Mussar for Moderns – Thoughts to ponder

Mussar for Moderns, by R. Elyakim Krumbeim, sets out to discuss the idea of self-improvement, mussar through the eyes of a modern thinker living in a world in which psychology plays a primary role.  Instead of writing up a general review of this book, I decided that I would present some of my thoughts that I garnered from his book.

  • R’ Krumbein’s book, which originally was a weekly email shiur from VBM, is written for an audience that has some involvement in mussar study yet struggles with how to adapt that way of thinking into the Modern Jewish life.
  • His book, while not a how-to book, is a good introduction to Mussar ideas.  He presents a systematic approach, providing both general concepts and then specific areas that people should work on.  While he doesn’t always present a clear cut path for growth, R. Krumbein does begin the conversation on character improvement.  For a clearer picture of a how-to approach in today’s world, see here.
  • One of the challenging aspects of R. Krumbein’s work is his emphasis on individualized readings of text.  As an example of his thinking, he says: (Mussar is) “study who’s avowed aim is to learn how to live.  According to this definition, the aim of the author of the book is irrelevant; it is the goal of the reader that makes the difference (p. 14).” While I agree with R. Krumbein about the reader’s input and the reader’s goal, to separate out the authorial intent does someone a tremendous disservice.  If I understand the context of a passage I am reading, I personally believe that it would help me have a better grasp of where the passage is supposed to lead me.  This is a general contention regarding the use of academia in the Beit Midrash and whether authorial context is relevant when developing an idea.  The question reminds me of one of R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s (see here as well)most famous essays, Torat Hesed and Torat Emet:  Methodological Reflections, found in volume 1 of Leaves of Faith.
  • The reader needs to spend time on the text’s R. Krumbein quotes.  His eclectic use of hasidic and mussar texts to develop his methodology is refreshing.
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