Shtisel! Perhaps you’ve seen it on Netflix. It’s a wonderful Israeli television series that tells the stories of Ultra-Orthodox Jews living in the Meah Sh’arim vicinity of Jerusalem. It focuses on one particular family and their drama. There is the patriarch, Shulem, who has recently lost his beloved wife. There is Akiva, the artist who keeps falling in love, his sister Gitti, and his brother Aryeh. Of course there are other characters, the matchmaker, the butcher husband of Gitti, Akiva’s love interests, Gitti’s precocious teenaged daughter, and the Bubbe of the family, Malkah. With a strong emphasis on Jewish values, such as education and honoring elders, the characters of this popular show, with only two seasons, navigate their lives in the context of Jewish orthodoxy. In fact, the Talmud, the encyclopedia of Jewish law and lore derived from wisdom of the ancient rabbis, plays an important part in the telling of the Shtisel stories.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Shtisel is the fact that each major character evolves and grows as a human, if at least becoming more self-aware (the exception might be Shulem – you will just have to watch it). Akiva grows exponentially as an artist, painting life from his own developing viewpoint. Aryeh confronts his childhood aspirations to be a singer, and Lippe, the husband of Gitti, is challenged by his demons as he wrestles with his identity as an orthodox Jew.
The ancestral background of the family is not central to its plot except in one story arc. Gitti seems to be dealing with her ego as she is very involved in the lives of her children to the point that she interferes with their budding maturity. During a visit to her grandmother, Gitti learns an important fact about her familial predecessors that makes a deep impression within her. Malka tells her that one of her ancestors was the student of Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horwitz of Novaradok (1847–1919), himself a student of the founder of the Musar movement, Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter (1810–1883).
“What is Musar and how is it a movement?” You may be asking that question. According to the great google machine, “Musar is a non-Chasidic Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement that developed in 19th century Lithuania, particularly among Orthodox Lithuanian Jews. The Hebrew term Musar, is from the book of Proverbs 1:2 meaning moral conduct, instruction or discipline. The term was used by the Musar movement to refer to efforts to further ethical and spiritual discipline.”
Musar is a path of meditative exercises that have developed over the past millennium to help individuals identify and then to break through the barriers, the negative character traits that surround and obstruct their enlightenment. Musar is a collection of techniques and wisdoms that offers valuable guidance for our lives. According to the Musar Institute, “The goal of Musar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul. The roots of all of our thoughts and actions can be traced to the depths of the soul, beyond the reach of the light of consciousness, and so the methods Musar provides include meditations, guided contemplations, exercises and chants that are all intended to penetrate down to the darkness of the subconscious, to bring about change right at the root of our nature.”
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter created Musar to help people confront their inner obstacles that are a hindrance to living according to the commandments, the paradigm for ethical living. This spiritual discipline may be seen as inseparable from the practice of Judaism, however the human condition that Musar addresses is universal and can be practiced by all people. Which leads us back to Shtisel.
Malka tells Gitti that Rabbi Horwitz would instruct his students to walk into a pharmacy and ask for a box of nails. Why? The risk of embarrassing oneself is a direct assault on arrogance and the ego. Instead of being in the right all the time, this exercise forces one to be absolutely wrong. The goal is to remain balanced and focused despite any humiliation that may be encountered. This exercise may be a little extreme, but it points us toward the goal of working on our character traits, to evolve and grow, and be the best version of ourselves that we can be. This is the purpose of Musar and for those that practice its teachings and exercises, they will tell you of its power to transform.
At Congregation Or Ami we have started a Musar group that meets on Tuesday afternoons. We started last spring and have worked through the main ideas behind Musar. Our work is ongoing and I would like extend an invitation to participate in our class. This can be helpful to anyone that wants to do some self-work and meditation practices. There are no prerequisites, we hope that every class can stand on its own without having to do any preparation. There is no Hebrew requirement. The only requirement is not fearing a confrontation with your self, or at least a willingness to try.
We won’t ask you to buy nails but be prepared to challenge yourself!
I hope to see you soon!