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
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
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
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
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.
of American Rabbis Journal
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
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
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
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.
Back to Top
May 3, 2002
By HILLEL GOLDBERG
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
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
"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
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).
Back to Top
Jewish Western Bulletin
- Vancouver, BC
April 19, 2002
PAT JOHNSON REPORTER
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
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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April 5, 2002
By BERNARD BASKIN
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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Jewish Review - Portland, OR
April 8, 2002
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
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
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
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New York Jewish
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
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
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
"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,
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
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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Week (New York City)
March 29, 2002
Sandee Brawarsky - Jewish Week Book Critic
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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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Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles
March 22, 2002
By Gaby Wenig
"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
"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
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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of Northern California
March 15, 2002
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
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
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
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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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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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
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A Review by Suzanne Kort Litman
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
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
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
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
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
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
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