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New book brings to life Judaism's 'Elder of Kelm'

"Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar" by Assistant Professor Geoffrey Claussen recounts the life of a 19th century Jewish leader who greatly influenced a movement focused on the development of human character.

A new book by an Elon University scholar delves into the life of a 19th century rabbi who promoted the notion that developing compassion requires extraordinary effort.

Published by SUNY Press, “Sharing the Burden: Rabbi Simhah Zissel Ziv and the Path of Musar” by Assistant Professor Geoffrey Claussen traces the history of what came to be known as the Musar Movement, which sought to focus Jews on the development of human character.

Love. Kindness. Humility. Compassion. Claussen points to many moral traits that the Musar Movement emphasized, and he structures his book around the teachings of Simhah Zissel, who came to be known as the “Elder of Kelm.”

Though he didn’t found the movement - that was credited to his mentor, Rabbi Israel Salanter - Simhah Zissel did start the first Lithuanian school that implemented such teachings. And while the Musar Movement never fully took off outside Eastern Europe, it did influence the curriculum of other yeshivas, much to the dismay of educational traditionalists.

Claussen shows how the Musar Movement didn’t seek to replace traditional study of Jewish law, but to supplement it with prescriptions for rigorous practices of meditation, journaling, visualization and chanting, as well as other sorts of ethical and ritual behavior. This didn’t sit well with rabbis who saw the study of the Torah as the only way to truly understand God.

“There’s a lot to learn here about the history of Jewish ethics that has not already been emphasized,” Claussen said of the topic, which originated from his doctoral dissertation at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Assistant Professor Geoffrey Claussen, Elon University's Lori and Eric Sklut Emerging Scholar in Jewish Studies

World War II and the death of millions of European Jews destroyed much of the movement. More than a half a century later, it is seeing renewed interest among non-Orthodox Jews in the United States, making Claussen’s book a key source of information for rabbis, scholars and educators.  

“Many American Jews think of Judaism as a path that can help make them into better people, and this is a method focused on that goal,” Claussen said. “I hope people can learn from both the successes and the struggles of the Musar movement to cultivate compassion.”

Claussen joined the Elon faculty in August 2011 as an assistant professor of religious studies. In April 2012, he was named the Lori and Eric Sklut Emerging Scholar in Jewish Studies. He is also the founding director of Elon's Jewish Studies program, which launched in Fall 2012.

His courses explore the history of the Jewish tradition, from the Hebrew Bible to contemporary Judaism. His scholarship focuses on Jewish ethics and the legacy of the Musar movement, and he has particular interests in questions of love and justice, war and violence, and moral education.

“Most of us, myself included, let ourselves off the hook too easily in our moral lives,” Claussen said. “I know that I have benefitted from studying and writing about a thinker (Simhah Zissel) who sought to be as introspective as he could be, and who pushed himself and his students to fill the world with greater and greater compassion.”


Eric Townsend,
11/13/2015 9:20 AM