“Mussar is a path of spiritual self-development. It means working on yourself, but not for the sake of yourself. …Mussar is not self-help…. Dedication to be of service and to hold the needs of the other in your heart even as you work on yourself is a central tenet of Mussar.” (Morinis, Everyday Holiness, p. 15)
The philosophy behind sacred service learning is similar to that of Mussar (Jewish ethical practice): we learn and change through doing. Our doing impacts our being, and our learning affects our actions. This is why I chose to take Mussar: it was directly applicable to service learning.
As a fellow, my primary task was to help the Jewish Federation enhance synagogue-federation relationships. How might they be strengthened? What might the Federation do to better meet the needs of each individual congregation? Were there natural obstacles between Federations and Synagogues that could be overcome? I went to several synagogues and interviewed the senior rabbis. Our conversations ranged from congregations’ interests, hopes and dreams, to the type of relationship a congregation wished to have with the Federation, to congregational reactions to specific Federation projects, such as a one-stop destination web portal for Jewish life in Cincinnati.
Our discussions highlighted many of the traits we discussed in Mussar class. In particular, three emerged as the most applicable to my work. Emet (truth) is needed to forge a relationship that is real and sustainable. One needs anavah in order to see and admit to mistakes from the past. And chasidut, which requires compassion and benevolence, is a helpful quality for seeing what the partner on the other side of the table is experiencing.
Personally, I also felt the need to exhibit these traits. Initially, I was asked to bring in the director of the service learning program in order to consult and receive direction. While I wasn’t sure that this was a necessary strategy, I knew how important it was for the project to succeed, and I therefore stepped back and listened, observed and considered everything that was said. This required humility, or anavah, in great measure. In the end, I felt less reliance on the director of the service learning program. The leaders of the Federation trusted me to speak to the rabbis, and the rabbis trusted me with their opinions.
As I prepare for ordination and my next phase of life, the mindset of applying my learning to my life helped me immensely. The placement process was not an easy one, with waiting, rejection, and ups and downs. This experience is familiar. Each of us has failed in school, sports or family, been passed over for a promotion, scholarship, or dramatic role. Such challenges often cause us to struggle internally with our self-worth. Again I had an opportunity to apply my learning about anavah, or humility.
Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a prominent eighteenth-century Italian Jewish rabbi and philosopher wrote that the essence humility “is in a person’s not attaching importance to himself for any reason whatsoever. This trait is the very opposite of pride and its results are the very opposite of the results of pride.” (The Path of the Just) As I read these words, I think to myself that perhaps I had too much humility as a child. When I was young, I was painfully shy. I was in awe of everything around me, and wasn’t convinced that people wanted to hear what I had to say. As I grew older, I worked hard to become more confident, secure and outgoing. I started out by simply saying hello to folks I passed by, and then worked on placing myself in large groups and leadership roles that would force me to interact and communicate with others more often. Over time I became surer of my voice and its potential to contribute something of value to important discourse.
However from time to time, I still find that I need to battle a slight internal hesitation. As a result, I have often wondered if humility was the proper Jewish strategy for me to pursue. Perhaps I was too humble. Perhaps it was this very humility that had prevented me from obtaining a job. On first glance, people are often attracted to those who are able to readily display confidence and competency.
Later in his discussion, Luzzatto writes about humble thoughts which should precede humble actions. He writes, “Humility in thought consists in a person’s reflecting upon and recognizing as a truth the fact that he does not deserve praise and honor (let alone elevation above his fellow man).” When I applied this learning to my life, I realized that when I heard of classmates receiving jobs later in the process, I was fighting sorrow and jealousy. This is not humble at all; in fact it is the opposite. How can I possibly say that I am too humble when I could entertain such internal thoughts? Who am I that I deserve a job any more than anyone else? Each of my colleagues has vast skills, dedication and talent to offer any congregation. Each of them has worked toward this opportunity in their own way, pace, and time, and I believe each of them will make a positive and meaningful impact in Jewish life.
An important tenet of Mussar is balance. A trait is not intrinsically good or bad. Maimonides wrote, “The two extremes of each trait, which are at a distance from one another, do not reflect a proper path. It is not fitting that a man should behave in accordance with these extremes or teach them to himself.” (Hilchot De’ot, 1:3–4) In this sense, I have found a median point. I have explored what it means to be too humble, and yet not humble enough.
Sacred service learning is a mindset—one that marries living and learning in an attempt to elevate them both. Through study of Mussar and reflection on my work and life path, I am learning to integrate the values of our texts into my rabbinic work.
Jessica Huettner Rosenthal will soon be one of the first alumni of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellows program. She will be serving Temple Brith Shalom in Prescott, Arizona.