Corinne E. Blackmer. Transforming Ethical Behavior: The Musar Movement and the Care of the Self

Transforming Ethical Behavior: The Musar Movement and the Care of the Self

By Corinne E. Blackmer

(Southern Connecticut State University )

Source: Judaica Ukrainica 3 (2014): 24-36

Publication date: December 1, 2014

Publication type: article

Language: English

Full text:



The Musar – or ethical – Movement came to maturity in an era of crisis in the 19 century for Eastern European Jewry, brought on by political oppression, social persecution, and the lasting effects of the Haskalah. The latter caused many Jews, particularly more prosperous ones who could relocate to Germany or other parts of Western Europe, to become disaffiliated from and disavow Judaism, which was not only an obstacle to integration within the Christian world because of anti-Semitism, but also perceived by some – if certainly not all – Maskilim as barbarous and fossilized. Although earlier figures such as the Gaon of Vilna, among others, influenced Israel Salanter, the main founder of the Musar Movement, in his conception of this movement, he eventually came to see ethical training as the cure for the misfortunes of Eastern European Jewry. However naïve the latter conviction, or unknowing about the impacts of class divisiveness, impoverishment, and political oppression, Salanter did ask himself a central and pertinent question: Why was there so much unethical behavior in the world despite the existence of so many books on how to behave ethically? Salanter concluded that book learning alone did not suffice to inculcate good ethical behavior, which, predating the findings of Sigmund Freud, he argued necessitated a transformation on the sub-and-unconscious levels of human motivation and action. He developed a series of individualized and group exercises based around the concept of yirat Elohim or fear of God that were remarkably successful, and that reflect the ancient practices of ethical self-improvement that Michel Foucault investigates in his book, The Care of the Self. What both Salanter’s and Foucault’s work share is an emphasis on the social, but also individual, modes of teaching, as well as their extension into lifelong habits of learning that actually change human ethical behavior. Far from exhibiting a declining Jewish community, Salanter’s conception of musar practice envisions a vibrant social space replete with modes of exercise, schools, lectures, professionals at spiritual direction, friendships and mutual obligations associated with ethical self-transformation.

Keywords: Jewish Thought, the Musar Movement, the Care of the Self, Eastern European Jewry



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DOI 10.14653/ju.2014.02