It's difficult to look at Rabbi Ira Stone today and imagine him hanging out on the streets with drug-abusing, class-cutting Hebrew high school students. "I read their books," Stone recalls of his days as an outreach worker for Jewish Family Service of Long Island. Those books introduced him to the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, among others, reigniting his childhood passion for Judaism.
Ultimately, Stone's social activism and intellectual temperament led him to a career in the rabbinate. He graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary 1979 and has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia since 1988, after nine years at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle.
Along with congregational life, Stone has pursued an intensely personal theology expressed through prayer, poetry and the discipline of Mussar. Based on mid-19th century Jewish scholarship, Mussar adopts a traditional Jewish framework for defining and inspiring moral behavior. It uses a disciplined system of self-reflection, study and habit development. Stone explains that Mussar offers a way to "stay awake to our moral obligations in care for ourselves, care for those closest to us, care for the world itself."
Stone teaches a four-semester elective in Mussar to RRC students — a first in rabbinic education. The course involves intense study of original texts, as well as various forms of daily and weekly engagement with the 13 midot — character traits such as menuchat ha-nefesh (equanimity) and tzedek (righteousness) — that help us live more ethical lives. Stone uses the work of Emmanual Levinas, the 20th-century French philosopher and Jewish scholar, to provide a filter through which contemporary readers can find meaning in classic Mussar texts.
According to Stone, the Reconstructionist environment of RRC is completely appropriate for teaching Mussar. Mordecai Kaplan's father was a renowned Mussar rabbi in Lithuania. "It's not surprising that Kaplan would identify the power that makes for salvation in the world — the power of goodness — as his major theological orientation in Judaism. I think the Reconstructionist movement has always been concerned with how to help people actualize ethical living," he says.
Stone has published numerous articles on theology and rabbinics, as well as texts on Mussar and books of poetry. He finds that poetry helps people access a kind of wisdom that is not dependent entirely on rational faculties. Stone would like his students and congregants to read the texts of our tradition as poetic literature rather than newspaper reports. As he expresses in one of his poems:
the perfect poem