Shiur #12: Rav Yisrael Salanter's Technique (Part 2)

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein
In our last shiur, we became acquainted with the two-stage format of "learning Mussar" standardized by Rav Yisrael Salanter.  We also began to see how this approach was developed by Rav Yosef Horowitz of Novhardok.  He laid heavy emphasis on the second stage, designating it "sensory effort," and crediting it as the exclusive means of improving one's capacity to successfully meet nisyonot (trials).  This is opposed to "mental effort," which may grant understanding, but not the practical capacity to put one's knowledge to use in difficult situations.  We left off with the question - why is "hitpa'alut" (enthusiasm) so much more effective in this regard than intellection?
Rav Horowitz gives us his answer by further exploring the contrast between "mental" and "sensory" learning (Madregat ha-Adam, Fear and Love, chap. 15):
The mind is an all-encompassing force, in which attention to one thing does not cause one to forget another.  For example, when one thinks of how great is one's spiritual deficiency, he simultaneously is aware that his level is superior to that of his fellows.  At the same time that he thinks that he must repent from his evil way, he thinks of how people will mock and misunderstand him if he does.  And when he thinks of how great are the ways of our forefathers, he thinks that he will never achieve their level.  The result is that he will never begin to do anything, not even a hairsbreadth of teshuva (repentance).
But the force of hitpa'alut, on the other hand, is in that it gathers all the different winds to a solitary point, and this point outweighs the whole world, overruling all hindrances, barriers and contrary considerations.  Everything appears to him as naught with respect to the point of his hitpa'alut, and all of his aims, wants and ambitions unite to seek the actualization of that point.  All his intolerance, anger and cruelty unite to rage against the hindrances and considerations that come to prevent the achievement of the point of his hitpa'alut, and all of his sensory, mental and physical capacity unites to actualize the point of his hitpa'alut...
Therefore hitpa'alut is the sole vehicle of sensory effort.  Without it, it is impossible to transform oneself, or to make unlimited demands of oneself...
We have tasted here something of the revolutionary atmosphere of Novhardok.  The vocabulary reflects a powerful emotional arsenal - rage, cruelty, unlimited demands - meant to be mobilized in the cause of Torah ethics.  This climate is not home to ordinary intellectual study.
If we were to define the aim of hitpa'alut according to Rav Horowitz, the key word is "tevi'a" - demand.  This is a goal at which rational considerations cannot arrive.  True, one could decide on a moral initiative on the strength of reason.  But the mind can easily summon counter-arguments to any proposition.  The decision to act is always based on "majority," the pros having outweighed the cons.  This makes any decision inherently tentative - for, once action is begun, once the environment becomes hostile, the difficulties which abound for those who would advance spirituality in our imperfect world suddenly make the array of considerations look different.  The enormity of the task, the risk of shame and ridicule, now make cessation of action appear the most logical step.  Yesterday's cowardice becomes today's discretion; what we thought was integrity is now perceived as hopelessly quixotic.  No, "decision" is too weak a foundation for moral achievement.  Only the DEMAND will give us the willpower that we need - the demand that comes from within.  Hitpa'alut is the vehicle of demand: "when he learns in a tone of demand, with arguments of demand, his heart demanding that he complete his deficiency..."
The Rav of Novhardok goes on to polemicize against those who question the necessity and value of all this:
This is why all the arguments against the enthusiastic learning of Mussar - "Why all the cries? Why the noise?" - collapse.  To the contrary, the onus is on the questioner: Why is your spirit cold when it comes to the ruin of your soul in both worlds, but you get excited about your body and your wealth, which only leads to aggravation and pain in this world, and disgrace and calumny in the next? You are the one who has reversed the correct priorities... 
Hitpa'alut lifts the fog and chases away the clouds.  A clear light, the light of wisdom, shines before us, and we see a new world, a different reality.  This strengthens us more and more, until all our feelings unite to yearn only for that one point of truth... There is no limit to what one can achieve by learning Mussar.  Anyone can reach the point where nothing is too difficult in his eyes for the sake of fulfilling the Torah...
Let us recap what we have seen so far. The classic approach of Rav Yisrael Salanter uses hitpa'alut to break down the barrier between mind and soul.  The particular concept of Mussar that one has studied, grasped and formulated, is made to penetrate the personality with concentrated, earnest repetition and review.  The school of Novhardok uses hitpa'alut not in the context of a particular teaching of Mussar, but more as a means of deepening and fortifying one's basic commitment.  The idea is to create a mindset of total devotion to "one point" - the pursuit of sheleimut (wholeness), being almost obsessively concerned with its achievement, and fearlessly mocking, belittling and ignoring all obstacles. 
     If this is the first time you have been exposed to the approach of Novhardok, it probably hasn't left you indifferent.  I suggest that we now take a look at a different approach.  This will give us a more complete picture of the variations possible within the context of Rav Yisrael Salanter's basic technique.  Then each of us can decide which version, if any, we can use to help ourselves.
The Technique According to "Shiurei Da'at"
In the following passage, another exponent of Rav Yisrael Salanter's technique - Rav Yosef Leib Bloch, rosh yeshiva of Telz - offers his advice on "how to do it" (Shi'urei Da'at, vol. 2, p. 200):
A person should not force himself to learn with enthusiasm.  He should not try to coerce his thoughts and energies towards this, because this way is unnatural.  Furthermore, when someone "pulls" the enthusiasm forcibly ... he won't succeed, because the other forces and emotions which reside within him won't let one of the forces loose to be aroused and exalted by itself; they won't leave it alone.  At this time - more than any other - the yetzer (impulse) that disturbs and hinders thought, stands vigilantly on guard so as not to allow the exalted emotion in man to achieve the pure, inner arousal which this sacred study ought to bring.
So it is: man does not have the power to arouse his good feelings by forcing his nature; he cannot detach and hold the feeling of enthusiasm and excitement just in order to learn Mussar; he cannot push away at that time all that lives within him, to drive the yetzer from his heart...
But rather this is the way to learn Mussar: The whole man, with all of his capacities and feelings, the man -as he is - should learn Mussar.  He begins to learn calmly and patiently, with a sweet voice and profound observation; he hears every word he utters, examines it and feels it.  The study, together with the pleasant and stimulating melody, energizes and brings the whole man to heartfelt inner enthusiasm... Then the whole man becomes exalted - his whole essence, the man with everything in him...
Rav Bloch is sensitive to the tug-of-war that goes on between the various voices within us.  In this, he is no different from the Rav of Novhardok.  But the latter is sure that if we only abandon our commitment to intellectualism, we possess the sense and sensitivity to be able to unite all of our turbulent emotions for the sake of "one single point."  The author of Shiurei Da'at, however, considers the attempt to arrive at this result through conscious effort as being virtually futile. 
This is a rather extreme contrast! Both of these men spoke from wide educational experience, and the spectacle of such diametrically opposing views conjures up the bewildering anomaly which is the dread of Talmudic scholars - the "machloket bi-metziut," the disagreement over fact.  How could there be such differing opinions about the reality of human nature? Which of these wise men is the one with impaired eyesight?
I believe that the only reasonable conclusion is that they both were describing a reality which they knew to be true about themselves and, by and large, their students as well.  Their styles and philosophies are patently different, and each attracted the disciples about whom the generalizations they made would indeed be true.  This brings us back to the necessity of evaluating ourselves with respect to the differing viewpoints.
But let us continue to examine Rav Bloch's position.  Granted, one can't take oneself by storm.  What then? Rav Bloch holds that the emotional stance needed in Mussar is not the "demand" (the very idea of demand pits one part of the self against the other), but rather harmony, openness, melodious sweetness.  The only reliable way to progress is to avoid inner conflict, and that means that the WHOLE self must see what a "good idea" Mussar is. 
There is a further innovation in the way Rav Bloch builds the relationship between the technique's two stages.  According to him, the only direct action that we take is the study itself.  True, we study with anticipation in our hearts - we are hopefully expecting to be elevated.  But the "second stage" of Rav Yisrael Salanter - if and when it comes about - is more or less automatic.  Watch how Rav Bloch describes the passage from study to emotion:
The bottom line is that Mussar must be learned like any other subject, with patience and careful study, and then in a natural way one becomes inspired by its holy words, which are full of sayings that stimulate and elevate the human soul.
And, once having taken the holy words to heart, the heartstrings having been aroused, and we can no longer prescribe the method of study, but quite naturally one is stimulated and becomes more and more enthusiastic, and learns with a loud voice and an excited, outpouring soul. 
There is a problem here.  This technique forgoes the conscious effort to stimulate emotion, and hopes that it will "happen."  And what if it doesn't? Rav Bloch continues:
And even if after all this his soul is not aroused, and his heart does not fill up with sacred song, if after learning Mussar this way he does not become enthusiastic - let it be.  Even such Mussar study is meaningful.
He may mean that the impression made on our soul is not something always immediately apparent.  Growth occurs in small increments which can be seen only in the long run.
Summation and Closing Comments
Let us offer a brief characterization of the techniques we have studied in the last two shiurim.  To start from the end - Novhardok and Shiurei Da'at differ fundamentally.  The former is motivated by the need to successfully meet life's constant challenges; it psychological goal is to leap unhesitantly, to fling oneself courageously into the higher life of Torah ideals.  The latter approach distrusts this posture and finds it unstable.  Natural, guided spiritual growth is to be preferred; study is important because it provides the wings of inspiration. 
But despite their difference, they share a common focus.  If we were to ask, what is it that lies beyond the intellectual study of Mussar, what is the transcending goal that we wish to achieve? - both Rav Horowitz and Rav Bloch would answer that their techniques directly influence the most basic spiritual level of the person, his existential attachment to Torah.  This, I believe, is not generally the case in Rav Yisrael's approach as we saw it last week.  There the goal was to "turn knowledge into light," to take a PARTICULAR goal of Mussar and make the knowledge of it effective, assimilate it, feel it profoundly.
As is usual in such matters, it is up to the individual to decide whether to apply any given approach.  I would emphasize that it is not an either/or proposition.  A person may find himself at times in need of a moral "shaking-out," and he may be helped by Rav Horowitz's assurance that it is possible.  At other times his whole personality may be more in need of generosity, his ego suffering morally from neglect and in need of sublimation; this would call for a different method. 
Before closing, one more comment about the Novhardok school.  The practice of leveling demands at oneself borders on something else which we have dealt with in the past - namely, severe self-reproach or browbeating.  If this border is crossed, I think the whole technique is at serious risk.  Making great demands of oneself can be done in earnest only in the context of positive, healthy self-appraisal.  Sinking into the quagmire of self-reproach is anathema to progress, and I am sure that Rav Horowitz did not have this in mind.  For confirmation of this, please refer to the citation which I brought from his Madregat Ha-adam back in shiur #6.  However, many people would probably fail to make this distinction, and for them, following the approach of Novhardok could be a perilous mistake. 
We will end here our discussion of Rav Yisrael's method and its derivatives.  In our next shiur, we will continue our survey of Mussar techniques with a method which antedates the ones we have so far addressed.