Torah as a Spiritual Garment: The Mussar of Learning

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September 1, 2007
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Ira F. Stone

Mussar is the general term used to describe the central spiritual discipline in Jewish tradition: the integration of middot, character traits or more generally, ethics, into all other aspects of Jewish expression. Understood this way Mussar transcends distinctions between movements, geography, and philosophy as it outlines the core characteristics of Jewish living. The goal of spiritual life is the transformation of human personality such that the central virtue of the Torah, V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself,“ can be enacted. How to achieve this transformation became the central question of Jewish spirituality. Even among the greatest of Jewish mystics, unification with the Divine was understood to be dependent upon the rectification of middot.

In this context the role of Torah and specifically the rabbinic value of learning Torah, and by extension learning in general, requires some clarification. Of what value is learning in the cultivation of character? Does one’s learning Torah lead to acts of goodness that are indicative of this personality transformation? Can someone without Torah learning achieve ethical transformation? These questions assume, naturally, that Torah is instrumental, that it has — as a goal — the performance of specific acts and that learning is subservient to this instrumentality. We learn in order to do and it is the doing that counts. Yet, within rabbinic tradition there is also the idea of Torah l’sh’ma, that is, learning for its own sake. This is a concept particularly upheld within the Mussar tradition. Thus our questions are deepened: What is the relationship between learning Torah and spiritual transformation when that learning is not instrumental but rather an end in itself?

The answer to these questions emerges out of a particular understanding of Torah, and hence of learning, within the Mussar world. Torah is not conceived of as a text, but rather as a spiritual garment. The goal of spirituality is to refine the soul in order for this garment to affix itself to one’s soul. Mitzvot, then, are the specific cultural expressions of “wearing“ this spiritual garment and halakhot become the historical form these cultural expressions take at any one time. But prior to the conceptualization of mitzvot, Torah must “affix“ itself to one’s soul. The actions that prepare the soul to bear Torah are contained within the middot , the character traits such as humility, kindness, righteousness, patience, and equanimity. The middot precede mitzvot and make Torah in this fundamental sense possible.

Learning Torah is a complex process, a spiritual discipline that begins by learning middot — learning to emulate the life-skills, if you will, of a spiritual master. The Torah itself places God in this position of spiritual master to be emulated when God denies Moses’ request to “see His face,“ and insists that all we can “see“ of God are God’s acts, God’s middot: forbearance, kindness, and compassion. The “seeing“ of the face of God denied to Moses is transposed into “seeing“ the obligation to serve God on the face of another person.

Learning begins with emulation but requires introspection and conscientious steps toward self-transformation. In the course of this process, as Torah more and more adheres to our souls, the specific content of Torah, the mitzvot and the halakhic and aggadic discourses, become the field upon which our Torah-bearing souls express themselves in concrete acts. Some of those acts comprise the middot/values that have been central in our transformation (that is, acts that incorporate the values themselves, such as leaving the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor), while other acts are interruptive (serving as reminders of the original values that aided in our becoming carriers of Torah, such as kashrut or tefillin).

The specific mode of Torah study that Jewish tradition highlights, an interactive mode whereby learning proceeds always in dialogue with another person, epitomizes the coming together of the various levels of Torah and Torah study that we’ve mentioned. In the very act of study we are always standing before another whose real presence, and real needs, filter the potential meaning of the text. The act of study in this hevruta (face-to-face) model requires prior attention to middot. Moreover, the text we are studying contains a history of such study encounters. The faces of the others who have labored in study over the very same texts transforms the text itself into an “other“ of whom we must be solicitous. It is this solicitousness of the other that distinguishes Torah l’sh’ma from other modes of learning, and it is learning as solicitousness of the other that places it at the heart of the Jewish spiritual journey.

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Ira F. Stone, rabbi of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City Philadelphia since 1988, established the Mussar Leadership Programs at BZBI in 2003. His most recent book is Living a Responsible Life, published in 2007 by Aviv Press. He and his wife Annie are the parents of Tamar and Alan, Yoshi, and Shuli, and the grandparents of Shail.

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