In-Your-Face, Mussar Style

By Felder, Leonard | Tikkun, March/April 2008 | Go to article overview

In-Your-Face, Mussar Style


Felder, Leonard, Tikkun


HOW DO YOU CONFRONT SOMEONE EFFECTIVELY? HOW DO YOU CHANGE someone's behavior when you strongly dislike what he or she is doing?

Growing up in an activist congregation in Detroit during the 1960s, I heard a lot about the need to repair the world and speak up for important causes. But I barely heard anything in those days about how to be effective and act responsibly when you are up against someone who sees the world differently from you.

The Slum Landlord And The Self-Righteous Teenager

MY FIRST REAL-LIFE ENCOUNTER WITH IN-YOUR-FACE ACTIVISM CAME WHEN I WAS fifteen years old. Several of us from my temple youth group spent the summer months working as classroom aides for a Head Start program in a low-income neighborhood in the riot-torn Motor City. Helping the diverse preschool kids was exciting, but I was upset to discover that many of them lived in run-down apartments that weren't being kept up by their absentee slum landlords.

So I did some research at various city-housing agencies to find out who owned these particular unkempt buildings. To my surprise, one person owned all the buildings: the president of my temple.

Immediately a few of us decided to speak up and force this prominent member ofour tribe to clean up his act. We wrote angry letters to the rabbi, the board members, and various local media. We appeared on a late-night television talk show and blasted the slum landlord publicly, calling him a hypocrite and a phony.

Within a few weeks, the man responded by having his lawyers warn us about slander laws and financial penalties for those who engaged in slander. He also announced that he absoluteIy had nothing to apologize for. He said he felt misunderstood, inaccurately depicted, and horrified that our temple youth group was turnmgmto a name-calling circus.

Despite all our passionate zeal and our self-righteous statements about his "hypocrisy," we essentially made no impact on this individual or on the buildings he owned.

A Different Approach

IT WASN'T UNTIL SEVERAL YEARS LATER THAT I BEGAN TO LEARN WHY WE HAD BEEN SO ineffective (and what could be done differently when confronting a defensive individual about improving some broken corner of the world). In a class on the Mussar tradition within Judaism, given by a beloved rabbi, I found the missing piece of my earlier Jewish education on repairing the world.

Mussar consists of a series of daily character development steps and profound teachings from various Jewish sources that were compiled by several generations of rabbis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Mussar movement within traditional Judaism was led at first by Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon of Vilna (often called the Vilna Gaon) and his student Rabbi Israel Lipkin (who was later called Rabbi Israel Salanter because of his studies and teachings in the Lithuanian town of Salant).

These scholars and their students composed an organized system of self-monitoring and personal-change methods on how to develop the patience, wisdom, and insight to treat each human being with dignity and compassion, even during the tension-filled moments of daily living and passionate disputes. They drew from the practical wisdom of the Torah, the sages, the Talmudic debates, and the oral tradition of rabbinic Judaism to address the question of how to develop one's character and be a good person even when those around you are taking nasty shortcuts. The central theme in the Mussar teachings is to treat one's fellow human beings (especially during a disagreement or a power struggle) in the mutually respectful way you would want to be treated.

From several Mussar teachers, courses, discussions, and readings over the years, I've found there's a much more effective and profound way of speaking up for justice and fairness than the self-righteous name-calling and reflexive demonizing I succumbed to when I was a teenager in the 1960s (and that we still see in most political and social turf-battles today). …

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