Ethics Rabbis Reform Judaism

Mussar for Rabbis: Humility

Beginning a process of תיקון מידות (tikkun middot, repair of one’s soul traits) starts with ענוה (anavah – humility). Without humility, one cannot confess that one’s מידות (middot, soul-traits) require repair, so The Mussar Institute’s programs begin with that essential מידה (middah, soul trait). Even if I don’t imagine myself flawless, a haughty attitude would prevent my openness to Mussar teaching and its required rigorous practice to address my impatience, my lack of generosity or gratitude, or my failures of truth, for example.

My rabbinic humility was challenged from the moment that a new Temple Board member asked me whether we could undertake Mussar learning in my former congregation. Could I retain my regard in the eyes of this congregant if I confessed that I knew nothing beyond the most basic definition of Mussar literature? What kind of a rabbi isn’t well versed in any aspect of our Jewish textual tradition? I was chagrined as I haltingly admitted to being that kind of rabbi.

The congregant pointed me to the Mussar Institute. I was impressed with a lecture by Alan Morinis that I saw there, and I approached him about the possibility of a scholar-in-residence weekend. Seeking to maximize “bang for the buck,” I proposed to teach some of the texts in the months leading up to his visit. He would offer a Shabbat Eve talk during services, to reach a wide audience, and then we would hold a Shabbaton exclusively for those who had already studied the material.

Morinis seemed to like the plan, explaining that, to do what I proposed, if I would first have to take “Everyday Holiness” online and then take מנחים (manchim – leaders) training to enable me to offer a Mussar Institute course to my congregants.

What chutzpah! Who did this Alan Morinis think he was? “I’m a rabbi,” I thought; “Give me a text; I’ll study it, and then I can teach it.” Divine intervention is the only explanation for my I summoning humility I did not then possess, agreeing to Morinis’ lengthy demands.

The payoff has been beyond measure. My נשמה (neshamah – soul) continues to need repair, and always will; now, though, I do possess just enough humility to accept that somebody else — in this case, Alan Morinis and the Mussar Masters who preceded him — have a system better than any I could have created on my own. Through daily affirmation, repeated study and introspection, and journaling, coming to grips with my failures, I continually seek to become a better husband, a better father, a better rabbi, a better human being.

Humility or ענוה (anavah) is not exclusively about eschewing haughtiness, important as that is. The Mussar Institute’s recommended daily affirmation for ענוה (anavah – humility) is, “No more than my place, no less than my space.” The second half of the phrase suggests that one who is “too humble” isn’t humble at all. Now that’s a חידוש (chiddush, a new insight), particularly important for rabbis.

Moses, we know, is called “very humble, more than any other person on the face of the Earth” (Numbers 12:3). The context of that characterization is Korach’s rebellion, an incident during which Moses is anything but meek. He stands in his rightful place and chides the rebels for stepping beyond their own.

Rabbis could be tempted to “go along to get along,” not to take controversial stands or stand up to injustice or unethical behavior within our communities. Morinis cites a story from the Talmud (Gittin 55b-56a) to illustrate how failure to lead, excessive meekness, is a failure of ענוה (anavah – humility) which can have disastrous results.

We are taught, “The humility of Rabbi Zechariah Ben Avkulus caused the destruction of the [second] Temple in Jerusalem.” Actually, Zachariah’s failure is of taking up “less than his space.” The specifics of the story are unsavory. The Romans, encouraged by a Jewish accomplice, present the priests with a “Sophie’s choice,” either to sacrifice a blemished animal proffered by the Romans, thereby violating Torah, or insult the Romans and incur their wrath by refusing the offering. A harsh solution is proposed: Kill the Jewish accomplice, so that he can’t report to the Romans that the sacrifice has been declined. A decision is sought from Rabbi Zechariah, who analyzes the terrible consequences of each choice but declines to rule. The sacrifice is declined. In keeping with the accomplice’s plan, the Romans, convinced that the Jews are in open rebellion, proceeded to destroy the Temple.

Thankfully, contemporary Reform rabbis aren’t faced with such dire consequences. At the same time, we may well be tempted, like our predecessor Zechariah, to avoid difficult choices. Do we step into our proper role, responding with compassion-tempered תוכחה (tochechah – rebuke), each time we receive that oft-forwarded offensive email about how few Arabs and how many Jews have been awarded Nobel prizes? Do we respond with both caring and integrity when asked to make inappropriate accommodations for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in a family of wealth and power? When a member of our staff is unjustly attack by a leader who could threaten our own tenure, do we clearly name the insult, at our own peril?

Humility is tough for rabbis — yes, because haughtiness may be an occupational hazard; and also because excessive meekness may be wrongly regarded as a rabbinic virtue.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.