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January 12, 2021 5:26 am

Ben Franklin’s Virtues and Jewish Practice

avatar by Shai Afsai

Opinion

A painting of Benjamin Franklin. Photo: Wiki Commons.

When Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) composed his autobiography, he included the description of a self-improvement method he had devised in his younger years and an honest assessment of his varied success in applying it to his conduct.

His method centered on 13 behavioral traits (temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility), each of which, in succession, was allotted a week of close attention and reflection.

Progress and setbacks in mastering the traits were tracked daily in a grid chart, which had the seven days of the week running horizontally and the thirteen traits running vertically. After thirteen weeks, Franklin began the cycle again, so that over the course of a year, each behavioral trait could be carefully worked on for four full weeks.

Franklin devised this self-improvement method when he was in his twenties, and had originally intended to devote a book to its elaboration. In the autobiography, he regrets that because of his many other concerns over the years, he never accomplished this task: “I should have called my BOOK the ART of Virtue. … But it so happened that my Intention of writing & publishing this Comment was never fulfilled … the necessary close Attention to private Business in the earlier part of Life, and public Business since, have occasioned my postponing it.”

Producing this book was part of “a great and extensive Project” Franklin had envisioned: the formation of an international secret fraternity and mutual-aid society, “the Society of the Free and Easy.” Its initiates were to profess a belief in a generic religious creed, so that people of all religions would be able to join, and were to follow “the Thirteen Weeks Examination and Practice of the Virtues.”

In Franklin’s plan, the society’s worldwide members would comprise a “united Party for Virtue”: “My Ideas at that time were, that the Sect should be begun & spread at first among young and single Men only … that the existence of such a Society should be kept a Secret till it was to become considerable, to prevent Solicitations for the Admission of improper Persons.”

In the end, Franklin neither wrote his book on, nor formed his party for, virtue. However, nearly 20 years after Franklin’s death, and half way across the world from Philadelphia, the early Eastern European maskil (proponent of the Jewish Enlightenment movement) Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanów (1749-1826) succeeded in completing and publishing a Hebrew text based on Franklin’s self-improvement method.

Its purpose may have surprised Franklin, for instead of this being a work for the use of the “Virtuous and good Men of all Nations,” whom Franklin had envisioned as the members of his party, Lefin’s 1808 Sefer Heshbon Ha-nefesh (Book of Spiritual Accounting) was written specifically for the moral and spiritual edification of his fellow Jews.

Nancy Sinkoff observes in her article “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment” (2000) that Lefin was drawn to Franklin’s method for the very reason that Franklin had originally been compelled to devise it himself. Both the American philosopher and the Eastern European rabbi had “come to the conclusion that a practical program of behavior modification was necessary to effect individual change” and “that self-improvement required a structured plan of behavior modification.”

Franklin’s approach to virtue and religion contributed to the ease with which Lefin was able to adapt Franklin’s method and make it a part of accepted Jewish practice. From the outset, Franklin had sought to make his system for self-improvement, as well as the international fraternity whose members would adhere to it, universally accessible.

He explained this non-sectarian approach in his autobiography: “It will be remark’d that, tho’ my Scheme was not wholly without Religion there was in it no Mark of any of the distinguishing Tenets of any particular Sect. I had purposely avoided them; for being fully persuaded of the Utility and Excellency of my Method, and that it might be serviceable to People in all Religions, and intending some time or other to publish it, I would not have any thing in it that should prejudice any one of any Sect against it.”

Since Franklin took this non-sectarian approach, there were no philosophical or religious obstacles to prevent his method’s use within a Jewish context. “Spiritual Accounting” received the approbation of prominent rabbis, was embraced by the Jewish ethical Mussar movement, and became one of the many Hebrew texts still studied in yeshivot, furthering Franklin’s initial goal of making his system for self-examination and character improvement “serviceable to People in all Religions.”

Shai Afsai’s “Benjamin Franklin’s Influence on Mussar Thought and Practice: a Chronicle of Misapprehension” appears in the Review of Rabbinic Judaism, Vol. 22.

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