Students from the Mir Yeshiva, 1938. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Agudath Israel Archives)

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Musar Movement

Educational movement and ethical program designed to promote and develop the teachings and practices introduced by Yisra’el Lipkin (Salanter; 1810–1883). Salanter’s broad notions for reinvigorating Jewish society gave way at the hands of his disciples to programs of educational reform within the circumscribed though culturally significant ambit of Lithuanian yeshivas, while his ideas gradually underwent dramatic reinterpretation and revision. Three schools of Musar had emerged by the close of the nineteenth century: the patient, pious self-cultivation of Kelem (Lith., Kelme), the near-humanist consciousness of Slobodka, and the ascetic radicalism of Novaredok (Nowógrodek; Novogrudok).

Three figures emerged as Salanter’s chief immediate apostles: Yitsḥak Blazer, Simḥah Zisl Ziv Broda, and Naftali Amsterdam, whom their master respectively characterized as “scholar, sage, and pietist” (lamdan, ḥakham [Yid., kluger], ḥasid). All three had studied with him in Kovno, and they developed close personal and spiritual ties among themselves. Through the end of the nineteenth century, they worked to interpret, disseminate, and institutionalize their master’s teachings. The most significant efforts at institutionalization, however, were carried out by their adherents, the third generation of Musar.

Yitsḥak Blazer (1837–1907), a gifted publicist and orator, was also known as Itzele Peterburger due to his stint as rabbi of Saint Petersburg (1862–1878), a post he took at Salanter’s urging. During his time there, Blazer was the bête noire of many maskilim, most prominently Yehudah Leib Gordon, and Blazer eventually left for Kovno. In 1880, he became head of the Kovno kolel, where he doubled the student body and began to send emissaries elsewhere. In the late 1890s, he worked to develop Musar yeshivas and kolelim throughout Lithuania. In 1904, he moved to Palestine, where he headed the Vilna-Zamość kolel.

Blazer’s Or Yisra’el (1900), largely consisting of letters addressed to him by Salanter, was regularly republished and became the most widely disseminated exposition of Musar and of Salanter’s thought. Blazer’s presentation of Salanter’s teachings laid great emphasis on fear of God (yir’ah), with fear of divine wrath seen as the necessary prelude to a greater awe. His halakhic erudition is manifest in his two-volume collection of responsa and Talmudic novellae, Peri Yitsḥak (1881; 1913).

Simḥah Zisl Broda (1824–1898), a native of Kelem, lived there much of his life, and thus his teachings became known as the Kelem school of Musar. A pious ascetic, he established small yeshivas in Kelem (1866–1876) and later in Grubin (Grobina; 1876–1886), some of whose alumni became leading figures in the large yeshivas of Slobodka, Novaredok, and Telz. He also created a society of former students who undertook a shared regimen of spiritual and moral exercises and maintained close contact with each other. On his death he left a fragmentary manuscript, eventually completed by his son Naḥum Ze’ev and other disciples, and published along with his correspondence in two volumes as Ḥokhmah u-musar (1957; 1964).

Broda’s was the first distinguishable post-Salanter path of Musar; he developed Musar pedagogy, eschewing abstraction and intellectualization in favor of concerted discipline and intense attention to the details of religious life. He taught a subdued, introverted path of lifelong self-cultivation based on humility, self-observation, and introspection, whose goal was an independent mind and moral self that would of its own accord adhere to Torah and the commandments.

Naftali Amsterdam (1832–1906) was the least publicly active of the three; he was a retiring ascetic by nature whose financial cares led him to assume a series of rabbinical posts. He was rabbi of Helsinki, Finland, from 1867 to 1875; served in Saint Petersburg from 1876 to 1878 as rabbinic judge and assistant to Blazer; and was later rabbi in Yasvin (Josvainiai) (1880) and Alkuts, a suburb of Kovno. He aided Blazer in the preparation of Or Yisra’el and moved to Palestine shortly before his death. Amsterdam’s Musar practices, rooted in a profound longing for religious ecstasy, took the form of dogged self-improvement along the lines of Menaḥem Mendel Lefin’s Ḥeshbon ha-nefesh, disciplined Torah study, and profound humility.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the Musar movement began to make its presence felt in many yeshivas (though it never took hold in Volozhin). The 1890s, in particular, was a period of powerful ferment within Lithuanian yeshiva culture, one that saw great advances in Talmudic scholarship along with great interest in, and often defection to, Haskalah, revolutionary movements, and, eventually Zionism. Within the yeshivas, Musar’s mix of traditionalism and innovation stirred many passions.

Institutionally, Musar took center stage at the Slobodka yeshiva, founded in 1881 in a suburb of Kovno by Natan Tsevi Finkel (1849–1927), a disciple of Broda known as Der Alter. Finkel’s teachings stressed respect for human dignity and the cultivation of a positive self-image as a prerequisite for one’s religious life, as well as for spiritual fellowship with others. The yeshiva at Slobodka was explicitly committed to Musar, expressed both in Finkel’s intense interest in the moral and spiritual development of each student and in the formal incorporation of Musar study into the curriculum. The study at Slobodka of moral texts, such as Mosheh Ḥayim Luzzatto’s Mesilat yesharim and Baḥya ibn Pakuda’s Ḥovot ha-levavot, reflected the ecstatic mode of text study that gave Musar learning its distinctive ambience. During the half hour accorded daily to Musar study, students would engage in paroxysms of self-exhortation, shout a line or two of text over and over, pound the walls, and gesticulate in a frenzy.

The celebrated yeshiva in Telz was characterized by modern forms of administration, student self-government, and modes of study that placed a premium on systematic analysis of Talmudic concepts. The yeshiva’s head, Eli‘ezer Gordon (1841–1910), had studied with Salanter, though he was less of a Musarite devotee than his colleague and son-in-law, Yosef Leib Bloch (1860–1930), who on becoming yeshiva administrator instituted a daily half hour of Musar study and appointed a mashgiaḥ musar, or spiritual director.

In 1897, both Telz and Slobodka erupted in revolts by students who regarded Musar as an encroachment on their Talmudic study and their personal lives. That year saw the publication in Ha-Melits of a declaration by prominent Lithuanian rabbis against the study of Musar. They argued that while the study of moral texts was a venerable if distinctly limited element of Torah study, the sainted Salanter himself surely had had no intention of overturning traditional priorities and certainly not of creating a new sect that was itself contributing to that collapse of traditional Jewish life which it claimed to combat. This set in motion a wave of similar declarations, counterdeclarations, and polemics for and against Musar in the Hebrew press which reverberated throughout traditional circles. Eventually a sort of equilibrium emerged, with Musar remaining a feature of many yeshivas and its most heartfelt advocates and opponents finding for themselves distinct but congenial venues.

Musar teachings and practices were adopted in a number of major yeshivas, including Mir, Łomża, Slutsk, and Kletsk. A number of the period’s outstanding Talmudists, including Isar Zalman Meltser (1870–1953), Shim‘on Shkop (1860–1939), Mosheh Mordekhai Epstein (1866–1934), and Naftali Trop (1871–1933), taught in Slobodka, Telz, or both, while significant figures outside the ambit of Musar, such as Yisra’el Me’ir ha-Kohen (Kagan; known as Ḥafets Ḥayim; 1838–1933) and Avraham Yitsḥak Kook (1865–1935), were strongly influenced by its teachings.

The most significant Musar-oriented yeshiva besides Slobodka, and in some ways its exact opposite, was Novaredok, founded in 1896 by Yosef Yoizel Horowitz (1848–1919), who had been swayed to Musar by Salanter and had studied with Blazer and Amsterdam. A fierce ascetic who lived for years as a hermit in a forest, Horowitz taught a ferocious brand of introspection entailing the destruction of all negative traits, a profound mistrust of the individual intellect and will, a life of poverty, and a rejection of social conventions, including family ties.

The radical ethos of Novaredok and its internal organization also reflected the sensibilities of the labor and revolutionary movements of the day, directed toward manifestly different ends. After World War I, Novaredok relocated to Poland and began a broad-based movement that by 1939 encompassed some 60 yeshivas and 3,000 students. A powerfully moving portrait of the Novaredok ethos and its contemporary critics, including Avraham Yesha‘yahu Karelits (Ḥazon Ish; 1878–1953), is to be found in Chaim Grade’s epic Yiddish novel Tsemakh atlas (published in English as The Yeshiva).

The yeshivas of Slobodka and Telz were destroyed in the Holocaust. Natan Tsevi Finkel had immigrated in the 1920s to Palestine, where he created the Hebron yeshiva. Yosef Leib Bloch’s successors eventually relocated to the United States and reestablished the Telz yeshiva in Cleveland. The impulses and teachings of Novaredok found profound expression in the writings of Yeruḥam Levovitz (1874–1936), mashgiaḥ of the Mir yeshiva, and Eliyahu Dessler (1892–1953), founder of the Gateshead yeshiva. Slobodka traditions informed the moral teachings of the great halakhist and scholar Yeḥi’el Ya‘akov Weinberg (1884–1966) and, amplified by kabbalistic and philosophical ideas, the many works of Yitsḥak Hutner (1906–1981), founder of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in New York.

Musar fostered a synthesis of misnagdic Talmudism and Hasidic interiority whose lack of interest in metaphysics well suited the rationalist temper of Lithuanian Jewry. While Salanter had urged the cultivation of the intellect as crucial to the individual’s moral and spiritual growth, and devoted great energy to rectifying what he saw as social injustices, his latter-day disciples progressively rejected autonomous intellect and reason and, with them, freedom as religious values and focused their energies on the yeshiva world. Within those more constrained horizons, they effectively raised generations of students deeply committed to Torah study and religious self-cultivation, who in turn played major roles in building yeshivas and other institutions in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere.

Suggested Reading

Immanuel Etkes and Shlomo Tikochinski, eds., Yeshivot Lita: Pirke zikhronot (Jerusalem, 2004); David E. Fishman, “The Musar Movement in Interwar Poland,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, ed. Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Jehuda Reinharz, and Chone Shmeruk, pp. 247–271 (Hanover, N.H., 1989); Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva, trans. Curt Leviant (Indianapolis, 1976–1977); Noson Kamenetsky, Making of a Godol, 2 vols. (Jerusalem, 2002); Dov Katz, Pulmus ha-musar (Jerusalem, 1971/72); Dov Katz, Tenu‘at ha-musar, 5 vols. (Jerusalem, 1996); Samuel K. Mirsky, ed., Mosdot torah be-Eropah be-vinyanam uve-ḥurbanam (New York, 1956); Tamar Ross, “Ha-Megamah ha-anti-ratsionalit bi-tenu‘at ha-musar,” in ‘Ale shefer: Meḥkarim be-sifrut ha-hagut ha-yehudit, ed. Mosheh Ḥalamish, pp. 145–162 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1990); Shaul Stampfer, Ha-Yeshivah ha-lita’it be-hithavutah (Jerusalem, 2005).