Title: Soul Construction: Shape Your Character Using 8 Steps From the Timeless Jewish Practice of Mussar
By Ruchi Koval
In her book Soul Construction, Ruchi Koval defines mussar as “an ancient path toward spirituality, based on personal ethics and character development.” Mussar is the Jewish ethical tradition of self-improvement and moral conduct, the study of which was pioneered by Rav Yisrael Salanter in the nineteenth century. Koval, a seasoned Jewish educator based in Cleveland, Ohio, has made teaching mussar a central part of her educational approach. Soul Construction serves as a how-to guide for the practice of mussar, making the ideas accessible and interesting to the novice and expert alike.
The book is divided into eight chapters, each of which is dedicated to a different character trait. Including topics such as “favorable judgment” and “happiness,” Koval opted to focus on personal qualities that are most crucial to maintaining effective relationships. The purpose of mussar is to work on one’s own growth and not to attempt to fix others, but Koval’s thesis is that when a person changes for the better, they impact everyone in their orbit. The book explains the ways that the traits under discussion come up in daily life and gives practical advice on how to gradually improve one’s proficiency in them. The chapters build on one another, using ideas that were previously discussed, to shed light on related topics.
Koval writes with a humorous tone; although the content is meaningful and takes time to digest, it feels like an easy read. She includes personal anecdotes about how she has benefited from studying and teaching mussar that are relatable and engaging, giving the reader an honest view into the ups and downs of self-improvement. She also seamlessly weaves in stories and testimonials from women who learn mussar with her, bringing added depth and dimension to each character trait. She includes the insights of women from diverse backgrounds, life stages, and personal statuses, showing that mussar has a role to play in everyone’s life.
Each chapter draws on a wellspring of Jewish texts and ideas, including illustrative examples from sources ranging from Tanach to “Hatikvah” (and, of course, a fair share of mussar tracts). She brings up halacha when relevant, but avoids a preachy or condescending tone when broaching halachic subjects. Koval also includes insights from psychological studies and other self-help books, using modern research to demonstrate the wisdom of our tradition. Although the book is geared towards women, its lessons are equally applicable to men and can be appreciated by all teen and adult readers.
Koval stresses several times throughout the book that mussar is an ongoing practice, something that cannot be mastered in a single day, month, or even, year. Although it is a lifelong process, she makes a compelling case for how worthwhile it is to take the effort to integrate the lessons of mussar into one’s daily behaviors and attitudes. Soul Construction is a valuable addition to the Jewish bookshelf, bringing personal growth and Jewish values into the culture of the 21st century.