Greg Marcus is a facilitator and innovator of American Mussar; here is a link to his website:
Q: What is Mussar?
A: Mussar is a 1000 year old Jewish spiritual practice that teaches how to find those things inside that cause us to get stuck in the same place and offers a path to balance and healing. Or put another way, Mussar is a Jewish path of mindfulness that helps us live our aspirational values in everyday life.
Mussar teaches that we all share the same soul traits, such as Humility, Patience, Honor and Trust. Our goal is to balance each trait. Too much of a soul trait is just as bad as not enough. For example, too little patience leads to anger and frustration, and too much patience leads to complacency in the face of a bad job or a bad relationship.
In a Mussar practice, we focus on a single soul trait for two weeks at a time. We have a mantra we say in the morning to frame our day, look for one small change we can make in our daily habits, and then we journal at night. All in all, it takes about 5 minutes a day. But as Malcolm Gladwell showed us in The Tipping Point, small changes can have very large impacts.
Q: How is American Mussar different than the traditional Mussar?
A: American Mussar is different only in areas of emphasis, to make Mussar accessible to the broad the 21st century American Jewish community. American Mussar is informed by a distinct Jewish American experience, and resides in conversation with Jewish teachings that go back thousands of years. The three defining principles of American Mussar are:
- Jewish Values through mindful living.
- Alternatives to “God talk.”
- No Hebrew, except for the word Mussar.
Q: Isn’t learning Hebrew a major part of Judaism?
Hebrew is an amazing language, and captures spiritual concepts better than any I know of. But the reality is that 50% of American Jews don’t even know the Hebrew alphabet. When we translate from Hebrew into English, something is lost. But most is retained, and for people getting started there is more than enough meat with the English translations.
In talking to many American Jews, I learned that Hebrew is a barrier to further participation. They feel uncomfortable with Hebrew terms, and even shame. I realized that I also felt ashamed that I didn’t know Hebrew, and I have had enough of those feelings. Mussar teaches that it is incumbent on the speaker not to cause discomfort, and not on the listener to “get over it.”
For some, Hebrew has become a kind of litmus test – if you don’t know the terms, or are not willing to drop everything to learn them, you aren’t a “real Jew.” I reject that kind of reasoning. Judaism is about lifelong learning. If someone finds it easier to get back on the ladder of learning without Hebrew – great! Hebrew will still be there if and when they are ready for it.
Q: How does your book use the teachings of Mussar?
A: The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions grew out of a class I created at my synagogue.
The class was called “Work Life Balance Through the Practice of Mussar.” I picked soul traits and Mussar teachings that I thought were particularly relevant to our community today. Let’s face it, we are a stressed-out, overworked bunch.
And our community fabric is nowhere near where it needs to be to give us the support we need to get through.
Q: How did you become interested in Mussar?
A: I learned about Mussar in a family education program at my synagogue. Rabbi Jennifer Clayman picked Mussar as the theme for the year. I was fascinated, because Mussar calls for making small incremental steps to bring ourselves into balance. I was in the process of writing my first book, in which I shared how I cut my hours by a third without changing jobs. The key was small incremental steps, based on my internal values. For example, I decided that my health was more important than work, so I stopped working at 9:30 to get a good night’s sleep. Then I decided that my wife was important, so I stopped working at 9. Then I stopped at 8 to spend time with the kids, and so on. Mussar works the same way.
Two years later, I went to a different Rabbi and said, “I want to teach Mussar.” She said, “Great.” Then I said, “I need to learn Mussar.” She said, “Great” and paid for me to take an online class called Everyday Holiness from The Mussar Institute. The reality is that I was two months ahead of the rest of the class, and was combing the web and reading everything I could get my hands on up until a few hours before each class. It was perfect.
Now I need to work harder to keep learning. It is easy to learn when you don’t know anything. Now that I know a little bit, I need to work a bit harder.
Q: What kind of income source or day job do you have?
Six years ago, I walked away from a healthy six figure salary as a product manager at a top genomics company. I didn’t like the direction the company was going, some of the people I was working with, and I was on a tough project. It was going to be for two months, to figure out what to do next. Then it became a year, and then indefinite. My day job has been stay-at-home dad for my two daughters, who are now teenagers.
I feel very fortunate that my wife has been so supportive, to let me pursue my dream.
I’ve done some consulting and speaking to earn some money. I am now a solopreneur building a business at AmericanMussar.com. Eventually I will have speaking, products like mantra cards, my book, and some online educational classes.
What I enjoy most is live events, seeing the reactions of people as their eyes open to Mussar, and evolve into the people they want to be. It happens every time.
Q: How was the soul traits quiz developed?
A: For each soul trait, I developed a spectrum graph that illustrates the consequences of having too much or two little of each soul trait. For example, too little Patience results in being angry and frustrated all the time, and too much Patience results in being complacent, prone to stay in bad jobs or bad relationships when one should be taking action.
I created a spider graph, where 1 is in the middle and 10 is on the outside, and then created the quiz where people could rate themselves for each soul trait. What you get in the end is a snapshot of your balance across 13 soul traits. The very act of looking within is transformation, and will start you on the path towards balance and harmony.
Q: If every soul was perfectly balanced wouldn’t the world be kind of boring? What would we all talk about?
A: I love that question! It reminds me of one of those Matrix movies, where the agent reveals that the first versions of the Matrix created a perfect world, but people rejected it. We were created in a certain way, and our task is to strive for balance, to strive for an ideal world, but not to experience it.
I am also reminded of a conversation that I share in the book about God. I asked people if they wanted to live in a world where God prevented the Holocaust, and other wars and human suffering. The answer we came to was “no” because we would lose our freedom and free will. Only the Divine is balanced in all soul traits. If you are unsure of the Divinity, think of it as a goal that we can all aspire to.
You’ve really got me going with this question, because I think it touches on a fear that many of us have that being good, or a mensch is somehow boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. We would go through life filled with Awe and curiosity, eager to dive in and engage with the people around us, never taking for granted the goodness in our lives, and getting the most out of life’s great joys, like eating, sex, and sleep.
Q: What does one get in your four week sampler?
A: The four week American Mussar Sampler is a great way to begin to experience Mussar. You’ll focus on one soul trait a week for a total of four weeks. Each week you’ll get access to a web page with a video, an introduction to the soul trait, and everything you need to start a practice. In addition, there is a private space to share your journey with the rest of the community.
Mussar is a practice, and the sampler will give you the elements you need to start practicing. You can:
- Learn your morning mantra to frame the day for introspection
- Recognize when you have too much or too little of the Soul Trait
- Take a small action to bring yourself towards balance and healing
Plus, you’ll have access to online support to help you on your way.
Q: Who is a modern day example of a mensch?
A: In the opening of my book, I point to my late cousin Sandy Kaplan as a mensch. Sandy wasn’t a mensch because of his MIT degree or successful business. Sandy was a mensch because he came to every family event, never had a bad word to say about anyone, and carried a sunny, positive disposition.
If you’d like a more famous example, I wrote on Tikkun.org that Congressman John Lewis is a mensch, because he has dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of people in need. And if you hear Lewis speak, he is so humble, so full of concern for other people that he just radiates menchiness.
If we are lucky we have someone in our life who is a mensch.
The good news is that we all have the capacity to be a mensch. All we need is a manual to help us walk the path. Mussar is that manual, and I’ve done my best to write The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions to make it accessible and relevant to you. You are heartily invited to join me on the Path of the Mensch. No background is needed – wherever you are, there is one small step you can take towards balance.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.