Every time I think “wow I’m really starting to understand a lot about Judaism,” I learn about something incredible that knocks me back down to “You know nothing, Jon Snow!” The old sentiment of the more I learn, the less I know, applies in my case, such as when I learned about Mussar and Kabbalah. Yes, once you’re done a lifetime of study amongst all of the Jewish religious texts, Billy Mays pops up and says, “but wait, there’s more!”
Mussar is a spiritual practice that teaches you how to live an ethical life, through cultivating virtuous transformation of the individual. Through Mussar you don’t simply learn about being a good person, you learn how to actually be a good person, which are two very different things. Whereas traditionally Judaism has been law-based ethics, Mussar introduced virtue-based ethics, as well as practices to become a better person and to move closer to G-D. Yet Mussar played a very minor role in Judaism until the 19th century when Rabbi Israel Salanter created the Mussar movement.
Sadly, the Holocaust claimed the lives of most of the Mussar practitioners and masters, and Mussar was nearly forgotten. Today, Mussar has seen a resurgence in nearly all movements of Judaism and continues to grow as a path of piety.
Kabbalah stands as the mystical movement in Judaism, the deeper hidden teachings in accordance with Torah. Kabbalah is considered an esoteric practice that is widely accepted within Judaism, as it’s believed to bring one to know G-D deeper. The wisdom and practices of the Kabbalah stand to unite humanity and the divine, and help to better understand creation and our place in the world. Kabbalat Shabbat, havdalah, and the Tu BiShvat seder all come from Kabbalist sources!
Though I myself don’t wholly understand Mussar and Kabbalah, I will, as soon as I fully learn the multitude of basic Jewish literature (Torah, Talmud, Midrash, Mishnah, Shulchan Aruch, etcetera). My only regret is that I only have one lifetime to study and learn all of the Jewish teachings…