Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nancy Sinkoff -- Benjamin Franklin and the Virtues of Mussar

In response to the recent article by Jay Michaelson in The Forward reviewing two recent works of Mussar - the "New Kabbalah" - Rutgers University professor Nancy Sinkoff has written a letter to The Forward, available below to readers of the Seforim blog. (It has not yet appeared in The Forward.)

Related to the letter below, is Prof. Nancy Sinkoff, "Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment," Journal of the History of Ideas 61:1 (January, 2000): 133-152, available in PDF courtesy of her Rutgers University faculty page, see here (PDF).

This is Prof. Sinkoff’s first contribution to the Seforim blog. We hope that you enjoy.
Dear Editor:

I was pleased to see Jay Michaelson's review of two recent books extolling the virtues of Mussar. However, I was taken aback by the reviewer's comment regarding the work by Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, in which readers are told that "Morinis is an affable guide, prescribing daily, weekly and yearly practices to translate the generalities of ethics into the particularities of daily life. For instance, he advocates selecting 13 midot and focusing on each for one week at time -- four cycles of the 13 each year -- . . . with a written cheshbon ha'nefesh that evaluates one's progress," etc. etc.

This method did not originate with Morinis, but with the eighteenth-century enlightenment figure and American founding father, Benjamin Franklin. Detailed explicitly – with a chart! – in Franklin’s French Memoirs, this guide to individual moral self-improvement found its way to Jewish Eastern Europe via an enlightened Polish aristocrat and freemason, Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, who financially supported a Jewish enlightener (maskil), Mendel Lefin of Satanow, in his efforts to reform traditional Jewish society. Lefin published his Hebrew book that incorporated Franklin's program as Sefer Heshbon ha-Nefesh (Moral Stocktaking) in Lemberg (now L'viv) in 1808.

Franklin's reputation was so great that his method also found its way to Russia, where Leo Tolstoy was known to keep a Franklin journal. For complex and fascinating historical reasons that I cannot belabor here, Lefin's enlightened work, which was clearly anti-Hasidic, was appropriated by Israel Salanter, the "father" of the nineteenth-century Mussar movement. To this day, Salanter's reprinting of Lefin's book has found a home among traditionalist Jewish circles and, apparently given the review, among popularizing ones. Work on Franklin, Lefin, and Salanter is readily available in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

Perhaps Mr. Morinis credited his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors in his book, but the review did not make any such attribution clear. I would like to know.

Nancy Sinkoff

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