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Lipkin, Yisra’el ben Ze’ev Volf

(1810–1883), founder and leader of the Musar ethical movement. Known also as Yisra’el Salanter, Yisra’el ben Ze’ev Volf Lipkin was born into a rabbinical family in Zhagare, in the Kovno district. At a young age, he was sent to study Torah with the rabbi of Salant, Tsevi Hirsh Broyda. There, Salanter met Yosef Zundel, a close disciple of Ḥayim of Volozhin, and, through his influence, became interested in questions relating to moral improvement. In 1840, Salanter moved to Vilna, having been invited to serve as head of Rabbi Maila’s yeshiva. Soon thereafter he moved to Zaretcha, a Vilna suburb, where he taught Torah in the local bet midrash.

In the mid-1840s, Salanter undertook a number of initiatives that may be viewed as the first steps toward the establishment of the Musar movement. He initiated the reprinting of ethical tracts that were no longer available; delivered public discourses on ethical issues; and established the first “Musar house” in Vilna. Salanter’s activities were based on three assumptions. He believed that most Lithuanian Jews were meticulous in their observance of the commandments and diligent in their study of Torah, but that they failed to adequately devote themselves to moral improvement. He identified the moral weak point of the generation in the realm of interpersonal relations—that is, social and economic life. He also believed that there was a new and promising avenue to moral improvement—which would come to be called “the Musar method,” (musar, lit. “rebuke” or “admonishment,” refers to words of warning meant to improve one’s ethical behavior or conduct).

The Musar Method: The First Stage (1845–1849)

The theological outlook underlying the Musar method is not novel. The image of the divinity that arises from it is clearly both transcendent and personal. God reveals himself to humankind through his Torah and commandments; he is the guiding power of the universe, who rewards and punishes. Just as this is not the God of the philosophers, subject to rational analysis and intellectual cognition, so, too, is this far from the kabbalistic concept of God. The effort to influence the heavenly worlds and the aspiration to commune with God play no role in Salanter’s thought. The concepts that mark the boundaries of religious activity and give it meaning are those of commandment and sin, reward and punishment, this world, and the world to come. The essence of divine service consists of obeying His commandments.

Salanter’s abandonment of kabbalistic ideas and concepts paved the way for a fresh understanding of the human soul. In kabbalistic literature, the soul’s activity is understood in light of its contact with metaphysical forces. Salanter, by contrast, was open to an outlook that views the human soul as an autonomous unit, whose components and mechanism of action are subject to rational explanation.

The most striking innovation in Salanter’s thought is his shifting of the question of moral improvement from the theological–normative plane to the psychological one. The issue with which those who seek moral improvement must struggle, he taught, is not the applicable moral norms, for these are clarified and summarized in halakhic literature. Rather, the true problem of Musar involves the gap between knowledge and cognition, on the one hand, and inner motivation, on the other. The fact that one knows God’s commandments, recognizes their validity, and wishes to observe them does not guarantee that one will succeed in doing so, for patterns of human conduct and response are not determined by intellectual cognition but by powerful, irrational emotional drives. The purpose of Musar is to serve as a bridge between the normative contents of halakhah and the emotional ability to actualize them. This requires a psychological theory that explains the components and behavior of the emotional–spiritual mechanism. On the basis of such a theory, educational means must be developed that will allow one to control emotional–spiritual life and, as a result, one’s conduct.

The key to understanding the emotional–spiritual mechanism that leads a person to moral failure is the idea of “desire” (Heb., ta’avah). Salanter liberated the ideas of desire and evil inclination from the metaphysical baggage that was loaded upon them in kabbalistic literature. According to him, desire is nothing but the tendency implanted in man from birth to be drawn to what brings pleasure and delight and to withdraw from what causes pain and sorrow. Salanter does not categorically negate desire, for he does not accept the ethical polarization of matter and spirit. But he regards desire as dangerous, because in many cases it moves a person to act in opposition to halakhic imperatives. Furthermore, the intensity of desire moves a person to invent rational justifications for deviating from the norms of halakhah. It is this tendency that Salanter identifies as the evil inclination.

The primary means of restraining the power of desire is fear of punishment. Since desire is driven by powerful emotions, an emotional force of similar power is required in order to overcome it. The fear of the punishment connected to the commission of a sin is likely to fulfill that objective. For this purpose, however, it is necessary to turn the fear of punishment from an abstract idea into an emotive reality. Salanter wished to achieve this goal through the study of Musar in a way that allowed for hitpa‘alut, or deep excitement.

Salanter prescribed that someone studying Musar hold before him one of the celebrated ethical tracts, such as Ḥovot ha-levavot (The Duties of the Heart) or Mesilat yesharim (The Path of the Righteous), and read a certain passage from the book repeatedly, out loud and in a melancholy tone. Gradually the reading is to become more excited and be accompanied by shrieks and outbursts of tears. We are speaking here of a deep emotional experience that at times borders on ecstasy. Salanter maintained that studying Musar in this manner leads to the emotional internalization of the content latent in the text, and turns it into a force implanted in the soul. In this way, he taught, it is also possible to plant within the soul the fear of punishment.

Another means proposed by Salanter to confront desire is through ḥokhmat ha-‘olam (worldly knowledge), a form of self-reflection in two stages. First is looking into the depths of one’s soul for the purpose of exposing inclinations that lead to sinful conduct; this is followed by reflection upon the life circumstances and social contexts in which one tends to fail. On the basis of such contemplation, a person should be able to plan activities from the outset so as to avoid circumstances that will lead to failure.

The Musar Movement in Vilna and Kovno

Salanter focused on trying to disseminate his ideas among ba‘ale batim (middle-class Jews). He chose to work among this class of people because their educational background equipped them to make the intellectual effort demanded of one who wishes to apply the Musar method. Furthermore, he maintained that the main moral failing of the members of his generation expressed itself in social and economic life; addressing the ba‘ale batim was intended to bring improvement in these areas. And finally, in light of the social standing of this class, it was reasonable to expect that an improvement in its moral standards would spread to the rest of society.

As mentioned above, in the mid-1840s Salanter established the first Musar house in Vilna. This institution served as a daily gathering place—between the afternoon and evening prayer services—for a group of “Musarniks” to learn Musar, to listen to sermons preached by Salanter, and to participate in communal prayer.

In 1848, the Russian government invited Salanter to teach Talmud in the rabbinical seminary that had been established in Vilna at the government’s initiative. He turned down the position, and when pressure was applied to him, left Vilna to settle in Kovno, where he served as the darshan (preacher) of the community. He later left that position and taught in the Nevyozer Kloyz. There he aspired to develop scholars who would be able to serve as community rabbis—and he also assigned an important role to their moral education.

The influence of the Musar movement in Lithuania, from the mid-1840s to the end of the 1850s, was very limited. Musar houses were active in only about 10 communities. This may be explained by the fact that the road to moral improvement proposed by Salanter was exceedingly demanding. Moreover, many of Lithuania’s Jews found intellectual and spiritual satisfaction in the approach offered by the Vilna Gaon and Ḥayim of Volozhin, which set Torah study at the center of religious life. Salanter’s novel ideas also aroused opposition. Several rabbis were concerned that the demand to devote more time and attention to Musar would detract from the centrality of Torah study. And the organization of Musarniks into distinct groups stirred up opposition because it was reminiscent of the separate organization of the Hasidim.

In 1857, Salanter published his famous essay Igeret ha-musar (The Musar Epistle). The main argument set forth in this treatise is that although Torah study leads to spiritual elation, we are unable to understand how it acts upon the soul. In contrast, Salanter suggests, the approach to moral improvement that he proposes is based on an understanding of the causal connection between a problem and its remedy. A person should, therefore, concentrate efforts toward moral improvement by adopting this approach.

In addition to using polemics to counter his opponents, Salanter proposed a new technique for moral improvement: the study of practical halakhah. By this he meant concentrating one’s learning efforts on those laws with respect to which one tends to stumble. The repeated study of these laws, he taught, with maximum attention paid to their practical aspects, is likely to plant within the soul a natural inclination to observe them.

The development of the idea of the study of practical halakhah as a technique for moral improvement reflects Salanter’s capacity for creative accommodation. Since many Lithuanian Jews viewed preoccupation with ethical books as an inferior activity to the study of halakhic literature, Salanter suggested combining the study of halakhah with moral improvement. Moreover, if the methods of moral improvement that he advocated at an earlier stage were intended to restrain desire, now he presented the community with a more far-reaching objective: turning obedience to halakhah into an inclination implanted in one’s soul.

Period of Wandering: 1857–1883

In 1857, Salanter moved to Germany, where he remained until his death in 1883. Over the course of those years, he was active in rehabilitating the religious life of Polish and Russian Jews who had immigrated to Germany. Among other things, he worked for the appointment of community rabbis, initiated classes in Talmud for university students, and delivered public lectures. During his stay in Germany, Salanter was introduced to modern Orthodoxy and to two of its outstanding leaders: Samson Raphael Hirsch and Esriel Hildesheimer. Even though he recognized the importance of their work, he maintained that the way of modern Orthodoxy was inappropriate for Russian Jewry—whose more traditional religious lifestyle he preferred.

Salanter’s residence in Germany did not prevent him from continuing to be active among Russian Jewry. In 1861 he began to publish Tevunah (Reason), a periodical featuring Torah novellae written by great authorities of Eastern Europe, alongside articles by Salanter relating to Musar. Salanter was also involved in establishing the Kolel ha-Perushim in Kovno at the end of the 1870s. This institution, the first of its kind, was intended to offer much-needed financial support to young scholars preparing for the rabbinate—as increasing secularization and modernization had undermined public support for Torah students.

In 1882, Salanter initiated a public struggle against the attempt to establish a rabbinical seminary in Russia. This plan was led by Baron David Gintsburg, who was supported by the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE). Salanter believed that the proposed changes in rabbinical training would lead to serious deterioration in the quality of the rabbinate. He formed a broad front of rabbis opposing the new initiative, and succeeded in his efforts; Baron Gintsburg’s plan was abandoned. Overall, the goal of Salanter’s activities in Russia was to fortify the status of tradition in the social life of Russian Jewry. To advance this goal, he concentrated his efforts on the cultivation of a scholarly elite and the preservation of its traditional character.

The Musar Approach

The two issues of primary concern to Salanter during the 1860s and 1870s were tikun ha-midot (character development) and the relationship between moral improvement and the subconscious. In the wake of his struggle with these issues, the mission of moral improvement became infinitely more ambitious and demanding. Whereas Salanter had previously proposed means for restraining desire and for cultivating the emotional inclination to live in obedience to halakhah, improving one’s character traits was an activity directed at changing a person’s very nature. Salanter’s central concern moved from isolated, external manifestations of conduct to the spiritual principles that motivate conduct in general. It involved an effort to uproot from the soul—or at least weaken—bad traits, such as pride and anger, and to implant in the soul, or strengthen, positive traits, such as humility and tolerance. The objective of moral improvement, according to Salanter, was to fashion the qualities of the soul in such a way that they accord with the Torah’s commandments in the realm of interpersonal relations.

Salanter was exposed to the distinction between the conscious and the subconscious through the influence of German literature—apparently, in particular, through the work of Immanuel Kant. Salanter maintained that emotions hidden in the subconscious are incomparably stronger than those that reside in the realm of the conscious. The former reveal themselves after a person is exposed to external stimulation. From this it follows that even one who has succeeded in restraining desires and improving character traits is liable to fall into sin following a sudden outburst of subconscious forces.

In the face of such danger, Salanter once again advises self-reflection, but this time the purpose of such reflection is nothing less than an attempt to expose the hidden forces of the subconscious. So he once more advises the study of Musar be-hitpa‘alut—in a manner that allows for deep excitement—on the assumption that the cumulative effect of such study also influences the subconscious. Similarly, Salanter recommended reading the dicta of the traditional sages relating to the improvement of morals, this, too, be-hitpa‘alut. To these means Salanter added at this stage what he called taḥbulot sikhliyot (intellectual stratagems). By this he meant the planned manipulation of feelings and their redirection into desirable channels. Ordinarily such an approach was supposed to correspond to the unique circumstances of each individual, so Salanter often offered his students personal guidance in this area.

Behind Salanter’s initiatives in the realm of Musar lay, among other things, his heightened sensitivity to the social and economic distress of much of nineteenth-century Russian Jewry. Salanter tried to ease their distress by raising the level of morality in interpersonal relations. An additional stimulus to Salanter’s activities was the strengthening of the processes of secularization among Russian Jews. He was not interested in direct confrontation with the Haskalah and with maskilim; instead, he made efforts to fortify tradition’s power of resistance. The individual who successfully internalized the educational method of Musar proposed by Salanter would develop the power to resist the growing influence of the Haskalah; small groups of Musarniks would provide social support to those individuals who aspired to continue cleaving to tradition. Over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, it became clear that, among Misnagdim, the Musar movement stood at the forefront of the struggle against the Haskalah.

Even though Salanter related to the Musar method as a mere means, he in fact created a new type of believing Jew. The Musarnik’s spiritual existence oscillated between two opposing poles: optimism anchored in the assumption that it was possible to refashion one’s soul, provided that one followed the appropriate educational method; and severe pessimism regarding human ability to act in accordance with halakhic demands, because of the intensity of the drives that move one to sin. It is this pessimism that gives rise to the constant self-examination that characterizes the Musarnik.

Salanter’s biography is marked by the wide gap between the high esteem in which he was held as a giant in Torah knowledge and the fear of heaven, and the limited response to his call for preoccupation with Musar. But what Salanter did not achieve during his lifetime, his disciples and, subsequently, their followers achieved after his death. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Musar movement shifted the focus of its activity to the yeshiva world. Thereafter, Musar turned into a highly influential factor in Lithuanian yeshivas in particular, and in the Orthodox community of Russia in general. The Musar yeshivas continued to operate until World War II, and their influence is evident in Lithuanian yeshivas to this day.

Suggested Reading

Immanuel Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia, 1993); Hillel Goldberg, Israel Salanter: Text, Structure, Idea; The Ethics and Theology of an Early Psychologist of the Unconscious (New York, 1982); Dov Katz, Tenu‘at ha-musar: Toldoteha, isheha ve-shitoteha, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1996).



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss