Four days of learning and exploration hosted by a variety of organizations in different Jewish settings, Tidewater Together began in 2013 as part of United Jewish Federation’s Strategic Plan. The Tidewater Synagogue Leadership Council planned and supported the concept of bringing the community together for six discussions—and ensuring Jews of all practices and affiliations were welcome. The Milton “Mickey” Kramer Scholar-in- Residence Fund provided, and continues to provide, the necessary means to turn the idea into a reality.
The inaugural Tidewater Together was a resounding success. Scholar-in- Residence, Rabbi Brad Artson, drew large crowds wherever he spoke—nearly 1,000 people heard him. In the two years since, Rabbis Sharon Brous (’15) and Eric Yoffie (’16) were equally well received.
The selection of the 2017 Scholarin- Residence continues the tradition of bringing bold, energetic, and exceptional teachers to act as guides for the community, to learn and grow on what is touted this year as a four-day journey to a soulful Jewish life.
Alan Morinis, founder and dean of the Mussar Institute, will bring his skills as an interpreter, teacher, and student to the six conversations held at B’nai Israel Congregation, Temple Israel, Ohef Sholom Temple, Congregation Beth El, Temple Emanuel, and Kehillat Bet Hamidrash Synagogue.
Morinis shies away from referring to himself as one of the most well known authorities in today’s burgeoning interest in Mussar—a centuries old Jewish spiritual discipline. He defers to his teachers and mentors, who include the father of B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Sender Haber, and to those who wrote the original texts on which Mussar is based.
Morinis has written several best-selling Mussar books which are used as the basis for study groups, sermons, classes, and more—including Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar and his newest publication, With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings to Transform Your Life.
Jewish News recently spoke with Alan Morinis via Skype. He provided background and insights, as well as an explanation of the conversations he’ll lead when he’s in Tidewater—which we’ll share in the next edition of Jewish News.
Jewish News: Mussar is a new word and practice for many people—can you explain what it is for us, before we start on the journey with you?
Alan Morinis: The metaphor of a journey is a good one. Mussar really is about the journey of the individual through life, and the only thing you need to do is to be reflective on your own human experience.
The fact that there’s a deep and old Jewish tradition to guide that journey, to my mind is what makes it exciting. Because we’re not just closing our eyes and looking inward. We actually have the guidance of centuries of human experience to help us make sense of our own lives and to learn how to put one foot in front of the other.
This is not a new practice. Everything about Mussar has already been written. When you go into the old texts—I’m talking 16th century, 13th century, 11th century—you see how much wisdom about human life there is. How they just very wisely understood the things that we go through everyday, and they passed [that wisdom] down to us.
Mussar works so well across all stripes of Jewish life because it doesn’t have anything in it that aligns with any particular subgroup. Because everybody’s got human experience—in that, we all share.
When you look at the subjects that the Mussar teachers invite us to focus on— like anger and worry and envy and joy and laziness and patience and impatience and generosity and miserliness—all are very much a part of everyday human experience for everybody and that becomes the open door. Because everybody’s an expert in worry. Everybody is an expert in anger. Everybody’s an expert in being judgmental of other people—like we’re all experts in the subject.
To actually understand ourselves through a wise Jewish perspective—it becomes very enlightening.
JN: Why is Mussar becoming popular now? What is its appeal?
AM: Mussar comes out of the Orthodox tradition. People who grew up in the more liberal streams of Judaism, did not know Mussar because it never broke out of the Orthodox world until the last 10 or 15 years. I think what’s very distinctive about Mussar and would be very unusual in most people’s experiences of Judaism is that it’s a journey inward.
Until recently, the Jewish world was involved in many things, but most of those things were community-based and collective. But the individual, in our uniqueness, the fact that we are all different, didn’t have any place in the Jewish world. The Jewish world was not organized to respond to our uniqueness.
When people from the 1960s onward were starting to ask spiritual questions about their own life there were really no evident Jewish doors to knock on. And so people went to go knock on other doors, which were very evident.
We were advertising, “Come here for Hanukkah, come here for community, come here for nostalgia,” but not, “Come here for profound and applicable guidance for the depths of your inner being.” That was not the Jewish message, and so people wandered.
You found a lot of Jews who were going into other religious traditions, going into other spiritual traditions, going into all kinds of other self-help movements, and psychological movements. And that, to my mind, is because when the Jewish world ignored the individual, the individual did not want to be ignored.
I think there’s a corrective going on that’s a necessary corrective. Whether it attracts people back or not, it still has to happen—because if the Jewish world is going to be whole, it has to take care of the community AND the individual—in their uniqueness, because both of them are real. It’s just undeniable.
JN: What is your goal for our community during Tidewater Together?
AM: I find that because of the spiritual hunger in the Jewish World, a lot of non-Jewish practices are being dressed up in tallis and tefillin and called Jewish. It’s superficial, and things are being Judaized. But I think here we have something where I can step aside and invite people to actually connect with the sources from within the tradition. We have the written wisdom—the teachers of this tradition have written down their wisdom through the last millennia. And that’s a huge treasure house that all of us have access to.
The goal for me, over these four days, is to open the door so that people can see what’s behind the door, and decide for themselves if they want to proceed further into that room, into that treasure house. The weakness in this area in Jewish life in the last 50–60 years was that no one even knew that there was a doorway there, let alone choose to go to it. Nobody was making them aware that there was a Jewish spiritual practice for inner living. If I can introduce people to Mussar and show them the benefit of it, then I will have fulfilled my purpose.
For more information and to RSVP, visit www.TidewaterTogether.org, call 757-965- 6138, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about the Mussar Institute and Alan Morinis, visit www.mussarinstitute. org.