Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth

Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth

Synopsis

Israel Salanter was one of the most original and influential Jewish leaders and thinkers of Eastern European Jewry in the modern period. This biography makes available to the English-speaking public - for the first time - a systematic discussion of his thought and deeds, which had a profound impact on traditional Judaism. One of Salanter's most striking innovations was the transformation of the issue of ethics from the domain of theology to the realm of psychology. Immanuel Etkes traces Salanter's unique view of Mussar doctrine, especially his introduction of modern psychology to the traditional understanding of personal ethical development. The author begins by tracing Salanter's predecessors - the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, and Rabbi Zundel of Salant, Rabbi Israel's teacher. He then places the Mussar movement within its historic and cultural context: on the Jewish scene, with Hasidism and the Haskalah; and on the Russian scene, with the dual pressures of political repression and the cultural lure of secular assimilation. One can see the establishment of the Mussar Movement as a reaction to the increased strength of the Haskalah movement and the secularization that came with it. In fact, Salanter is portrayed as one of the first leaders of Eastern Europe's Jewish Orthodoxy - orthodoxy in the sense of a traditional society gaining awareness of the threat against tradition, preparing to defend it. This struggle itself, however, often assumed a modern character, not unlike the phenomena it was combating. This characterization befits Salanter, who made use of modern methods, like psychology, in his struggle for the triumph of tradition. Etkes's notes make accessible some of thetechnical terms that may be unfamiliar to readers new to this chapter of Jewish history.

Excerpt

The present volume is devoted to the thought and lifework of Rabbi Israel Salanter, who, in the 1840s, began to disseminate the message of his Mussar movement. While the term Mussar has had a variety of meanings in Hebrew literature and historical periods, in Salanter's writings the term is used to denote both the effort and the means employed to attain religio-ethical self-perfection and self-restraint. Through this movement, Salanter hoped to foster a spiritual and ethical renewal within Lithuanian Jewry. His message had three components: the demand that ethical self-perfection be a priority of the Jew, the identification of the ethical weak point in the realm of human relations, and the creation of a new and promising system of religioethical improvement.

It would be difficult to find another such instance in the history of Eastern European Jewry during the modern period in which the labor and initiative of a single individual could be credited with the birth and initial growth of a new movement. Salanter originated the theoretical basis for the Mussar movement, organized its first cells while spreading its message to the public, and headed the movement until his death in the early 1880s, at which time his disciples took over his efforts. It is therefore not surprising that the history of the Mussar movement overlaps, to a large extent, the biography of Rabbi Israel Salanter.

The present work is therefore limited to the relationship between the Mussar movement and its founder and first leader. I do not discuss here the development of the Mussar movement following the death of Salanter, nor those manifestations of it that took place during his lifetime that were not directly related to him. On the other hand, I have attempted in this work to encompass the main facets of Rabbi Israel's . . .

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