Greg Marcus: Judaism Unbound Episode 168 - American Mussar


Greg Marcus, founder of American Mussar and author of The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions: Finding Balance through the Soul Traits of Mussar, joins Dan and Lex to look at what Mussar is, and how it can operate effectively in an American context. [1] [2]

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(0:01 - 17:35): To begin the episode, Marcus looks back at his realization that he had, a number of years back, become a workaholic. At that point, he shifted a number of elements of his life and found his way to the practice of Mussar. He reflects on how he really was a newcomer to Jewish learning, but despite that, he felt a deep desire not only to engage with Jewish text and tradition, but to teach it to others. [3] Eventually that journey became a success, as his learning led him to teach a Mussar class at synagogue. What he discovered in his learning is that Mussar — even in Europe, centuries ago — was heavily influenced by American ideas, including those tracing their roots to Benjamin Franklin. [4] This led him to desire, and begin to create, a form of contemporary Mussar practice that understands its American context as deeply informing its character.

(17:36 - 37:43): Marcus distills the practice of Mussar into four foundational principles, centering the idea of middot, which he translates as “soul traits” or “character traits.” Counter-intuitively, he asserts that the goal is not to have as much of every middah/soul-trait as possible, but to achieve balance. Shifting gears a bit, he examines ways in which his background as a trained biologist played a role in the work he does, along with how he goes about it. He compares and contrasts the “stakes” of evolutionary biology, on the one hand, and Judaism, on the other, [5] and argues that in Jewish practice, we should not expect people to be “experts” in order to be leaders. He then fleshes out his discussion of the “soul traits” by exploring how one could actually have too much of one of them (humility) which is generally understood to be an unqualified good. [6]

(37:44 - 54:21): Marcus provides a few examples of how he and others have worked on some of the middot/soul-traits in their own lives. In doing so, he gives his own take on what the Biblical teaching of “You should be holy” can look like through an American Mussar lens. Zooming out, he names some of the ways in which Mussar represents a year-round embodiment of the 10-day themes of introspection that arise on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. To close the episode, Marcus reflects on a famous quote from the Talmud, which says that “One who studies Torah without acts of kindness — it’s as if they had no God.” He invites listeners to embrace that quotation full-heartedly, through the integration of Torah study with a regular practice of Mussar.

[1] Check out Greg Marcus’s full bio here, and purchase The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions at this link.

[2] Sign up for a free 1-hour Mussar Strategy Session with Greg Marcus at AmericanMussar.com/Unbound.

[3] Marcus names the 2013 Pew study of Jewish Americans as a document that influenced his work. For more on the role that that study has played since it was released, see a full “decade” of Judaism Unbound episodes from Episode 140 through Episode 150.

[4] For more on Benjamin Franklin’s impact on European Mussar, click here.

[5] The intersection of Judaism and science deserves a podcast episode of its own — and it has one! Check it out here - Episode 114: Sinai and Synapses - Geoffrey Mitelman.

[6] If you’re curious to find out your “soul trait profile,” as a launching point into Mussar, take Marcus’s Soul Trait Profile Quiz, available here.