Mussar Is Mushy


Here are excerpts of a representative Mussar homily interspersed with comments. This is a good example of the sort of mushy thinking found in Mussar. I meant to upload this when it was the current Parsha. Nevermind.

Towards the end of the Parsha, there is the account of Moshe Rabbeinu‘s request that Hashem appoint an able successor to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael. Hashem answered him that his faithful student, Yehoshua, is the appropriate choice. Chazal elaborate on the dialogue that took place between Hashem and Moshe. They tell us that Moshe asked that his own sons succeed him as leader, however Hashem refused this request, because “your sons sat and were not osek beTorah” , whereas, Yehoshua was the rightful successor because “he would come early to, and leave late from, your beis medrash, and would arrange the benches and cover the tables[1].” There are two difficulties with this Medrash; Firstly, if Moshe’s sons were not osek b’Torah then how could Moshe Rabbeinu have had any expectation that they could lead the Jewish people[2]? Secondly, it would seem that Hashem was comparing Moshe’s sons to Yehoshua in the same area of hanhago – that of being osek b’Torah. However, when Hashem praised Yehoshua he stressed the fact that he set up the Beis Medrash – this does not seem to have any relevance to being osek beTorah. What exactly was the nature of the comparison of Moshe’s sons to Yehoshua?

Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv Shlita explains that Moshe’s sons were talmidei chachamim and they were learned enough to lead the Jewish people – that is why Moshe believed that they were fitting candidates for succeeding him. However, Hashem replied that this was not sufficient; when He said that they “sat and were not ’osek b’Torah’” He meant that they sat and learned for themselves and were not osek with others in Torah. In contrast to their lack of being involved in helping other people’s Torah, Yehoshua would set up the Beis Medrash and thereby enable others to learn Torah – that is considered being ‘osek b’Torah’[3].

This article is a great example of the intellectual dishonesty of Mussar literature. The strongest characteristic of Mussar is probably maliciously poor attention to the text. Had Chazal said “were not osek beTorah”, I would agree perhaps Moshe’s sons learned Torah but did not teach. But anyone familiar with “Talmudese” realizes that “sitting” means refraining from learning at all, as in the prohibition of forgetting one’s learning through “עד שישב ויסירם מליבו”. Another mark of our age is the refusal to entertain any thought insufficiently complimentary of a Jewish hero. Since the writer compares only to himself, he cannot accept the fact that Moshe might not have known about his sons’ true situation. The “nature of the comparison of Moshe’s sons to Yehoshua” is simple. It’s Kal Vachomer (minor ad major). Moshe’s sons did not help teach; they did not even learn. Yehoshua, by contrast, not only taught himself Torah, but also helped teach it.

There are a number of important lessons that can be derived from Rav Elyashiv’s explanation[4], however, there seems to be one specific difficulty with it – it would have seemed that being osek b’Torah only implies learning Torah for oneself, where is the allusion to enabling others to learn Torah?

In order to answer this it is necessary to understand the basic definition to the mitzva of Talmud Torah. The Rambam writes that there are two sources for the mitzva; “You shall teach them to your children” and “you shall teach them sharply to your children.”. From these commands to teach children the Rambam derives that a person must learn Torah – the fundamental reason given for learning Torah is so that one can teach it to his children. We see from here that the mitzva of ‘Talmud Torah’ refers to teaching as much as to learning. Moreover, the Rambam brings the Chazal that ‘children’ also refers to students, and that a fundamental part of the mitzva is to teach people even if they are not one’s own children[5]. Thus, it is quite understandable that Rav Elyashiv can translate, being ‘osek b’Torah’ as meaning ‘causing others to learn’ Torah.

How typical of our Brisk-infested world. One quotes Chazal only by means of the Rambam.

This also helps us understand why it was important that the leader of the Jewish people be one who causes others to learn Torah – his role was to preserve and continue the mesora and thereby preserve the eternal nature of the Torah.

Actually, the whole discussion is silly. Moshe was only referring to dynastic political leadership, equivalent to a Shofet. There is no amorphous “Torah leadership”, the concept of which began with the politics of Agudas Yisrael and like precedents. The head of the Sanhedrin is chosen by merit alone, not mere inheritance, so God does not “appoint” them. For example, Yiftach was a Shofet, at the same time Pinchas was head of the Sanhedrin. And yes, that specific example is meant to destroy a popular canard of Appeal to Authority.

We have seen how intrinsic teaching Torah is to the mitzva of learning Torah. Moroever, whilst teaching Torah is a great chesed to other people, it is also clear that there is a very significant element of bein adam le’utsmo in teaching Torah – it helps develop our appreciation of the eternal nature of Torah and to play a role in passing it on to the next generation.

As usual, Mussar invents ridiculous principles like “between man and himself” and corrupts the mind with vapid verbose “helps develop our appreciation of…” blah blah. What’s the difference between Mussar and secular psychology? There isn’t any.

[1] Bamidbar Rabbah, 21:14.
[2] This question is asked by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv Shlita, Divrei Aggada, p.319.
[3] Ibid.
[4] See his continuation in Divrei Aggada, p.319-20 where he elaborates on the necessity to share one’s Torah with those who are distant from the true path. We also learn from his explanation that the ability and willingness to share Torah with others is a key trait in determining an effective leader.

[5] The Mishna in Avos, 1:1 tells us that we must “establish many students.” The Tiferes Yisroel writes that it is not enough to merely teach one’s own children but one must teach other Jews as well.

Mussar has nothing in common with Judaism. Whenever you come across Mussar literature, ask yourself this: Can you take the author’s words alone (without the Jewish sources meant to grant them legitimacy), and picture them being spoken by a Cursedian Galach (“priest”) in his house of idol worship?

From Torah From Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen, here. The original article was shortened, but you can see the rest in the link.

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