The school management team’s off-site annual retreat was about to descend into chaos as two key players representing opposing interests, the chief financial officer and the dean of students, refused to compromise on how to prioritize student services in the budget for the next year. While sounding fairly mundane, this issue represented a long-standing and deep-seated conflict between the school’s operations and education sides. My co-facilitator and I could feel the despair in the room and we called a break. After huddling for a few minutes we asked the nine-person team, “What trait on your soul curriculum do you think is key in holding this conflict in place?” The majority of the team responded, “Trust.”
For most organizations, this would be a bizarre question. However, this school had been working with us for the past year on integrating the Jewish wisdom tradition of Mussar (applied Jewish ethics) into its management team’s work. Team members dedicated one meeting each month to studying Jewish wisdom about traits such as patience, humility, order and trust, and practiced putting these traits into action in their day-to-day tasks — staff supervision, donor cultivation, curriculum development, board management, and the like.
After the team identified trust as a key issue, we entered into a several-month period of practice with this trait framed by Jewish wisdom. This included studying Biblical and Mussar texts that focused on Moses as the model of a trustworthy leader and analogized him to a tent peg planted in firm ground. This rich metaphor allowed team members to explore what it meant for them to create solid ground for each other and for their direct reports. The team created a group practice for developing trust called, “Good Agreements.” Team members all committed to end every meeting, whether one-to-one or with multiple people, with an agreement that included decisions made, when a deliverable was due, and a process for checking in on progress. After several months of practice, team members reported a demonstrable improvement in their level of trust and comfort with team colleagues.
Dr. Alan Morinis, founder of The Mussar Institute, coined the term “Soul Curriculum,” which refers to the personal challenges and tests each of us faces over the course of our lives. We don’t choose these challenges but as we face them throughout our lives we learn, grow and, ultimately, reveal our innate holiness. I believe that organizations, as human-created entities, also have soul curriculums and face challenges throughout their lifespans. Mussar is the Jewish wisdom tradition that helps us navigate our soul curriculum. Mussar, which translates to “ethics” and “instruction” in Hebrew, is a 1,000 year-old guidance system for living with integrity to our highest personal and Torah values.
The discipline is organized around the soul traits, those personality traits such as patience, courage, anger and compassion. The practice involves studying Jewish wisdom about a chosen trait, developing awareness of how the trait manifests in your life, taking action to either reduce or increase the trait in daily life, and reflecting at the end of the day about how the trait showed up. Each trait typically is practiced for two to four weeks before the practitioner move onto the curriculum’s next trait. Contemporary neuroscience and the discipline of positive psychology are confirming many of this tradition’s ancient insights. Mussar is experiencing a renaissance in Israel and North America where thousands of people engage in daily practice in formal groups.
One of the things I find most exciting about Mussar is its ability to turn the mundane tasks of organizational life into a spiritual practice. One synagogue board in New Jersey was struggling to implement an “in-reach” project to engage members on the community’s margins to participate more actively. After some probing, it became clear that the project stalled because board members felt timid and nervous about contacting people they did not know well and possibly being rejected. These board members identified courage, trust and holy boldness as traits on their soul curriculum and created a practice out of these traits. For example, one board member decided to meditate on a verse from Psalms about courage for a minute before making three calls each week to talk to congregational members she didn’t know well.
In a leadership development program for board chairs, participants practiced the soul trait of humility as they led their own board meetings. In Mussar, humility means being right-sized — either stepping up or stepping back depending on the needs of the moment. For some chairs, this meant being quieter than usual to let other board members share their thinking while for others it meant stepping into their power and being more vocal than is usually comfortable. All of these board chairs studied Jewish wisdom about humility, crafted daily practices, and met at least monthly with their peers in practice groups. The beauty of this process is that it makes Jewish values come alive in the daily business of our organizations while giving a spiritual, inner dimension to what are usually mundane leadership and management tasks.
What traits do you think are on your soul curriculum as a Jewish professional? Think of a particular challenge you are facing at work and then review this list of traits. Choose two or three that seem relevant. I recommend choosing at least one that feels like a strength and others that need to either be contracted or expanded. This is the beginning of your soul curriculum.
As Jewish communal professionals we are engaged in holy work. Every day we try to put the best values of our tradition into practice. But this elevated mission can get lost or bogged down in the pressures and minutia of everyday tasks. By turning this work into spiritual practice, we can reengage with the heart of the work and truly live out our holy mission.