Linda Kriger is a “sucker for self-improvement.”
When she discovered the practice of Mussar — defined as the education of the individual toward strict ethical behavior in the spirit of halacha — more than a decade ago, she instantly connected.
A fellow congregant at Germantown Jewish Centre had sent an email about a daily practice in character development he engaged in.
“I also have always had a challenge about doing any kind of daily practice,” she admitted, “so I thought, ‘This is for me.’ I had no idea what I was getting into.”
She began learning with Rabbi Ira Stone, who led the Mussar Leadership Program based at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. However, upon Stone’s retirement, the participants who wanted to continue had to decide whether to go elsewhere or start their own organization.
“It was time for us to grow up and go out on our own,” Stone said.
A year and a half ago, a new organization emerged in response: the Center for Contemporary Mussar, which is based in Center City, though not in a physical space. Through technology, students as far away as Oregon and California participate.
When she was asked to chair the center’s board, Kriger wholeheartedly accepted. It’s been an exciting — and busy — process.As it is a new organization, its leadership had to establish itself. They applied for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, designed a logo, created a budget and developed a fundraising plan, among other tasks. They plan to hold future retreats and other communal events.
After a decade of studying, Kriger decided it was also time for her to teach. She will teach her second class — aimed at beginners — next month.
A small group of students gather at her kitchen table in her Mount Airy home to learn, which creates a unique sense of connectedness.
“It’s very intimate and because we have vaad [group practice] with every class and people talk about very personal events in their lives, we have an agreement of confidentiality,” she noted, “and I love the intimacy. It’s really important to have that when you are talking about these difficult challenges in one’s life.”
The students study from two texts, The Path of the Just by Moshe Luzzatto and Tomer Devorah by Moses Cordovero, as they learn midot, or character traits. Teachers trained to lead their own classes become a springboard to spread the organization across the U.S.
Stone and psychologist Beulah Trey developed the curriculum, which created a contemporized version of an ages-old practice. The program is designed for four years with two 13-week semesters. The first two years focus on The Path and the second two on Tomer Devorah.
“We’re doing the kind of work that Mussar was intended to do,” Stone said. “We have a pretty sophisticated protocol that allows people to really use contemporary psychological dynamics to do self-introspection.”
“It’s this hidden gem of our tradition,” Trey said of Mussar, “which is all about how it is that we use midot or bring values into our relationships with other people.”
In vaad, or their weekly group sessions, students learn a different value, or midah, by which they can practice and evaluate their relationships with others. Students keep journals in which they record interactions and incidents to “find out how could I have done better, how could I have been more of service to this other person if I had had this value in my mind?”
Patience, for instance, is defined as: “When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, do not aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief.”
“The way that we do it,” Trey explained, “is you go through your day and when you have interactions with other people, those interactions can be Mussar moments, which is a moment where you could be there for the other person or you want to be there for the other person.”
The word Mussar means “correction,” she noted, which ties into the texts they study, specifically the concept of Yetzer Hara, restructured in their curriculum from the traditional “evil impulse” to “self-absorption.” Its counterpart, Yetzer HaTov, the inclination toward good, is also studied.
“In every age, Judaism needs a Mussar that corrects for whatever that age is about,” said Trey, who grew up with an Orthodox background. “One of the things about our age is that we’re very narcissistic. … So the correction for our age is around how we are there for other people. It really gets at a way our current culture is distorted.”
Stone, who has studied Mussar for nearly 40 years, echoed that idea.
The goal is “to increase holiness in their lives, understanding that holiness is a function of how we treat one another,” he said. “We’re not treating one another too well, are we?”
Kriger noted how transformational the practice of Mussar can be for people — she’s seen it firsthand.
“Everybody who comes to study Mussar on some level is a seeker,” Kriger said. “That’s the best way to come in, with an open mind and seeking to transform the way that they react and interact with people.”
To register for classes or learn more, visit contemporarymussar.org.
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