals within a collective, and if you ignore the individual you end up with something that is basically empty for people.” Morinis will expand on the ideas of “Soulful Jewish Living through Mussar” as he presents this year’s Rabbi Albert T. Bilgray Lectureship, a joint project of Temple Emanu-El and the University of Arizona, Feb. 4-6.
According to Morinis, “in the Orthodox world, there continues to be an emphasis on sources [in which] it still is the mission of a Jew to guide the cultivation of their personal inner life.” This, he says, was a message that was “pretty much lost” to most modern liberal Jewish traditions, which “came to focus very heavily on rationalism and intellectual Judaism.” Mussar, he says, concerns itself directly with “guiding the journey of the soul in a spiritual way,” and that was precisely what he had found lacking on his own path. As he began talking with people about his personal research into the subject, he found that there were plenty of other Jews — and non-Jews, for that matter — who felt they were lacking in the same area. And though the Mussar tradition seemed to have so many of the answers to so many basic questions about daily existence, he says that very few people seem to ever have been exposed to the lessons therein. “It was like there was this open well and everyone was thirsty but nobody could make this connection between their thirst and this open well.”
In 2002 Morinis published his first book, “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” which chronicles the beginnings of his experience with Mussar. He then began speaking publically on the topic and, two years later, he founded The Mussar Institute, a non-profit registered in both the United States and his native Canada. More books followed, including his 2007 guide to the Mussar tradition, “Everyday Holiness”; the follow-up, “Every Day Holy Day”; and, most recently, “With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings to Transform Your Life.”
Morinis says that the knowledge passed down through Mussar is “one of the precious legacies of (the Jewish) tradition,” and, as such, he believes that there is something in those lessons for everyone, Orthodox, Reform and non-Jew alike. “The Torah and the Jewish tradition sets wonderful examples of ideal behavior,” he explains, “… then the Mussar tradition comes along and provides a pathway so that we can move from where we are today toward those ideals.”
Morinis will give three talks during his stay in Tucson: the first, titled “Cultivating Virtue: The Jewish Spiritual Tradition of Mussar,” will take place at the Hillel Foundation on the UA campus, 1245 E. Second St., on Thursday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. On Friday, Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m., Temple Emanu-El will hold a Bilgray Shabbat dinner followed by the 7:30 p.m. Shabbat service, where Morinis will present his second talk, “Love and the Jewish Slave: Lessons in Living from Mishpatim.” The final talk, titled “Mussar and the Brain,” will be part of the Rabbi’s Tish dairy potluck lunch at noon on Saturday, Feb. 6, following the Shabbat morning service. There is a $36 charge for the dinner; RSVP by Feb. 4 at 327-4501.
Mussar is all about personal growth, Morinis says. “We’re all born with the potential to grow in certain areas,” he explains, “and life provides us with the opportunities to understand and take action [in these areas].” By sharing the sense of self-awareness he gained himself through his experiences with Mussar, Morinis is hoping he can help others’ inner light glow a little brighter as well.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.