Mussar is an illuminating, approachable, and highly practical set of teachings for cultivating personal growth and spiritual realization in the midst of day-to-day life. Here is an accessible and inspiring introduction to this Jewish spiritual path, which until lately has been best known in the world of Orthodox Judaism. The core teaching of Mussar is that our deepest essence is inherently pure and holy, but this inner radiance is obscured by extremes of emotion, desire, and bad habits. Our work in life is to uncover the brilliant light of the soul. The Mussar masters developed transformative teachings and practices—some of which are contemplative, some of which focus on how we relate to others in daily life—to help us to heal and refine ourselves.
Morinis, director and founder of the Mussar Institute, summarizes the practice of Mussar "in the phrase tikkun ha'middot ha'nafesh improving or remedying the traits of the soul" while emphasizing that it is not self-help. Rather, "it means working on yourself, but not for the sake of yourself... but... to bring the soul to wholeness and holiness." Each of us is born with an inner soul that is irrevocably pure, but the outer layers constantly engage in the age-old struggle between good and evil. By determining our soul curriculum, or "issues that repeatedly challenge ," we can strengthen our souls and therefore every aspect of our lives. Specifically, he addresses 18 soul traits: humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, order, equanimity, honor, simplicity, enthusiasm, silence, generosity, truth, moderation, loving-kindness, responsibility, trust, faith and yirah (a combination of fear and awe, without a true English counterpart). In most cases the explanations are clear and delightfully illustrated with colorful Talmudic tales, though occasionally some traits, like moderation and generosity, seem at odds with each other. Early on, Morinis explains that a Mussar book should be read "slowly, in little segments, so the material can be thoroughly absorbed and digested." So, too, should readers of any religion take their time with this engaging tome of wisdom, lore and suggested practice.