You may have noticed a new feature in your congregational newsletter: the Middah of the Month. As part of the exciting Tikkun Middot initiative, Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., will be offering monthly teachings on middot—or character traits—in concert with parallel programs at four of our affiliated congregations. All are working with a curriculum derived from Musar, an approach to Jewish ethics.
Musar is a Jewish practice that dates back at least to the 11th century. It focuses on self-awareness and sensitivity to our interactions with others. In the age of text messages, emoticons and “friendships” based on mouse clicks, an interest in engaging with oneself and others on a deeper level has prompted the rise of Musar once again. We have embraced it as a movement in the form of a program called Tikkun Middot and you can participate. Sign up now to have the Middah of the Month delivered right to your inbox!
Practice tikkun olam through tikkun middot
The central premise of Musar is that the ultimate purpose of our lives is to make this world a better place, and that integral to the work of repairing the world (tikkun olam) is the work of elevating the level at which we behave individually in the world. This is called tikkun middot, which literally translates as "improving our virtues." The practice offers us a way to become more patient, generous, humble, forgiving and so on. Each of the character traits we cultivate is called a middah.
In addition to the College, four Reconstructionist congregations have received grants from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) to infuse tikkun middot into their community cultures: Bet Haverim, Atlanta, GA, Beth Evergreen, Evergreen, CO, Bnai Keshet, Montclair, NJ, and Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, Malibu, CA.
A brief encounter leads to community-wide change
Rabbi Jamie Arnold (shown below) a 1999 RRC graduate who leads Reconstructionist congregation Beth Evergreen in Colorado, first encountered Musar briefly during a class at the College and felt “captivated” by it. Several years ago, he stumbled upon Everyday Holiness, a book by Alan Morinis, which takes a contemporary approach to Musar and uses concrete examples from our daily lives. He saw this as the perfect way to introduce Musar to his congregation through adult education, and he wrote a series of sermons on Reconstructionism and Musar. He began leading a weekly Musar class at Beth Evergreen. Almost six years later, the group is still going strong and the IJS funding created the possibility of expansion.
The grant is helping Beth Evergreen develop curricula for the year so that the whole community can learn and participate. A single middah each month informs classes, committee meetings, sermons—even the Hebrew lab instruction of the aleph-bet. They are framing the current school year with the practice of Musar-inspired hitlamdut, openness to learning about oneself.
Not doing more, but doing things differently
According to Reb Jamie, as he’s known, the appeal of Musar is twofold. First, it is approachable as a values-based system for spiritual practice that doesn’t focus on questions of theology and biblical texts. “How do I grow my capacity for patience?” is very different from “Did the Red Sea really part?”
Second, it is an approach to real-life challenges that does not ask busy people to do more; rather, it gives them another way to take on the tasks they already do. It encourages participants to think about their daily lives in a healthier, soul-growing way. Reb Jamie has observed that people really crave the vaad portion of Musar study. The vaad includes committed group gatherings in which participants can share difficult things that are happening in their lives, completely in confidence, and put them in a Jewish context. During the vaad, the group acts as a mirror, helping speakers discover how they might have used the middot to improve an interaction that challenged, frustrated or saddened them.
Some members of Beth Evergreen Musar class participate in a tikkun olam project: Front row, L-R: Sally Korff, Rebecca Martin, Marilyn Saltzman, Michelle Lieberman; Back row, L-R: Tara Saltzman, Sophia Verheij-Saltzman, Bonnie Houghton, Karen Bennett
Getting to joy
Reb Jamie sees the community’s leaders already growing comfortable using the language of tikkun middot while discussing everything from the recent national elections to the synagogue budget. “It gives the congregation a framework to help with changes in budgetary priorities and ways to look at cuts when you’re trying to close a deficit,” he says. Even in charged committee meetings, he hears phrases such as “building trust” and “investing in relationships.” In almost any interaction, he says, “the primary experience now is the kavod (respect)—and even getting to joy—even where there’s no easy answer.”
RRC embraces tikkun middot
RRC is working to seed a similar transformation at the College and across the movement through study groups for faculty and staff, as well as by developing teachings for use in congregations across North America and beyond. The goal is not just academic understanding but a culture shift fueled by programs, guest speakers and a monthly middah, studied collectively.
Rabbi Jacob Staub, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Medieval Jewish Civilization and professor of Jewish philosophy and spirituality, is spearheading the program at RRC. He says: “It is a basic Reconstructionist principle that Jewish organizations ought to manifest the values we believe in and teach, even in their structures and daily operations. Walking into RRC or a Reconstructionist community, a person should feel as if they’re walking into an ethical counterculture.”
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Read more about the two middot already studied by the RRC community