Mussar — ethical teachings originally developed in 19th-century Eastern Europe primarily by Rabbi Israel Yisrael Lipkin Salanter to help Jews integrate their daily behavior with Torah commandments and values — has recently come back into vogue. Jews across denominations, and in settings from synagogues to JCCs, have renewed studying these texts.
Many people turn to mussar to help them address career frustrations, health setbacks, family difficulties — or simply learn how to deal better with others.
Now, prisoners are getting in on the mussar action.
In response to requests from behind bars, the Vancouver-based Mussar Institute recently created study-partner exchanges, in which prisoners correspond with chevruta volunteers who teach them about mussar.
“This was nobody’s idea,” explained Alan Morinis, founder and director of The Mussar Institute and author of “Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar,” a text frequently used to teach introductory mussar courses. “We received unsolicited letters, and their letters were so poignant — one prisoner wrote about how he ‘used to study mussar with [his] zeyde.”
For safety, Morinis asks the volunteers to use their synagogue’s address, rather than a home address, and not to reveal e-mail addresses. Currently there are partnerships with prisoners in California, Maryland and New York.
“This evolved,” said Morinis. “We feel we can’t turn away from people. This is about tradition, and how we can learn about it. I trust mussar.”
As an example, he cited a letter he had received from a prisoner who had written, “While I cannot change my shameful past, I want to control those impulses in the future.”
The possibility of that kind of change motivates the work of Shayna Lester, a 72-year-old volunteer state prison chaplain, mussar student and Jewish spiritual director, who developed the idea of introducing mussar study and practice to women in the California Institute for Women, a prison in Chino, Calif.
While studying the Ten Commandments with these women (usually a group of about 15-20 regulars, from a rotating pool of about 200, not all of whom are Jewish) about three months ago, Lester had the students read Morinis’ chapter on silence in “Everyday Holiness.”
“We teach Jewish concepts in the Jewish chaplaincy,” said Lester. “The impact is so strong on everybody. It’s all voluntary. It’s just for themselves. They want to become better people. Everyone is saying they never knew Judaism could be so rich. Many would like to convert to Judaism. When they leave, we’re looking to see if we can continue. We teach deep, ethical teaching. They’re taking something with them.”
That’s certainly been true for Brenda Clubine, a former inmate and former member of the prison mussar group at the Chino prison, who was recently released.
“Humility was such a lesson,” said Clubine. “Humility is not about making yourself feel ‘less than,’ it’s about humbling yourself to where you feel good, so you can give others your true self, what you’ve been meant to be. Mussar is an invaluable service for the Jewish community in prison. This will help me rebuild my life and … my relationship with my children. In learning about the true meaning of humility and what I’m supposed to do as a Jewish woman, I get so much farther with people in understanding them, and in them understanding me.”
There are other immediate, practical applications of what they study.
In the Chino prison, a discussion of loshon hora — gossip, negative speech — was transformative and powerful for the women, said Lester. The women developed an art project, with pins that said “Guard Your Tongue” and “No Loshon Hora”, which soon spread to other, non-Jewish prisoners, some guards and even the warden.
“They’re learning at a deeper level, opening to the process of studying character traits,” Lester said. “These women have a lot of problems dealing with the officers. We give them good stuff to use, so they won’t be as reactive. Their assignment is that they have to teach to others, and take out into their world. This gives them a new way of looking at themselves, and the world, and spread to the whole prison. My goal is really to see some reform in prison.”
Most of the prisoners in the Chino program are there either because of drug convictions, white-collar crime or violence (such as killing an abusive husband, or a child’s drug dealer).
As in other mussar study groups, Lester opens her sessions with chanting, then moves on to a period of silence, the sharing of journals and lessons learned during chevruta study, a discussion of the texts themselves and a final prayer.
Still, there are differences and complications. The women can’t always attend the classes when Lester is there to teach; sometimes she has to teach the same lesson for three or four weeks in a row in order to reach everyone who’s interested. Complications can also arise with the pen-pal approach.
“It is just so important to understand that prisoners ended up in their situation for so very many complex reasons and typically have myriad mental and physical health problems, and I think it is important to approach them with a degree of empathy,” Dana Drukker explained in an e-mail message. She had volunteered to correspond as a chevruta partner with a prisoner who had reached out for this relationship, yet who ultimately never participated. “On the other hand, many have done things that are terrible and would do terrible things again. So, they really cannot be released into society, and one would hope that mussar would simply help them grow within the confines in which they find themselves.”
While prisoners’ challenges may seem daunting, or even insurmountable, Morinis insists that there are more similarities than differences.
“One thing that struck me was that these people are not oceans away from being recognizable,” said Morinis. “This could be the temple sisterhood. They’re working on their spiritual curriculum, and are like all of us, with special circumstances. They’re looking to solidify the spiritual core of their lives.”
In an e-mail message, Morinis added, “We’ve all got challenges, and it is gratifying to see that Jewish tradition has something to offer inmates too. They are souls too, after all.”
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.
Recent Special Sections