The invitation of mussar is to be mindful and respectful of the burdens on others
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said “no one is free until we are all free.” This idea, profound in its simplicity, finds company among famous aphorisms in the Jewish textual tradition—the biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and Hillel the Elder’s famous principle, “that which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbors.”
These ideas rely on, and are deepened by the others: you not only must love, you must not do what another hates. You must not do what another hates and you must know your freedom is bound up in your neighbor’s—no matter how comfortable you are. These ethical realities and complexities are the focus of mussar, the Jewish ethical tradition.
The invitation of mussar is to be mindful and respectful of the burdens on others–nearly the same invitation King made through this leadership in the civil rights movement. At its most basic, an anti-racist commitment is one that promises equality and dignity, honors our interconnectedness, and contains a commitment to an ongoing process of honest self-reflection. This is the spiritual obligation of Judaism; mussar is one of the Jewish paths towards it.
Each evening, I take out my mussar journal as part of my regular mussar practice. I reflect on the day and how I have met my obligations to my neighbor. When have I done to someone what I hate to have done to me? How have I mistaken my privilege for freedom?
At the weekly meetings of my mussar va’ad (council of mussar practitioners), we support and challenge each other to answer these questions even more honestly and fully and to change the way we behave—not just the way we think.
After all, these are the sorts of questions that led white folks to ride alongside black Freedom Riders in the South. These are the sorts of questions that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These are the sorts of questions that, when our hearts are most open, lead us closer to our beloveds and our neighbors alike.
Rabbi Alissa Wise is director of campaigns at Jewish Voice for Peace. She graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2009.