Shiur #11: Rav Yisrael Salanter's Technique (Part 1)

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein
We will now begin to survey some of the practical techniques of Mussar which have come down to us from the teachers of previous generations.  As we shall see, all of these guidelines address the problem of turning intellectual effort into something which will have experiential impact on the inner reaches of our personalities. 
The first approach, which we hope to examine in more than one version, was defined and popularized by Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the modern (nineteenth-century) Mussar movement.  We will cite the description of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, a contemporary exponent of this approach.[1] Rav Wolbe calls this technique "hitbonenut," which is usually translated "contemplation" or "attention," but, as will become clear, the emphasis here is not necessarily intellectual.
"Hitbonenut" is one of the great secrets of the Torah.  This is how it was explicated by Ramchal (Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzatto) in his work, "Derekh Etz Chayim:"
"See now that both of them - the human mind, and the Torah which informs it - are of the same character.  'Torah is light' - actual light, not mere wisdom.  The Torah is compared to fire, for all its words and letters are like coals, in that when left alone they may appear to be only coals that are somewhat dim, but when one begins to learn them they ignite.  This is what characterizes the human mind as well, for its power of great understanding causes it to glow with the force of hitbonenut." 
This explains what is found in the introduction to Mesilat Yesharim, that "the better-known these things are and the more the truths (of Mussar) are obvious to all, so do we find them being ignored and forgotten." The reason for this is: since these facts are so widely known, hitbonenut regarding them is lacking, and therefore they lack the character of "light," and are only "wisdom," which means that their influence is hardly felt, and they are largely forgotten!
This, then, is the work of Mussar...  We may know about Providence, but this knowledge has no light.  We may know what our duty is in this world, but this knowledge has no light.  Hitbonenut turns knowledge into light...
This is an instructive formulation of the difference between grasping knowledge and experiencing it.  As Rav Wolbe continues to explain, the distinction is reflected practically in the two stages of the Mussar "session:"
Hitbonenut has two stages.  First, we delve into the text we are studying or into a particular saying of Chazal, in order to understand the structure of the topic, as in studying Gemara.  In this stage, we should be careful not to treat the words as mere figures of speech which are not to be taken literally... For example, when we learn in Mesilat Yesharim (chap. 2): "The attribute of Carefulness means that one should watch and attend to his deeds and habits, whether they are good or not, so that he should not leave himself open to the risk of ruin, God forbid," the student should clarify the difference between "deeds" and "habits."  Likewise, "risk of ruin" is not a figure of speech or an exaggeration, and one should clarify to oneself exactly what this ruin is...
In the second stage, the student should compare what he learned from the text with his own situation, trying to define the extent of the disparity between the two, and its causes.
In this stage, our teacher, Rav Yisrael Salanter z"l, introduced his major innovation.  He required immediate review of the saying (from the text) several times, but not a mere ordinary review, but "with feeling of the soul, stormy spirit, and fiery lips."  In other words, this review must be done aloud and with melody, in order to arouse emotion and enthusiasm.
This type of review causes the subject to become even clearer; the heart burns with the realization of the disgrace of sin ... and the intense desire to purify and correct oneself.  This enthusiasm leaves an impression in the heart even if one forgets it after a while.  When Mussar is learned daily, these subtle, invisible impressions become constantly stronger, and imprint all of one's behavior, without the person realizing it...
The division between objective analysis and creating existential attachment is clear.  The analysis alone leaves us in the realm of theoretical "wisdom."  Once we identify theoretically with the ethical goal targeted by the text, the next stage aims to have it shape and strengthen our will.
Hence, we have here an attempt to face ourselves on more existential levels - first by assessing our own status and position vis-a-vis the source being studied, and then making the source "work" on us.
For our purposes, I would add a certain ingredient to this description.  In our opening shiurim (particularly #3), we discussed the problem of fitting the text to the reader.  We noted that the student must be able to identify with the text in order to motivate himself to adopt its teaching in a practical way.  Given this necessity, I think that this matter also should be addressed as part of the process.
Recall that at the beginning of Rav Wolbe's second stage, I examine my situation vis-a-vis the text and its message, noting the disparity.  What is this "disparity?" Rav Wolbe means: the extent to which I do not adequately fulfill the teaching of the text.  But we may add the necessity of checking for another potential disparity - the extent to which I fail to IDENTIFY with the text.  Is this source a challenge which is "for me," at this point in my life, in my present frame of mind (and so on with any other relevant variables)? It is advisable to hold open the possibility that my available time and effort may be better utilized with a different text.  But if the message at hand does strike a sufficiently responsive chord within me, I decide to deepen my involvement with it.
However, the major innovation here is Rav Yisrael Salanter's teaching that review of the material while consciously trying to mobilize the forces of the will - earnestness, emotion, enthusiasm - is a technique that works.  I can readily imagine that the novice may find this theory hard to accept.  Rav Wolbe actually follows up the above outline with assurances that experience does show the value of this approach.  He quotes the last testament of Rav Naftali Amsterdam, one of the three major disciples of Rav Yisrael Salanter:
In general, I say to you that the thing that put me on my feet in matters of avodat Hashem was the learning of Mussar, in the manner that I learned from my teacher and master of blessed memory.  On a day that I learn Mussar, all my deeds, speech and thoughts are better.  The routine should be the following, as I heard from my teacher... If, for example, one sets aside an hour for this study, then he should divide it in two: half an hour for study in the Mussar text, as one would study any other material ... and the second half-hour to study with excitement, to learn a saying and repeat it many times... This is how he himself used to learn.[2]
Until now we have examined what could be seen as a classic formulation of Rav Yisrael Salanter's approach - the crux of which is the assimilation of conclusions arrived at intellectually into the total personality, thus influencing conduct.  This direction was taken further by Rav Yosef Horowitz, the founder of the Novhardok school of Mussar, who propagated this type of study in a distinctive, perhaps radical, fashion. 
The Novhardok Approach
We have quoted Rav Horowitz's book, Madregat Ha-adam, in the past.  The topic under discussion is analyzed there under the heading, "Fear and Love" (chap. 14).  Rav Horowitz argues that intellectual study is ill-suited to moral development.  A word about Rav Horowitz's nomenclature in this matter: Intellectual study is designated "mental effort," and it is contrasted with "sensory effort," which corresponds to emotional, enthusiastic "study."  For Rav Horowitz, the "mental-sensory" distinction is equivalent to "abstract-actual."  He claims that "sensory" effort alone has the power to bring about actual change. Let us first see his description of "mental effort:"
Mental effort is when a person toils with his mind to understand the way of God, by learning Mussar - but with the mind, not with enthusiasm... His return is commensurate with his effort.  Since he tries [for example] to understand the foundations upon which man can put his trust in God, and has delved into these matters with his mind, he is aware that everything that happens is dependent on God... He has [also] arrived at the knowledge of what is truly good and what is truly bad...
But if he knows all this only with his mind and not with his senses, he will find that his mental effort yields only a mental [i.e. abstract] result, not a sensory [i.e. actual] one.  As Chazal said, "The wicked know that their fate is evil and bitter, but it is too hard for them to change." Even though the mental effort enables him to quiet the ferment of human nature and evil attributes while he is speaking of moral ideals, he cannot at all master his predilections and forego his passions and rejoice in the verdict of God [i.e. suffering], because his effort was not to educate himself to actually put things into practice, but only to mentally comprehend the proper world-view, the whole way of life, the "how, what and when"...
At the moment of trial, he is like a blind man who never saw the light, because then the cloud covers the sun and he can see nothing.  His whole exalted knowledge exists either before the fact or after the fact, but when the [trying] situation is at hand, the distraction of the trial makes him like a different man.  In retrospect, he will say, "At the time of the trial, I wasn't the same man that I am now, after the trial." [3]
Rav Horowitz's frame of reference is somewhat different from the one we have used until now.  His approach to Mussar is oriented to "trial" (nisayon).  We have been talking about the need for "change" in the sense of moral growth.  The Novhardoker would view this goal as an abstract "mental" category.  The aim, according to him, is not to make one's "deeds, speech and thoughts better," as Rav Naftali Amsterdam put it.  The problem is more pressing, because man is constantly beset with trying situations.  Man's overriding mission is to respond to every trial the right way.  If he tries to learn how to do this by expending only intellectual effort, the proposition is hopeless, because - paradoxically - the very character of mental study is totally different from its professed objective.  The study is abstract and theoretical, but the situation poses a real life-challenge. 
Therefore, the only solution is to marshal the existential forces of the soul.  This is the meaning of the "sensory," real-life effort.  Rav Horowitz upgrades the importance of enthusiasm ("hitpa'alut") in Mussar.  Unlike Rav Wolbe's more classic description, Rav Horowitz does not talk about an hour-long "session" divided into two equal halves.  I imagine that he would concede the necessity of first intellectually comprehending the content, but the real effort, the major challenge, is "limud be-hitpa'alut." 
What remains to be understood is how "hitpa'alut" solves the problem.  How, according to Rav Horowitz, does this equip one to weather moral challenges successfully? This matter is clarified with the help of another distinction which he makes between "mental" and "sensory" effort.  We will continue from this point in our next shiur, and thus gain a fuller understanding of the rationale of Rav Horowitz's method.
[1] Alei Shur, vol. 1, pp. 89-91.
[2] For what it is worth, I would add that Zvi Kurzweil (Directions in Jewish Education, Am Oved, Tel-Aviv 1981) points out a basic similarity between this technique and "spiritual exercises" found among non-Jewish mystics.  While it is clear that Rav Yisrael was in no way influenced by anything other than Jewish sources, Kurzweil maintains that the common denominator shows that he "hit" upon a basic truth of the religious personality which was recognized by men of different persuasions. 
I have not examined this matter, but my fleeting impression is that the Mussar methodology differs basically from the non-Jewish examples because its emphasis is moral, not mystical.  Rav Yisrael Salanter actually opposed mysticism from an educational standpoint.  But this requires closer inspection of the evidence.  Kurzweil relies on Huxley's "The Perennial Persuasion," James's "The Varieties of Religious Experience," and Evelyn Underhill's "Mysticism."
[3] The style of Madregat Ha-adam is unique, and difficult (for me!) to translate.  I therefore found it necessary to take some liberty with the rendering.  But I believe I am being faithful to the spirit of the original.