Social Action or Spiritual Practice: Which is the Priority? By Alan Morinis, Director of the Mussar Institute
The title of this essay makes no sense to me. To set up social action on one hand and spiritual practice on the other, as if these could be considered separable alternatives, seems to me like asking, “Which is more important for life: brains or heart?” Try living without either of them.
And yet this is precisely an argument that goes on, because some activists disparage the introspective, contemplative approaches to living that come under the heading of spirituality, while people inclined toward prayer, meditation and spiritual ascent do sometimes make out that social action is too this-worldly, lacking in the profound truth of the transcendent.
My views are colored by my decade-long engagement with the Mussar tradition in Judaism, which is explicitly a spiritual tradition but one that values (and, in fact, makes a priority) of action on behalf of the community. As the founder of the 19th century Mussar movement in Lithuania, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, put it: “A good Jew does not worry about his own stomach and somebody else’s soul, he worries about somebody else’s stomach and his own soul.” And in another of his quotable and insightful comments, he said, “The spiritual is higher than the material, but the material needs of others are an obligation of my spiritual life.”
The practical spiritual work of Mussar is focused on tikkun ha’middot, which in practice means improving, uplifting and cultivating the qualities that we all experience in our inner lives. The essential interplay of the inner and the outer is what brings to Mussar the perspective that both are necessary, because the world needs us (and the Torah compels us) to seek personal spiritual advancement as well as social justice.
It is a fact that effective social action demands attention to the inner life of the actor, in exact parallel to the way the spiritual ascent of the soul requires engagement with the issues of the community. Support for this view can be brought from experience.
People working on social issues who are not attentive to their inner life will simply act out their inner imbalances in a public way. For example, an excessively angry person who sets out to fix something in the world is sure soon to become angry about something or other, and will then likely break more than he or she fixes. Or a person who has not dealt with their lust will likely stumble over their own desires, as we have seen in innumerable cases of public figures. And so on through all the inner traits that can and do challenge different people. Their own inner traits are likely to become the very stumbling blocks over which they tumble.
And the inverse is equally true. To have a wonderful quiet little room in the back of the house, or an ideal beis medrash, in which to spend endless days in learning, prayer, meditation and contemplation while people suffer and the world burns can't be what HaShem wants from us by way of spiritual and religious practice. The whole soul requires a measure (middah) of generosity, compassion, chesed, etc., which can only be brought into reality when we interact with others. This is a recurrent theme in the book of Yesheyahu.
The Mussar teachers often captured the goal of personal spiritual practice by saying that the aim is to move closer to shlemut, which translates as “wholeness.” Social activists are workers on behalf of peace—shalom—from the same linguistic root. Similarly, it is their elevated soul that brings a person the designation of tzaddik (righteous), while the one who seeks to improve the world pursues tzeddek. These correspondences are not incidental; embedded right in the Hebrew is the clear message that tells us that the inner qualities and the outer qualities are interdependent. We should learn from this and get clear on the dual priorities we need to bring to our souls and our communities.
Alan Morinis is an anthropologist, filmmaker, writer, and student of spiritual traditions. He is an active interpreter of the teachings and practices of the Mussar tradition and regularly gives lectures and workshops. Born and raised in a culturally Jewish but non-observant home, he studied anthropology at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship. His doctoral thesis was published by Oxford University Press as Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition. Alan has written books and produced feature films, television dramas and documentaries and has taught at several universities. Although he took a deep journey into Hindu and Buddhist thought and practice, for the past seven years the nearly-lost Jewish spiritual discipline of Mussar has been his passion, a journey recorded in the book Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (Broadway 2002). His guide to Mussar practice, entitled Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, was published in May 2007. He lives in Vancouver, BC, with his wife of over 30 years, Bev Spring.