About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a " ").
The phrase ohev et hatochachot means "loving reproof" or "loving rebuke." The word ohev from the Hebrew root alef-hei-vet means "love." The word tochachot from the root yod-kaf-chet means "reproof,"" admonition," or "rebuke."
"Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you;
Reprove a wise man, and he will love you." (Proverbs 9:8)
This middah (the Jewish ethical value) adds loving reproof to the list of traits one needs to acquire Torah. Why would anyone love or value being admonished?
In the commentary Mili d'Avos it is explained:
"A mature person welcomes constructive criticism; he or she puts spiritual growth ahead of ego. One must always understand that whoever offers rebuke is merely a messenger of God sent to make us focus on our shortcomings. Thus, do not reject the criticism of humans for if you do so, you really detest the rebuke of God." (Pirkei Avos, ArtScroll p.420)
The key to this explanation is that one should welcome constructive criticism. This middah is not suggesting that one simply accept whatever is said of a critical nature. It is corrective rebukes concerning religious or moral shortcomings that are to be accepted and welcomed.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that a true disciple of Torah study loves right, duty, and fairness and will defend them wherever he or she may go. Since the goal of Torah study is the disciple's own personal moral and ethical perfection and improvement—the disciple will not be angry with someone who points out the disciple's errors or faults. In fact, the disciple should thank this individual, regarding him or her as a friend and not an enemy. (Chapters of the Fathers, translation and commentary by Samson Raphael Hirsch, p.108-109)
Even the rabbis of the Talmud recognized how difficult it is to accept rebuke when one wrote, "I doubt whether in this age there is a single person who accepts rebuke." (Talmud, Arakhin)
That statement was made centuries ago, yet remains true today. It is easy to give criticism but very difficult to accept it.
To Talk About
- In Avot d'Rabbi Nathan it says, "Love the one who scolds and hate the one that lauds you!" What can a person learn from someone who scolds that cannot be learned from someone who lauds (compliments)? Why would the scolder be worthy of love and not the one who compliments?
- When do you think criticism is justifiable? How does criticism help a person to grow in knowledge or behavior?
- What is your first reaction to rebuke or criticism? Describe.
- How do you rebuke someone while still preserving his or her self-esteem? In relation to the commentary, was self-esteem even an issue when it came to rebuking someone? Explain.
Recall a time when you heard criticism either directed at you or someone else. Examine how the scolder presented the criticism and how the recipient reacted. Did the interaction reflect what the middah of Ohev et haTochachot intended? If not, why not?