David Jaffe: Judaism Unbound Episode 167 - The Meaning of Mussar


David Jaffe, author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning book Changing the World from the Inside Out, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about Mussar -- both what it is, and the transformative potential that it possesses for individuals and the world. [1] [2]

(0:01 - 14:41): To begin the episode, Jaffe introduces the idea of Mussar, looking at both its ancient roots and evolution over time. He looks at the dichotomy of new and old, arguing that it is possible to teach something “new that’s old.” In particular, he focuses on two Jewish developments that reflect that — Mussar and Jewish mysticism. He emphasizes the ways in which Mussar practice causes its adherents to not merely espouse Jewish teachings, but really to feel them deep within their hearts and souls.

(14:42 - 26:48): Fleshing out the topic of Mussar, he talks through some examples of how Mussar has manifested in his own life. He then explores some of the history of Mussar, [3] rewinding all the way to some “Mussar statements” in the Torah, and talking through its evolutions in Medieval Europe, Modern Europe, and in the United States today. [4] In doing so, he tells a fascinating story about (we kid you not) a rotting fish!

(26:49 - 48:38): Jaffe highlights the “Inside-Out” element of his book-title Changing the World from the Inside Out. He discusses ways in which Mussar can be channeled not only toward individual self-improvement, but also toward broader institutional and societal forms of change. He also looks back at his own life experience, including a few key moments in his life in which he realized that he wasn’t living his life in full alignment with his values, [5] and what he learned from them. Turning to some of the specifics of his own practice, he re-visits the ways in which mysticism and Mussar practice can intertwine. To close the episode, Jaffe looks at how Mussar can be taught (and embodied) most effectively in school settings, and he envisions what a Judaism (and a world) that fully lives out the values of Mussar would look like.

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[1] Learn more about David Jaffe at RabbiDavidJaffe.com, and purchase Changing the World from the Inside Out by clicking here.

[2] Check out Jaffe’s Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project at InsideOutWisdomAndAction.org.

[3] Jaffe cites a book by Diana Lobel that looks at Bahya Ibn Paquda’s medieval work “Duties of the Heart.” Purchase the book, entitled A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Paquda's "Duties of the Heart,” by clicking here.

[4] Alan Morinis is a key figure in the growth of Mussar in the United States over the past couple decades. Learn more about him, and an organization that he founded, at MussarInstitute.org.

[5] Jaffe looks back at a moment in his life in which he gravitated towards Buddhist teachings. For more on the intersections of Buddhist and Jewish practice, see Episode 38: Evolving Dharma - Jay Michaelson.

[6] For an article looking at Jaffe’s work at Gann Academy, where he applied teachings from Musar to their curriculum, see this 2018 article in JTA, entitled “Jewish schools grapple with a question: How do you turn a kid into a mensch?”