Jewish World Review June 18, 1998 / 24 Sivan, 5758

Ted Roberts

Mark Twain in Rabbi Israel of Salant's (rabbinical) court

I WONDER WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED if Rabbi Israel of Salant, Lithuania -- the founder of Judaism's Mussar movement -- ever met Mark Twain.

Mark Twain, you know, I'm sure. We owe him for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. And a great book called Life on the Mississippi plus several travel books including Innocents Abroad and Following the Equator. Unfortunately, the latter didn't take him through Lithuania.

With a bow to frankness, it should be admitted that the Mississippi storyteller always chose bourbon and water with a few close pals over Bible study. No Tzadik (saint), he. While Twain may have performed good deeds, his reputation was tarnished by his jarring comments on organized religion.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking Mark Twain's character. I'm just telling you he never paid a nickel in dues to mosque, church, or synagogue. And no blue and white pushke box crowned his icebox. I suspect he didn't have a lot in common with Rabbi Israel; though Twain's awe over the mystery of Jewish survival is well known. "All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality," he once wrote.

Mark Twain, you'll recall, was a world class cynic. If G-d had undertaken the lengthy trip down to Hannibal, Missouri; shown His eminence to the writer, and then caused the Mighty Mississippi to run backwards, Twain would have yawned and commented that hallucinations are common in the human breed and can be caused by even the smallest nibble of a polluted chicken liver.

Now Rabbi Israel, on the other hand, was a man that saw the hand of the Creator in every nook and cranny of the universe. The simple sight of the muddy Mississippi flowing duly South to New Orleans would have provoked him to praise G-d who made rivers to water and make fertile the great continents. And from his fervent faith based on a great work called Mesillas Yesharim by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, came the Mussar movement.

You've never heard of Mussar? Don't be embarrassed. Neither had Mark Twain; nor this writer, 'til Rabbi Abraham Twerski in Lights Along the Way and my chacham of a son called it to my attention.

Mussar is a simple doctrine. A concentration on constant moral and ethical improvement. It encourages self-examination and subsequent improvement. And that's what Torah study is all about, it reminds us --- spiritual growth, not theological quibbles. This is not to demean Torah study, says Twerski, but to remember that the Golden Goal is Union with G-d. Just as the purpose of Mark Twain's Mississippi is not the creation of oxbow bands, or the undercutting of banks, or the transport of silt, or a watery back for the tugboat trade --- but union with that Southern Sea that waits at the end of the continent.

Rabbi Israel, of course, could have met Mark Twain. After all, only a couple decades and 6,000 miles separated their earthly existence; and a snap of the Almighty's fingers could handle that. The man from Missouri would have lectured Israel of Salant about his steamboating exploits and life on the Mississippi. The author was no slouch at self-promotion. And the Lithuanian Rabbi, who was said to be a charismatic teacher, you can bet would have given Twain a Mussar dissertation of prodigious intensity.

The Rabbi, enchanted by ethics and the ex-steamboat captain, in love with the river. I can see them sitting across the table from each other.

Twain, in his book Life on the Mississippi, talks about how the steamboat pilot must memorize every feature of the river's face; shoals, cliffs, islands, beds of stumps, headlands, since he must often navigate in the dark of night. Then, once the apprentice pilot thinks he's locked into memory 500 miles of river terrain --- the water level changes and new features emerge or old features disappear. Everything changes. But sometimes, Twain remarks, when the river, due to heavy rains, is at high tide, miraculous things happen. New chutes or shortcuts between bends develop. Fresh channels open up, rivenuays previously blocked by spiky stumps are suddenly navigable.

The Rabbi would have loved the metaphor. How his eyes would shine to relish the obvious analogy --- Life and the River. Just as the rising river offers new directions, the elevated moral life produced by the Mussar philosophy opens up channels to the Almighty that were previously shallow bogs, unnavigable. And the marooned soul stuck on a sandbar --- suddenly floating free, back in the safe channel of the river.

The old river pilot would have smiled over the new twist to his "High Water" metaphor. I like to think that he and the Rabbi -- over a small bourbon or maybe a cup of tea and a bagel -- would have solidly agreed on the precepts of Mussar.

JWR's very own Ted Roberts is a nationally syndicated humorist based in Huntsville, Alabama.


4/98: Even Philistines grow wiser: Revisiting Hebrew School
3/3/98: Shusan Rhapsody
2/15/98: There's nothing new under the sun (especially chicken feet)!
2/3/98: To Bubbe's house we go!

© 1998, Ted Roberts