Rabbi’s lifework is teaching us how to love and respect each other.
Twenty years ago, Rabbi Tzvi Muller, then a yeshivah student in Israel, had a chance encounter on a Jerusalem street that shook up his Jewish conceptions — and forever altered the course of his life.
This one brief conversation with a random stranger sent Muller on a decades-long quest to enhance the way Judaism’s Golden Rule — to “love your neighbor as yourself” — is understood and applied in everyday life.
On that day, Muller met a backpacker who did not look particularly Jewish. He learned the young man’s aging mother had recently revealed to him that she was, in fact, a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. In response, the shocked son journeyed from Montana to Israel to see if he could, in any way, connect with his newly discovered Jewish roots.
Thus far, he had come up empty.
After explaining his desire to learn about Judaism, the backpacker asked Muller, a New York-born rabbinic student and himself the grandson of Holocaust survivors, what he had been studying that day in yeshivah.
Muller was crestfallen. His class had spent all day learning how to distinguish which spots on an etrog made the lemon-like fruit unfit for ritual use on Sukkot. But, he thought, how could these ultra-specific details be meaningful to a man who knew absolutely nothing about Judaism?
“Fortunately, I had an elective study session that afternoon with a friend of mine,” Muller recalled, “and we had studied Chofetz Chaim, the book on lashon hara, which details how not to harm others with hurtful language.”
“I told the backpacker about it, and he melted — he was literally blown away by the Jewish emphasis on kindness,” Muller said. “The young man gushed, ‘That’s what Judaism teaches? It is so beautiful!’”
The young man left, feeling greatly enlightened by Muller. But Muller walked away from the incident profoundly disturbed that he had nearly missed an opportunity to inspire someone about the richness of his Jewish heritage.
“I knew there are thousands and thousands of details on how to observe Shabbos, and hundreds involving the etrog,” he said. “On the other hand, while Judaism puts the ideal ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ on a pedestal, when it came to how to actually practice it, it seemed just an amorphous, generalized concept. It occurred to me, why aren’t there so many details guiding us on how to do it?
“What I discovered was a historic opportunity to compile and
convey the Jewish concept of kindness that hadn’t presented itself for many hundreds of years.”
— Rabbi Tzvi Muller
“I went to my rabbinic mentor who encouraged me to do research,” Muller said. “What I discovered blew my mind.
“The Talmud and its sister bodies of work are saturated with teachings of kindness. However, they were interspersed throughout many areas and not organized in a single place. But, once you know they’re there and you put them all together, you find a very rich body of knowledge.”
The Rabbi’s Passion
While in Israel, Muller raised funding and organized a team of scholars who produced a seven-volume encyclopedic work in Hebrew on the Jewish teachings of interpersonal relations.
But he realized he had a much harder task ahead of him — to make this knowledge accessible to all Jews — not only to scholars but also to those who cannot even read Hebrew. “This is their heritage, too,” he thought.
“What I discovered was a historic opportunity to compile and convey the Jewish concept of kindness that hadn’t presented itself for many hundreds of years.”
Thus, arose Muller’s mission. And he’s continued this quest by teaching about kindness for the past 11 years in Metro Detroit, continually fine-tuning the communication of this body of knowledge.
Muller created the non-denominational Jewish Values Institute (JVI) to instruct in the ways of kindness, ethics and mindfulness. One goal of his is to get funding to hire a professional curriculum writer to make the coursework accessible to Jewish educators across America and beyond. He recently formulated the “Ten KINDmandments” — in the spirit of the Ten Commandments — that provide a summary guide on how to live a life of kindness in interpersonal relations.
Muller sees dual benefits in improving one’s interpersonal relations. “When we act with kindness,” he said, “it affirms the respect we have for others. At the same time, we are also respecting our own inner humanity, the voice of goodness within us.”
With the Hyman and Sonia Blumenstein Jewish Learning Center, the JVI has found a new home. JVI has offices and class space in the renovated former PNC Bank building at 36300 Woodward Ave., a half-mile north of Maple, near where Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and Bloomfield Hills converge. The learning center was dedicated June 28.
In addition to directing the Jewish Values Institute, Muller, 42, the husband of Rachaeli and father of six, serves as the pulpit rabbi at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Chai Center, a congregation about a mile north of the learning center on Woodward.
Muller teaches a free, walk-in series on kindness at JVI at 7 p.m. Mondays. Topics include “Judging Others Favorably,” “Speaking the Truth” and “Bearing a Grudge and Revenge.” Students at his lectures learn the essence of kindness from the ancient texts of Jewish sages as well as from the rabbi’s sharp wit.
“These teachings enlighten us on how to get along better and have more harmonious relationships,” Muller said.
“For me, Rabbi Muller’s classes are like a soul tune-up,” said Michal Miller of Birmingham. “They always remind me to see the good in others.”
Other students agree.
“Many people might think that kindness is obvious,” Joe Falik of Huntington Woods noted. “But you need to study the texts Rabbi Muller provides.”
Michael Gerber of Waterford said, “Rabbi Muller makes us aware of how we might inadvertently hurt people, how to avoid it and how to be better parents, spouses and friends.”
Reva Klar of West Bloomfield also found value. “I always learn something in Rabbi Muller’s class that helps me become a better person,” she said.
For details on JVI or Rabbi Muller’s classes, visit Jewish Values Institute on Facebook or contact him at JewishValuesInstitute@gmail.com.