Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Madwoman and Mussar

Alan Morinis is Jewish by birth. From a secular family, he was pulled to explore Hinduism and Buddhism as a young man. But in the face of personal crisis, he turned to his Jewish heritage and happened upon the spiritual tradition called Mussar. He soon realized that he had discovered an insightful discipline for self-development, complete with contemplative and transformative practices designed to penetrate the deepest roots of the inner life.

Eventually reaching the limits of what he could learn on his own, he decided to seek out a Mussar teacher. This was not an easy task, since almost the entire world of the Mussar tradition had been swept away in the holocaust. In time, in Far Rockaway, Long Island, he found an accomplished master who stood in an unbroken line of transmission of the Mussar Tradition, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Derech Ayson, the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway. He has now been a practicing Orthodox Jew for close to eight years.

His book Climbing Jacobs Ladder, which Spirituality & Health voted book of the year, tells the inward story of his discovery of Mussar and the way it transformed his life. At times, it is almost a biography of Rabbi and Rebbitzen Perr. He has founded the Mussar institute (, which offers courses and programs for many kinds. He attended Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and has made his career as a producer of award-winning television and films. He still lives in Vancouver British Columbia with his wife and two daughters.

His newest book, Everyday Holiness (Boston, 2007) is a guide to practical growth in Mussar. Though there may be many others far more qualified and knowledgeable, Morinis quotes (Everyday Holiness p. 5) Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda whose Chovos Halevovos was published in the year 1070, where he writes:

“I knew many good ideas were rejected because of fear, that dread causes a lot of damage, and I recall the expression, “Be careful not to be too careful!” I realized that if everyone who ever resolved to do something good or to instruct others in the path of righteousness kept still until he himself could accomplish everything he set out to, that nothing would have been said since the days of the prophets.”

In Climbing Jacobs Ladder, (p. 177-8) he tells a story which in a deeper sense sums up the immense dedication that he has shown in his life’s journey. ‘Rabbi Perr told me a story one day that left even him shaking his head in astonishment at the capacity of the human heart to love and serve.

“When I was teaching at my father-in-laws yeshiva,” he said, “a man showed up one day unexpectedly. His wife had snapped, unfortunately. She was having a psychotic episode, and she was screaming like a banshee. With tremendous energies! Mad-person energies!
She was screaming without stop, without eating, without resting, without sleeping, around the clock. And she had to be restrained from jumping out the window, from attacking people. Can you imagine?

“Now this man didn’t want to hospitalize her because he was afraid of the stigma. And he knew there was a doctor in Flatbush who gave shock treatments in his office. He had arranged to see this doctor, but has to wait to take her there. There would be a series of treatments, and she would have to be kept not too far from Flatbush until the treatments took effect. So they wound up in my father-in-law’s apartment.

“Three or four of my students, who were in their twenties, and me too, we took turns guarding her so she wouldn’t harm herself or jump out the window. And the whole time she was spewing obscenities.

“This fellow had been taking the whole load on himself. He’d been up with her around the clock for about a week. He hadn’t changed his clothes, he hadn’t eaten, he couldn’t leave her alone. He was perspiring through his clothing which was stained and filthy. He was a clean-shaven person and he hadn’t shaved for a week. He was just a wreck.

“I said to him, ‘How long has this been going on?’ ‘About a week now,’ he answered. ‘But how can you take it?’ I asked. And you know what he answered me? He said, ‘what do you think marriage is? Just for the good times?’ Then after a moment he added, ‘And how does God “take” us? That is also a marriage!’ ”

Alan Morinis dreams that he will reach his brothers in the Jewish world and get them in touch with their souls. It is the depth and power of Mussar that he hopes will awaken their dormant spiritual fervor. After all, it was mussar lessons like this one that awakened his!

Published in The Jerusalem Life, Adar I 2008

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