Isaac Kaplan

"Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?"

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Old Mussar Seforim

I left off my last post with a question. If human nature and our environment have changed so much over the years, what do we make of mussar seforim from 200 years ago? Do we disregard them, or at best take them with a large grain of salt, because the world was so different back then? Or do we say, chas v'shalom! Torah is timeless, and these old mussar seforim are as relevant today as they were in 18th Century?

One of my rabbeim made an excellent point regarding this matter. He said, when someone has a shailah these days and wants to look it up in a sefer, they don't open up a Rif, a Rosh, or a Rambam. It's not to downplay the greatness of these seforim or their authors. And when one tries to understand a gemara clearly, their comments are vital.

But learning gemara and getting an answer to a halachic shailah are two very, very different things. There was no electricity in the Rif's times. It was a different world then. Plus, halacha takes into account many social factors and personal factors (ever heard of a "sha'as ha'dchak"?). What might have been an accurate answer for one society can be totally off-base for another group of people. (Another reason you can't paskin from these seforim is that we may have a different mesorah than those rishonim, or the mesorah may have evolved since then (which is an oxymoron, but whatever), and other reasons beyond the scope of this post.)

So in 2006, we probably can't even use a mishna brurah anymore. We're better off relying on R' Ribiat's books, Shmiras Shabbos K'Hilchaso, and the like.

The same is true, my rebbi said, when it comes to mussar seforim. We can't rely on the Shaarei Tshuva to tell us how to behave in 2006. It's not a knock on Rabbeinu Yonah, and I'm sure there are many things to learn from that great sefer. The same way that the Rambam has many of the yesodos of today's halachos, Shaarei Tshuva and other classics are the foundations of mussar. But I don't see how they're a practical guide of how to live in the 21st Century.

So if one wants to take mussar seriously, and really apply their principles to everyday life, it would seem like only the seforim from R' Wolbe, R' Matisyahu Solomon, R' Elya Lopian and R' Dessler would be most appropriate. Why? Because the world has changed, and they understand the problems we face far better than those who lived centuries ago.

7 Comments:

Blogger AJay said...

My Rebbe once told me that just like medications need to be changed because our bodies change and the bacteria mutates, so too our spiritual medication changes.

However, (he also pointed out) there are certain medications that are always appropriate, so too there are certain Mussar sefarim that are for all generations. He gave three examples - Mesilas Yesharim, Chovas halevavos and Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Josh Weinberg said...

Shaarei Tshuva and other classics are the foundations of mussar. But I don't see how they're a practical guide of how to live in the 21st Century.

I don't define mussar as a practical guide of how to live.
When opening up seforim from the later baalei musar that you have mentioned I don't find that they have nearly as much to offer as a classic mussar sefer.

, halacha takes into account many social factors and personal factors (ever heard of a "sha'as ha'dchak"?). What might have been an accurate answer for one society can be totally off-base for another group of people.

This is the common understanding of halacha. I like to believe that halacha is less whishy washy than this.

10:55 PM  
Blogger Isaac Kaplan said...

Well Josh, offer an alternative definition. How would YOU define the role mussar is supposed to play in one's life?

And as for your point on halacha, I agree that basic issues are black-and-white (e.g., you can't eat a cheeseburger or turn on a light on Shabbos - nobody will argue with that). It's when you get to more complex shailos where I believe you'll see many factors involved in giving an answer.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Josh Weinberg said...

Mishlei starts with the words, ledaas chochma umussar. The malbim explains chochma is what to do, what is right and wrong. Musar is what keeps a person choosing the proper paths. The word mussar has the same shoresh as the word for prison and to bind.

What binds a person to the right path is yiras hashem. I don't believe that the concept of yiras hashen has to change for the 21st century.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Ike said...

I don't believe that the concept of yiras hashen has to change for the 21st century.
---------------

True, but there are different ways to get there, and what worked for someone in the 1300's might not work now.

Besides, we live in a time with very different impediments to yiras shamayim, e.g. mass materialism, ADD, and the unavoidable influence of the media. I highly doubt that these issues are directly addressed by the old seforim.

And I don't disagree (that's for you, Jack) that we can glean some useful nuggets from older seforim. But for most people, they're probably better off with something that deals with modern issues directly. And they can't filter out things that may be beyond our level today.

4:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're making excuses for the declined society who has no self-control to live the Torah way.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Neil Harris said...

Interesting topic. IMHO, I agree with how Josh defines Mussar. I believe that the more "recent" mussar writings are more l'mysah, than theroy. Even Rav Mattisyahu's Artscroll adaptation is very hands on. Or, currently my favorite book for the past 2 years, EYES TO SEE, by Rav Yom Tov Schwartz. He says it like it should be.

3:00 PM  

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