Commentary Magazine

Israel Salanter-Religious Ethical Thinker, by Menahem G. Glenn

Piety and Morals
Israel Salanter—Religious-Ethical Thinker.
by Menahem G. Glenn.
Bloch”. 219 pp. $4.00.


It was the evening of Kol Nidre and it was getting late. The services should have begun. But there was something amiss. Though the whole congregation was assembled and ready, the Rabbi was not. He was nowhere to be found. Where could he be? When the Ma’ariv services were nearly finished, he slunk into the synagogue, his clothes wrinkled, his hair dishevelled, strewn with feathers. “What happened, Rabbi?” “Nothing,” was the answer. “On my way to the synagogue I heard a baby crying. Its mother had gone to services on this holy night of Kol Nidre and it was left alone. I stayed by the cradle and rocked it until its mother returned.”

The chances are more than even that someone who had not heard this story but had read some of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim would not hesitate to ascribe it to that work. But this story is told by Dr. Glenn about Rabbi Israel Salanter, hero of his informative study and founder of the Musar movement among Lithuanian Jewry. Now Lithuanian Jewry is not generally renowned for this kind of thing. As the group most staunchly opposed to the emotional emphasis of Hasidism, Lithuanian Jewry is better known for its cold rationalism, its concern with the intricacies of Talmudic learning, and the “legalism” such concern engenders. But this view is at best an oversimplification; there is no better way to begin to show this than by a study of the Musar movement.

As Dr. Glenn points out, musar is a difficult word to translate. Perhaps the closest equivalent is the English word “ethics.” But this fails to convey the sense of religious exhortation which the word acquired in the usage of Rabbi Israel. To him, the word came to stand for the whole spirit of religious humility implicit in Rabbinic literature and too often overlooked in the scholarly circles of 19th-century Lithuania. He came to feel that study of the Torah as an intellectual discipline divorced from the daily application of its moral values was an empty endeavor. And especially did he apply this to the realm “between man and man.” For instance, when a cholera epidemic broke out in Kovno, taking a heavier toll of the poor than of the rich, the president of the congregation, Rabbi Asher Ginzberg, refused to permit the utilization of the Great Synagogue as a hospital, believing this to be a desecration of the House of God. Rabbi Israel then delivered one of his great Musar sermons in which he said: “Reb Asher, you should know that God, Blessed be His Name, is more concerned about the state of health of Hayyim the tanner than about your prayers and studies.” This was Rabbi Israel’s interpretation of the Torah.

The Musar interpretation of Judaism was a fascinating combination of concern with individual ethical character on the one hand, and with social problems on the other. Essentially, Musar is a method of self-improvement. Its aim is the acquisition of middot tovot—good ethical characteristics. Patience, diligence, humility. gentleness, are some of these. But Rabbi Israel realized that the moral task set by Judaism was for all the people, learned and unlearned alike, and he therefore saw Musar as bridging the gap that constantly threatens to open in Rabbinic Judaism between the scholars and the mass of Jews. In the Chevrah Musar, the society for the study of Musar, scholar rubbed shoulder with laborer, poor with rich—all united in the common ethical purpose.



Dr. Glenn describes Rabbi Israel’s activities in exhaustive detail. Born in 1810 in Lithuania, the son of a rabbi, he spent most of the seventy-three years of his life in the pursuit of his idea. Wherever he went—be it as headmaster of the Great Yeshiva in Vilna, or in his modest lodgings at Koenigsberg where Jewish students at the university would gather to hear the “Russian philosopher”—he organized groups for the study of Musar and its classics, the Hovot Halevavot of Bachya ibn Pekuda, and the Mesillat Yesharim of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto. These groups took root and have survived to this day. Anyone who has attended the Lithuanian yeshivot, or indeed the American ones, can testify to the place Musar has had in the shaping of his view of Judaism. Whenever there was a tendency to lose sight of the forest for the trees, Musar was there to call renewed attention to the religious and ethical elements that are always there.

It is true, as Dr. Glenn points out, that there is something somber about Musar. The fear of heaven is there and no attempt is made to sugar-coat it. It is not the religion of “peace of mind.” Rabbi Israel had very little of that: he suffered from a melancholy reminiscent of another religious thinker, Sören Kierkegaard. Musar is not for those who seek the joy of life. But those who see in the fear of divine punishment something expressive of our predicament will discover something cogent in the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Salanter. Dr. Glenn’s study provides the materials for this discovery.



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