Rabbi Geoffrey Claussen recently wrote about "The American Jewish Revival of Mussar" for the Institute of Advanced Cultural Studies at the University of Virginia.

To summarize and paraphrase all too quickly, the Mussar movement arose in the early-mid 1800s. It emphasized the development of personal virtue as a Jewish religious value, asking practitioners to devote time and energy to introspection, self-criticism, and the development of a position of humility and service. The original movement was largely wiped out by the Holocaust, but it has recently experienced a revival in the United States, and largely among the non-Orthodox community.

In discussing the attractions and challenges that Mussar holds for modern Jews, Claussen repeatedly refers to the 1998 study, "The Jew Within: Self, Community, and Commitment Among the Variety of Moderately Affiliated," by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen. On the one hand, the personal and individualistic nature of Mussar practice resonate with some of the common values that, the study found, are common among modern and particularly young Jews. On the other hand, the demand for personal sacrifice and subjugation of the individual will to the greater values found in the religious tradition seem to go against the grain of many of the modern tools for personal development - therapy, self-help, empowerment, etc.

Bitch Magazine recently published an emphatic critique of some of these current trends in personal development (particularly focused on women). In "Eat, Pray, Spend", Joshunda Sanders and Diana Barnes-Brown coin the term "priv-lit" to refer to a certain corpus of modern publishing, encompassing books like the personal memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" to, well, most of Oprah (according to the authors). They criticize a culture that seems to conflate consumerism and personal development, that seems to place an obligation of happiness/personal development on women - an obligation that requires the expenditure of, in these times, increasingly scarce personal income, and which seems to offer personal development as a commodity to a privileged class that can afford to pay for therapy, yoga, and travel.

If there are Jews who are feeling a need for personal actualization and individualistic Jewish practice/identity, and who are also either poor-to-poorish, or riding anti-consumerist trends (and there do seem to be!) the Mussar movement, with its humble, personal approach to virtue-building and character development, seems like it could be a great vehicle for engaging the 'moderately affiliated.'

The Mussar Institute offers a 13 lesson 'Season of Mussar' program for $100 - whether that's more expensive commoditizing of personal development or a cheap investment (that pays overworked and underpaid Jewish professionals) for personal development depends where exactly along the spectrum of wealth/anti-consumerism one stands. In any case, the philanthropic wealth that currently supports all kinds of efforts to engage Jews and support Jewish continuity could probably make opportunities like this (and others) go quite a long way. Perhaps there are some issues about the commoditization of the mussar movement for Jewish outreach to be considered - but maybe it would be good for all of us anyway.