I love opening the mailbox and being greeted by a media-mail envelope filled with books I’ve ordered. This is seriously one of the greatest pleasures in life that are polite to talk about in mixed company. Today I received my extremely tiny and cute copy of Cheshbon ha-Nefesh, a nifty tome by R. Mendel of Satanov (who is now right up there with Gregor Mendel on my list of Greatest Mendels of All Time–pea plants and moral psychology, FTW!).
I ordered it as part of this mussar kick I’m on. I had actually never heard about mussar until recently. I ran into the term in a brief bio of R. Ira Stone on the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College website, of all places. For those who, like, me, have been in the dark, mussar is a spiritual practice developed by R. Yisroel Salanter in the 1800’s. It starts from the idea that knowing what is good isn’t going to do you a lot of good if you’re so thoroughly mired in bad habits that you can’t manage to behave properly. Mussar therefore attempts to correct the nasty inclinations of the practitioner through a process of study, self-discipline and psychological self-inquiry–kind of like Freud for people who aren’t passionately anti-religious. It relies heavily on classic works of Jewish ethics such as Chovot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart) by Bahya ibn Paquda and Tomer Devorah (The Palm tree of Devorah) by Moses Cordovero. And, of course, Cheshbon ha-Nefesh. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, the thread unifying these works is a sophisticated form of Virtue Ethics, which classifies ethical behavior according to a number of distinct virtues (occasionally regarded kabalistically as being grounded in corresponding attributes of God) and attempts to cultivate them within the self.
This is really exactly the kind of formalized spiritual discipline that appeals to me. As a practice of self-examination grounded in moral psychology and applied ethics, it seems like a perfect compliment to the study of the Torah: An examination of the spiritual message embedded in Torah, combined with an attempt to integrate the teachings contained therein into one’s everyday life. I’m looking forward to studying this fascinating branch of Jewish practice and hopefully incorporating a little of it into my daily life. I’ll keep you posted, dear readers, on my progress.