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Reviews

Jewish Action
Winter 2003
by Hillel Goldberg

Question: Why have all manner of Chassidic courts reestablished themselves after the destruction of the Holocaust while schools of musar have not? Ger, Breslov, Amshinov, Viznitz, Belz, Satmar and many other Chassidic groups — all of which suffered grievous devastation in World War II — are now flourishing in the United States, Israel and, in many instances, even in Europe. Where is Slabodka, Kelm, Navardok? Clearly, the answer is not in any Nazi predilection for musar adherents; the evil ones killed any Jew they found. While it is true that adherents of a given Chassidic group may have fortuitously survived in relatively large numbers, this cannot explain the contemporary, widespread efflorescence of Chassidism, a handful of whose adherents survived. Nor is the answer to be found in the correct observation that the prewar musar adherents numbered far fewer than did the Chassidim, but here, at least, we have a clue.

The Musar Movement was always small. In fact, it is unclear in what sense it was a movement after the initial efforts of its founder, Reb Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883). Reb Yisrael envisioned a movement, that is, the improvement of personal character traits by men and women, learned and unlearned alike. He worked hard toward that end in Vilna and Kovno, from 1841 to 1858, and met some success. But then began his long and mostly mysterious sojourn in Western Europe, where he was mostly cut off from his disciples. His students concentrated their efforts within yeshivot; there, Reb Yisrael’s musar program evinced staying power. (It is worth noting, however, that musar never completely died out as a popular effort. I was once shown a sefer with the official stamp of the populist Beis HaMusar of Kovno, dated in the late 1930s. I don’t know how it survived the War.) In yeshivot, the demanding discipline of musar had a chance to take root. Students had time to devote to it; musar masters had the opportunity for the requisite concentration. Reb Yisrael once said that it takes twenty-five years to perfect a single character trait; alternatively, one can study the entire Talmud sooner than one can perfect a single character trait. Clearly, the spiritual discipline of musar takes time and tremendous motivation. Given its essence, musar was not a popular movement; its adherents were never numerous.

After the Holocaust, with most of the musar role models deceased, there was little chance for a quick revival. The mastery and the motivation within the one setting in which musar showed some success — the yeshivah — could not be rapidly recreated. Then, there is a musar methodological catch- 22: In the nature of things, most musar role models would not announce themselves, would not promote themselves, once they emerged. The inclination of musar is to hide, to avoid display. True, the Navardok branch of the movement did make it a point to reach out — and now, davkah from a scion within Navardok, comes an unexpected book that shows that musar, while hardly rebuilt to prewar proportions, does demonstrate maturity and resonance within a new cultural setting.

Reb Yisrael always saw musar as a potential bridge, capable of linking the most devout circles of Jewish piety with the most assimilated societies of the Jewishly ignorant. In part, that is why he devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to teaching assimilated students and communities in Western Europe, particularly Germany. Musar preaches purity of intent; as such, it can identify both the spiritual flaws in the most Orthodox and the genuine spiritual strivings in the most unobservant. Musar, under Reb Yisrael’s fine scalpel, could turn rabbis in on themselves, searching for defects in their punctilious observance, and could attract the assimilated to the Torah, validating their instinctive elements of ethics or spirituality. To Reb Yisrael, musar was a ladder. Those on the lowest rung could eventually reach the highest, while those on the upper rungs, if not careful, could slip downward. Alan Morinis, in Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, seeks musar from assimilated, unobservant moorings; his search begins on the lowest rung — precisely the place that Reb Yisrael and the Alter of Navardok thought that musar could be effective. Morinis seeks to demonstrate that even without a prior grounding in Talmud and other Torah knowledge, one can find God within the quest for honesty and integrity in human relationships — including one’s relationship with oneself.

Only a few years ago, Morinis was like one of the Jewishly ignorant students whom Reb Yisrael would have met in nineteenth-century Germany. Morinis’ eloquent and spiritual record of his quest is, perhaps, the ultimate verification of the potential reach of musar beyond the Orthodox Jewish society in which it originated.

Morinis, a former Rhodes Scholar with an expertise in Hindu pilgrimage and a former film producer with a personal history of deep inner doubts and financial failure, modestly subtitles his book One Man’s Journey to Rediscover a Jewish Spiritual Tradition. There are, of course, idiosyncratic elements in Morinis’ journey, but he more than opens his soul for us to view. Not that the courage to communicate one’s deepest anxieties and triumphs is a small thing, but Climbing Jacob’s Ladder goes further. Morinis succeeds in making the psychological teachings and exercises of Reb Yisrael alluring. From within the specificity of his own life, Morinis strikes a universal chord. The essence of musar is not the contours of a personal struggle but the idea of struggle. The thoroughness of Morinis’ struggle becomes a transparency, enabling others to see that if he can succeed, they can too.

Essential to Morinis’ struggle are his two musar teachers, Rabbi Yechiel and Shoshana Perr of Far Rockaway, New York. By turns insightful, colorful and compassionate — and always expansive and expressive — the Perrs invited Morinis into their lives because of a phone call. Morinis’ journey begins in earnest when he, a total stranger to the Perrs, asks them whether they would be his guides in musar. No questions asked, the Perrs accept the challenge. Morinis had no idea of his good fortune. Mrs. Perr is the great-granddaughter of one of Reb Yisrael’s major disciples, the Alter of Navardok, Rabbi Joseph J. Hurvitz. Rabbi Perr was ordained by Mrs. Perr’s grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Joffen, the son-in-law of the Alter of Navardok. Both Rabbi and Mrs. Perr studied extensively under Mrs. Perr’s father, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Nekritz, whose storied life includes unwavering adherence to the musar disciplines even during six years of exile in Siberia during World War II.

While his family is puzzled but supportive, Morinis, full of trepidation and expectation, flies from his home in Vancouver to New York to meet the Perrs. How would a yeshivah dean like Rabbi Perr, rooted in the black-hat mold of Orthodoxy, receive a secular and confused but highly motivated and intelligent searcher? Morinis’ description of his travels and anxieties in advance of his first meeting with Rabbi Perr is masterful. This is the surprising denouement:

Slowly he [Rabbi Perr] crossed to me.

Then, taking my hand in both of his, those soft eyes gazing directly into mine, he asked, “May I give you a kiss?”

A kiss! I had thought that, in my anxiety, I’d rehearsed every possible greeting I might conceivably receive from this man, but a kiss hadn’t even crossed my mind. I must have given some sign of consent, however, because he cupped my face in his hands and, through the rasp of his beard, I felt his warm lips on my cheek. In that moment, relief coursed through my entire body.

Climbing Jacob’s Ladder is three books in one: an account of Morinis’ inner journey; a portrait of two musar practitioners (the Perrs) and of Morinis’ interaction with them and a description of nine musar disciplines.

The effectiveness of the descriptions of the disciplines derives from the liveliness of his relationship with the Perrs, who alter his journey in ways that sometimes are wrenching and sometimes so indirect that it takes Morinis months to realize the effect of a seemingly offhand comment. The pivot of the book, then, is the Perrs.

Rabbi Perr is Talmudist and preacher, logician and counselor, adept at rigorous analysis and penetrating allegory. Rabbi Perr’s total effect is to catch one off guard, to maneuver behind one’s defenses in order to hold one’s attention — an effect buttressed by his imposing stature, which, however, conveys warmth more than intimidation. “May I give you a kiss?” — vintage Rabbi Perr. Master of the unexpected yet not manipulative, Mrs. Perr, as short as her husband is tall, is neither Talmudist nor preacher. A trained counselor, she is a listener and encourager. Her musar is inherited, genetic, so to speak; her husband’s is learned, articulate, pedagogic. Neither the rabbi nor his wife is judgmental. Clearly, they delight in learning of Morinis’ spiritual forays as much as he delights in their guidance and support. One of Reb Yisrael’s musar disciplines was the musar friendship: the brutally honest yet also supportive relationship between two people, each trying to discover his own unconscious motives, each trying to shape these motives according to the ideals of the Torah, each relying on the other for insight and grounding. This book is an unflinching and loving record of just such a friendship.

What does Morinis take from this friendship? The musar disciplines he describes include meditating to develop a focused mind; using various techniques to read a spiritual text; reciting holy phrases; using mental images; developing self-awareness; contemplating the grandeur of God; employing exercises to improve personal qualities; practicing right speech and removing obstacles that obstruct the flow of love. Neither Morinis nor the Perrs devised any of these disciplines; at the very least, in their essentials they are found in the centuries-old musar literature. What gives these disciplines power is not primarily the talented pen of Morinis (though that certainly helps); their real power derives from the fact that their description represents decades of personal work by the Perrs. Having brought these disciplines to life in their own lives, the Perrs can convey their inner essence even to a twenty-first-century Jewish searcher with little prior knowledge of the Torah or other Jewish lore. On a larger canvas, the disciplines show that musar indeed survived the Holocaust.

As such, the musar disciplines can reach a broad spectrum of readers. More than any work I know, Morinis’ book makes the musar approach to personal growth and
spiritual integrity accessible. Readers who are familiar with musar can benefit too. Perhaps inured to the musar techniques (too often, in the Orthodox world, they are presented as frozen formulae rather than living realities), Orthodox readers can learn from Morinis’ determination to confront his despair under the dispensation of musar, and from the Perrs’ persistent and loving exploration of musar in their lives.

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Central Council of American Rabbis Journal
Summer 2003
By RUTH GAIS, Ph.D

When he was a young man, Alan Morinis traveled many miles to exotic lands in search of wisdom. Little did he dream that, years later, the spiritual guidance he sought would be found not at the feet of a guru dwelling high up in the snowy Himalayas or at an ashram in Delhi, but at the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway in distinctly unglamorous Queens, New York. Morinis’ book is a chronicle of how he, a nonobservant Jew, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, anthropologist, professor, movie producer, and businessman discovered, at the bleakest moment in his life, that a rabbi, not a Zen adept, was to be his master and that his path to wisdom was not the Tao of the East but the hands-on spirituality of the very Jewish teachings of Mussar. It is important to understand that Morinis’ dark moment of the soul comes as a result of a failed business venture, not, thank God, from something as terrible as a tragic death or debilitating illness. His crisis is one of a sense of moral failure, not of the futility of theodicy. But the bleakness of this good man is very real. His suffering over his moral and ethical lapses propels him to crave understanding of how he could have strayed so far from his true self. He seeks not serenity or expiation, but self- improvement. His description of his discovery of Mussar is telling:

Then one evening I came to a chapter on the Mussar movement, founded in the mid-nineteenth century by a Lithuanian rabbi named Israel Salanter. One phrase in particular jumped out at me: “As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that he is remote from true service…” What kind of spiritual teaching was this, whose ultimate goal was not serenity and inner peace? This was wisdom of a kind I’d never before encountered, and I wanted to know more about it (p. 18).

What Morinis had stumbled upon was the practice of Mussar, often translated as “ethics,” which emphasizes the innate holiness of each of us and provides us with “a tool-bag of personal, introspective, and transformative practices that will lead us step by step, along the path of purification and change” (p. 18). This spiritual practice, guiding one toward a purposeful, ethical life, is alive and flourishing in the Orthodox world but little known these days outside that community. The classics of Mussar, such as Bachya Ibn Paquda’s The Duties of the Heart or Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s The Path of the Just , are easily available in translation but, quite frankly, have lacked an honest, passionate, and modern advocate.

As Morinis dipped more deeply into the literature of Mussar he soon realized that he needed a teacher. He found an ideal one — Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway. This book is a distillation of three years of conversations between the two men, modeled loosely upon Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays
with Morrie
. Following Mussar tradition, Morinis has labeled each chapter a “gate.” At the end of the chapter, also in keeping with Mussar practice, is a section called “Opening the Gate,” which provides us with an exercise or method to apply to our daily lives.

The descriptions of Rabbi Perr and of his wise and learned wife are among the highpoints of the book. When Morinis finally meets Rabbi Perr for the first time, he enters the rabbi’s study with trepidation and introduces himself. The rabbi rises, looks at him, and asks if he can give him a kiss. This kiss is a transforming moment of the kind found often in master-disciple relationships. Rabbi Perr offers him a bagel and coffee, making this a Jewish transforming moment, says laconically, “So, you are here,” and begins to teach. Rabbi Perr proves to be a consummate teacher. Sometimes he teaches through the daily “schmoozes” he holds with his young students, sometimes through long, private conversations in his study or in his home, often with his wife, herself the daughter and granddaughter of prominent Mussar teachers, but more often than not, through himself as the exemplar of one trying to lead — as that other ethicist, Socrates, so well described it—“the examined life.”

Through skillful weaving of anecdote and advice, Morinis provides us with a good sampling of Mussar in action. His first “Opening the Gate” section, for example, deals with the primary quality Mussar seeks to develop in an individual: awareness. Morinis asks Rabbi Perr for a practice he can take home with him after their first encounter. Much to his surprise, instead of suggesting some esoteric activity, the rabbi tells him to take a large rubber band, keep it in his pocket, and whenever he feels angry or impatient, to put the rubber band on his wrist. That’s it. But after a while, Morinis realizes that just the simple act of taking out the rubber band forces him to focus on his spiritual status at that moment.

Morinis includes many other techniques, such as meditating on a biblical verse and guided contemplation as taught by Bachya Ibn Paquda. To improve the soul trait (middah) of humility, for example, Bachya recommends walking our minds slowly and carefully along the entire journey of our life, from fertilization of the egg to our death and decay. For understanding the soul-trait of awe (yirah), Bachya suggests contemplating the process of digestion.

Another practice Morinis describes is heshbon ha-nefesh, an early-nineteenth-century technique for “accounting of the soul.” In this practice, the individual works on improving thirteen self selected soul traits a year. The person works on one middah per week during four thirteen-week cycles. First the person identifies over a period of weeks the soul traits that need improvement. Morinis’ own list includes equanimity, surrender, trust in God, compassion, truth in speech, courage, and concentration. Then the individual writes a one-line summary of each trait, which she reads in the morning, and in the evening records anything during the day that relates to this trait.

But Mussar, as Morinis is at pains to emphasize, requires action, involvement in the real world. He relates that some earlier Mussar teachers would give their students exercises that would help develop or improve their soul traits — sort of an ethical Outward Bound approach. A student who needed to “uproot love of honor” (p.147) was instructed to go to a hardware store and ask for bread and then to a drugstore and ask for nails. Scorned by others, the student would realize desire for self-honor was pointless and he would be freed of the sin of pride. Students who needed to develop their sense of trust (bitahon) would be given a one-way train ticket to a far-away destination with no money. Their task was to return home directly without asking anyone for help. “They had no one but God in whom to trust” (p. 147).

As befits one who long studied Eastern tradition, Morinis recounts toward the end of his book a tale about a Zen priest. The surprise is that Rabbi Perr told him the story.

Every day this pupil came to the master to learn, and the master assigned him to wash dishes….At random moments the master would sneak up on the student and hit him over the head with a stick. Then one day, as he was washing dishes, the pupil suddenly had a sense of something coming. He ducked just as the stick whizzed by his head.” Rabbi Perr paused for a moment…”That’s what we are doing too. We’re developing an awareness of what you can only sense, not see with your eyes or feel with your hands (p. 216).

The awareness that Rabbi Perr describes cannot be ours without serious commitment. Morinis’ story is a wonderful model for anyone seeking to become a better human being, a “mensch.” His engrossing and engaging story provides us with the initial steps toward a journey on this unjustly neglected spiritual path. His book, easy to read but filled with much that is valuable and good, is a perfect jumping-off point for deeper immersion in the wisdom of Mussar. For this we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

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The Forward
May 3, 2002
By HILLEL GOLDBERG
http://www.forward.com/issues/2002/02.05.03/arts3.html

In about 1858, a 47-year-old rabbi at the height of his influence with a substantial following changed course. Well known in Eastern Europe but unknown in the West, handicapped by a lack of knowledge of European languages but sensing that the first signs of breakdown of traditional shtetl society in Lithuania were rooted in the West, the formidable talmudic scholar, innovative psychological thinker and theologian Rabbi Israel Salanter left his ancestral hearth and wandered for more than 30 years through the towns of Germany.

The change was profound. Whereas in Vilna and Kovno he had worked to repair the subtlest ethical and ritual deviations from the Torah, in Germany he worked to reestablish the most fundamental of observances, such as those of the Sabbath and the dietary laws. Whereas in Lithuania he had worked to elevate the talmudic knowledge of already accomplished students, in Germany he worked to teach the basics of Hebrew and Aramaic. From its very beginnings, the mode of spirituality that Salanter pioneered - "Mussar," a psychologically informed study of the soul, with an emphasis on ethics and spirituality - was marked by paradox and dialectic.

Salanter always saw Mussar as a potential bridge, capable of linking the most devout circles of Jewish piety with the most assimilated societies of the Jewishly ignorant. Mussar preached purity of intent; as such, it could identify both the spiritual flaws in the most Orthodox and the genuine spiritual strivings in the most unobservant. Mussar, under Salanter's finely honed scalpel, could turn rabbis in on themselves, searching for defects in their punctilious observance, and could also attract the assimilated to the Torah, validating their ethical and spiritual instincts. To Salanter, Mussar was a ladder. Those on the lowest rung could eventually reach the highest, while those on the upper rungs, if not careful, could slip downward. Either way, the Jewish community was seen as a spiritual continuum.

Keen psychological understanding gave Salanter's Mussar both its solidity and elusiveness. Writing in Hebrew, before Sigmund Freud, Salanter articulated a psychology of the unconscious and extracted from it implications for the religious quest. A person could never be certain of his motives, since he might not be conscious of them. To be sure that one's prayer, charity or interpersonal relationships were not soiled by unworthy desires for power or prestige (for example), one needed a system for self-analysis. Once unworthy motives were identified, one needed methods for changing oneself. Psychology became the handmaiden of Judaism. God could not be reached through rituals or relationships sullied by psychological deformation. Salanter's best students became both talmudic scholars and adepts at analyzing human behavior - their own and that of others. All of his students learned to see the quest for God within the quest for integrity in human relationships, including one's relationship with oneself.

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" offers a penetrating glimpse into the dialectical religio-psychological world of Salanter's Mussar thinking and practices. Only a few years ago, author Alan Morinis, a former Rhodes scholar with an expertise in Hindu pilgrimage and an erstwhile producer of award-winning feature films with a personal history of deep inner doubts and financial failure, was himself like one of the Jewishly ignorant students whom Salanter might have met in 19th-century Germany. In that sense the eloquent spiritual record of his quest is the ultimate verification of the potential reach of Mussar beyond the Orthodox Jewish society in which it originated. From within the specificity of his own life, Morinis (who consulted me during his research) strikes a universal chord, making the psychological teachings and exercises of Salanter alluring and enabling others to see that if he can succeed, they can, too.

Essential to Morinis's struggle are his two Mussar teachers, Rabbi Yechiel and Shoshana Perr of Far Rockaway, New York. By turns insightful, colorful and compassionate - and always expansive and expressive - the Perrs invited Morinis into their lives on the basis of a phone call when he, a total stranger, asked them whether they would be his guides in Mussar. No questions asked, the Perrs accepted. Morinis had no idea of his good fortune. Mrs. Perr is the great-granddaughter of one of Salanter's major disciples, the Elder of Novorodock, Rabbi Joseph J. Hurvitz. Rabbi Perr was ordained by Mrs. Perr's grandfather, Rabbi Abraham Joffen, the son-in-law of the Elder of Novorodock. Both Rabbi and Mrs. Perr studied extensively under Mrs. Perr's father, Rabbi Judah Leib Nekritz, whose storied life includes unwavering adherence to the Mussar disciplines even during six years of exile in Siberia during World War II.

His family puzzled but supportive, Morinis flew from his home in Vancouver to New York, full of trepidation and expectation, to meet the Perrs. How would a yeshiva dean such as Rabbi Perr, rooted in the black-hat mold of Orthodoxy, receive a secular, confused but highly motivated and intelligent searcher? Morinis's description of his travels and anxieties is masterful. This is the surprising denouement:

Slowly he [Rabbi Perr] crossed to me. Then, taking my hand in both of his, those soft eyes gazing directly into mine, he asked, "May I give you a kiss?"

A kiss! I had thought that, in my anxiety, I'd rehearsed every possible greeting I might conceivably receive from this man, but a kiss hadn't even crossed my mind. I must have given some sign of consent, however, because he cupped my face in his hands and, through the rasp of his beard, I felt his warm lips on my cheek. In that moment, relief coursed through my entire body.

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" is three books in one: Morinis's inner journey, a portrait of two Mussar practitioners and a description of nine Mussar disciplines. The pivot of the book are the Perrs, who alter his journey in ways that sometimes are wrenching and sometimes so indirect that it takes Morinis months to realize the effect of a seemingly offhand comment. Rabbi Perr is both talmudist and preacher, logician and counselor, adept at rigorous analysis as well as penetrating allegory. His method is to catch one off guard, to maneuver behind one's defenses, to hold one's attention - an effect buttressed by his imposing stature that manages to convey warmth more than intimidation. "May I give you a kiss?" - vintage Perr. Master of the unexpected, yet not manipulative.

Mrs. Perr, as short as her husband is tall, is neither talmudist nor preacher. A trained counselor, she is a listener and encourager. If her husband's Mussar is learned, articulate, pedagogic, hers is inherited, so to speak. Non judgmental, the two of them delight as much in learning of Morinis's spiritual forays as he delights in their guidance and support. If one of Salanter's disciplines was the Mussar friendship - the brutally honest yet also supportive relationship between two people, each trying to discover his own unconscious motives, each trying to shape them according to the ideals of the Torah, each relying on the other for insight and grounding - then this book is an unflinching and loving record of such a friendship.

What does Morinis take from it? The Mussar disciplines he describes include meditations to develop a focused mind; techniques for reading a spiritual text; reciting holy phrases; using mental images; developing self-awareness; contemplation of the grandeur of God; exercises to improve personal qualities; practicing right speech, and removing obstacles that obstruct the flow of love. Neither Mr. Morinis nor the Perrs devised any of these disciplines; in their essentials they are found in the time-honored Mussar literature. What gives them power is not primarily Morinis's talented pen (though that certainly helps); their real power derives from the fact that their description represents decades of personal work by the Perrs. Having brought them to fruition in their own lives, they can convey their inner essence even to a 21st-century Jewish searcher with little prior knowledge of the Torah or other Jewish lore.

As such, these Mussar disciplines can reach a broad spectrum of readers. More than any work I know, Morinis's book makes the Mussar approach to personal growth and spiritual integrity accessible. Orthodox readers can benefit, too. Perhaps inured to the Mussar techniques (too often, in the Orthodox world, they are presented as frozen formulae rather than living realities), Orthodox readers can learn from Morinis's determination to confront his despair under the dispensation of Mussar, and from the Perrs' persistent and loving exploration of Mussar in their lives.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News (Denver), is the author of "Israel Salanter: Text, Structure, Idea - The Ethics and Theology of an Early Psychologist of the Unconscious" (Ktav, 1982) and of "The Fire Within: The Living Heritage of the Mussar Movement" (Mesorah, 1987).

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Jewish Western Bulletin - Vancouver, BC
April 19, 2002
PAT JOHNSON REPORTER
http://www.jewishbulletin.ca/archives/April02/archives02apr19-08.html

Vancouver writer Alan Morinis has created a beautiful book on the little-known spiritual tradition called mussar. In Climbing Jacob's Ladder: One Man's Journey to Rediscover a Jewish Spiritual Tradition, Morinis brings readers along on his journey for spiritual fulfilment.

His quest began when his business career, in which he produced feature films, documentaries and television programs, failed. He spiralled into an emotional and spiritual crisis, from which he emerged when he began exploring mussar. Having studied the Hindu concept of pilgrimage and other aspects of spirituality, Morinis was open to alternative ways of looking at the world, but he found his experience of Jewish tradition to be rote and lacking the sort of ritual that spoke to his soul.

As a social anthropologist, Morinis acknowledges the discipline's tendency to stand back from the world, rather than participate in it. His academic dedication to such processes as Hindu pilgrimage probably tipped his hand that he was a determined seeker, rather than a passive observer. Yet it was only in midlife, when he was a husband and father, that he discovered the path which would give him spiritual fulfilment. And he found it right in his own backyard, so to speak, in that it is a Jewish tradition after all, the tradition into which Morinis was born.

Nevertheless, the seeking was not simple. Mussar was founded in the 19th century but based on Orthodox morality lessons going back 1,000 years. Like so much, mussar was almost lost during the Holocaust, when most of its practitioners and greatest teachers perished. So when Morinis happened upon the practice in a book, it was not easy to continue his quest. Mussar is not the sort of thing, he wrote, that one finds a great deal about on the Internet. He laid his hands on the seminal works of mussar, titles such as The Path of the Just, The Duties of the Heart and The Palm Tree of Deborah. "As I continued my reading, a new (and very old) world opened up before me. I learned that mussar is a path of spiritual practice that had developed within the Orthodox Jewish tradition over the last 1,000 years. It tells us that, at our core, we are all holy, and it shows us ways to change those qualities within us that obstruct the light of our holiness from shining through. It assures us that we are not condemned to live forever with every aspect of the personality we happen to have right now, but that we can make the changes that will set free the radiance of our inner light. And it provides a toolbag of personal, introspective and transformative practices that will lead us, step by step, along the path of purification and change."

Once he learned all he could from what limited books he could find, he sought out one of the few teachers of mussar, a rabbi in the unlikely location of Far Rockaway, N.Y., on Long Island. Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr helped Morinis continue his quest, introducing him in very tangible ways to the ancient tradition.

Mussar is illuminated to its students through some hands-on lessons. For example, Morinis writes of an exercise in which yeshivah students are given a one-way ticket 200 kilometres away and no money, left to their devices - and God's help - to find their way home. It also involves practices such as meditation.

Morinis struggled with the question of whether mussar could be part of a non-Orthodox Jewish life. Is it possible for it to exist in a more assimilated setting, he questioned. This book is a lesson that concludes it can. Essentially, mussar can go hand in hand with halachic law, but it provides, Morinis posits, a bedrock for uncharted waters, in which one relies on one's inner sense of what is right, as learned through the various lessons of mussar. The constant questioning of whether one action is moral and another immoral is at the heart of mussar, but while conventional Jewish tradition says the answer is in halachah, mussar contends that it is also within ourselves. Morinis explains the lesson he received from Perr, which assured him that all this introspection is not selfish, but rather a means to make oneself a better person and thereby more capable of performing acts of goodness.

It is difficult to reproduce the subtle beauty of Morinis's rich discoveries in a review, but the experience he shares is an inspiring one.

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The Canadian Jewish News
April 5, 2002
By BERNARD BASKIN
http://www.cjnews.com/books/apr5.htm

Born and reared in Toronto, in a secular, left-wing Jewish environment, Alan Morinis completed his doctorate at Oxford University, which he attended on a Rhodes Scholarship.

His dissertation focused on Hindu pilgrimage. In search of further enlightenment he practised Yoga in India and sought out the Dalai Lama for serious study. But after a series of business failures and nagging ethical concerns, he turned to his Jewish roots.

He writes, "As a young seeker, I had been drawn to the light of Eastern religions, but even in those years there was always something in me that didn't quite fit, some hidden threshold I couldn't quite cross. Many of my friends took swami names or shaved their heads or donned robes, but I never did, I think because really deep down, I knew that just wasn't me. Despite those years at Oxford and all those months of Buddhist meditation and Hindu pilgrimages, when life whipped me around and stripped me bare and make me look myself right in the eye, I was still the little Jewish kid from the suburbs of Toronto."

Searching Judaism for answers to his growing need for a new pattern of life and observance, he happened upon the teachings of Mussar. He was captivated by a religious movement that stressed proper ethical behaviour as a path to spiritual fulfilment. The Mussar movement was founded in the mid-19th century by a Lithuanian rabbi named Israel Salanter. It is both a call to ethical behaviour as well as a program of personal introspective and transformative practices that lead, step by step, along the path of purification and change.

Rabbi Salanter was a powerful and courageous personality. Once, during a cholera epidemic in Kovno, he insisted that the community synagogue be temporarily used as a hospital and a place for the poor and needy. Some objected. During a sermon he pointed at the president of the congregation and cried out, "You'll live to answer to the Lord for the suffering of the poor." On another occasion, because of the severity of the cholera epidemic, he become convinced, on the advice of physicians, to dispense with fasting on Yom Kippur. When other rabbis were reluctant to follow his lead, he solemnly produced wine and cake in the synagogue and ate and drank. Louis Ginsberg has written, "One can hardly imagine what moral courage that action required for a man whose obedience to the Torah was his highest duty."

After diligent search, Morinis found a wise and understanding Mussar teacher, the head of a yeshiva, with whom he studied, on and off, for three years. Climbing Jacob's Ladder is the story of the author's journey into the heart of Mussar philosophy. He attempts to distil its lessons in 10 chapters, each followed by a simple exercise to help the reader explore its teachings in daily life.

Clearly written and thought provoking, this book is both an engaging memoir and an introduction to the little-known heritage of Mussar, which teaches that by changing one's self, one can change the world.

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The Jewish Review - Portland, OR
April 8, 2002
Abby Layton
www.jewishreview.org

I have made it my mission the last few years to find what Judaism has to say about working with difficult emotional states.As a psychotherapist,I am not easily impressed with simple notions of how we might improve.

Alan Morinis 's first book,"Climbing Jacob 's Ladder: One Man 's Rediscovery of a Jewish Spiritual Tradition," shows that Judaism has contributed profoundly to our quest for emotional and spiritual health.Morinis has written a definitive introduction to the Mussar tradition of ethical instruction that appeals to the beginner as well as the seasoned student of Judaica and psychology.

Morinis grew up in a secular Jewish home,made his way through Hinduism,and Buddhism,before discovering the wisdom in his own heritage.At the darkest time in his life,he happened upon the Jewish teaching of Mussar.Mussar was developed in the Orthodox tradition over the last 1,000 years.It offers teachings as deep and complex as the most sophisticated psychological theory,while working to elevate the soul to a state of purity and holiness.

Morinis writes,"Mussar tells us that at our core we are all holy,and it shows us ways to change those qualities within us that obstruct the light of our holiness from shining through.It assures us that we are not condemned to live forever with every aspect of the personality we happen to have right now,but that we can make the changes that will set free the radiance of our inner light.And it provides a tool-bag of personal,introspective,and transformative practices that will lead us,step by step,along the path of purification and change."

Mussar demands that we reckon with how we act, speak,and think in our lives."The main path of Mussar runs directly through everyday life,and that is where we are directed to look for our spiritual lessons-in how we treat our children,our neighbors and ourselves."

"Everything we do in life becomes a part of the soulwork that will help to make us complete...."

After discovering Mussar, Morinis set out to find a teacher.And such a teacher he found:Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr at a yeshiva in Far Rockaway,Long Island,N.Y.The book sets forth the words and deeds of this wonderful teacher in a way that reveals his sweetness and wisdom.

When Morinis entered the yeshiva and first met Per,the rabbi asked him simply, "May I kiss you?"He teaches from the heart and tells Morinis at the outset,"G-d wants your heart." The book unfolds ladder-like,step-by-step.Each step is spoken of as a gate.There are 10 gates.Each gate offers a teaching colored with traditional stories,wonderful quotes,and Mussar exercises that give a practice to work with,enabling one to experience the insights Mussar offers.

The book addresses the development of awareness (hisp 'alus ),trust in Hashem (bitahon ),opening of the heart,free will,the yetzer hara or evil inclination,and living spiritually in the world.

Morinis writes,"The first and most essential quality Mussar calls upon us to develop is awareness.Clear and focused awareness is the foundation for the work we do to develop the traits of the soul.In the bright light of our own awareness,we are able to see with honesty who we are and the steps we need to take to become who we want to be."

Rabbi Perr sums it up by saying,"You have got to find out why you are doing what you are doing."

To do this work of deep transformation one is called on to use meditation,contemplation,emotional recitation,self-rebuke,melody,and imaginative imagery. Mussar brings one to crucially important understandings of one 's world,one 's soul,one 's connection to G-d, one 's connection to others.It does so by teaching us to intensely wrestle with our thoughts and emotions, finding their source of conflict within us.

Morinis calls on the wisdom of Rabbi Eliyah Dessler to shed light on the process of self-examination.Dessler was one of the most influential figures of the yeshiva world in the last half of the 20th century.

"Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler," writes Morinis,"helps us get right to the essence of this important understanding of the Mussar way when he concludes that 'the heart is cleansed of bias ' when the seeker 'has worked on himself to such an extent that he has achieved purity of heart.Then,and only then,is his insight clear and his judgment reliable.This work is what we call the work of Mussar.'"

Thus,we learn to correct ourselves,to come into a closer alignment with G-d 's purity and love. "The goal Mussar sets for us is summarized in that marvelous Yiddish word,mensch .To be a mensch is to carry the fullest measure of integrity,goodness,and honor a person can hope for in this life.Put in these terms,Mussar is a path of mensch-making ".

Abby Layton is a psychotherapist in private practice in Portland and a Jewish educator.

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New York Jewish Press
April 5 ,2002
Reviewed by Michael Skakun
No URL available

It has been said that every philosophy is tied to a stage of life. Youth, with its soaring spirit, leans to romanticism; age, with its sharper apprehension of night, veers toward stoicism and the like. Mussar, an ethics for living and the methodical path of moral transformation, would appear to be, the mid-life path of choice, the road taken by those buffeted by life's tempests. While pedagogues naturally regard mussar as particularly suitable for the young and impressionable, writers tested by life understand its greatest dividends are earned by the hard currency of experience.

In "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: One Man's Journey to Rediscover a Jewish Spiritual Tradition," Alan Morinis, an anthropologist, Rhodes scholar and film producer, relates in lucid prose his personal pilgrimage to the world of mussar, the thousand year old discipline that still remains for many the undiscovered continent of Judaism. It was a long and turning path leading this Toronto-born super-achiever to the serenity of the moral life after years of vaulting ambition chastened by career and financial reverses. For Morinis mussar provided "handholds to pull myself out" of the morass of materialism. It finally proved to be the ladder of Jacob for his soul to reach its heavenly light.

While the movement originates with Rabbi Salanter's ethical discipline established in nineteenth century Russia, mussar, as Morinis reads it, is a millennium-long tradition whose first great achievement is Bachya Ibn Pakuda's Khovat ha-Levavot (The Duties of the Heart), perhaps the most popular and enduring work of Jewish ethics.

Mussar, in its maximalist aspect, has often been associated with chastisement, severity, asceticism and the blow of ridicule. For Morinis, if it is to become a contemporary message for the many, it must be seen in a more comprehensive light. At its most humanly expansive, it is the benevolent pursuit of the soul's fullest potential, the medium via which the eternal is given entry into the world. To be sure, even this more lenient interpretation involves a strict regimen of meditation, contemplation, study, and exercises, but its final purpose is the enhancement and never the diminution of life. This is not the mussar that extirpates every last joy in life a la Chaim Grade's character, Tzemakh Atlas, but a resounding affirmation of life in the face of the greatest odds. Morinis offers us, at long last, a mussar without tears.

Morinis's spiritual journey would not have issued so positively were it not for the embracing warmth and personal radiance of Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, a musar scholar and son-in-law of the notable Rabbi Yehuda Leib Nekritz,, who spent the war years exiled in Siberia and later settled in Brooklyn. Via marriage, Rabbi Perr is related to the grand mussar master, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Hurvitz, the Alter of Navaredok. Amid this spiritual aristocracy, Morinis, bloodied by shark-infested seas, found the noblesse he was looking for.

Rabbi Perr's greatness inheres in his understanding of self and world. The root of morality lies in the realm of choice and freedom. Mussar is not a dogmatic series of answers but "mature inner guidance in helping us to find our way in uncharted waters." His response to Morinis' pointed inquiry as to whether mussar and religious orthodoxy are inextricably wedded is a triumph of both tolerance and tradition, of heart and hardihood.

Mussar's appeal for our day lies in part in its modularity, its ability to fit snugly into various educational and philosophical approaches. Those inclined toward behaviorism can find in it a hard-nosed wisdom, as can their ideological foes, the psychoanalitically-inflected who discover mussar to be perhaps the most rigorous variation of depth psychology. Mussar, as Morinis writes it and would have us read it, is the ultimate soul talk, the higher schmoozing that transcends the constructs of our limited reality and leads us to that greatest of all good-"mensch-making."

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The Philadelphia Inquirer
March 30, 2002
By Murray Dubin

Alan Morinis was despondent. It was 1997, and his business had failed.

"I was consumed by blackness. I spent hours immobilized on the couch. ... I had made promises I should have known I couldn't keep. ... What sent me into a downward spiral was my own shock at just how far I had strayed from what I had always believed to be my own true values. ... I was ashamed. ... How could I have been so stupid?"

He was married, had two children, and lived in Vancouver. And at 47, he knew he was lost.

Then, in a world overrun with self-help palliatives, Morinis discovered Mussar.

It is a little-known medieval self-improvement regimen, a spiritual set of teachings rooted in Judaism focusing on self-awareness, growth and action.

Five years later, still married and still in Vancouver, Morinis teaches and consults about Mussar and has written a book about his spiritual journey, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" (Broadway Books, $23.95).

Yet Mussar is "all but unknown" to most Jews today, said Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, who was educated at a Mussar yeshiva in Brooklyn and later taught it at Yeshiva and Brandeis Universities. One reason the teachings are not well known is that so many of its teachers died in the Holocaust.

Mussar adherents tend to have an "inner gyroscope, an inner serenity," Greenberg said. "Personally, it's had a tremendous impact on me. It changes your thinking ... to ethics, self-development and relationships."

A prolific author and head of the Jewish Life Network in New York, he had just read an article by a prominent rabbi saying that it was time to "revive Mussar."

"He may be right," Greenberg said. "It may be an idea whose time has come."

Morinis, a Rhodes scholar and former documentary filmmaker, is in agreement.

"I had exposure to Judaism as a kid, and it was in a one-size-fits-all Reform temple. It was responsive reading, completely homogenized, with no sense of individual spiritual path," he said. As he got older, he knew that "everyone needed to practice in their own way. That's part of what drove me away."

Reaching out for wisdom after the collapse of his filmmaking company, he read a book on Jewish thought and was intrigued by a chapter on Mussar and Israel Salanter, a 19th-century rabbi who founded it as a movement. Among the things it said was:

"As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquillity in the service of God, it is clear that he is remote from true service."

What kind of Jewish teaching was this?

What it was, Morinis learned, was 1,000 years or so of Orthodox Jewish teaching and writing that were pulled together by Salanter.

And it had two qualities that appealed to Morinis:

First, it not only specified the ideals to strive for but provided the "toolbag of personal, introspective and transformative practices" to get there.

Second, it was not a discipline to be practiced only in a synagogue or on a mountaintop but was to be used in the real world - at home, in the mall, at work.

Morinis went on a search for someone to teach him Mussar, which translates as "ethics." He found Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, who heads a Mussar yeshiva in Far Rockaway, N.Y., and spent parts of the next three years with him.

Much of that time was spent asking questions: If I have only an hour a day to study, do I study Torah or Mussar?

Answer: For an hour, study Mussar and you'll realize that you have more than an hour.

Morinis found that he could learn the discipline of Mussar without necessarily taking on the teachings and culture of the Orthodox world.

Enhancing the trait of humility is central in Mussar. "Without humility," Morinis writes, "we might be too proud to acknowledge our other weaknesses. ..."

One way to increase humility, he writes, is a frequent slow, methodical contemplation of the human life cycle. It works, he explains, because "the order ... cannot be credited to human intervention and engenders appreciation for the wisdom of the divine."

In an interview, Morinis said he is not comfortable with all of Mussar. He struggles with the concept of "adoration of the divine" and believes that Mussar can "tend to slip into too much self-criticism."

"When people ask me what kind of Jew I am, I tell them that I'm an under-constructionist. I am developing, I remain open to questions. The point is to be on the journey, not to finish the journey."

He believes that anyone, Jewish or not, can benefit from Mussar as long as it's understood that it requires a serious commitment of time and energy. Rabbi Perr once told him:

"People want to change overnight and have a good night's sleep, too."

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The Jewish Week (New York City)
March 29, 2002
Sandee Brawarsky - Jewish Week Book Critic
http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/newscontent.php3?artid=5944

A major business failure sent Alan Morinis on a dark, downward spiral. The filmmaker was angry, ashamed and shocked by how far he had strayed from his core values. After a friend lent him a two-volume work on Jewish spirituality, he read straight through until he came to the chapter on Mussar, a movement founded in Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the mid-19th century. Morinis recognized a spiritual path that spoke deeply to where he was at that moment, which led him to more reading and travel from his home in Vancouver to Far Rockaway, L.I., to study at a yeshiva based in the Mussar tradition.

Climbing Jacob's Ladder: One Man's Journey to Rediscover a Jewish Spiritual Tradition (Broadway) is Morinis' personal story of inner growth as well as an introduction to the study and practice of Mussar. While there have been many popular books in recent years based on kabbalistic teachings, including inspirational texts and self-help guides, this book is unusual in bringing the teachings of Mussar - which Morinis describes in an interview as a "hidden treasure" - to a general audience.

When asked to describe Mussar in a nutshell, he replies, "A discipline for the perfection of the qualities of the soul. Everything else is an elaboration." Although Mussar is frequently defined as ethical teachings, the author says it's much more. "Ethical training can be behaviorist. In Mussar, you see that your actions mold and shape your soul."

The author explains that so few people know about Mussar because much of the Mussar world was devastated during the Holocaust; teachers, students and libraries were decimated. After the Holocaust, as priorities shifted, people were more concerned about getting their lives back on track than on inner dimensions.

Morinis' earlier spiritual journey colors his interest in Mussar. Now 52, he grew up in a non-religious but strongly identified Jewish home in Toronto; his parents were refugees from Europe who arrived in Canada in the 1920s. While studying anthropology at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, he began traveling in India and studied Hindu pilgrimage for his doctoral thesis. He also studied yoga in India and Buddhist meditation in the Himalayas. One Tibetan teacher urged students to "do spiritual practice now, so that you'll have it when you need it." Morinis recalls that he was "25 years old when I heard that lesson, and close to 50 when it came back to haunt me in my misery."

Even when studying Eastern religions, he felt there was some barrier he couldn't cross; he felt very much like the "little Jewish kid from the suburbs of Toronto." So when he felt that he had hit rock bottom, he turned to Jewish tradition. "I had no real idea what I was looking for, or even where to look; I just hoped I'd be lucky (or blessed) enough to recognize it when I found it."

Morinis read several Mussar texts that had been translated into English, but he had many questions and realized he needed a teacher; he wanted someone who walked the path of Mussar, whose daily experience was connected to the teachings. He found the name of Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr in an approbation of a book on the history of the Mussar movement. When Morinis called the rabbi at the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, which he heads, the rabbi agreed to have Morinis visit.

In conversation and in his writing, Morinis is refreshingly humble. He doesn't aggrandize himself or flatter others, although he does speak in glowing terms of Rabbi Perr. Morinis made his first trip to the Far Rockaway yeshiva in the spring of 1999, and has visited many times since then, at one point spending a month in the community. Rabbi Perr, who was born in Queens and founded the yeshiva in 1969, follows in the tradition of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz, and his father-in-law before him, Rabbi Avraham Yoffen, distinguished teachers of Mussar.

As in classic Mussar texts that name chapters for gates, as though each one opens into the next, Morinis' 10 chapters are named for gates, from "The Gate of Starting Out" to "The Gate of the Duties of the Heart" and "The Gate of Deep Within." In compelling style, he writes of his conversations with Rabbi Perr, weaving in traditional Mussar texts, stories, and humor. Each chapter is followed by a practical exercise, such as learning patience or "removing obstacles that obstruct the flow of love."

Morinis maps out the terrain of the soul according to Mussar, explaining that it's the measure of qualities of the soul, middot, which distinguishes people. All souls have elements of love and hate, generosity and stinginess, anger and calm. But through spiritual practice, the levels of middot can be recalibrated. Morinis emphasizes self-awareness and the ability for people to improve themselves, to always raise themselves to a higher level toward holiness. He admits there can be a certain harshness to Mussar, as when people continually lower themselves in humility, but says that all spiritual paths have pitfalls.

Reached at his home in Far Rockaway, Rabbi Perr said that he doesn't yet know how he'll react if others want to study with him, as Morinis did. The rabbi said he was drawn to the author, feeling that Morinis "understood intuitively what it was about." Rabbi Perr quickly pointed out that there are other accessible teachers.

Is he interested in seeing these teachings become better known? "I would like to make the world a better place and know that if I can change myself, if I can help others to see that their lives have meaning, so that years are not wasted on the lifestyle we have in this country, I will have felt a great accomplishment." About the possibility of non-orthodox Jews and non-Jews studying Mussar, he said, "I think all of us want to be better people."

He explained that it was difficult for him to allow his name to be used, but Morinis convinced him that using his real name would give the book authenticity and greater impact. "If someone can be helped by authenticity, it's worthwhile. Otherwise, a person should try to be a person not in the public eye. All real things happen in private." He continues, "Real people don't have to validate themselves by being seen by others. I haven't reached the level of being a real person. I seek to be a real person."

Morinis was in New York City as part of a national book tour, including orthodox, conservative and reform synagogues, community centers and bookstores. In an hour off between interviews, he visited a Fifth Avenue hat shop to try on some black hats, but hasn't bought one yet. "When people ask me where I am with my Judaism now, I answer that I must be a spider, because I seem to have so many feet in different camps." The only rabbis quoted on the book jacket are Orthodox, including Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Abraham Twerski, along with authors well-known in spiritual circles, Dr. Larry Dossey, Thomas Moore and Ram Dass.

When asked how his life has changed since he began studying Mussar, Morinis says he gets into "fewer messes." He prays and meditates regularly, struggles with God, and is now also involved in Talmudic study. He engages in formal Mussar practices daily. Every morning he does "Heshbon Hanefesh," an accounting of the soul, in which he reflects on a particular soul trait; then at night, he records impressions from that day-things he might have said or done-which relate to that trait. During the interview, he goes to collect the thick spiral-bound notebook in which he makes these notes by hand. While his wife and children have not joined him on this path, they are very respectful and share aspects of it. His journey is still a work in progress.

He writes: "It's an outcome of my Mussar practice that I'm constantly more aware of my own thoughts, words and deeds, as if I'd installed fresh batteries in my inner lamp. I watch myself much more closely in every context, because I now understand that every single thing that passes through my mind or leaves my mouth or is the work of my hand deposits its race or residue in me; and I have become deeply committed to being as selective as possible about how I color and shape the soul that I feel is the primary gift life has bestowed on me."

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Los Angeles Times
March 23, 2002

"'Climbing Jacob's Ladder' is a compelling portrait of the relationship between a student and a teacher, and Morinis' journey--as an assimilated Jew entering the Orthodox world of yeshiva--raises important questions about the meaning of Judaism and the search for spirituality in this world."

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The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
March 22, 2002
By Gaby Wenig
http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=8298

"Day after day I was consumed by blackness ... I spent hours immobilized on the couch ... Day after day I cried with remorse."

So writes Alan Morinis of the personal meltdown he suffered after the highly successful film company he had built went bust.

Morinis, 52, of Vancouver, produced films that were both critically acclaimed and financially profitable, winning awards in Canada and at film festivals in the United States. However, after his investments into risky projects failed, Morinis lost emotional self-assurance and found himself floundering in a sea of shame and self-doubt.

It was Mussar, the age-old Jewish philosophy of self-perfection, that pulled Morinis out of the funk that he was in. A friend had lent him a book on Jewish spirituality, and the chapter on the Mussar movement particularly resonated with Morinis, prompting a quest to learn more about the philosophy. Morinis transcribed his journey of discovery in his recently published book, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder."

"Mussar proved so valuable to me that I felt almost an obligation to share it with others," he told The Journal. "I thought, this could be of great service to people in their times of need and crisis."

Mussar, which literally means "ethics" in Hebrew, is a religious philosophy of self-improvement, particularly for developing one's character traits. Rabbi Israel Salanter, who began the Mussar movement in 1842 in Vilna, preached a discipline that focused on awareness, constant introspection and examination of personal shortcomings in an effort to improve and refine the self. Traditional Mussar practices include emotional, repeated recitations of moralistic passages from the Torah and rabbinic literature, so that their message might infiltrate the brain and the heart.

"The starting point of Mussar is that the life we lead is really the life of a soul," Morinis said. "If we can appreciate this, then what Mussar offers is a guidance and a description of a life way that is very satisfying to the soul, and really fulfills the soul's nature."

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" is part memoir, part self-help and part Torah anecdotes. Morinis interweaves the story of his personal journey with keen insights into the yeshiva world and the Mussar philosophy itself. His clinical explanations of the transformation that can occur through Mussar is placed adjacent to the descriptions of Morinis' own transformation from hardheaded businessman to spiritual philomath. Every chapter ends with a section Morinis calls "Opening the Gate," in which he explains a lesson from the Mussar tradition to help people improve their daily lives.

Morinis credits Mussar with vastly improving his relationship with his family. "The most important way it has changed me is in the relationships with the people who are closest to me," Morinis said. "I don't have any doubt or hesitation to say that my relationships with those people have become wiser, calmer and less troubled than they were before. One of the outcomes of Mussar practice is that you develop more free will, you can choose to move your life in the direction that you would want to, rather than be governed by habits, or whatever usually drives us. I find that I can exercise that in the relationships that matter the most to me, less conflict, less negativity and much more space for love with the people that I care the most about."

Morinis hopes that his book will popularize Mussar philosophies.

"I am not the kind of person that is very interested in creating mass movements," he said, "but I would love to see that people know that Mussar exists.

"I hope that some Jews who have not found a satisfying spiritual path within Judaism will find in Mussar something they have not found before."

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Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
March 15, 2002
MIRKA KNASTER
http://www.jewishsf.com/bk020315/etp46b.shtml

If I were to ask a random group of people to name a path of transformation, I can guess how many would bring up Judaism. Sadly, very few. I have only to remember the religious training of my childhood to know why. It was long on rigidity and short on spirituality. I wound up looking elsewhere for what I needed.

Alan E. Morinis has good news for Jews. You don't have to seek outside of Judaism. It has a unique tradition of spiritual practice called Mussar (translated today as "ethics") that evolved during the last 1,000 years. In "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," Morinis chronicles how he entered the world of Mussar. He also offers some of its transformative exercises for cultivating middot (soul-traits or virtues).

Morinis' story is not unlike that of other Jews who grew up in the 1950s and '60s. Although his family home in a Toronto suburb was thoroughly Jewish, his identity was more cultural and ethnic than religious. He and his sisters were raised as secular, left-wing activist Jews. Yes, he had the requisite bar mitzvah. But, as he puts it, it was gefilte fish and Milton Berle that defined Judaism, not the Torah and the Talmud.

Yet, when a business failure splintered his life after many years of success in academia, publishing and filmmaking, Morinis dug deep in the back yard of his own tradition. He didn't turn to the Eastern religions he researched as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. He realized he needed more than yoga and Buddhist meditation because, at heart, he is a Jew.

In his search for answers within Judaism, Morinis inadvertently stumbled onto Mussar. In this spiritual discipline, he found a missing piece of what had puzzled him. While Judaism is precise about the ideal qualities we ought to aspire to, how do we actually live them out? How can we be respectful when we don't know how to deal with anger? How can we become generous instead of filling our lives with stuff?

Before Freud came on the scene, Mussar leader Rabbi Israel Salanter was already teaching how to reach the unconscious and uproot conditioned patterns of behavior. He developed a kind of practical psychology within the framework of halachah. In the 1800s, yeshivas based on his method sprang up across Eastern Europe. The tragedies of the 20th century demolished them.

Given this history, it was a miracle (and probably beshert) that Morinis found a Mussar teacher to help guide him. "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" brings alive the warm and fruitful relationship he has enjoyed with Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr at the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, New York.

Morinis' experiences in the Orthodox community reveal a kindness and openness that challenge the stereotypes often held about that part of Jewish society.

In keeping with the classic texts of the Mussar tradition, the book's 10 chapters are called "gates." This conveys the idea that each one will swing open to a new subject. Each gate centers on a conversation -- complete with humor, personal anecdotes and traditional stories -- Morinis had with Perr on a particular Mussar lesson or practice. It also describes specific means for opening that gate.

For example, there are meditations to develop concentrations and a clear and focused mind as well as contemplation on awe and the grandeur of God.

Other gates offer instructions on how to develop self-awareness, read a spiritual text, recite holy phrases "with lips aflame," learn from mistakes, remove obstacles that obstruct the flow of love, speak ethically, and so on. All are intended to increase the purity of our actions, one baby step at a time toward our soul's highest level of holiness.

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Publishers Weekly
January 14, 2002

This moving account of a secular Jew's search for spirituality begins with his explorations of Eastern religions in India and ends with his quest's eventual culmination in Jewish tradition. Born and raised in Toronto, Morinis won a Rhodes Scholarship and earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at Oxford. After teaching at different universities in Vancouver, he became involved in film-making and abandoned academia. He was successful for many years but his business failed. During his resulting depression, he turned to Judaism for solace since his investigation of Eastern religions had proven fruitless. He learned about Musar (ethics, morality), a little-known Jewish movement that emphasizes the study of Judaism's ethical writings and their practical application. The need for a teacher led him to a rabbi in Far Rockaway, N.Y. For the next three years, Morinis traveled frequently between Vancouver and New York. What he learned is incorporated in this well-written book which sets forth the teachings of Musar, often through parables told to Morinis by his teacher. These homilies make a profound connection between belief and behavior. The narrative also reveals the story of the author's life, including the impact of his studies on his relationship with his physician wife and their two daughters. The achievement of personal growth through spirituality is richly demonstrated by this touching account of the author's journey to Judaism.

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Kirkus Reviews
December 15, 2001

One man's search for enlightenment through "Mussar," a Jewish spiritual movement that focuses on mindfulness and ethics in everyday life. Walloped by a midlife crisis brought on by a failure of both his business and personal ethics, Morinis turned to his roots. Before writing his dissertation on Hindu pilgrimage, before studying with the Dalai Lama, before traveling to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, he had been - and still was - "the little Jewish kid from the suburbs of Toronto." Looking for answers in a book on Jewish thought and practice through the ages, Morinis happened upon a section on Mussar, and was captivated by its seeming contrariness to the spiritual wisdom he'd absorbed over years of study: Mussar eschews the pursuit of calm and tranquility in favor of an involved approach toward employing ethics and mindfulness "in the midst of the bustling marketplace" of life. A few years of intense study, first alone, and then with Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, led Morinis into this attempt to distill the lessons of Mussar in ten lessons. In chapters with headings like "The Gate of Growing," "The Gate of Holiness," "The Gate of Good and Evil," and "The Gate of Working in the World," he addresses the very broad concepts of the philosophy, mostly by relating how Rabbi Perr addressed the author's questions about such issues. Each chapter is followed by an extremely simple exercise that can help the reader explore Mussar in daily life. Accessible and thought-provoking, clearly written and notable for Morinis's ability to soft-pedal his own struggles, even though his work - part self-help, part memoir, part religious study - is still mere lagniappe for those hungry to gain a deeper understanding of this strain of Jewish spirituality.

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Victoria Times-Colonist
A Review by Suzanne Kort Litman
Undated

Is it possible to change for the better? And if so, how do you do it?

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" offers a resounding "yes" to the first question and an intriguing response to the second: Mussar, a spiritual practice developed by Orthodox Jews over the past thousand years.

Never heard of Mussar? Don't worry. You're not alone. Few people outside of traditional Judaism have, according to the author, Alan Morinis.

Mussar, explains Morinis, is ".a tool-bag of personal, introspective, and transformative practices that (leads) us, step by step, along the path of purification and change." The author immersed himself in this practical discipline in order to overcome his own spiritual morass.

Morinis discovered ".that at our core we are all holy. (Mussar) shows us ways to change those qualities within us that obstruct the light of our holiness from shining through". This fit his realization that although he had messed up along the way, deep down in him and in everyone else, a wellspring of goodness remained.

Morinis, initially trained as an anthropologist, briefly sets the stage for his current explorations. He leads readers briskly from his secular Jewish upbringing in a Toronto suburb through his first spiritual adventures in India. He wrote a doctoral thesis on Hindu pilgrimages and edited three volumes on the subject, before abandoning his studies to pursue more materialistic goals.

The author's change of heart went largely unnoticed until a failed business venture shakes him awake to what he had lost on the way. This painful awakening sends Morinis on a desperate search not back to India, but to an Orthodox Jewish learning centre (known as a yeshiva) run by Rabbi Yechiel Perr in Far Rockaway, New York. Here the story gets more interesting.

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" chronicles the author's first major journey into the depths and heights of his own heritage, a potentially frightening place for anyone trained in the art of objectivity. As Morinis recounts his adventures in Far Rockaway, he reveals a profound yet gentle transformation.

Morinis provides enough carefully worded detail to bring the reader into his story. He captures on-the-mark responses from under the "caterpillar" eyebrows of Rabbi Perr, the rare Mussar master who teaches his ancestors' traditions amid the noise and chaos of rooms packed with teenage boys. The rabbi is rare, not only because he is one of the few proponents of Mussar to survive the Holocaust, but also because of his unconditional acceptance of an inveterate seeker like Morinis.

According to Morinis, Perr's form of Mussar, Navarodock, is one of the most radical of three lines developed in Europe in the 19th century. Navoradock's founder, Morinis tells us, once had himself bricked into a room for two years of intense inner work. Perr, on the other hand, teaches more gently with "schmoozes:" friendly discussion groups for students who wish to learn more.

The question remains whether Morinis' readers can share something of his transformative experience simply by reading his well-crafted story. Readers who don't act won't get far, according to those who practice Mussar.

"You can't just study Mussar," confides a friend of Rabbi Perr's. "You have to do it."

Woven into the story are traditional exercises the reader can use to bring Mussar into their own life. These practices can help open us up, if we dare.

Take the elastic band in the pocket technique. This is a great one for anyone with children. It may even work for drivers in gridlock.

The moment you feel the first signs of anger, just slip around your hand a fist sized elastic stored in your pocket. The gentle, constant pressure of the band is meant to raise awareness. Try it the next time your teenager defies you or congested traffic drives you crazy and see how it works. Like chicken soup, it may or may not cure what ails you but either way, it's worth a try.

Some of the exercises are not so easy or quick. Take "Cheshbon HaNefesh," the accounting of the soul, for example. This one involves a year long process of daily note taking plus a constant awareness of the personality traits (middos in Hebrew) one wants to strengthen in order to reduce the power of one's negative tendencies.

Morinis gives a poignant example of a personality trait worth strengthening: truth. He noted how in conversation he sometimes exaggerated facts to increase interest or even just for convenience sake. Not a bad thing for a storyteller, but taken too far it could ruin your reputation not to mention your day.

So for one week he woke up each morning and focused on the quality of truth. Each evening he took written stock of his actions that day to see how he did in order to try to improve the next day.

The idea is to identify 13 of these qualities by carefully observing your behaviour. Then you practice each quality for a week, starting with the first one again on the fourteenth week. Over a year of this, you could end up practicing your 13 middos of choice for a full month, spread out over time so you don't overdo it.

No fireworks. No sudden realizations. Just gradual effort that, if done sincerely, could greatly improve your life. In Yiddish it's called becoming a mensch, a fine human being.

Climbing Jacob's Ladder offers a gateway to such a noble project with unusual wit and clarity. Those who share the author's urge to improve will find the book worthwile to read and apply. Those who don't may still enjoy this unique literary adventure.

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