When I saw that Temple Isaiah, a large Reform congregation in Lafayette, has a monthly Mussar service, I had questions.
Mussar began as a variety of Jewish literature focused on the nature of virtues and a methodical path toward ethical perfection. In 19th-century Lithuania it became a spiritual movement. In this century, it’s undergoing a popular revival with shades of self-help and pop psychology thanks to a series of books and programs that train devotees in the pursuit of particular middot, or values. Of late, it has become popular in Reform circles.
This much I knew. But a Mussar service? What could that be?
Which brings us back to Temple Isaiah. Two years ago, the congregation did a few of these Mussar services spread throughout the year, and they were so popular the congregation brought them back this year as a monthly offering. Before this, I’m told, the shul had difficulty drawing regulars on Shabbat mornings, when the only thing going on was a bar/bat mitzvah.
They might’ve made it a little easier for a nonmember to find the Mussar service, but once I did (in an education building somewhat far removed from the main building), I found a group of around 50 people. They were mostly middle-age and up, but there were also a few in their 20s and 30s, many in the creative, brightly colored tallits common in Reform communities. They were sitting in concentric half-circles at one end of the room. At the center were Rabbi Alissa Forrest Miller, Rabbi Jay LeVine and Jeanette Gross, a congregant who leads the sacred chanting (more on that later).
I walked in to find the group discussing what it means to be stiff-necked, something the Torah often accuses the Israelites of as they wander through the desert. Indeed, the single photocopied sheet that would serve as our prayerbook for the morning said at the top: “Middah [value]: K’shei Oref — Being stiff-necked.”
Thus ensued a free-flowing consideration of stiff-neckedness. “It helped us survive,” said one congregant. One speaker remembered being the only Jew in school, saying: “I had to be stiff-necked.” Another said, “But sometimes it stops us from changing.”
Rabbi Miller jumped in to put the debate into a Mussar context, saying that you can have an overabundance of certain values, such as compassion. Too much of that and you fail to take care of yourself.
“I love that Judaism never asks us to be perfect,” she said, before sliding into a note on the beginning of Elul, the month that will take us to the High Holy Days, our annual show of grappling with our imperfections.
We then got physical with some head rolls, which were ostensibly about “seeing all around” and “loosening our stiff necks.” Turns out, my neck was pretty stiff. It was around this point that I began to wonder: How is this the methodic, ethical pursuit I’d heard about?
Gross then led us in chanting “Aneini b’emet yishecha” repetitively to a soft, singsongy tune. This was translated as “Answer me with your liberating truth.” It was like a mantra and went on for several minutes, not long enough for me to really let go. But maybe that’s personal — this is a very challenging form of spiritual practice for me.
Then we moved into a period of silent meditation. First, I was aware of the ticking of a wall clock. Then, I began to think about how stiff-necked I am. Maybe I’m too stiff-necked about ritual styles, and that’s stopping me from getting into this — which led to the surprise realization that, if I was thinking about my stiff-neckedness, maybe this exercise was working.
But that line of thinking was short-lived. I was relieved when we came back together for a brief, restrained reprise of Aneini.
Next, Rabbi LeVine, who joined Temple Isaiah on July 1, led us in another slow chant — “Shavti b’veit Adonai,” about which the sheet said “I place myself in your care” and “Literally: I return to the House of Adonai.”
No, we don’t have to be perfect, LeVine reiterated. “In the Temple in Jerusalem there was this one corner where the High Priest had to be perfect,” he said, but the Temple was destroyed. “Best thing that ever happened to us; Tisha B’Av is in the past, so it’s OK.” (Chuckles all around.)
LeVine asked the group, what does “beit Adonai” (House of God) mean? Nature, suggested one person. “We make different homes for ourselves,” said another.
“It makes me think of the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter,” LeVine said. “I’ve heard many beautiful teachings from you that I’ll draw on in the future,” he added.
Which brings me to my biggest issue with this service: It’s too gentle, too soothing for a vigorous pursuit of personal ethical improvement. To be fair, congregants I spoke with after told me about other Mussar circles they attend, groups that meet outside this service to work more practically on the pursuit.
The announcements at the end of the service piqued my interest: Isaiah will soon begin to hold “Midrash Mondays” and a weekday learning service on Thursdays. And, it was further announced, due to the popularity of Mussar among this core group of congregants, Temple Isaiah has decided to scrap the traditional liturgy of Yom Kippur afternoon in favor of one big Mussar service.
This got the attention of those in attendance, who were excited to share their practice with the wider congregational community.
My reservations aside, Temple Isaiah seems to be in a merrily experimental mood — and it is my belief that the only large synagogues that will survive the next few decades will be those willing to entertain some radical experiments. So … just how radical will Temple Isaiah’s experiments be?