About Mussar Blues

Rick Dinitz, Mussar Blues promo

Rick Dinitz

Mussar Blues infuses the wisdom of Mussar masters with the infectious energy of Blues, Jazz, and Soul, amplifying the power of a classic Jewish tool for reshaping our inner traits. Lyrics show the way to be a mensch. Sing these songs aloud. Engrave their message in your heart, change habits and behavior. 

Rick Dinitz has been creating Mussar Blues to use in his personal spiritual practice since 2005, and sharing these songs and chants in the Mussar community since 2010.

“My mission is to make this music and this practice widely available, to share Mussar chanting as a tool for self-refinement, and to promote Mussar as a down-to-earth spiritual path. Launching the Mussar Blues website to distribute these initial recordings is an exciting milestone.”

About Mussar

Mussar is a traditional Jewish path of self-refinement and strengthening, with the goal of becoming the mensch God created each of us to be. The modern Mussar movement innovated a system of practical steps to move us toward that goal. Mussar is a worldview and a life-changing practice. 

Mussar wisdom includes biblical and rabbinic writings, eleven centuries of classic Mussar books, and two centuries of teaching an organized practice. In recent years Mussar has grown in popularity as modern spiritual seekers rediscover its value and effectiveness. 

Each Mussar student discovers a personal curriculum—the set of soul traits to strengthen and refine.  Soul traits include patience, humility, courage, silence, gratitude, order, generosity, and more. 

Practical tools for inner growth and refinement include studying Mussar wisdom, journaling, chanting, meditation, visualization, contemplation, silence, and specific tasks. This website focuses primarily on chanting.

Mussar Chanting FAQ

What’s the idea behind Mussar chanting?  I think of Mussar chanting as planting a catchy jingle in my head and my heart. The words tell me what I need to hear, whenever I need to hear it. Ultimately, the point of Mussar chanting is to sing the lesson into my soul, to change my brain wiring, my heart, my behavior. Because chanting holds a teaching near the front of my mind, it can also open me to new understanding.

What is the practice in a nutshell?  The practice consists of repeating a phrase of Mussar wisdom aloud, with intensity, to engrave it into the heart, so it will be available when needed. If a new insight emerges, capture it.

What words do I chant?  You choose the words you chant. What do you need to hear? The phrase can serve as a reminder, as encouragement, as rebuke, as a warning, or as preparation—any self-talk that I need to hear as I work on a middah / trait. You can use words of Torah, words from Musssar classics, or invent your own phrase.

What is the role of music?  Melody, while not strictly necessary, can help sustain interest so you'll happily chant more repetitions. Melody can increase intensity, and activate memory. Alan Morinis, the founder of The Mussar Institute, notes in his book, Everyday Holiness, that music can “penetrate to the core of being, where conscious thought cannot reach.” 

Where does Mussar chanting originate?  Chanting is a technique of the modern Mussar movement, pioneered by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, in 19th century Lithuania. He took a classic method for learning Torah, and used it to reshape behavior. 

How does chanting fit into a Mussar practice?  Mussar students use several techniques, which include studying Mussar wisdom, journaling, chanting, meditation, visualization, contemplation, silence, and specific tasks.

Why is chanting important?  Rabbi Dov Katz, historian of the modern Mussar movement, noted the remarkable power of Mussar chanting: “Of all the methods introduced by the [Mussar] movement, the most radical and effective was found to be the repetitive moral recitation”—by which he meant chanting. 

Why does chanting work?  Contemporary neuroscience provides the theory to understand why Mussar chanting is so effective. Chanting is experiential, multi-modality learning. “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Repetition of words or ideas makes them available. Physical involvement—singing and movement—strengthens learning more than silent reading alone because it brings more neurons into the firing constellation. Emotional affect pulls in even more neurons. 

In which language should I chant?  Although Judaism regards the Hebrew language with a special holiness, it is not necessary to chant in Hebrew. Rabbi Zvi Miller, who introduced me to Mussar chanting, says “Chant in your primary language—the language you dream in. Our target is the subconscious.” So these songs are in English, Hebrew, or both.

Mussar Chanting Tips

In Mussar chanting we repeat a focus phrase or a song many times over an extended period—a week, or a month. Drill it in deep. 

I usually chant alone, while walking, biking, or driving.  I also lead group chanting, usually to teach a chant or demonstrate the technique—yet group chanting has its own power. 

Choose your focus phrase for personal relevance. Consider your issues around a specific middah, and select words that address those issues. Mussar chanting centers on content, while music and other modalities serve the words. If one of my songs suits your purpose, please use it (after all, that's why I've made these recordings). If not, find words that work for you and repeat them—whether you sing them or repeat them without melody.

Be intentional and active in chanting. Chant with intensity and emotion—as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said, “with lips aflame.” For example, repeat key words within your focus phrase. Whisper, shout, or ornament selected words for further emphasis. Pace the floor, wave your arms, invent gestures that illustrate or emphasize the words. Use your whole body to physically imprint the teaching in muscle memory and audio memory. 

Rabbi Zvi Miller taught me that chanting with “a soulful melody” is important to the technique. I have found that the particular musical style is less important than the fact that the style resonates with your own soul. Even screaming the words without musicality can still qualify as Mussar chant, if it reaches into your heart.

Here is another example of Mussar chanting from The Mussar Institute.

Blues You Can Use

Why do I chant in a bluesy style? Why does it work for me? 

Blues holds my interest, which encourages many repetitions. 

Blues builds intensity and emotion. It moves my whole body, and grabs my soul. 

Blues has a clear structure, familiar patterns, and easy-to-remember musical conventions. 

Blues makes room for improvisation—room to bring the individual into the music, and to make the music part of me.

Music for You

The music I offer you on this web site has been a key part of my own Mussar practice. I share it with the hope that you also find it helpful. 

If you already have a Mussar practice, this music can move you forward. 

If you’re new to Mussar, perhaps this music could open that path for you. 

If you teach through music, students of all ages have engaged with these songs—adult, teen, elementary school, and pre-school. 

Listen. Sing. Grow.

Mussar Concepts and Worldview

Mussar gives us a new way to see our world, our selves, our relationships, and our actions. When we put ourselves in a Mussar frame of mind, the world looks different. 

Tzelem Elokim / Image of God 

We are all individuals created in the image of God. Each of us is a soul, which embraces both neshamah and nefesh (these Hebrew words denote separate aspects of “soul”). 

At our core is the neshamah / soul that is inherently holy and pure, and cannot be stained by anything we do. It is the root of kavod / honor for all people. 

Our nefesh / soul can be governed by free will. It’s where we work. The nefesh registers good and bad, and our actions can either sully or cleanse it. The nefesh is filled with familiar middot / traits. 

Middah / Soul Trait  (middot, plural) 

A middah is an inner human trait. Moral traits include kindness, patience, pride, generosity, and anger. Rational traits include logic, memory and judgement. 

The word middah also means “measure,” referring to the strength of a trait. Everyone has each trait in some measure. What makes us different from one another is the measure of each trait within us. 

Each trait has its role in our lives. Our task is to tune them all properly. “Middot are lenses through which we see our behavior.” –Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde quoting Rabbi Ira Stone

The Mussar definition of a trait often differs from the colloquial meaning of the word we use to name it. 

Balance 

We each have within us a full range of middot, it’s just a difference of degree. Each middah has its role, and its proper balance  depending on the person, the time, and the situation—not too much, not too little. Unbalanced middot block our inner light from shining out. Unblocking our inner light lets us fulfill our potential and contribute to the world. Our Mussar goal is to rebalance our middot.

Wholeness 

Each person is unique, and purposely created as an incomplete being. We each have the opportunity to complete ourselves by bringing our middot into balance. “Not only is the human being created for this purpose, but is also given the ability and capacity to attain this supreme goal.” –Rabbi Yisrael Salanter

Growth 

Everyone grows all the time. Life makes us grow. The question is whether we grow with good guidance. Either we take thoughtful steps to change, or we will continue to suffer from our unbalance. Our growth is not an end in itself. It is so that we can open our hearts and help others.

Mussar Vocabulary of Practice

Curriculum  

Each of us has our own curriculum, based on our experiences, our life situation, and our Life Assignment. We find clues to the middot on our curriculum by looking into our lives for our places of un-balance, the issues that repeatedly challenge us. As we make progress in mastering our curriculum, we gain freedom and control over our habitual patterns. As we do, new elements of the curriculum emerge. As long as we are alive we have a curriculum and we have work to do.  

Experiential Learning  

Mussar demands that we act to change our Nefesh / Soul. Reading, thinking, and talking are excellent tools—and they are not enough. The Mussar masters also gave us tools of action we can use to help us change—chanting, journaling, and behavioral missions. Mussar learning is more than intellectual, it is also hands-on, experiential, and daily.  

Gradual Change  

We change incrementally, step by step. First, we become sensitive to inner stirrings, noticing where we are out of balance.  

Second, we act with self-restraint, because our external actions act upon our internal self. “Chitzonit m’orer pnimiut / the external awakens the internal” –Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler quoting Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. Modern neurobiology restates this insight as “neurons that fire together wire together.”  

Third, our efforts transform us. We have changed the balance of a middah. 

Cheshbon haNefesh / Soul Accounting  

A daily journaling practice, called cheshbon hanefesh / soul accounting, helps us recognize what went well and what needs work. This introspection fuels growth. 

Where were my challenges? Where did I struggle to do right (bechirah point)? What contributes to the well-being of my soul?  

We look carefully because “the little tremors that take place in everyday life reveal the fault lines that run beneath the surface.” –Alan Morinis  

Bechirah Point / Choice Point 

In many decisions it is easy to choose the right. But in decisions that connect to our imbalances, that choice is difficult. We might know the right choice, and yet be unable to do it. We might fool ourselves, talk ourselves out of the right choice, or find some reason that excuses us from the right choice.  

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler called these difficult decisions bechirah points / choice points, and it is here that we need to intentionally and actively choose the right path. Every time we choose, that choice becomes easier for us in the future. When we choose right, we strengthen our ability to choose right again. When we choose wrong, we strengthen harmful habits. Mussar can help us do this hard work at these opportunities for growth. 

Mussar Moment  

In some moments we realize we are at a bechirah point and our Mussar work can help us choose the right action to do. In that Mussar moment we stop, and then act intentionally.  

Life as Laboratory  

We encounter opportunities for growth in our everyday lives. We do not need to search out Mussar moments, rather, they come to find us. Mussar practices prepare us to meet our Mussar moments.  

Complementary Middot  

Alan Morinis teaches that brute force of will-power rarely accomplishes lasting change. Telling ourselves “Be patient!” is insufficient. Instead we look for other middot that can affect the target middah. For example, to reduce anger, build patience. And to increase patience, focus on compassion, humility, and silence.  

Mussar Partnerships  

We practice Mussar in three settings:  

Alone, for cheshbon hanefesh and introspection.  
With a chevruta / partner, paired for trust, intimacy, and insight.  
In a va’ad / larger group, for accountability, honesty, and support. We don’t have to go it alone, because we have a community.  

Yetzer haRa  

This term personifies our inner drives, self-interest, and behavior, directed by neither morality nor logic. The Yetzer haRa says “Look out for number one. Indulge yourself. Don’t think of others. Selfish is OK.”  The Yetzer haRa knows exactly what to say to lure me away from the choices I know I must make. But it is also part of me, and will never go away. Expect it to show up often. When it does, greet it kindly, yet stay independent.

Learn More

The Mussar Institute — The first address for Mussar today. This is where my Mussar journey began, with a distance learning course, writings by Alan Morinis, and partners for learning. TMI continues to expand its offerings of courses, books, videos, podcasts, newsletters, webinars, and more. TMI annual Kallah is a perennial highlight on my spiritual calendar.

Photo by Holly Shepherd