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Yoga Trends

Seeking the Inner Mensch

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Alan Morinis is the new hot ticket on the mystical-Judaism circuit, teaching an obscure thousand-year-old practice called Mussar, which he uses to steer his own life. But just a few years ago, the most Jewish thing about Morinis–a longtime yoga practitioner and Buddhist meditator with serious cred in Eastern spiritual traditions–was his rising career as a film producer. So how did he suddenly become a macher (big shot) in the faith he’d left on the cutting-room floor more than 30 years ago? Oy, now there’s a story!

Born into a nominally Jewish family in Toronto, Morinis began doing asanas in 1968 during his freshman year at York University there. While traveling in India as a Rhodes Scholar in 1974 and 1975, he studied yoga with B.K.S. Iyengar and learned meditation in Dharamsala’s Tibetan settlement. A few years later, he returned to India to research Hindu pilgrimages for a doctorate in anthropology he was working on. When he moved back to North America, he helped start the Seva Foundation, an international service organization based on the precepts of karma yoga (selfless service), in the United States. Morinis served on its board of directors during the 1980s and 1990s, even as he began to focus his worldly efforts in other areas–first on the world of academia and later on filmmaking.

Then, in 1997, Morinis’s life began to fall apart: The film production company he had started eight years earlier failed, complicated by his own bungled cover-up of its financial ills. Desperate to recover his spiritual center of gravity, he turned–where? To the ringing wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita? To the fertile spaces of Buddhist meditation?

Not quite. For reasons that still puzzle him, he alighted on Mussar, a spiritual tradition that developed in an Orthodox Jewish world far removed not only from the Indian spirituality of Morinis’s earlier studies but also from the casual, secular Judaism of his upbringing.

“I came from such a diluted Jewish background,” Morinis says. “It wasn’t like I ran away from it; it’s like it was nothing. But it wouldn’t go away. It was like a little element of myself that was quiet and insistent, and I decided, ‘I’m going to pay attention
to you.'”

Do-It-Yourself Transformation

Mussar, which was popularized in Eastern Europe by Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810–1884) and then nearly erased by the Holocaust, is often described as the study of Jewish ethical writings. But that dry, narrow definition doesn’t begin to capture the spiritual power of the tradition Morinis portrays in his book Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (Broadway Books, 2002). Rather, says Morinis, Mussar is deep and transformative soul work, intended to clear away the inner muck that covers up our essential holiness and prevents it from shining through.

At the practical level, many of Mussar’s methods resemble personal-growth techniques. For example, to develop humility, you might perform a guided meditation on the wonders and mysteries of life. Alternatively, you might repeat over and over, with great emotion, a penetrating phrase about humility from the Talmud or another source of wisdom.

Morinis was drawn to Mussar’s strategy of meticulous self-purification in part because he was far more troubled by the moral aspects of his career blowout than the financial ones. He had abandoned his academic ambitions in the mid-’80s, eventually landing in the go-go world of independent film production. He scored with several award-winning projects, including the feature film The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick,, the TV miniseries Eye Level and the Holocaust documentary Prisoner 88. His original plan to get rich quick and then find God got stuck in phase one, however. His spiritual practices, including yoga and meditation, had long since lapsed by the time some high-risk productions went bad and left Morinis scrambling to conceal the problems.

“I had to face up to what I’d become,” Morinis explains. “No felonies, but movie producers talk and move fast–whatever will raise the money for the film, you do. I’d spent enough time in that world that it had become me in a way I wasn’t aware of. Then that awareness was shoved in my face in a brutal way. It was a very shocking, awakening, and motivating experience, because it was unacceptable to me.”

Morinis turned to spiritual writings to lift him out of an emotional slump that was making it hard to even rise from his couch. A small, insistent voice inside him drew him to an anthology on Judaism. But to his surprise, the chapters on such obvious analogues to Eastern mysticism as Kabbalah and early Hasidism failed to move him. The section on Mussar, however, virtually hollered to him from the pages. He located a teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, at an Orthodox yeshiva in New York and began to pursue a new life.

After studying with Perr over a span of 15 months, Morinis returned to his home base in Toronto, bringing Mussar with him. Today, between organizing Mussar programs throughout the United States and Canada and providing guidance for 60 at-a-distance students, he’s turned his passion into a full-time paying gig, with the full blessing of his mentor. He’s become the point man for a mission, which is, as he describes it, “revitalizing and reframing Mussar for this generation.”

Mensch Mind, Buddha Nature

Still, Morinis hasn’t fallen that far from the Bodhi tree. He finds more commonalities than differences between Mussar
and Indian spirituality. Like yoga and Buddhism, he notes, Mussar is a regularly practiced spiritual discipline. “The idea of a daily practice is fairly universal in all of these traditions,” he says. “You do it now so you’ll have it when you need it. You don’t wait until life throws you a challenge.”

Like the Indian disciplines, Mussar is also tailored to each practitioner’s needs. Most Jews grow up learning a one-size-fits-all religion—within the confines of their particular branch, that is. “I was drawn into Hindu and Buddhist practice because it was individual practice,” Morinis says. “When I studied with Iyengar, it made perfect sense to me that I would have to do asanas that related to the particular configuration of my body. I never found that particularization in the Jewish world, but it’s so intrinsic to yoga that it is almost the definition of yoga or sadhana [practice]. And it’s certainly true of meditation.”

Mussar and Indian ideas share much more than personalized customer service, though. For instance, Mussar’s tools are primarily aimed at helping us realize our inner mensch. This Yiddish word means a person who is admirable not for worldly achievements but for essential goodness, a person deserving the utmost respect. Committed Buddhists strive to develop menschness too, as captured in the teachings on metta (lovingkindness) and sila (ethical conduct). So do yogis who cleave to Patanjali‘s yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances).

In fact, similarities between all of these traditions abound. For example, Mussar, like all Judaic practices, urges followers to further God’s purpose on earth through tikkun olam, which is generally understood as repairing the world by serving the weak, the needy, and the oppressed. This idea recalls both metta bhavana (the Buddhist practice of selfless compassion) and karma yoga.

Theravadan Buddhists may catch similarities to the Buddha’s discourses on defilements and effacements in Mussar’s teachings about refining middot (character traits). According to Mussar, everyone possesses the same set of middot but in different measures.

For example, some people are too aggressive, others too passive. Using awareness tools, we discern which of our middot need the most work. Preferably under a teacher’s guidance, we then employ individualized techniques to improve ourselves in those areas. In fact, these are the focus of Mussar practice, because they push away the clouds blocking the light of our own inner holiness. The Buddha would nod knowingly. In the Vatthupama and Sallekha suttas, he urges his students to use insight to confront their own character and behavioral flaws, and resolve and mental discipline to remove them.

Make no mistake, though, Morinis says; Mussar is still Jewish to its core–it’s not yoga or Buddhism with a yarmulke. Its spiritual ideas stem in part from the Torah and the Talmud and include uniquely Jewish takes on holiness and God. It parts company with the East, too, on the idea that enlightenment frees us from our struggles. Our negative impulses will remain, Mussar instructs, even as we learn to make better choices. If we are truly becoming holy, the proof will be seen in our actions toward our family, friends, neighbors, and society.

Which begs the question: If Mussar is so utterly Jewish, can non-Jews hope to profit from what Morinis feels is its undeniable genius? Absolutely, he says: Bottom line, Mussar is about “being as kind and fine a human being as you can imagine.” It’s that mensch thing again–as his own teacher puts it, “to the nth degree.”

A Taste of Mussar

After helping a student identify a middah (character trait) that needs a tune-up, a Mussar teacher will often assign the student an exercise aimed at reforming the middah in real-world situations. The idea is that such experiences mark the soul and alter it for the better. You can try this technique yourself by making up your own assignments.

Suppose, for instance, that you know yourself to be stingy. Not just cautious about your generosity, which might be appropriate, but truly tight-fisted. You might assign yourself the task of doing three generous acts a day for one week. Be more giving of your money, your time, your affections–whatever addresses your individual issue. Take a week off after the first week, then resume the practice for another week.

Note that most days are full of opportunities for generosity: You can give money to a homeless person or listen attentively to someone you ordinarily close an ear to. Keep in mind, though, that Mussar sounds much easier than it is, because old habits are embedded in everyone’s being.

That said, Mussar suggests that by consciously reorienting your intention, you can still “recalibrate” your targeted middah over a few weeks’ time. Your heart will open and then reopen, and some of its armor will fall away forever. And then you’ll have moved closer to being the loving, giving being that is the essence of your soul.

— A.R. and Alan Morinis

Alan Reder is a YJ contributing editor. His article “The Yoga of Money” appeared in the April 2003 issue.