Sell the Torah, Put the Kid in School

by Rabbi Alissa Wise

When I entered rabbinical school, I had a secret agenda – to finally find a Jewish practice to strengthen and sustain my social justice work and commitments that went beyond Biblical quotes imploring us to treat the worker fairly, but that would hold a practice of reflection, honesty, integrity and accountability. I found that practice in mussar.

Mussar, more or less, means ethics. It comes from Proverbs 1:2 where the meaning is about instruction, discipline, or conduct. Mussar is the ethical thread in Judaism — we can find it in Torah, Gemara, halakhah (Jewish law), Jewish literature, and the long history of Jewish labor and social justice activism.  It was also, more formally, an ethical, spiritual, and cultural movement founded in the 19th century in Eastern Europe by Rabbi Israel Salanter.

I relate to Rabbi Salanter in part because he, like me was a rabbi and an organizer. He traveled around from shtetl, to village, to town supporting communities of mussar practitioners—Jews devoted to ethical living.

There is a story of Rabbi Salanter visiting one of the mussar towns he was organizing, and, to his great surprise, finds a school-age boy sitting on the street in the middle of the day.

He asks him, “Boy, why are you not in school?”

The boy replies “My parents don’t have enough money to pay the tuition, so I can not go to school.”

This enrages Rabbi Salanter—what kind of mussar town can have a young boy not in school?

Rabbi Salanter promptly takes the boy and heads to the school. He demands from the headmaster “Why is this boy not in school?”

The headmaster replies “His family can’t pay the tuition, and we can’t have him in school if he doesn’t pay the tuition.”

At this point Salanter is fuming. He rushes into the the House of Prayer, opens the ark and finds in it a big, beautiful Torah scroll. He turns to the headmaster and demands—”sell the Torah, put the kid in school.”

As we ended our JVP West Coast Regional Leadership Development Institute outside Portland, Oregon last weekend, this story was the only one I could use to describe my feeling of who we are and what we are doing at JVP.  We at JVP strive for this – a sense of radical responsibility in the world, of obligation to community, not just to self, and above all else a readiness and ability to refocus.

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