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Benjamin Franklin, Mussar Maven

On January 17, Americans will once again commemorate the birth of Benjamin Franklin, honoring his contributions to culture, science and American independence. American Jews, perhaps, have double reason to celebrate. For Franklin (1706-1790) — in addition to being an author, editor, inventor, natural philosopher, scientist, businessman, musical-innovator, abolitionist, diplomat, statesman and Founding Father — also helped shape Jewish religious thought and practice.

When Franklin wrote his now-famous “Autobiography,” he included the outline of a self-examination and character improvement method, which he had devised in his 20s. Hoping this method “might be serviceable to People in all Religions,” Franklin had originally intended to expand it into a book on the “Art of Virtue,” but due to his many other preoccupations over the years, he never found the time. This task was fulfilled by an early Eastern European maskil, or “enlightener”, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanow (1749-1826), who completed just such a work — although written in Hebrew and aimed at the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Published anonymously in 1808, Lefin’s “Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh” (“The Book of Spiritual Accounting”) builds upon the system outlined in Franklin’s “Autobiography.” Both works present year-long, quarterly, repeated self-reform programs that focus on 13 character traits. Each trait is allotted a week of close attention, and daily journaling — in a grid chart that has the seven days of the week running horizontally and the 13 desired traits running vertically — is used to monitor growth and progress.

After 13 weeks, the cycle is begun again, so that over the course of a year, each trait has been allotted four weeks of scrutiny. The traits outlined for improvement in both books, though not identical, largely overlap, as does the emphasis on acquiring positive habits, and overcoming undesirable ones, gradually and systematically.

Lefin informed his Hebrew readers that the technique presented in “Spiritual Accounting” was not his own invention, but he failed to mention Franklin or the “Autobiography”: “Indeed, a few years ago a new stratagem was discovered, which is a wonderful innovation in this task [of overcoming one’s animal nature], and it seems its mark will spread as quickly, God willing, as that of the innovation of the printing press, which has brought light to the world.”

As he published “Spiritual Accounting” anonymously, it is difficult to argue that Lefin omitted Franklin’s name in order to draw undue attention to his own. But why, then, did he not give Franklin proper credit?

Some who have written on this subject, such as Nancy Sinkoff of Rutgers, have suggested that Lefin was cautious about potentially alienating any of the traditionally educated, 19th-century Jewish audience at whom the book was aimed, and who might not have known what to make of a religious text that was partly based on the technique of a non-Jewish American. Lefin may have also felt confident that the portion of his readers who were familiar with Enlightenment thought would be able to recognize the method as Franklinian even without overt mention.

In fact, rabbis and Jewish scholars over the years have noted the connection between Franklin and Lefin, writing appreciatively of the sage of Philadelphia and his moral method. In a Hebrew letter written to a colleague in 1815, for example, the prominent maskil Samuel Jacob Bick described the method of “Spiritual Accounting” as:

A wonderful stratagem invented by the sage Benjamin Franklin from the city of Philadelphia in North America. This scholar is renowned in all corners of the earth. “A gentile who has lit a flame, an Israelite may use that light.” And so Rabbi Mendel has prepared a delicacy for his nation and taught a simple and clear method for the broken and precious soul to speedily return from the bad to the good. In their approbation, the rabbis of the generation have said that this device is beneficial and new. And the nation has replied in turn: Sanctified! Sanctified!

In another of his works, this one written in German, Lefin was more explicit about Franklin’s influence, including in it a section on the “Art of moral improvement, or the art of adjusting human animalness according to Franklin’s cyclical, quarterly scheduled method of practice.” Never published, two handwritten copies of this philosophical work — “Nachlass eines Sonderlings zu Abdera” (“The Estate of a Recluse from Abdera”) — were discovered by Israel Weinlos in a library in Tarnopol (today a city in Ukraine) in the early 1900’s, but today only fragments remain.

“Spiritual Accounting,” however, received the approbation of prominent rabbis — including the great Rabbi Israel Salanter — was embraced by Judaism’s Mussar movement, and became one of the many texts studied in yeshivas, furthering Franklin’s initial goal of making his system for self-examination and character improvement “serviceable to People in all Religions.”

Shai Afsai is a writer and teacher in Providence, R.I. His work on Franklin and “Spiritual Accounting” will be appearing in The Franklin Gazette and Philalethes.

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