A Modern Mussar Manifesto

Few impactful mussar works have been written in the past half century but Rav Moshe Dan Kestenbaum’s Olam Hamiddot is arguably an exception. R. Kestenbaum is a rebbe at the Ateres Shmuel Yeshiva in Waterbury, Connecticut and runs a beit midrash at Yeshiva Heichal Hatorah in Teaneck. His sefer has started to make inroads in Yeshiva University circles and in the yeshivot in Israel attended by Modern Orthodox students. This review will highlight some of the work’s salient themes while noting some of its limitations (All page references are to the 5772 edition).

The opening chapter emphasizes the crucial importance of and the great difficulties involved in perfecting middotYahadut is not just about the realm of action; it cares deeply about developing the inner world of the human personality.  Subsequent chapters analyze the individual traits of truth, honor, jealousy, anger, happiness, strength, and compassion.

Olam Hamiddot frequently, and correctly, points out the self-destructive nature of poor character traits.  Reckless pursuit of honor generates a lack of satisfaction in life as well as hatred from others put off by excessive egotism (p. 54). Getting angry hurts oneself and others (105).   After all, how does a person benefit from becoming incensed when trapped in a traffic jam (109)?  Such rage simply contributes to personal unhappiness.  Stubbornness leads to continuing arguments long beyond the point where they stopped being productive (120).   Worrying is a totally fruitless endeavor (138).

In this context, R. Kestenbaum makes several references (53, 88) to Tiferet Yisrael’s commentary on Avot 4:21:  “Jealousy, desire and honor remove a person from the world.”  Although one could interpret “the world” as referring to olam haba, Tiferet Yisrael understands that these negative traits lead to loss of this world and the next world.  In other words, we are not only talking about divine punishment in a future sphere but also about the pragmatic negative fallout occurring within the naturalistic sphere of our current existence.

R. Kestenbaum emphasizes the need for self-esteem. Those with a healthy sense of self feel less compelled to pursue honor from others (56) while those lacking it feel the need to put others down (84). Not seeing oneself as a creature of worth brings about depression (134).  People unhappy with their own lives project their negativity onto others (112).  These themes deviate from a mussar that emphasizes human lowliness and the virtue of extreme humility.

This volume instructs the reader to exercise great care and compassion for children.  The requirement to honor every person includes the honor that a parent should exhibit towards a child (71).  It is both cruel and foolish to remain indifferent to a child crying over a lost candy.  The cry may be childish from a more mature perspective, but the child, in age appropriate fashion, experiences the loss as something significant (74).   Hitting a child out of anger is an act of wickedness that violates two biblical prohibitions (101).  A mussar work intent on stressing parental authority might leave out such themes but they receive prominent expression in Olam Hamiddot.

R. Kestenbaum offers several interpretations and pieces of advice of profound insight. Avot 1:6 states that we should judge everyone favorably. Sefat Emet asks why the Hebrew reads “dan et kol ha’adam” rather than “dan et kol adam”.    He explains that we have no idea what frustrations and tribulations each person is dealing with.  Would we know the person’s entire story, acknowledging the “kol ha’adam” as it were, we would be far more understanding and forgiving (114).

Hazal teach that anyone who prays for mercy for a friend when he needs that very item is answered first (Bava Kama 92a).  The simple interpretation is that God rewards this person for his selflessness by fulfilling his need.  R. Kestenbaum cites a beautiful alternative explanation from his father.  Individuals in painful distress often find it quite difficult to think about anything other than their own difficulty.  Those capable of concern for others despite their own troubles have already experienced a kind of cure and salvation in escaping the fixation over what they lack (193).

The good advice includes a warning that those who love to rebuke are likely not acting for the sake of heaven (85) and a caution that the yezer hara can convince a person to perform many acts of compassion at the expense of his family (192).  One thinks of rabbis who have endless time for their students and congregants but not for their wife and children.  In addition, R. Kestenbaum suggests that you can truly tell the character of a man by how he treats his wife.  People like to maintain an upstanding image in public but may reveal more corrupt aspects of their personalities in a private home setting.  Furthermore, the constant interaction with a spouse makes it difficult to hide personal inadequacies (6-7).

I could stop the review here and heartily recommend this work.  While I do endorse it, Olam Hamiddot also reminded me of the vast gap between a charedi mindset and Modern Orthodoxy.  R. Kestenbaum asserts that all the hesed performed by gentiles is inauthentic and self-serving (174), something for which there is no evidence and I believe to be empirically false.  He assumes as obvious that Torah study is more important than acts of compassion (p. 192).  I realize that individual sources can be cited in support of such contentions but counter sources can be marshaled as well.

Olam Hamiddot adopts the charedi position that removes normal human emotions from our biblical heroes (40).  Rachel was not jealous of Leah for having children; rather, she was jealous of Leah for being righteous enough to merit children (92).  Such an approach flies in the face of the simplest reading of Tanakh, deviates from many medieval commentaries, and make the biblical stories far less relevant to centuries of readers.

Why do people believe in other religions?  R. Kestenbaum explains that the other religions are less demanding and people want to fulfill their desires (25).   I see no justification for denying genuine motivation to followers of other faiths.  Furthermore, Jewish sectarian groups such as the Karaites are often stricter on their practitioners than rabbinic Judaism.  Did we reject Karaism just so that we could have hot food on Shabbat?

Finally, R. Kestenbaum works with a conception of divine providence within which human effort has no impact (139).  Denying the natural order allows him to conclude that we cannot suffer harm due to our avodat Hashem (149) and that no mizva is truly a great test (154).   Again, I would argue that this assertion contradicts human experience.  Many people suffer immensely as a direct result of their adherence to religious ideals.  Why minimize their heroism in an attempt to foster a particular theology?

Obviously, Modern Orthodox Jews can sometimes transcend the differences between the two worlds and learn religious insight from our charedi brethren.  Indeed, Olam Hamiddot is full of worthwhile gems.  At the same time, we cannot ignore the profound differences with regard to ethics, gentiles, Tanakh study, the gedolim, and theology.  We can incorporate the valuable items located in charedi batei midrash while remaining discerning readers who remain attached to our core beliefs.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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